Helen Scales

oyster shells

The world's best oyster festival

I’ve never been to an oyster festival before and I don’t imagine there are many quite like the one I went to a few days ago. This one involved a lot of singing, dancing, whistle-blowing, and drumming. I got to eat my first oysters plucked from between the roots of Gambian mangroves – and they were seriously tasty.

If only the dull and boring school summer fêtes and harvest festivals I’ve dragged my feet to back home in England had been half as fun as this. And I shall certainly be making a suggestion to my old school. Forget egg and spoon or potato sack racing at sports day – try female wrestling.

This was the annual festival held by the TRY Oyster Womens’ Association. TRY is an organisation that aims to improve the lives of female oyster harvesters living and working around the Tanbi wetlands, an extensive mangrove forest surrounding the capital city, Banjul. Simply put, they’re trying to make things better for themselves. A big part of that is working towards protecting the mangroves and oysters on which they depend (more on that from me later). But as I’ve been finding out over the last few weeks, it’s much more than that besides.

TRY’s founder, Fatou Janha, is the dynamic driving force behind the initiative and what she is achieving, together with all the women from 15 villages, is astonishing. Far more than a simple conservation effort, this is a grassroots community project that’s helping women to save money, gain access to education and healthcare, and in the long run earn a better living.

Last weekend was their oyster festival, a fundraising event they’ve held for the past few years. Beside the road just outside Banjul, enormous piles of empty oyster shells mark the spot that the women gather daily to shuck and sell their oysters. It was here that both money and awareness were raised by the festival, but more than anything it was an immense, energetic celebration.

As well as all the dancing, singing, and speech-making was the wrestling match. This was taken seriously but also with a great sense of fun as girls and women stepped up to the sandy arena to do battle.

The pair face each other in a brief dance off, some ladies more willing than others to indulge in a bit of opponent intimidation and smack talk. Then the wrestling begins, sometimes lasting a few seconds before one contender hits the sand; sometimes a few minutes of pushing and shoving but always followed by great cheers and everyone rushing up to congratulate both winner and loser. Fatou even managed to persuade me to have a go. And I’m ashamed to say that I was rubbish.

Male wrestling is a huge sport in West Africa but as far as I can gather from people I’ve met and spoke to out here, female wrestling is something of a minority pastime. In the coming weeks I plan to visit some of the Tanbi communities to watch the ladies at work, harvesting and processing oysters. I might also have a chat with some of them about wrestling. Maybe I’ll even pick up some tips to improve my performance.

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