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