Birds and breakfast: A Dawn River Trip

Here at Balaba, we’re only a few kilometres from the border with southern Senegal. Ten minutes’ drive and we’re in the border village of Kartong, which lies next to the Allahein River which forms the border. In fact, we have to go through immigration control every time we go to buy fish at the beach!

But one of my favourite activities is to go for a dawn river trip to see the birds, followed by breakfast on the beach. It’s one of the attractions that we offer to our tourists, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been myself. So since our friend Naomi, together with her family, was staying with us for a few days, we decided to do the trip.

It meant Lamin and I were up before six, boiling water for tea and collecting plates, cups, knives etc, together to take with us. We also need mats to sit on, all kinds of spreads for our bread, and of course, I needed my camera and binoculars. The birds are always quite active in the mornings, and there are fabulous birds such as the African Fish Eagle and ospreys to see.

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Boxing Day 2012

Following on from my previous post about our Christmas here at Balaba, I though I would try to give you an idea of how others might celebrate Christmas in the Gambia. I talked to a few people from the nearby village of Berending about what they do for Christmas. Firstly, if possible, everyone in the family tries to get home, even if they work somewhere else in the country. This made much easier because the majority of people here are Muslim, and so they don’t celebrate Christmas – in fact, it’s a normal working day here, and only the Catholic schools are closed for the holiday – Muslim schools are still in session. Lamin explained that the essential services, such as the hospitals, fire service and the military have a reciprocal arrangement, whereby the Muslims are on duty during Christian festivals, and then the Christians take their turn during Muslim festivals such as Tobaski.
In Berending, there is definitely a community feel amongst the Christians living there. They mostly live in the same areas of the village, and on Christmas Day most of them will go to the Catholic Church for Midnight Mass, and again on Christmas morning. After that, the whole (Christian) community gets together. Of course, the weather is sunny and dry, which means everything can happen outside, so a huge communal meal is cooked, of pork, rice and vegetables, washed down with palm wine naturally! Before Christmas everyone makes a donation towards the food, but if someone is especially hard up and can’t pay, they can still go and eat with everyone else – I was explaining to Lamin about how our church makes up food parcels for those who are having difficulty, but in some ways this communal approach seems even better.
After the meal, people will either sit around in one area together, or visit each other’s compounds, and their Muslim neighbours may drop in as well. My Gambian friends found it hard to understand how we may go to church on Christmas morning, but then generally go home with just our families for the rest of the day, as Christmas is very much a communal event here.
Later in the day, there are other communal events – an eating competition, a singing competition etc, followed by drumming and dancing which could go on all night. In fact, the whole week between Christmas and New Year is seen as part of the holiday, and I’ve heard music and drumming floating from Berending every night since Christmas Eve! Presents don’t feature as part of the culture here, probably because most people have very little, if any, spare cash.
Anyway, as promised, here is what we did on Boxing Day!
Quite early in the morning, Lamin set off to Kartong to get fish. Kartong is the last village before the river Allahein, which is the border with Senegal, and you have to go through border control and customs to get to the fishing area (although in reality this is just a small checkpoint in the road). Sometimes you need to wait for the fishing boats to return, which can take a while, but this time Lamin didn’t need to wait long, and he soon returned with some lovely fish, including an enormous black grouper. 
 
Tackling the black grouper with a cutlass! 
Ara and Saffie preparing the other fish.
 
Everyone tends to help preparing fish when there is a large lot to be gutted, so Lamin took responsibility for the grouper, using his ‘cutlass’ (machete), and Saffie and Ara took care of the other fish. Some was taken to be grilled, and the rest was cooked with the usual addition of black pepper, garlic, chilli, onions and stock cubes. Naturally it tasted absolutely delicious!
 
Delicious!
 
As on Christmas Day, we settled ourselves under the cashew trees, along with several visitors, including two cousins who had heard I was visiting, and came specially to see me (this is considered the polite thing to do in Gambian society). I first met them when I went to the Bakassouck Youth Meeting, and it was good to catch up on news about their Congre (Congress), their annual meeting and party, which sadly took place just after `i left earlier this year, and also t hear more about the Bee project.
After a while we decided to go down to the river at Sala, where the palm wine tappers work, partly to have a change of scenery, and partly to get more palm wine. This is a truly beautiful spot, and I have spent several very relaxing afternoons there enjoying the company and lovely surroundings. The tappers build little shelters from palm leaves, in the shade of the trees, surrounded by rice fields; at this time of year the rice has been harvested, but the foliage is still quite high. The river is nearby, and you can go out onto the flood plain, which is encrusted with salt, where there are lots of birds to be seen. It’s very remote, and we have to do some serious off-road driving to get there; we need to keep the car windows done up so the surrounding vegetation doesn’t crash in!
 
The flood plain next to the Allahein River.
 
Bakary hadn’t been there before, so was keen to take a look at the river, and I also went along. However, I hadn’t accounted for his intrepid spirit, which meant that rather than following the small tracks between the fields, he simply took off through the vegetation (which is about head height), hunting for wildlife. Since I only had my flip flops on, I wasn’t really best equipped for ploughing through rice furrows and hedges, but I persevered, and we were rewarded with the sight of lots of birds, including oxpeckers which sit on the local cows and remove parasites.
 
Oxpeckers hitching a ride!
 
He tried his owl call trick again, which attracted quite a few birds, and he kindly agreed that I could record it on my phone, so I could use it when I go out on my own. Sadly I found out afterwards it hadn’t recorded properly, but maybe we can try again when he comes back in January.
We then relaxed under the palm trees, watching the wildlife and chatting – I even saw a pair of Red-Billed Hornbills rooting through old weavers’ nests (small birds), throwing out debris such as feathers and leaves. I can only assume they were trying to find insects to eat.
Finally, as the light began to fade, it was time to pack up and go home for dinner – yet more of the lovely fish. Once it gets dark, we tend to sit around and talk, and often someone will be brewing ataya, so it’s all very sociable. But we all felt quite tired, so opted for an early night after a busy couple of days.