How to Make Charcoal the Gambian Way

What do you do when you are planning a barbecue? And in particular, how do you get your charcoal? I know many people have gas barbecues now, but in the good old days we used to go to the local garage or garden centre and buy a sack of charcoal. So have you ever wondered how charcoal is made? I had a vague idea that wood needed to be burned very slowly, but beyond that I hadn’t a clue. However, here at Balaba Nature Camp, something really interesting has been happening – a neighbour has been building a traditional Gambian charcoal kiln. Let me tell you all about it…

Here at Balaba, you probably know we have lots of trees, which make superb habitat for the beautiful birds and animals which live here. All around, deforestation is happening at an alarming rate, and Balaba is now a bit like an oasis, so Lamin is determined to keep Balaba as natural as possible. But if you know anything about woodland, you’ll know you can’t just leave it to its own devices; it has to be managed. And that means sometimes trees need to be felled or pruned. Over the years, Lamin has planted malina trees, which grow very tall and straight making them great for timber. The other good thing about them is that they regrow very quickly. And sometimes we need to fell the palm trees as well.

Before I came back, Lamin decided to clear an overgrown area ready to grow tomatoes, and while he was doing this, our neighbour Amadou came to visit. He suggested using the timber to make charcoal. Charcoal is in high demand here, both for cooking, and also for brewing ataya, the mint tea that is drunk almost constantly. Naturally, this can get expensive if you have to buy charcoal all the time, so making our own would give us a ready supply and we could sell the rest. Amadou knew how to build a kiln and how to make the charcoal, so Lamin agreed. Lamin was also very interested to know how to make charcoal for himself – last year he burnt a lot of large logs over many days, which has supplied us with charcoal for almost a year, but this was going to be a much bigger enterprise.

By the time I arrived, Amadou had already made a start. All the wood was sorted into piles according to size, and he had started to build the kiln.

Charcoal making

 

Charcoal making

Charcoal making

But this wasn’t as simple as just stacking up the wood! Everything had to be done very carefully, because charcoal needs to smoulder rather than burn, so the pile has to built with as few gaps as possible to limit the amount of air.

Charcoal making

He started with quite small sticks, and then (with the help of some friends) piled larger logs on top.

Charcoal making

Charcoal making

Charcoal making

Charcoal making

I asked why he didn’t put the heavy logs at the bottom, but he explained (via Lamin, as he is from Senegal, so he only speaks French and Wollof), that the big logs need to be higher because heat rises. If he put them on the bottom, they wouldn’t burn properly.

Amadou continued to build this pile of wood very carefully and methodically, making sure there was as little air as possible between the sticks. In fact, it’s taken him around six weeks, working all day every day, to finish the pile. Now it’s absolutely huge!

Charcoal making

By the time Amadou had almost finished, he had to work perched on top of the pile. One of his friends helped by chopping up sticks into small pieces to help plug the gaps.

Charcoal making

Charcoal making

Amadou left a small entrance, and explained that he would light the fire through the gap, and then seal it up. Then he covered the whole pile with small sticks, leaves and lastly, earth.

Charcoal making

 

Finally, everything was ready for the pile to be lit. Needless to say, we were all very excited to see it was ready at last, and next time I will tell you all about how the charcoal burning got started.

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