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Destination Feature

Gambia: Skimming the surface

Rita Payne, eTN Global Correspondent  Sep 07, 2011

I arrived in Gambia not quite sure what to expect. I was there for a media forum and training workshop and there was little time to do much research beforehand. First impressions were more positive than reports had led me to believe. It helped that the 5-star Sheraton hotel, our base for the week, was located by the sea. The hotel was designed to blend in with traditional African architecture – thatch-roofed blocks of rooms linked by alleys and walkways made you feel you were walking through a traditional village. The surrounding gardens were well-tended with an abundance of tropical shrubs, frangipani trees in full bloom and deep purple bougainvillea cascading down walls. Mango trees laden with ripe fruit dotted the landscape. Exotic birds darted from branch to branch twittering animatedly while butterflies, looking as though they had been freshly painted in glowing colors, fluttered among the flowers. Most rooms overlooked the sea and one could walk straight down to the secluded beach from one’s room. One awoke in the morning and drifted to sleep to the soothing sound of the waves washing the shore. Paradise couldn’t get better than this.
We had arrived in the rainy season when we were informed tourists numbers tended to fall. Phone lines and Internet connections were erratic because power lines had been struck by lightning the day before we arrived. The staff were charming though the level of service left room for improvement. The staff smiled a lot but couldn’t be relied on to respond promptly to requests.

The hotel was situated about 15 kilometers from the capital, Banjul. The nearest tourist centre was Senegambia not a particularly attractive jumble of craft shops, bars, restaurants hotels and guest-houses. Because of the dearth of tourists, one was beset by desperate young men touting for work – offering taxi rides, tours of the monkey park and crocodile lake nearby and other services of a more dubious nature. Old European or western men parading around with young, local girls and sixty-year-old white women strolling about hand-in-hand with dread-locked, well-built young Gambian men, became a common sight. Sex tourism was obviously thriving in Gambia.

It was a relief to escape to the calm and privacy of the long-established Senegambia Beach hotel with its extensive grounds leading to the sea. Among the attractions was the sight of local vultures which swept down from the trees to feed on chicken and other offerings from the hotel staff at fixed times of the day. The vultures – referred to locally as ‘sanitary inspectors’ looked the part as they stretched out on the grass or bathed in a pool of water unperturbed by gawping hotel guests. The gardens were also home to families of small black and white monkeys equally unfazed by tourists. Mothers with tiny babies clinging to their backs scampered past or relaxed in clusters grooming each other. While we stopped to view their antics a monitor (lizard) ambled by with its eyes fixed firmly on its prey ahead.

Before setting off from London all I had to go on were a map and tourist brochure provided by the High Commission. Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa only a six-hour flight from major European cities with the bonus that there is no jet lag. The map is eye-catching. It shows a country resembling a blue snake bordered on three -sides by Senegal.
With only one free day to be a tourist before flying back to London I opted for a two-hour river cruise in a canoe for a spot of bird-watching. After a week of meetings it was bliss to surrender to the silence of the surrounding water broken only by the gentle swish of the oars cutting through the water and the occasional flap of wings as a kingfisher or other water bird swooped down to pluck a fish from the water.

The two young men who took me on the boat ride were chatty. They explained how the canoe tours were operated. The boat itself, I was told, was owned by the village elders and all the income from the trips is ploughed back into the village to build a school, health clinic or other facility for the community. The men who run the canoes work as volunteers for six months or a year, after which the village elders help them to find paid work while other youths take their place. Seems like a sensible and practical system which could easily be replicated elsewhere.

If time had not been an issue it was tempting to cruise on along the full length of the river to Senegal. Cruisers and larger sailing boats were moored on the water belonging to tourists from Germany and other European countries who spend days and often weeks traveling upstream, stopping off in Senegal to visit safari parks and other attractions. Though Gambia has more than 500 species of birds, crocodiles, hippos and monkeys one needs to travel to neighboring countries to view larger animals.

Sheikh, the 31-year-old tour operator who organized my brief river excursion and acted as my guide, was a mine of information. His family setup proved to be fairly common in Gambia where 85% of the population is Muslim. Sheikh is a Muslim, his mother was Christian and converted to Islam after her marriage. It was heartening to find that in Gambia there were few of the religious tensions which afflict so many other countries in the region.

Sheikh said, “We all get on well together. My aunts are Christian so we celebrate Christmas with them and they visit us during Ramadan. One shura says Jews. Christians and non-believers, let them believe what they want to believe and we follow what our faith.”

Sheikh, pointed to a baobab tree, locally referred to as an ‘elephant tree” because of its size and shape. This one has messages, phone numbers and email addresses painted all over the trunk – “We call that the internet tree,” he observed wryly. He explained that the baobab is an all-important tree for Gambians. The root is used as an aphrodisiac, the leaf is crushed and mixed with couscous to make it easier to swallow, and larger leaves provide roofing for huts. He showed me a huge tree which had a cow’s skull fixed in a hollow in the trunk of the tree. Bottles of drink, food and fruit were scattered around the base of the tree. A bull or cow is traditionally sacrificed when boys aged 7 to 12 are circumcised. After reaching this milestone in their journey from boyhood to manhood the boys are required to live in the bush for a month to learn how to respect elders of the community and be given lessons in discipline and general behavior – a form of bush school.

Like the larger baobab, mangrove trees spread along the edge of the water, also have myriad uses. The leaves are utilized for roofing because they are termite proof. The leaves are crushed to produce dye for batik. The roots are used as firewood. Oysters cling to the roots and are harvested by local women who wear gloves as protection since many lose their fingers because the edges of the oysters are extremely sharp.

Nothing it seems is discarded. For example, oyster shells are crushed by hand to make paint and cement. It’s also mixed in with chicken feed as a source of calcium. Cockle shells are used for road construction and decoration and pounded to add spice to traditional ‘jollof’ rice or help recovery from a hangover.

Another intriguing little factoid I picked up. Weaver birds build their nests in palm trees but upside down so snakes are unable to enter. The most common language spoken is Mandinka which is also the name of the largest tribal community in Gambia. As meat is very expensive, the main food is rice and fish.

As short-term visitors we, of course, only saw the best of Gambia. It was clear that under the surface the picture was far from rosy. President Yahya AJJ Jammeh has kept a firm grip on power since 1994, when he ousted the previous government in what his supporters describe as a peaceful transition. Elections are due in November, but with the media and civil rights kept in tight check the outcome is in little doubt. In fact, there are some who whisper that he would like to declare himself king of the small country.

The president has his staunch supporters who draw attention to the good he has done for the country: built impressive roads, schools and other institutions. One Gambian who has had personal dealings with the President, conceded that he was authoritarian but said he had a clear vision for the country. He added“ Gambians are lazy by nature. Most car mechanics, carpenters and fishermen are from Senegal. During Ramadan it’s difficult to buy fish in the market because all the fishermen return home for Ramadan. During 30 years, the previous government didn't build high schools. This President has a vision, yes he rules with an iron fist, is unrealistic sometimes, but imposes development, something that has to be done.”

“ True democracy requires people who are informed, who can make right choices, otherwise they are easily manipulated. The President has brought education. We should remember that America is 220 years old, so we have a long way to go. It’s not fair to compare us to the US and Britain. Slavery and colonialism have done a lot of harm to us, and led to a master-servant mentality. Gambia is one of the least corrupt countries in the region.”

Our Gambian friend said the army was like the president’s baby and under his rule it had been transformed into one of the most professional bodies in the country. It is now a major employer. Corruption, he continued, was not a big problem in Gambia. He admitted that many of the measures in force were draconian but added, “The President thinks this is the only way to move the country forward. He thinks it is his responsibility to take on Gambian laziness. I would describe him as a benevolent dictator.”

Did the president have any serious political challengers? There were only two, I was told, which offered any credible opposition. One was small and had a vaguely socialist program the other was made up mainly of the Mandinka with the risk that they would try to dominate were they ever to gain power.

Outside the country, exiled Gambians, with the support of international human rights groups like Amnesty, as well as a few western politicians, are mounting robust campaigns to raise awareness of the lack of democracy, media freedom and human rights in Gambia. They have little faith in the democratic process. There are few hopes of immediate change in Gambia with the President showing little sign of even considering relinquishing power in the near future.

There was so much more we would have liked to have seen of the country and its past, including relics of its history such as a major trading centre for slavery. Tourists and others like us just passing through enjoyed the sun, sea, abundant plant and animal life, but we had only skimmed the surface. The slogan being promoted by Gambian tourism is the Smiling Coast of Africa. Our fervent hope is that one day with a flourishing democracy, media freedom and unfettered human rights, the people of Gambia will have genuine cause to smile.

Gambia: Skimming the surface
Photo by Rita Payne

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