The Great Gambia Conundrum

Kololi Beach

There were two reasons why The Gambia won the winter holiday decision. The first was to put some heat into my frozen bones. The second was to pick up some valuable grass roots research for my work in progress – novel ‘The Incomers’. Thomas Cook offers reasonable package holidays, flying from Manchester, so the logistics were pretty straight forward.

Once the holiday was booked I began to hear horror stories but also some complimentary tales about the Gambia. I chose to ignore all stories, read the advice given in the guidebooks and take what comes our way.

Colin’s and my first experience of how the country works happened at the Airport. Porters asked everyone on the flight if they had a UK newspaper. These are later sold on to tourists in the resorts. Illegal money changing was taking place by the waiting buses, something the guide book tells you not to do but some greedy tourists seemed happy they were getting a good exchange rate, to hell with the country’s economy.

Serrekunda, the largest town in Gambia

Next the bus broke down within sight of the airport and we had to wait in the searing afternoon heat for two minibuses to arrive. When we did arrive at the hotel our room was not ready, the trusted (British) guest who occupied the room had promised the manager he would return from a meeting by two thirty and hadn’t. We were taken to the bar to wait. We were immediately hassled by the bar man who wanted to take us around on his day off. I had only been in the country an hour and was beginning to regret my choice of destination. After a free meal and many apologies we eventually got into the room at eight o’clock in the evening. Things could only get better, but the water pressure was low and my much anticipated shower was a trickle of cold water, but I didn’t mind because water is a scarce resource in Gambia and I was just grateful to get a wash.

Colin manages to get six feet from the sun lounger before the bumster welcomes him with open arms

The next day we decide to walk along the beach to the main resort Senegambia. Easier said than done. One of the biggest problems the Gambian Government has with its tourist industry is Bumsters. The guidebooks describe these young school drop-out boys as touts, fixers, chancers, gigolos, wheeler-dealers and informal guides. They have a highly developed sense of self worth and believe they have a right to interrupt your holiday with their agenda driven chat. As soon as we walk onto the beach we were approached by bumsters. They want to shake your hand, they want to be your friend. The advice is that they are harmless and the best way to deal with them is to be friendly but firm. This is all very well and most people try that but it is so intrusive that by the time we had walked the length of one stretch of beach we had shaken the hands of more than thirty boys and had no time to ourselves. It was like going into combat the moment you walked out the hotel and far from enjoyable, which is a shame because our beach, Kololi Beach, has stunning white sands and huge Atlantic rollers crashing into shore.

There are plenty people who do take advantage of the services offered by the bumsters. The streets are filled with young boys proudly accompanying much older women (and sometimes older men) around the resorts. At first I thought this was a form of exploitation but I couldn’t work out who was being exploited. Unlike the blatant child abuse in Thailand at least these Gambian boys seemed willing and over the age of consent, and the tourists were old enough to know better.

A baobab tree

It wasn’t long before we longed to escape the bumsters and fat blob tourists and see some of the country so we booked onto a tour with a local company ARCH (African Real Cultural and Historical) Tours. The tour was called 4 Tours in One Day Trip. I was a bit worried it would be hard going especially as I woke that morning with a dose of the runs but it was the highlight of the holiday. We were picked up by guides, Mohamed Ali, Angelica (the first female tour guide in Gambia) and Landrover driver Solomon, before eight in the morning and were soon joined by three Edinburgh University students Marianne, Lisa and Sarah. Ali said we would be like one happy family and by the end of the day it felt that way.

Serrekunda Market, this lady was selling cassava leaves for cooking

The first stop was Serrekunda Market. Serrakunda is the largest town in Gambia and the market is where the farmers and women vegetable growers bring their surplus crops and the locals go to buy their provisions. Many of the goods sold are made from recycled material and in an area were resources are scarce I was impressed the whole time I was in the country with the way everything is used – no wasteful westerners here!. Ali had warned us only to take panorama photos because some Gambians believe the camera will take their soul. The market was hustling with activity, my senses were overwhelmed. I expected it to be colourful but my camera could not do justice to the profusion of colour and for fear of offending anyone or missing a sight I took very few photos. One lady seller said we could take her photo. I showed her the photo on the digital screen, she was delighted and her friend also wanted one taken. I promised to send them the photos which I will post to the Arch Tours to pass on.

Wee boys run miles for a sweetie

We went to many cultural tourist sights on the tour but another highlight was the ride through the many bush villages. The children here have very little. From one village they ran barefoot for two miles to our next stopping point. These little boys were hardly even out of breath when they caught us. They were given a sweet each and a slug from a bottle of Fanta. I was humbled to see how quiet and well behaved they were and considered how privileged our children are.

A water cooler

We also visited a village where we were welcomed and shown round the sparse living conditions. They have no electricity and the water comes from a well. Ali explained the life of the women began at six in the morning pounding rice for the meals before cooking, cleaning and going out to work on the vegetable fields. The men work on the land in the dry season only and spend six months sitting around talking and thinking with other men. Not much of a difference from Scotland then.

Women unload the catches from fishing vessels

We visited the fishing village of Tanji where the women waded out to deep waters to relieve the fishing boats of their catch. The fishing vessels looked precarious and dangerous but the woman’s job seemed more so.

Ali and Angelica supplied us with information the whole day and every question I asked was answered with great knowledge and humour. Solomon did a fantastic job of driving us over very rough dust tracks and in keeping the children, who begged for sweets, in check; he was firm but fair.

I think if I hadn’t gone on this tour I may have left the Gambia thinking that every citizen is a greedy chancer, out to get our money because that is the impression you are left with in the resorts. But we met genuine people not far from the resorts and even some in the resort. One young bush taxi driver gave us clear instruction on how to work the taxi system and in the Bijilo Forest Park a Ranger chatted and gave us loads of information about places we could visit the next time we came to Gambia.

A shy colobus monkey in the Bijilo Forest Park

Of course the Gambians are just looking out for themselves and who can blame them. I overheard a conversation between a British do-gooder family and a Gambian charity worker. The family set up the meeting and wanted to discuss sponsoring a Gambian child. Very noble one would think but as the conversation progressed the chat turned to the sites and sounds of their holiday. The bottom line was the family wanted an unofficial guide to take them around, probably for next to nothing. They asked the over worked, under paid charity worker if he would do it. Thankfully he said no.

The Gambia has everything a country needs to turn it into a fantastic tourist destination; sun, sea, beaches and interesting trips, but the bumsters spoil it. If the government continues their efforts to control this then they may succeed. But tourism will still change the country. The simple life of the bush villagers will change. They may become unhappy with their lot. We saw children who were great runners and happy with nothing but without careful handling they could become the bumsters of tomorrow. Lets hope that role models like Mohamed Ali, Angelica and Solomon will have a greater impact and the people who work in the tourist industry turn the country into a happy equitable nation. Others nations have managed this and they can too.

Other Highlights

Chilli Willi (aka Amadou Sarr) played one night at our hotel. Not only is he a lovely guy he is a fine musician too.

Lamin (meaning first born), the young boy who cleaned our room, came to wave us goodbye and bid us a safe flight even after he had received his tip – I can’t see that happening in the UK.

On a boat trip we stopped off on a sand bank, already occupied by four local women digging in the hot sun for mussels, to let the tourists swim in the creek. To escape the inane tourist gibbering I walked the length of a football pitch to the end of the sandbank. Here, where the soft warm breeze brushed my face, I listen to oystercatchers, whimbrels and the chatting of the local women. On the way back to the boat I noticed one of the women watching me. I gave her a wee wave and she mirrored my wave in return, it was a very serene moment.

Women dig for mussels on a sand bank

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