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My husband and I have visited the Gambia, West Africa several times. Originally, we chose the Gambia as we like the sun and it wasn’t too far to travel (about 6 hours flying time). Since then it has come to mean much more to us than just a holiday destination.
Situated on the unspoilt West African coast, the Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Mostly flat, the country is dominated by the majestic River Gambia which meanders through tropical forest, bamboo and mangrove swamp.
The Gambia is a third world country and the journey from the airport to the hotel is often a culture shock for many first time visitors to this country. You will see much poverty and begging as the standard of living for most of the local people is very much lower than our own. We usually take with us biros and notebooks as these are always welcomed in the primary schools; together with sweets for the children who will beg from us.
We first visited the Gambia about 5 years ago and stayed in an All Inclusive Hotel at Cape Point, near the fishing port of Bakau. At the Hotel’s welcome meeting for new guests we were warned to be careful of the “beach hustlers” mostly young Gambian men who chose to make their living on the beach by selling excursions, handicrafts and fruit or offering to show the tourists around the local area. Some of these could be persistent to the point of being a nuisance.
Some of our fellow travellers never went outside the grounds of the Hotel complex during the whole of their visit – a big mistake as they missed out on the genuine warmth, friendliness and hospitality of the Gambian people, a chance to experience a different lifestyle, a different culture and, of course, meeting different people.
The Cape Point area is fairly quiet. Most of the entertainment is hotel based but there are a couple of restaurants and bars. Kololi Beach is a much livelier area with an Italian Pizza House, a quality Lebanese restaurant, an Italian restaurant adjacent to the Casino, a restaurant serving German food and some English pubs and restaurants.
On our first walk along the beach we encountered many young Gambians, who mostly want to ask where you live in England and which football team you support (they are mad about the sport), to shake your hand and give you a big friendly smile.
On our second day in this country, we decided to walk along a quiet part of the beach towards Bakau. We had already previously been bombarded by young Gambians wanting to be our ‘guide’ for the duration of our holiday, but had managed to ward them off. Standing alone on the beach was a very tall young man of about 19 years wearing a T-shirt, faded jeans and sporting a bandana, speaking very poor English but offering to be our ‘guide’. I think my husband and I both looked into his completely open and trustworthy face and instantly decided that this was someone we liked and could trust.
DuDu has been our ‘guide’ every time we have visited the Gambia. We pay him with a small amount of money and for that he has escorted us to various places of interest and carried our belongings etc. He is unable to find work due to his poor education and lack of English. His father is dead, his mother is a cleaner for Radio Gambia and his young brother died of malaria, because they did not have money to pay for medications.
(Mosquitos are most active during late afternoon and evening, the visitor to the Gambia should use a good insect repellent to prevent being bitten, together with anti-malarial tablets as prescribed by your doctor).
One day, my husband together with DuDu, Ousmann and an elderly Gambian fisherman called Sampa An (Uncle Sam to us) decided to go sea fishing. I keep my feet firmly on dry land and about an hour after they had set off I decided to walk to the local supermarket. This is not easy to do, as soon as you leave the grounds of the Hotel, you are bombarded by young Gambians. However, imagine my surprise when I spot DuDu – apparently he had become very seasick and had to be taken ashore.
DuDu and I went for a meal at a Gambian restaurant, which catered for the local people, not for tourists. Picture this – set outside in the garden of a compound, circular plastic tables, odd cutlery and crockery (but clean), a goat tied up in a corner and chickens running around your feet. I am the only white woman; the rest of the diners are Gambians, mostly men. I order chicken yassa (there was no choice – this was the only food they were cooking) for myself and for DuDu. It was absolutely delicious, I felt completely safe and the atmosphere was wonderful. And all for less than £1 each.
Husband returned from the fishing trip with five large fish that he had caught. He gave one to Ousmann, one to Uncle Sam and we had an impromptu barbeque on the beach with the three remaining fish. The boys cooked the fish, I bought two large bottles of orange drink and some plastic cups and this was shared between husband and myself and about seven or eight young Gambian men. Freshly grilled ladyfish washed down with orange juice……. it was fabulous.
The Gambia boasts miles of deserted golden sandy beaches. One day when we were fishing from the beach, with about five of the local boys, DuDu disappeared for about an hour. He re-appeared carrying a large bowl of fish benachin and rice and two spoons. We all tucked into the same bowl, the spoons were for us and the boys used their fingers. It was a lovely meal eaten in wonderful company and a nice gesture as DuDu had paid for the food himself.
One day, four of us, myself and husband, Ousmann and DuDu visited the Abuko Nature Reserve to see crocodiles, lions, hyenas and monkeys. Great fun, but like taking two children out for the day. I think we were all in a silly mood – DuDu decided it was funny to hide behind trees and jump out in front of us and scare us!!! Ousmann kept dropping our water bottle and then decided he didn’t like the monkeys and was throwing stones at them (his aim wasn’t very good, luckily). A great day out apart from one incident when we saw (and heard) one of the hyenas catch and kill a vulture. The terrified screams of the vulture rang through my ears and stayed with me for days.
There are lots of activities to do and places to visit in the Gambia. A popular activity is fishing in the Creeks if you want to experience the thrill of reeling in rod-bending ladyfish and barracudas. Visit Lamin Lodge, a wooden restaurant built on stilts deep in the mangrove swamps, where you can catch your meal and they will cook it for you. The first time we have fished out of a restaurant window!
Every day at around mid-afternoon, brightly coloured fishing boats, known as pirogues arrived back on the beach at Bakau. We stood on the beach, the only white people, whilst we watched hundreds of men and women wading out to the boats with baskets balanced on their heads to unload the catch and sell at the local market. The Gambians were completely oblivious to us, apart from one little girl of about 5 or 6 years old, who came and put her hand in mine.
We travelled around by local taxis (cars) and bush taxis (minibuses). The Gambians drive their cars like lunatics; regardless of man or beast…. It is not unusual to share a bush taxi with local people and their livestock as we found on a trip to Banjul, the Capital, when two of the occupants were goats.
Evening entertainment is mostly hotel based when the resorts come alive with a mixture of tribal dancing and singing and at other times reggae music or percussion rhythms.
Known as the smiling coast, the Gambia is hot and sunny all year round and has much to offer with its unsophisticated charm and fascinating African culture. There are exotic gardens, colourful birdlife, nature reserves, miles of deserted beaches, craft markets and slow and unhurried way of life.
DuDu has dreams of getting out of poverty and playing football for the national team. In reality, it won’t happen. Ousmann, his much younger friend, is still at school (when his father can afford the school fees). He is a bright boy and speaks good English. He wants to become a doctor – it is just possible…. I keep my fingers crossed for him.
You will see a number of European women usually between the ages of 40 and 60 with young black men in their twenties. DuDu tells me that these young Gambians expect to be paid very well for their ‘services’. Try not to be judgmental or disapproving – it is a different world out there….
Writing this opinion has made me wish we were back there again. I keep in touch with DuDu, but am a little worried about him as we have not heard from him in a while. So, if I am not around for a few weeks, I could just be back in the Gambia….
Loved your review. Am planning a trip to the Gambia in the near future, and you have just made me even more exctited about going!
sdwill 16.07.2002 12:12
It sounds a wonderful destination, and one I've often thought about.
robscott 05.07.2002 01:13
I am going to Africa during my year out i.e. soon and you sell the Gambia very well. Not sure about the old mosquito's but still want to go. I know what you mean about people who never leave the resort - you might as well go to Butlins if you are not going to experience the culture and environment of an interesting and exotic place - as this clearly is. Very good read. Cheers, Rob.