Man in white African dress walking past painted building
Gambia,  People,  Street art

Wide Open Walls in a Gambian forest

It has become quite usual to see murals on many of the walls of our cities. Whether we call it graffiti or street art; whether we love it or hate it; it is part of the urban landscape. But do we expect to see it in a remote rural village in the Gambia?

The Wide Open Walls project

Some years ago, one of the owners of the eco-lodge Mandina, Lawrence (a keen artist himself), decided to use art as a way of bringing some income to the local villages. He invited internationally known artists to stay at Mandina after the end of the tourist season; and to create street art in the most unlikely of settings, the small rural Gambian villages dotted around the area. The idea was that the works would function as a valid art installation in their own right and at the same time promote The Gambia as a tourist destination and thus benefit local communities. Progress was slow at times; but gradually the project, known as Wide Open Walls, has begun to create more and more interest. You can read more about it on the Mandina Lodges website.

We went to visit one of the villages involved, Kubuneh, about a half hour boat ride from Mandina Lodges. It was fascinating to see the works as they seemed at the same time both incongruous and totally in their right place. They are on public buildings, private houses, walls and even on the trees! And because quite a number of artists have been involved since the project began, there is plenty of variety.

As you can imagine, I took lots of photos. Here’s a selection for you to enjoy – or scroll past, depending on your levels of enthusiasm for street art!

As I said, they’ve even painted some of the trees!

Life in Kubuneh

Visiting Kubuneh didn’t just give us the opportunity to see the Wide Open Walls street art; it was also a great insight into life in a rural Gambian village.

The village seemed still largely untouched by the extra attention it is starting to receive. But there were some early seeds of the development of a tourist infrastructure: a part-built restaurant; a small craft stall under a baobab tree; signs promoting bird-watching trips. I hoped that this would benefit the local people but not spoil the special atmosphere here; from what I learned about Lawrence I thought it fair to say that was unlikely.

Certainly overall the village was then (2014) still largely untouched by the presence of visitors. And although some small children called out a hello, in the vain hope of being given sweets (giving which is strongly discouraged by the authorities and tour companies), there was no sense of the commercialisation that we had experienced earlier in this trip, to some extent at least, at the former slave trade villages on the River Gambia.

A local family

On our walk through the village we stopped to chat to a local woman whom our guide Amadou knew. She was happy for us to take photos of herself and her children (twin boys and a baby); and we gave the boys some postcards from home in return which they seemed to like (and much better for them than sweets!) This is one of the houses that has been painted through the Wide Open Walls project and the woman told me how much they like it.

The village school

Amadou also took us to visit the local community-run school, which takes children from the ages of three to nine as these are considered too young to walk to the nearest government school 1.5 kilometres away. Unfortunately for us (but not presumably for the children!) the pupils had been given a day off in recognition of having won a sports competition the previous Friday, so we weren’t able to see and interact with any of them.

But we were able to meet the headmaster, Malik. He showed us the classrooms and told us a bit about the school. They were in the process of setting up a programme to give all the children a breakfast each morning, as many arrive without having eaten anything (or generally eat poorly at home), so we gave Malik a donation towards that as well as some pencils and crayons we had brought with us from home. He has a donations book which we were asked to complete; it was interesting to see how many others, from a variety of countries, had been here and done the same.

Journeying back to our rather luxurious bungalow at the lodge I reflected on our contrasting lifestyles but also, as always when I travel, on the things we have in common. Including, surprisingly perhaps, an admiration for street art!

I visited the Gambia in 2014

36 Comments

  • Tina Schell

    I found this one especially interesting Sarah as a good friend’s daughter spent a year in the Gambia doing work with the women there as part of the Peace Corps. She absolutely loved her local family and her entire experience and did some wonderful work while there. Very much enjoyed seeing the artistic side of the country which is not at all as I pictured it!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tina – that must have been quite an experience for your friend’s daughter, living somewhere so different from home 🙂 Glad you enjoyed seeing this rather different side of the Gambia!

  • starship VT

    “Wide Open Walls” sounds like a wonderful project for the village benefit and I like the art. It reminds me of a similarly focused project I remember, and I’m sure you do too Sarah, in Staro Zhelezare in Bulgaria that we visited together on the day trip — though the art was different. So kind of you to bring things for the children and make a donation. I also took postcard to Morocco for that purpose. Fantastic photos as always!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for visiting Sylvia 😀 Yes, although I didn’t think of this project when we were in Staro Zhelezare, writing it up for the blog made me realise that there were in fact two rural villages where I had come across street art! I must post about that village too some time 🙂

  • Amanda

    An interesting place to visit and so different socially and culturally. Does the UK have historical connections to Gambia? Or was the another reason for your visit?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Amanda – not sure why I had to moderate this comment as you’ve commented on my blog before? Sorry about that! Yes, there are historic connections. Gambia was a British colony until 1965, a major centre, sadly, for the slave trade (I have a post about that if you’re interested: https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/roots-dark-history-or-tourist-trap/). English is still widely spoken, making it a popular winter sun destination from the UK. Some parts of the coast are very developed with hotels of all standards from quite simple to pretty high-end. But inland is largely untouched apart from a couple of eco-hotels. It’s popular with bird-watchers in particular. We went because we were looking for a winter break somewhere with guaranteed hot weather and sunshine, and it has the added bonus of no jet-lag. We stayed at the coast for a week in a gorgeous boutique hotel and then for four nights at Mandina to see another part of the country.

      The history of this region is quite interesting, with French and British fighting for control so that they could easily export their slaves. It ended up with Britain having control of the land either side of the Gambia river while the French held much of the rest. Their colony is now Sengeal which wraps around the Gambia if you look at it on a map. French is spoken widely in Senegal, making it popular with French and Belgian holiday-makers, while the British mostly go to the Gambia. But we had a great holiday in Senegal a couple of years after this trip, which in some ways I preferred as I found it more laid-back.

      Sorry, long answer to a short question!!

  • margaret21

    What a vibrant street art project! An the rest of your account is interesting too. And I’m always struck by the fact that however poor the children are who attend school in parts of Africa and India, school uniform of the traditional English style circa 1958 is always part of the deal.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Margaret 🙂 You’re right in that observation about school uniforms – and however poor and simple the homes look, the children are usually immaculately turned out! I’ve quite often seen kids emerge from tiny huts in clean crisp white shirts 🙂

  • restlessjo

    I was thinking that the children all look healthy and cared for, and presumably the street art helped to bring that about, so that’s the important thing. 🙂 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I’m sure it’s had a very positive impact on the lives of the villagers as they benefit financially from the tourist visits and I think have other support from the lodge too 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I had never seen it before. But a couple of years ago I visited a village in Bulgaria that has some impressive murals. I must post about them some time.

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    I am not usually crazy about street art, but I really like this! I like that they painted the trees as well! My favorite photo was the tree with the sign Big Tree Jungle Craft Market! Cady

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I love street art so visiting this project was high on my list for our time at Mandina, and it didn’t disappoint. The trees are fun, aren’t they?!

  • maristravels

    Great art and good that you managed to help this very poor country in the way you did. Unfortunately, my husband and I were mugged in the Gambia when we’d gone to visit a village with a group and wandered off to look around. We had donated towards the village community as part of the trip. When the police came to talk to us abut the robbery they asked us for money. I was left traumatised for some time aft and I could never go back there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      OMG that sounds dreadful Mari, especially the police also asking for money! I am not in the least surprised that you don’t feel you want to go back there. We did encounter some hassle in places which I found off-putting (but all on the coast, not inland around Mandina). But nothing on that scale – how awful for you!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Great street art, its always interesting to see and some of these people are talented. We actually, bought a painting from the Gambian Artist Moulaye Sarr some years ago, love his style. How lovely to have visited a school, really brings it home what different lives they have there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank You – I didn’t know Moulaye Sarr so I’ve just looked him up and I really like many of his pieces. He seems to have an interesting mix of abstract works and portraiture – which did you buy?

      Yes, I love to visit a local school when we travel but it was a shame the kids were having a day off as it was all very silent and lifeless without them. I’d have liked to see some lessons in progress, for instance. But it was a good opportunity to support the community 🙂

      • thehungrytravellers.blog

        Hi Sarah, we bought one called “Timbuktu”. its abstract interpretation of a Mosque/Mausolium in Timbuktu, love it, its Acrylic on canvas. There are many of his paintings we like and some of the portraits of African ladies are gorgeous. Didn’t actually meet him, bought it from The Lemon Fish Art gallery and guest house Kartong, Gambia, he still shows some works there. Thank you for showing an interest.

  • Dr B

    I quite like street art, I’ve enjoyed it all over the world, but especially in parts of Kathmandu, Chicago, Barcelona. Your tale of Lawrence is inspiring helping a community in that way.

  • Nemorino

    I always like observing the street art in places I visit. And I find it interesting to have a look at the local schools, when that is possible. Good that you gave a donation to the school breakfast programme, and some pencils and crayons.

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