21 February 2014

Notes from The Gambia - postcards from Niumi National Park

The sea coast of Jinack Island is one long stretch of silver-yellow sand with a backdrop of coconut palms and pelicans arranged on massive baobab trees, running from the north bank of the River Gambia to the Senegalese village of Djinack Barra on the northern end of the island. Unblemished by parasols, hotel facades, tyre tracks and mostly empty even of people, the island’s seaward coast should be a picture-perfect idyll. Remote, home to few and visited by fewer, the beach seems to have been colonized by rubbish in amounts disproportionate to the population here. Broken flip-flops, plastic bottles and bottlecaps and bags, straggling fishing net pieces and other detritus are woven in amongst the mangrove seeds, leaves and driftwood on the tide line, and occasionally in heaps along the empty beach. Nonetheless, a quiet calm envelops the island. I like the mornings best – pale light, before the sun heats the air, the perfume of evening flowers still lingering, the cackle of social weaver birds and the distant rhythmic drumming of women pounding millet in the village. At night, the lines of surf glow blue with phosphorescence and my footsteps leave trails of blue stars on the sand. I can hear the waves crashing on the beach as I fall asleep and the tip-tap as moths and beetles collide with the windows, the mosquito net, the light bulb, each other. 

Wednesday 19th February
Starting a survey day the West African way.
Jinack Niji, 8 am. I perch on a wobbly plastic chair just outside a huddle of five men squatting around a large silver bowl, filled with pieces of bread bobbing in sour milk. Heaped tablespoons of sugar are mixed in, and minutes later the bowl is empty. In the bare concrete room, the glow of coals and the early morning sunshine through the crack in the door provide the only light. The musty air smells of sweat, smoking coals, bittersweet green tea. Gibril, the senior warden, has a lined face and an impish grin, perhaps accentuated by the number of missing teeth. He sports a fleece-lined hat with a camouflage print and ear flaps, which he clutches around his chin as he huddles over the little coal-burner, rubbing his hands as if it were a January evening in Dublin. The village is quiet, distant children’s voices, cockerel crows and the swish of sweeping. 

Thursday 20th February
The creeks are wide in places, and the mangroves dip their long toes in the tea-coloured water at the edges, whilst behind them stand the tall, stumpy baobabs. Kingfishers flit from the mangrove branches as the boat passes; purple herons, like dashes of velvet, start from the muddy banks and ospreys stand watchful on the skeletons of taller trees.  Making our way through the labyrinth of bolongs (mangrove creeks) to the village of Mbankam, we sought out a former manatee hunter. Some years ago, the Department of Parks and Wildlife provided him with a pirogue and in return, he agreed to stop hunting manatees. Reclining on a grass mat outside his house, next to a grubby manatee skull, he related how Europeans had hired local fishermen to fish intensively around Jinack Island in the 1970s. During this period, it seems numerous manatees, turtles and even dolphins, as well as large sawfishes were caught and much of the catch was shipped to Europe. As we retrace the bolongs back to Jinack Niji, I imagine the surprise of a fisher in his wooden pirogue as he glimpsed the shadow of a huge sawfish gliding through the murky waters.  So much of what has been lost here, in quiet corners of West Africa, has gone unnoted.

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