Facts and myths blur easily when you ask Gambians about Makasutu. This 500 hectare piece of bush in the tiny West African republic of The Gambia is deemed by many to be a devil’s home…
They say he is there in the form of a ‘ninkinanko’ or dragon, and protects the hidden crown and clothes of King Jatta from Busumbala who was killed 200 years ago by the Muslim king Kombo Silla on his way East to take over the country. Jatta’s men took the crown and clothes and placed them for safe keeping in the area of Makasutu now known as the Big Forest. This skyline of the ancient baobab and strangler trees looms over the eastern end of Makasutu and is now the self-imposed guardianship of Echin, a Jola tribesman.
The devil is not the only presence there to ward off encroachers. Along with him are ‘djinns’ and giants – spectral creatures that straddle animism and Islam. They help watch over an Edenseque orchard, which is thought to appear to those with a purity of heart trekking across the land. Mandingo tribesmen tell you in ominous undertones that you can eat the fruit of the orchard while you are in the forest but can never leave it.
When the Islamic wave came down through the Sahara in the 12th century it gave Makasutu its name, and greater protection from the men who wanted to ravage the bush of timber and wildlife. It became a place of prayer, and so a Mecca (Maka) in the forest (sutu). It was strictly protected by local kings and marabouts who said that no tree could be felled or animal hunted in the sacred grounds. The land, until the turn of the century, was used only for Godly communion. Men prayed and boys, recently circumcised in the name of Allah, were brought to bather in the Mandina Bilon – a tributary of the main Gambia river that lies five kilometres to the north. The Bilon brings fish to Makasutu as the tide swells: from its sandy banks grow thick lines of mangroves, and from their grey tentacles the men and women of Koran tribes collect oysters.
As the 20th century moved in, so did the people of Guinea. They asked permission to grow rice on the western portion of Makasutu, where fresh water runs close the surface, and were it by the elders of Kembujeh. The locals would not at first eat the rice grown there as they believed it would be cursed by bad spirits and they would surely die. When they saw the Guineans unaffected they decided to start production themselves.
With its untouched supply of wood and wildlife it became a new Mecca for the people of Kembujeh and neighbouring villages. It was on the verge of being stripped bare, when in 1992 a British architect, and a British engineer came across the land and decided it would make a perfect location for a retreat and an oasis for overland travellers coming off the Sahara. They bought the land from the Sanneh family who had ancient ownership rights, and after seventeen years of fencing and planting thousands of trees the land once again has found a new protectorate.
Makasutu has become something of a model for eco-tourism in Africa. Local women continue to grow crops on the western portion, and oyster women come and collect as ever; but now the birds have returned to the trees and baboons stop at the safe haven on their migration route. Jebril, a Jola tribesman, has been working at Makasutu for the past seventeen years and revealed that long before the Englishmen arrived, he and the others had dreams that two whites would come by river and settle at Makasutu and keep it from harm – a myth that has now turned into reality.