Rhiannon Lewis has been keeping us up to date with her experiences in The Gambia (you can read here dispatches here, here and here) and now, on her return, has some further reflections to share – this time on the remarkable area of Makasutu.
During all of my visits to The Gambia there is still one place which never fails to amaze me, through its beauty, peacefulness and wildlife. This place is Makasutu Cultural Forest which is roughly a 45 minute drive from the Senegambia area. A trip to Makasutu is a worthwhile educational journey through the mangroves swamps, savannah, gallery and palm forest and wetland areas which make up the 1,000 acre reserve. The reserve borders a total of five miles of the Gambian Mandina bolong a tributary of the River Gambia and is partly, at Mandina, an eco-tourism attraction and has a number of luxury lodges for people to stay in. The lodges are partly run using sustainable methods, including solar power for its energy and the owners are engaged in several projects, including replanting trees in the areas where deforestation has occurred. Local people are employed wherever possible and local materials and methods are used in construction jobs.
Standing on a ledge overlooking the mangrove swamps I could see there is no place like Makasutu. It is one of the most peaceful and beautiful areas I have ever seen: all I could hear were birds singing, wild baboons in the forest and the sound of the trees when the cool breeze blew; as I stood there I believed I was in paradise. The word Makasutu means sacred/holy forest in Mandinka and, standing where I was, and seeing what I was seeing, it was obvious why people would see it this way.
From the ledge I continued onwards towards the shallow waters where I entered a traditional dugout canoe ready for a tour of the mangrove swamps, where various species of brightly coloured singing birds can be found and spotted. As we gradually travelled through the water I realised I was slowly drifting through paradise, listening to the songs of the birds and the sound of the gently rippling water from the paddle our guide was using to direct us through the mangroves. As I learnt more about what this area was used for I began to realise, why the local people thought of it as a holy forest for the local people: the abundance of fish and oysters, the various uses of the mangrove plant, as well as the medical uses of many plants and trees which can be found in the forest area.
Unfortunately the canoe ride came to an end but another adventure within Makasutu began: a forest walk. Walking through the forest I was told about the different uses of the various plants and trees, from herbal painkillers, tea, energy boosters, viagra and even a fertility plant. Mahogany has many uses within Gambian culture and medically it is used for skin allergies such as eczema, rashes and cuts; it is also believed to lower blood pressure. The Makasutu forest is picture perfect with a back drop of green from the trees and shrubs which seem to frame the birds which cover a rainbow of colours. There is also the redness of the giant termite mounds and the orange baboons found playing amongst the trees. The forest is home to around two hundred Baboons so on any trip to Makasutu you are extremely likely to find them eating, playing or generally travelling through the forest causing mischief.
We carried on walking through the forest area until we came to an open land where a traditional Marabou, or holy man, lives. He has lived within the forest for many years, since before the land was even turned into the eco-tourism site of Makasutu. Local people will go to him with their medical problems so he can diagnose them then give them traditional medicine to cure their ailment; he is also known to be one of the best palm readers in the area and able to predict people’s futures. I have had the opportunity to have my palms read by this Marabou man each time I have visited Makasutu and it is possibly one of the most astonishing things I have experienced. Each time I go there he knew various things about my life which were personal to myself and could not relate to every person he saw, thus making me believe he really was reading from my palms with his unique yet extraordinary talent. Other people I know have been to see this man as well and each time he has given them accurate details about their lives and even managed to diagnose and cure an illness a friend had without them even telling the Marabou about it.
The journey within Makasutu continued further through the dense forest until we reached the area where traditional palm wine is made. The wine is made from the sap within the flower or leaf of a palm tree. On initial collection the white fluid is sweet and non-alcoholic; however after roughly two hours the liquid will have already fermented enough to make wine which has an ABV of about 4%. The longer the wine is left to ferment the stronger it will become. A demonstration is held within the palm wine area of Makasutu to show how the palm wine tappers, using a leather belt which straps them loosely to the tree, climb up to collect the wine. After the demonstration there is a sampling session where you can try wine.
On certain occasions ladies of the Jola tribe will come and show you their traditional dances, accompanied by male drum players. The ladies will dance to traditional music of their tribe and, if you are brave enough, visitors have the chance to join in and get taught traditional Jola dances.
Overall Makasutu Cultural Forest is a haven within The Gambia where you can learn about the traditions and cultures of Gambia, see its beautiful variety of landscapes, wildlife and even sample traditional wine and food of the country; it is an experience not to be missed.