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The Sacred Baobab Forest

Makasutu a 500-hectare piece of bush in the Kombo central district of the republic of The Gambia is deemed by some to be protected by an ancient sprit. 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 safekeeping in the area of Makasutu, now known as the Big Forest.

This skyline of ancient baobab and strangler trees looms over the eastern end of Makasutu and is now under the self-imposed guardianship of Echin, a Jola tribesman.The Ninki Nanko is not the only presence there to ward off encroaching. Along with him are jinns and giants — spectral creatures that straddle animism and Islam.

They help watch over an Edenesque 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 with 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 bathe in 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 Koran women collect oysters.

As the 20th century moved in Makasutu with its untouched supply of wood and wildlife became a new mecca for the people of Kembujeh and neighbouring villages.  It was on the verge of being stripped bare, when in 1992 Lawrence Williams,an architect, and James English, an engineer, came across the land and decided it would make a perfect location for a retreat and oasis for overlanders coming down off the Sahara.

They bought the land from the Sanni family who had ancient ownership rights, and after eight years of fencing and planting thousands of trees the land once again has found a protectorate.Makasutu has become a model for ecotourism in Africa.

Local women continue to grow crops on the western portion, and oyster women come and collect as ever, but now the birds are returning in droves to the trees and baboons stop at the safe haven on their migration route.

Momadou Jeeba, a Jola tribesman, has been manager at Makasutu for the past seven years and revealed that long before Williams and English arrived he and 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.

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