TYPE OF TRIP
- Package deal
- Solo travel
Welcome to Banjul, the capital city of the Republic of the Gambia! From Amsterdam, it is a 6-and-half hour flight with a refuel stopover in Portugal. My accommodation, a three-star hotel next to the Kotu beach, was already included in the deal. Not that I cared where I would stay, so long as it was close to the sea. I arrived shortly after midnight and decided to spend the following day exploring the neighbouring areas and drawing up a plan for the rest of the trip.
The next morning I took off at 11 o’clock, when the sun was already burning hot (about 32°C). Strolling along the Kotu beach, I was constantly approached by random local people inviting me to stop by their juice bar or craft shop, sometimes handing in a homemade business card, as well as just striking up a conversation for no apparent reason. Most of these dialogues were barely different from internet chats in the mid ‘00s. Only instead of a stranger messaging the standard “ASL” (that, dear youngsters, stands for age, sex, and location), somebody would come up to me asking what my name is, where I come from, and whether it is my first time in the Gambia, in that exact order. Due to my lack of knowledge of the local dynamics (and a slightly naïve attitude), I couldn’t tell why they all were talking to me - that area is packed with hotels and other tourists, after all. Later on I learned about the ‘bumsters’, but I will get back to it in a bit.
My first stop was Bakau, a town a few kilometres away from the hotel. Fishing is a major business activity here, so the local fishery is an interesting place to stop by: you can easily walk up to resting fishermen asking to show today’s catch or go watch women working at the smokery just next to the boats. Despite the very hot sunshine I started to drool at the sight of all this amazing seafood, so I escaped to a nearby cafe for a glass of cold beer.
Next up was Kachikally Museum and Crocodile Pool, a must-do according to basically every single guide book on the Gambia (but a bit of a tourist trap, I believe). It houses about 80 animals and they can be safely touched by visitors: these crocodiles are fed about 250 kg of food per day, hence no interest in humans (although their wide open jaws might suggest otherwise). In the wild though, any of them could easily eat a whole grown up human in one sitting. The place is sacred for locals, as crocodiles symbolise fertility. There is an on-sire shrine that looks like some kind of bathhouse. When a local woman has trouble getting pregnant, she comes here to shower in the pond water. If the couple conceives a child after this procedure, the baby’s second name must be Kachikally.
After wandering around for some time, I decided to head back to the hotel via the beach. By that time I could only dream of an ice-cold shower and a refreshing drink, but instead I was faced with the same guys who appeared out of nowhere earlier that day, plus a dozen of new strangers (although I could hardly tell them all apart at that point). 'Anna,' they shouted, 'nice to see you again! Want to come to my juice bar/craft shop now?' I was silly enough to give them my real name. I politely declined, but that wouldn't stop them. ‘Where are you staying? Come later today/tomorrow/this week, I make the best juices/bracelets/water/air you can find in the Gambia,’ they’d go on and on. As I was about to find out, these guys are called bumsters.
Bumsters are the Gambian version of pesterers. They constantly hassle (I would even say harass) foreigners with pretty aggressive ways of offering things or services luring tourists into parting with money, thus creating a rather bad image of the country. As soon as you step out of the premises of your hotel you will encounter them one after another. Their spiels are often very similar: "Hey, don't you remember me? I am from (insert a hotel or cafe)." Then they tell you about a sick child and not being able to pay for the medicine, or that they have just got married, or that they just urgently need some cash. Usually these encounters are nothing but a bit of inconvenience and annoyance, but some can really set you off. Whenever I went to get water from the corner shop 5 minutes away from the hotel, I’d be “greeted” with shouts of ‘Hi princess!’ from men sitting along the road. And they do not take even a firm ’No’ for an answer. When I brushed one of them off by straight up telling him to leave me alone, he exclaimed: ‘You are in the Gambia now, nobody walks alone here!'. Followed by the Gambian motto, of course: ‘It's nice to be nice'. It is no wonder then that most tourists end up spending their holidays having a blossoming relationship with their sunloungers, sipping on the local lager Julbrew, and not venturing too far off from the hotel’s restaurant.
I walked almost 20 km that day, and by the evening decided that I’d had enough both in terms of this way of sightseeing and dealing with the annoying strangers.
The Smiling Coast of Africa
Banjul - Kotu - Fajara - Bakau - Kotu - Serekunda - Yuna Village - Sanyang - Tanji - Kotu - Banjul - Barra - Farafenni - Wassu - Kuntaur - Janjanbureh (Georgetown) - Soma - Tendaba - Kotu
I figured the only way for me to travel farther out would be with an organised group tour since I a) didn't have a driver's license and b) was alone. It was only then when it struck me where exactly I was. The Gambia is Africa’s smallest mainland country and with a gross national income per capita of US$ 320 and its Human Development Index rank 168th out of 182, it is also one of the poorest states in the world. Despite life revolving around the Gambia River, which runs through the middle of the country from the Atlantic ocean to Senegal, only 1/6 of the land is arable. The poor quality of soil has led to the predominance of one crop - peanuts. Poverty is everywhere, yet the nickname Gambians are often referred to with, ’The Smiling Coast of Africa’, is truly reasonable: non-bumster locals are genuinely friendly, very relaxed, and overall quite nice folks to talk to.
A day of researching and lounging later, I went on a trip to the southern region down the coast. The tour started off at a market in Serekunda, Gambia’s largest urban centre. Gambian markets are a real hustle and bustle: this is where people, mostly women, do their groceries on a daily basis. Not all locals can afford having a fridge (using them all day long is too expensive) or live in rural areas with no electricity, so they need to buy fresh food every morning. Grocery shopping is considered a woman’s activity since it is the women of the family who take care of the household, cook food, and provide for the men. Most sellers at the market are also women, and they have to pay income tax at the end of the day.
Women’s bright, colourful attires deserve a special note. In general, they wear clothes covering their entire body, up to the wrists and down to the feet. This outfit is called grandmuba, it comes with an undergarment - a couple of metres of cloth wrapped around the waist. Some ladies cover their heads up with headdress called musorr (or tiko). When at home, many mix Western and African clothes, wearing a shirt with a wrapper.
After the market we visited a local school. The role of education is undergoing transition in the Gambian society. Until recently, mothers used to be reluctant to send daughters to school and pay tuition, buy uniforms, and cover other respective expenses. It was viewed as a useless investment as girls always move to husband’s home. This attitude is becoming less and less popular these days, and parents try to provide their children at least minimal education if there is such an option. A number of schools, including the one we went to, came to existence only because of foreign initiative and are completely dependent on donations from the outside. They lack most facilities and only cover most basic of subjects, like the English language and Maths.
The pupils were very jolly and curious at the sight of tourists. But unlike their counterparts elsewhere, they didn't ask for anything. Please don't get me wrong - seeing these little chaps deprived of such a fundamental joy as sweets (and other much more important things, of course) is crushing. It is very tempting to give them small gifts here and there, be it mints or toys, but it also makes me feel a bit conflicted: doesn't it only perpetuate a dependence culture making the situation worse at the end of the day? In the long run, these children will grow to see Europeans (or all white people for that matter) as cash cows to be milked, rather than being encouraged to try make a living by other means. I can't help but think that perhaps our moral responsibility lies in helping them be more empowered through education and other institutions, instead of just providing material goods that have a short term effect? That was my food for thought throughout the trip.
Afterwards we drove to Yuna Village to Uncle John’s palm wine tappers. Uncle John is some sort of celebrity there: he is in his late 60s (very old for Gambia), his family is Christian (whereas 90% of the population are Muslim), and multiple generations live here all together. To be honest with you, I am not sure why this particular family is visited on the tour - this part is advertised as ‘a demonstration of how the local people tap the palm wine and make this strong Gambian beverage called ‘zum zum’ (‘fire water’)’. The palm wine has barely any alcohol in it (up to 3%) and tastes like fermented coconut juice, although in Africa the sap usually comes from datepalms. Zum zum, on the other hand, can be as strong as 38% if left out in the sun for one day, and tastes like a gross mix of vodka and white rum. Other than that, I didn't get to see why this family makes for a special visit.
Sanyang and Tanji were our last stops on the tour. The former is home to the Paradise beach (reportedly one of the nicest beaches on the Gambian coast), while the latter houses the Tanji Village Museum, Tanji Bird Reserve, and one of the busiest fisheries in the country. The local fishing fleet comprises many colourful boats, many of them with sayings in Arabic and other languages for good luck. My guide confirmed that almost all of these fishermen are Senegalese (I read about it somewhere), but didn’t go into detail on the reasons. He did mention though that at the end of the day, the region of Senegambia is one people who were divided into two states by the French and the British during the colonial era; their tribes still speak the same languages and hold the same values. The Mandinka are the largest ethnic group in the Gambia (the Wolof in Senegal), along with 8 other groups. Villages are always mixed, members of different tribes and religions living next to each in peace. When I noticed that they greet different people with different words, locals told me they could tell members of different tribes apart by their facial features as well as outfits, and because of that it’s possible to “guess” the right greeting in the corresponding language (for instance, Isama for Mandinka, As-salamu alaykum for everyone).
To be completely upfront, quite a few of my solo travels have happened in pursuit of peace of mind; travel is an absolute form of escapism. My short trip to The Gambia, too, came out as a result of the particularly unpleasant week in a series of rough weeks. I was sitting in a bar browsing last minute deals from Amsterdam wanting to go away as soon as possible. The easiest, of course, would have been picking any of the hundreds of European cities you can fly to from Schiphol. They are always there though, I thought, so I kept swiping through the offers until this one came up.
Had you asked me a couple of weeks ago what I know about this place called The Gambia, I would have probably shaken my shoulders and said: "it's somewhere in Africa". To my big embarrassment, Africa is the continent I’m least familiar with; I’d probably fail to immediately identify some of the countries on the map upon request. So when I came across this deal to the Gambia, I actually had to google it.
I took off less than 2 days after the booking. This is the most absurd last minute travel decision I’ve made to date. 30-something hours to prepare for the first visit to Africa! Whilst packing, I did remember to go through the first aid kit that I take everywhere - this is where my rational thinking began and ended. I spent some quality time thinking about what books I was going to read there. 30-something hours wasn't enough time to figure out I should probably get some vaccinations. And a new travel insurance. And a few other things levelheaded (or sane, for that matter) people normally take care of before they board the plane to a far-off land. (In the end, my luggage included a mini-library and an emergency bag better suitable for a weekend in Paris than a subtropical region.) But there I was, waiting at my gate and looking up the most basic trivia on my destination.
The next excursion was going to take me all around The Gambia. It was supposed to be a proper introduction to the real life of the country, away from bumsters and other tourist-oriented hustles. We hit the road very early in the morning and drove along the north bank of the river through small towns and villages towards the Wassu stone circle. It was quite fascinating to (finally!) watch villagers go about their day without being too concerned about white tourists popping in. That was exactly what I was looking for.
Then we got to the stone circles in Wassu, one of the four of such locations (all protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites). Archaeologists are not certain when exactly these monuments were constructed (approximately 1200 years ago) , but we do know that they were used for burials as gravestones. What is so interesting about these particular monoliths is that they are made of laterite which is nowhere to be found in this area, indicating an enormous amount of labor required to build this kind of monuments. The Wassu circles have been considered a sacred place by local villagers since 1995 when they started noticing unidentified glow around the stones. These days people put small rocks on top of the pillars to make a wish.
Once out of Wassu, our group boarded a small boat that took us to further east to Janjanbureh. The trip took about four hours, so we had plenty of time to watch the wildlife on the banks of the River Gambia: hippos, apes, and birds. It was a very pleasant, relaxing journey. Shortly after the sunset, we arrived at the camp where we were going to stay overnight - traditional huts with no electricity.
The following morning, a family of monkeys came to breakfast. By joining I mean grabbing whatever food they could get their hands on - cheeky little fellas! It was quite fun to watch them run around not giving a single care in the world; I named the one who looked like he could be their father Francois and the smallest (youngest?) one Tomato. I wanted to go and make acquaintance with the rest of their gang (I had so many names in mind!), but then it was time to hit the road again.
The trip continued in Janjanbureh (also known as Georgetown), a small town on the island of the same name. A few centuries ago this place was used as an assembly area for slaves who were awaiting shipment overseas. Nowadays it is a small village with about 3,000 inhabitants. Here we purchased some food and gifts for a family we were going to visit while driving along the south bank on the way back to Serekunda. Among the items, our group purchased were a bag of rice, matches, vegetable oils, detergents and soaps, notebooks, pencils, candles, and candies.
We stopped by a random (or so I think) family village about 40 minutes later. It was one big family: the husband has 4 wives and about 22 children living in the same compound. That is a pretty typical setting by the local standards, especially as far as polygamy is concerned - about 40% of Gambian men have more than one wife. While our guide was explaining the rules this commune lives by, we got to walk around and inside their huts. The husband builds a separate hut for each of his wives; there they live with their children except boys over the age of 10 (they also get a special hut). The husband, however, has a hut of his own. Wives take turns every 3-7 days. Wife “on duty” prepares food for everyone in the family and gets to sleep with the husband; normally, she’s the only one allowed to enter his hut. Wives “off duty” take care of their own house, do laundry, and so on. Every wife normally has 6 or so children. Boys must move out of mother’s house at the age of 10 into a different hut, but girls get to stay until marriage. Just a few decades ago, most youths would meet their spouses through arranged marriage as early as at the age of 12-14, but this practice has become much less common.
Frankly speaking, being there felt like anything but real life, so different was it from what I am used to. (Sure I had seen these villages in documentaries before, but standing there, being there gives a completely different perspective.) My guide had specifically warned us not to show any emotions of pity: even though these village people live in deep poverty, they aren’t unhappy. They appreciate what they have. I reckon many of them have never seen the life outside of their village, therefore cannot even imagine what our daily routine and activities look like. (If you have never tried peanuts, you’ll never be able to imagine what they taste like, right?) And even if they saw it, would all of them trade it for what they have? If I’d never seen pictures of places outside of Siberia, never lived in Sweden in childhood, and had never read books about foreign lands, would I have travelled this much later on? Would I have this never-ending longing to see what's "out there"? Probably not.
The villagers seemed happy with what we brought for them. After about an hour of hanging around, we headed to Tendaba where we were going to have a lunch stop.
The Gambia boasts some delicious cuisine. One traditional dish is called yassa (picture above): meat, chicken or fish fried with lemon and onions usually served with white rice and peanut sauce. It is simple but very tasty. Curries with rice or couscous are also very common. Other than that, I’d recommend eating as much seafood there as you can - butterfish, ladyfish, capitaine fish, tiger prawns, the list goes on! You won't be disappointed. But, as a few locals told me if you think you may have food poisoning, drink coca-cola (I am not sure whether it actually works). Mind you, Gambians are not allowed to eat with their left hand and are widely discouraged to use it for writing, but the rules are a bit laxer for the latter.
The rest of our journey back to the coast did not promise to be too exciting until we were passed by a military convoy. Within 10 minutes we were suddenly stopped by a policeman at a crossroad next to some village. As it turned out, the President was on the way his home village, so all traffic on that road had to be blocked, and any vehicle that didn’t obey would be immediately shot (they told us it’d actually happened not long ago). We got out of the bus and joined locals along the road who were looking forward to seeing their leader and hoping he’d make a quick stop to greet his people (apparently that also happens once in while). Taking pictures was strictly prohibited, so trust my word - it was quite the scene! Another convoy drove by about 15 minutes later, President waved at everyone from the car, and that was it.
While at it, I might as well mention what a peculiar man Yahya Jammeh is. His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junking Jammeh Babili Mansa (that’s his full title) has been in power since 1994 and is notable for a series of, uhm, controversial statements. For example, he claims he can cure AIDS with bananas and herbs. He also holds strong views on homosexuality, intending to literally execute all gay people in the Gambia: “[…] if you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it.” Besides that, he’s been accused of deaths of numerous journalists, “witch doctors”, protesting students, and Ghanian migrants. Shooting random vehicles doesn't sound all that extreme now, does it?
Since the rest of my time in the Gambia was not that eventful, I would like to tackle another thing I had observed there: sex tourism. You don’t even need to wait for the sun to set below the horizon to observe female sex tourism in full swing. Middle-aged and much older European women walk around hand-in-hand and sit down for rendezvous with young local boys half their age left, right, and central in broad daylight. It is only a little less “in your face” than men scouting for girls in Thailand. Sexual imperialism in the 21st century?
Women’s sexual tourism received first academic attention in the 1970s with the introduction of package holidays and charter flights. Since then, the influx of relatively rich, older foreign women seeking romance has hit numerous places in the Caribbean region and Africa. The Gambia, it turns out, is a major destination for such a “holiday romance” (or whatever you wish to label it), in which young men exchange sex for money, gifts, or visas. Pursuing a livelihood, many of the boys who end up on the tourist beaches as sex workers in disguise are dropouts. They have few opportunities to obtain regular jobs with no education or skills. As Stella Nyanza explains, “successful livelihoods among youths are challenged by unemployment, underemployment, low employability due to limited skills, early school dropout, high inflation rates and fledgling groundnut prices.” In particular context of this country, as Chant and Evans point out, scarce employment opportunities coupled combined with “severe restrictions on emigration to “Babylon” (a colloquial Gambian term referring to the Global North, especially Europe) have underlined the importance of another kind of sexual strategy for which opportunities have flourished in the wake of international tourism development.”
When a hungry man is willing to do anything, sex with white women of age isn’t the worst thing, one may think. If not controlled by a trafficker, sex work is, in essence, a choice; whether one is fine with it or not is a matter of morals and ethics. It is the fact that concealed prostitution is one of the only ways they can earn a living that is problematic. In the case of young men who form relationships with wealthier women from other countries (in which the power balance that usually exists in heterosexual relationships is inverted, for these women are older and more economically powerful), “the endemic poverty of The Gambia can be used to evoke a diffuse “pity”, which justifies men’s need for financial and other assistance but also “saves face” through sparing them from forced disclosure of personal failings or disadvantage.” In other words, these beach boys perceive an affair with a westerner as profitable from the onset with material and financial benefits (drinks, meals, gifts, money), and in the long run in case of marriage (visas to other countries). Even though these men are not controlled by a pimp, this phenomenon is still exploitation based on the rampant poverty.
Yet even female sex tourism does not seem to be that critical of an issue next to this one: child sex tourism. Billboards around the tourist areas remind passers-by that the Government is determined to fight sexual exploitation of children. These reminders are there for a reason: a large number of underage locals are working in the sex industry with tourists. Once again, most of them come from deprived socio-economic backgrounds. Whereas the majority of working Gambians make no more than $1-2 a day, sex work might provide up to $83 a day (source). Regardless of the risk of trauma, AIDS, and ruined marriage prospects (prospective wives are expected to be virgins), prostitution appears to be an aspirational lifestyle choice for many young Gambian women, states The Independent.
One particular encounter sealed my decision to stay away from the beach strip and other areas nearby for the rest of my trip. It happened when I went up to my hotel's reception to ask directions to the closest ATM; one of the staff offered to accompany me on the 30-minute walk to the bank along a busy road. I knew that his enthusiasm wasn't all that altruistic, but even though I politely repeated that the directions would be enough he still came along. For the first 10 minutes, the walk wasn't that bad: the guy was telling me about the time he travelled to Sweden to visit a friend and then made a quick stop in Rotterdam. A Gambian who has been to Europe must be a good sign, I thought, but shortly after the conversation took a turn for the worse.
When asking about your plans in The Gambia, many local men immediately offer themselves as guides. 'I can show you the real Gambia', they say. No matter how far you want to go, they are ready to drop everything and be at your service right away. So was this one when he found out I had booked a tour to Georgetown that is 300-something km away. 'You shouldn't go with a group tour, you won't experience the country the right away', he claimed. I told him I'd be fine. Then he asked me if I had a boyfriend. "I do, and it is all very serious." I immediately regretted not packing the ring I usually disguise as an engagement/wedding one on trips; it works like a charm in other countries where men respect "taken" women noticeably more than single ones. The guy went on: "But he's there and you are here, and I'm here. African men have the best love." Had we not been walking next to a hustling highway, I would have run away right there. Once again I repeated that I was not looking for anything, so he better switch the topic.
That didn't work though, as his next suggestion was "When I come to Holland, we can get married." The standard "no, thanks" wouldn't do here, so I grew more and more uncomfortable. A couple of other ridiculous proposals later, we were in an observable distance from the bank. The following question "How much money are you going to withdraw?" confused, shocked, and angered me all at the same time, but since I was a tourist in an utterly foreign culture I couldn't show any bursts of emotion. I said it would be an amount just enough to buy me water for the last three days. I ditched him as soon as I left the bank.
This encounter had left me extremely disturbed. I knew that an experience like that shouldn't ruin my overall impression of the country and its people. In The Gambia though, this kind of hassle constantly distracts you from and interferes with enjoying this otherwise interesting place. Shame.
Ending this post on such a down note would be a pity, so I would like to emphasise that I did have a good time in The Gambia, it was an incredible learning experience. Perhaps the timing was slightly off for me, and I most certainly should have done better research on the destination prior to the visit. But hey, it still made for a decent story, no?
Happy travels x