Salikenni is a village of about 3,500 people, located on a plain of grasslands and scattered trees just north of the Gambia River.
Most residents are farmers. But no one lives out on the farms. Everyone lives in the village. Its sand lanes run between walled family compounds. The walls are whitewashed masonry, or jagged pieces of rusty corrugated metal nailed to wooden poles, or sometimes reeds tied together. A typical compound contains several long, low cement block or mud brick buildings, each covered by a shallow pitched roof of rusting corrugate, which overhangs in front to create a shaded verandah. The buildings are arranged around a central sand courtyard. Each building contains several apartments.
The compounds have names like Ceesay Kunda or Dibba Kunda, according to the surname of the family that calls them kunda, or home. Many compounds contain 15, 25 or more people, spanning several generations. These are gregarious people. In the relative cool of evening, women in bright dresses and men in robes stroll about, stopping at one compound after another for conversation.
There is a small central market, several small shops, a health clinic, a youth and sports complex, a government school and several mosques. Islam is the dominant religion in the village. Along with the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, Salikenni people say their faith calls for peace and charity, never violence. Many village residents pray five times a day. There is an annual ceremony in which residents and hundreds of guests from all over the country gather at the main mosque. Readers, in shifts, read the entire Koran aloud. The ceremony, including sermons, lasts most of a day and all night until dawn. There are Christian churches in The Gambia but none in Salikenni.
The village seems to straddle several centuries. Goats wander in and out of compounds. Donkey carts with pneumatic wheels carry loads between the village and the farms. A horse cart passes, its driver holding a mobile phone to his ear. Not long ago, unless there was a bright moon, one needed cat's eyes to walk along the lanes. In early 2007 the Gambian rural electrification program reached the village. Now there are tall street lights along the principal lanes. A number of houses are lit by electricity, provided the owner can keep buying the pre-paid cards for the service.
The village has one important asset which many others in poor countries lack: clean drinking water. A solar-powered pump, provided by international donors, lifts water from a deep, enclosed well up into a large tank on stilts. From there it flows through underground pipes to a half dozen public taps in different neighborhoods of the village. Women and girls line up with their buckets and basins each morning and carry the water on their heads to their compounds.
Some things have not yet been changed by technology. Salikenni is a farming community. But its centuries old methods of agriculture do not quite provide a living for most families. They depend on periodic charity from relatives employed in the urban area or abroad. Many village women are stuck in traditional roles. While men grow the cash crop, mainly groundnuts (peanuts), women grow the staple food crop, rice. Often, they share a husband with up to three other wives. They raise the children, fetch the water, cook over wood fires, mill and sift the grain, launder and, every morning at dawn, sweep the sandy courtyard clean.
For the young men of the village, there is little economic opportunity beyond farming and fishing. Many ambitious youths flee to the city. Without education, a few find work but most join a vast reservoir of urban unemployed.