Made in The Gambia – Samba’s craft work

october issue

Imagine a piece of wood. And then imagine a nice wooden sculpture adorning your living room. And now imagine a pair of hands, a chisel, a pile and sandpaper, combining together, making this garniture. Of course, there is also the most important ingredient, we have to mention. Skills.

Samba Sowe is one of the many local Gambian artists, which is skilled in carving the wood and making beautiful wooden sculptures. Masks, lady figures, animals, bowls. Wooden hand-made art pieces are one of the most beloved souvenirs by visitors of The Gambia. If you ever heard or been to the Craftmarket, then you know, how much precision and talent it takes, to make a product, which will once stand on your shelf in your living-room. If you haven’t got the chance to visit Craftmarket yet, you are in the right place. We will do our best to picture a scene for you.

Senegambia’s Craftmarket is one of the biggest markets, which is dedicated solely to the artists, that make hand-made products such as wooden pieces, jewellery, clothes, sand pictures or silver jewellery. When you step in to the half closed space, you can see more than 50 shops, where local artist sell their products. But those are not only shops. They are also second homes for many individuals, which usually spend most of their day there. Not only because it is their job, but also because there you can just feel positive energy and happiness. It is always loud, always filled with laughter and also with sales persuasion lines, once Craftmarket gets new visitors.

It is true, that the first visit can be a bit too much, because all of the artists would try to get you in their shop to show you their products. But if you go there also the second or the third time, you would become a part of the family. Artists will offer you their chair and put on a kettle of water to prepare attaya. In the meantime, you will be able to look around and find a perfect souvenir for you. And also, they will be happy to teach you how to play Wurrey, which is the oldest game in the world. They would soon pick sides and cheer for their champion. All of the above goes hand in hand with the naughty teasing, which always brings a pile of laughter form surrounding shops.

When you would look around the market, you could see some artist, sitting on the floor, working on their latest idea for a new wooden sculpture, some of them tending their customers, some of them chatting with their neighbours and some of them brewing the attaya. It is full of colors and neatly exhibited pieces of art.

If you would ask Samba, how does he make a wooden sculpture, he would describe it like that: “First you buy wood, a piece of good wood that is big enough for you to make a desired product. So, let’s say that we are making a wooden bowl. First you need to use the pfeil to sculpt the rough shape. Once you have done that, you can continue with chisel (if you have it) and with hand rasps, piles. In the end, you have to make the wood smooth by using different types of sand paper. The last step is to color the wood. Usually we use shoe paste, because it gives wood good protection and nice, natural color”. There you go. And just to mention, to record the whole procedure, we had to visit Samba for four consecutive days. It takes a lot of time to make even the simplest creation. So, when it comes to delicate lines and sculpting animals you have to be very careful. “Sometimes you can make the product by 90% and with one wrong move you can destroy a whole week of your work. In the end, when we sell our art, our profit is very small. It is very hard to survive even through the tourist season, not to mention green season alone.”


So that was the story before this year. But with the epidemic of the corona virus, lock down and protection measurements, there are no visitors. And with no visitors, there is no business for most of the artist, who are selling their handmades. It was a struggle before, but this year, no one could imagine the consequences. “It changed my life from bad to worse. Usually we are struggling but at least we make some small business from time to time. But now, we were instantly just cut off. But you still have to pay the rent and buy yourself food. We just don’t think about even expecting this corona season to end because we can’t know. At this point, we just don’t se the way out. If the government would try to promote domestic tourism it could help, but then, people are usually not buying our products because here, we do not have a habit to decorate our homes. Usually even the rent is a problem. So, we can just wait to see what the future brings,” Samba sadly explains. 

When we last visited Craftmarket, only few of the shops were open, only few artists still came and hoped to see at least some visitors. It is hard to imagine the situation they are in. This is also one of the reasons, My Gambia is doing it’s best, to bring those stories to you and soon, give a possibility to the local artists, to sell their products in our online shop, which is coming soon. But already, you can browse through some of his works of art and decide, which one will decorate your home.


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