Gambian Experience

We usually take a holiday in December to escape the dreariness of the British winter. To get inspiration this year, I spoke to my travel agent and listed my criteria. Some place where it was hot and sunny in December. Someplace that wouldn’t take longer than eight hours to fly to. Someplace that wouldn’t break the bank to get there. “How about Gambia?” the travel agent said. And Gambia has the added advantage of being on GMT time, so no jet lag, either.

So, the first week of December saw us at the Atlantic Beach Hotel in Banjul. I tend to categorise holidays one of two ways – either beach holiday, or dashing around seeing the sights. This one was mostly the former, and after an extremely busy November, there was something very agreeable about spending the day in one’s bathing suit, lying on a lounger by the pool, doing nothing more strenuous than going for the occasional dip in the swimming pool when it got too hot.

The hotel was very comfortable, yet strangely non-African. We could have been anywhere in Europe, in many ways. The waiting staff are in uniform black and white, everyone speaks English, the food is very British (roast beef and Yorkshire pud; roast chicken; gammon ham, and dessert was always something like fruit crumble and custard). They even serve ‘afternoon tea’ by the poolside at 3:30pm every day.

So it should not surprise me that the clientele at the hotel were mostly fifty-plus British couples. It seems that most of the guests are frequent visitors who have been patronising the hotel for years, to spend two weeks by the poolside, and rarely venture outside the hotel.

But hubby and I are not the type of folk to sit around and do nothing for too long – after all, if you visit a country and never leave the hotel, you could be anywhere. So our week in Gambia included a couple of excursions. The first was a trip to “Treasure Island”. This involved an early pick-up from the hotel, and taking the ferry by foot from Banjul to Barra. The ferry trip took 45 minutes and was very crowded, and I spent most of the time trying to convince a young local man that my battered walking shoes did not need fixing, thank you very much.

Village on Treasure Island


Then we were put on a truck and taken to the Gambian border, crossing over into Senegal. The further we travelled into Senegal, the rougher the road got. And the hotter it got. Through every village we passed, children waved at us.

We were told that 70% of children in Gambia and Senegal go to school. The 30% who don’t, have parents too poor to afford the uniforms and books that are required. This is a cycle of poverty that it will be difficult to break. Children without an education will not have the skills to get reasonable jobs when they become adults, and won’t be able to afford to send their own children to school. But the fact that most of the children here do go to school is encouraging, and maybe that percentage will creep ever higher.

We had to take another boat to the island, which is named ‘Treasure Island’ because its principle crop is cannabis. This intrigued me. Cannabis is highly illegal in Gambia and Senegal; possession can lead to a five year jail term. So why doesn’t the government do something about this island and its illegal crops? I posed the question to our guide. The government doesn’t know, I was told. It’s a big secret. Considering there are well publicised tour groups taken there a few times a week, I found that rather difficult to believe. More likely that the government chooses to look the other way, in the interests of the tourism that the island generates. A more cynical view is that some palms are being greased somewhere to leave this little island and its residents alone. In any case, judging by how plentiful the crops were, business there is thriving.

We were also given some information on family life in the more remote villages. Men are allowed several wives, as long as they can afford the dowry. There is no age limit to marriage. If a man decides he wants to marry a 13-year-old, he may, as long as her parents agree. It seems the woman doesn’t have much of a say.

I decided to pursue this topic of conversation with our guide, explaining that in Britain you are not allowed to get married if you are under the age of 16. He seemed quite amused by this.

Our second excursion was called the “Roots” tour, and took us to the small village that Alex Haley ventured to when he researched his family tree. He wrote a famous book about his exploits. There was a TV series, televised in 1977. I have vague recollections of watching it as a child.

James Island


This tour also included a trip to James Island, which the French and English fought for possession of for years. It was also used as a base for slave smugglers. Britain was one of the first countries to outlaw slavery, but it didn’t stop a few persistent people from trying to sneak into Gambia and make off with slaves anyway. The English ended up setting up a fort on James Island to try and see off the slave smugglers. The ruined fort on the island is a very cool place, and it would be a great place to play ‘Pirates’!

Before the publication of “Roots”, no one in America was remotely interested in Gambia. Since then, though, the village has become heavily influenced by tourism. The more positive aspects of this are evident through the many schools the village now has, and the fact that it has an accessible and clean water supply – enough water for all. The more negative aspects are evident, too. The children come to you asking for goodies – pens, school exercise books, sweets and the like. This is not so different from the rest of Africa, actually. Except in this village the children stand there chanting at you, “Welcome. Give me something.” The adults want to discourage the children from begging (in fact the children get told off for adding the “give me something” line to their welcome chant). We were told on several occasions not to hand out treats to children directly. If we wished to donate anything to the village, whether it be sweets, books or cash, we should put it in a box at the end of the tour, and the village elders will ensure that everything is distributed fairly. This doesn’t stop enterprising locals from trying to sell pencils and sweets to the tourists – at hugely overinflated prices – to give to children in a village a couple of miles down the road. In fact, on one occasion we were being overwhelmed with children demanding treats, while a local man – who was standing next to said children – tried to sell to us a bag of sweets to give to the children to appease them. Is it me, or is this just plain daft? He’s standing there with the sweets that they want – why couldn’t he just give them to the children directly and cut out the middle man? But of course there would be no profit for him there, and the cynical side of me thinks the children are being encouraged to harass the tourists just for this reason. This, I think, is the down side of tourism to Gambia. I do appreciate that it’s a poor country, and Western tourists have a great deal more money than anyone in Gambia, and I can understand why the locals wish to take advantage of this. But it does seem that everywhere you go, you are being encouraged to part with as much money as possible. The basest example are the ‘bumsters’ – young men who hang around hotels trying to sell anything you can imagine to tourists. They are not violent, but they are very persistent. In fact everywhere you go someone wants a piece of you, or more specifically a piece of your wallet, and it does get a bit wearing after a while. You can’t possibly give money to everyone who asks you for it, and you do have to be firm – and repetitive – with your “no”s.

There are other not so good things about Gambia, such as the mosquitoes, which are everywhere. You can douse yourself in Deet as soon as the sun goes down. You can sleep under a net. You can have your room sprayed every night with mozzie killer so noxious you have to vacate the room for two hours while it’s done. Still the bastards find a way to munch on you. And it seems no one is immune. Every day everyone sports a few more mozzie bites. In fact, you can tell how long someone’s been in Gambia by how many mosquito bites are visible on their body while they lie by the pool in their bathing suit. The mosquitoes in Gambia carry malaria, though, which is a bit of a worry. We keep diligently taking the Malarone pills and hoping for the best.

Hotel beach


Still, for a bit of sun in December Gambia’s a good place to go. It is a fascinating country and we had a lovely holiday, but once more I came back thankful of all the privileges I enjoy in the UK, especially as a woman. When we arrived back in London on Tuesday night it might have been cold, and wet, and miserable, but in many ways it was still good to be home.

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