As I stand on the sands, the beach in front of me is a mass of people. Women wearing rainbow colours chat in small colourful clusters. Men push wheelbarrows full of fish. Children scamper about as seagulls squawk overhead. The smell of smoke drifts in the air and I can taste the saltiness of the sea on my tongue. Listed by Rough Guides as one of their 1,000 ultimate travel experiences. a visit to a Gambian fishing village is a memorable colourful, chaotic assault on all your senses.
Experience Tanji Fishing Village
Just offshore, brightly painted pirogues, the traditional fishing boats, weigh anchor waiting to be unloaded. You’ll find scenes like this all along the West African coast. Men and women wade into the water and return carrying multicoloured buckets and bowls on their heads, each one overflowing with fish. Children race along behind them, hoping to catch any escapees. They’re allowed to keep or sell any fish collected in this way.
People on the beach haggle energetically, be it for a single fish to take home for lunch or a whole wheelbarrow full.
Nearby, fish are drying under the fierce West African sunshine, while others are smoked in dimly lit barns. The holes in the corrugated iron roof and ventilated walls form beams of light illuminating the swirling smoke.
Elsewhere on the beach, men are working on a new pirogue. It can take up to 3 months to complete with several skilled artisans working on each boat. The whole economy of the community revolves around the fishing trade but the wood to make the boats is getting harder to find, as are the fish. In recent years, several foreign-owned fishmeal plants that have popped up along the coastline. Mechanised fishing trawlers catch vast quantities of fish in nearby international waters, nevertheless impacting on the fish stock in the Gambian seas. When there is more than the factories can handle, the fish goes to waste. However, the increased demand for fish pushes prices up, out of the reach of the poorest of Gambians. The long term environmental impact is of great concern and the economic impact complicated.
Back on the beach, a sea of bright green netting engulfs men mending their fishing nets. The gulls circle overhead keeping a keen eye out for scraps. A sleepy cat hides in the shadows beneath a gaily painted pirogue, no doubt dreaming of his next fish super. And nearby, stalls sell vegetables and all the ingredients you might need to cook up a feast. Kani chillies, pictured below, are a vital ingredient for fiery dishes such as fish benechin, a popular West African meal. And don’t forget your Maggi seasoning cubes, an integral part of the local cuisine.
Getting to Tanji Fishing Village
Tanji fish market is easy to find, just south of Tanji Bird Reserve. It’s on the main road that runs along the coast, aptly named the Coastal Road.
Driving time to Tanji Fish Market from Fleewinter hotels:
Including waiting time while you look around the market, you can expect to pay between D1,000 and D1,500 (£15 to £21) for a return taxi ride from most hotels to Tanji. Read more about getting around in The Gambia here.
Visiting Tanji as part of an organised excursion
A stop at Tanji fish market is included in the ‘Six Tours in One’ excursion. While not everyone will enjoy the experience, it can be a bit of a smelly one, personally, I found this visit a little too rushed. However, this tour is an excellent introduction to The Gambia if it is your first visit. It’s especially good if you are short of time as it packs a lot in.
‘Ida’s Home Cooking’ excursion, starts with a more leisurely visit to Tanji. In the market with Ida (pictured below in yellow), you’ll buy all the ingredients for your lunch which you help prepare in her pretty courtyard kitchen. It’s a fabulous day out, which I’ve done twice and would happily do again!
Ideally though, if you want to take your time, visit the smoking sheds and chat with some of the locals, I’d recommend visiting independently with (or without) a guide.
Follow this link for more information about available excursions and hiring a private guide on a Fleewinter holiday.
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above: Ida dressed in yellow buys the fish for our lunch
Other Gambian Fishing Villages
While Tanji is the best-known fishing village, other fish markets are dotted along the coast. Bakau Fish Market is a 5-minute drive or 20 minutes walk north-east from Ngala Lodge or south-west from Ocean Bay Hotel. Two more are located further south along the coast from Tanji at Sanyang, just north of Paradise Beach, and further south still at Gunjur.