THE GAMBIA, IN West Africa, is a narrow slab of country that follows the easterly path of the mighty Gambia river for about three hundred miles. Other than its wide Atlantic coast side, it is entirely embraced by Senegal with whom there is an easy flow of people and trade (These artificial borders cannot contain tribal bonds)
It’s the continent’s smallest country, and on a whim my wife and I, madcap young things both, went there.
Was it worth it? Sure. Here are ten good reasons why.
Primarily, it’s February and we live in England (And it’s a lot cheaper than going anywhere else). ‘Nuff said. Temperatures here vary dramatically from a cool 16 in the early mornings, to a searing 35 by early afternoon. Walk slow and carry water!
Just under five hundred years ago, in a small, sand blighted town (Albreda) on the North bank of said Gambia river, ever-warring natives stood in awe as a large Portuguese caravel sailed into town. This was in 1526. The Portuguese colony of Brazil had run out of hapless natives to feed into the maw of its new sugar refineries and the captain of the caravel was on a mission to find replacements.
And so, in this cursed village, the Atlantic slave trade began.
It would last for over three hundred years, during which time about ten million Africans passed through sad, blood soaked towns like this, up and down the West Coast of Africa.
About four million died on the route over. But Europe got rich. Yay.
Albreda and its neighboring town, Juffureh were made famous by the wonderful inventiveness of Alex Haley, as the birthplace of one Kunta Kinteh (a claim not borne out by fact).
There’s a little island in the middle of the river where the newly bartered slaves were held, awaiting shipment to the cane, cotton and tobacco fields of the new world. This was St. James Island, proudly renamed Kunta Kinteh Island.
It still boasts the ruins of the small fort with its dank dungeon and corroded cannon. And on the mainland there are the ruins of the first church built in Africa (Catholicism and slavery have always gone hand in hand).
But the visiting tourist needs large dollops of imagination to flesh out the horror of the place. For beyond these scars of history, there are only a scatter of desolate, tired, thatched buildings and a small sparse museum, with a cracked vitrine with rusting chains offering testimony to the Slave trade.
The dreariness of the place is in stark contrast to the hoards of eager, gamboling, smiling children who are everywhere. They are the visible proof of the country’s inane boast as “The Smiling Face of Africa”. Their fate, ironically, would be less fortunate than that of their enslaved ancestors.
Fifty years after independence, the place still remains scarred by its colonial past. The Brits came soon after the Portuguese and they took and took and took, as their Empire ever on the take tended to do, leaving the Gambia a place that’s been well and truly taken. But you can choose to ignore this world and enjoy the warmth of the people and the place and believe in the narrative of the Smiling Face
And on the long slow boat ride back to Banjul (the country’s capital) the gloom was lifted by the sight of pods of dolphins playfully racing our boat.
We were repeatedly told by everyone here that we’d be safe wherever we went. And we were…never for a moment felt threatened. It meant we could boldly go, at night, to various local bars and restaurants and worry only about finding a taxi. You probably wouldn’t do this in many Caribbean destinations; safer to stay holed up in your tourist prison.
Safe also from dengue carrying mosquitoes or irritating sandflies. The only itch is to have a drink. Safe however doesn’t mean free from harassment. You’re constantly approached by ‘bumsters’: mainly young men who want to know your name, where you’re from and if you could give a “little something” as a donation to their school, community, their whatever.
After a day or so of politeness, the harder edge of “No. goodbye” emerges
No, not the music, it’s a bar/restaurant situated in an area called Cape Point where the tables are ensconced in their own thatched areas, so you can sit idly by its large crocodile pond, mesmerized by the strutting egrets and the swooping terns. The pond seems to have enough fish for everyone, including those terns whose entire days seem to be the repeated pattern of circle and swoop, circle and swoop. The restaurant’s food is neither here nor there, but the choice of booze is great (There’s no government tax on alcohol in Gambia, so it’s cheap to be cheerful)
We’re not big beach people…all that sweaty prostration before the bronzing sun seems more effort than’s worth a tan. But the available beach chairs that front any of the many beach bar/restaurants are free. For a small fee, attendants will erect shady umbrellas and wait-staff are ever at hand for food, drink, maybe other things. GMT here means Gambian Maybe Time. It’s an accurate enough term for the hours of lazy, people-watching delights this long, wide, flat, child-friendly beach offers.
Colourful Gambian women parade up and down selling baskets; turbaned kaftan-wearing men hawk startlingly ugly beach towels; horsemen gallop to and fro offering their steeds to adventurous tourists; little boys parade mobile galleries of cheap craft; mature White women stroll hand in hand with their temporary young Black lovers; and a cool breeze removes any temptation to dip in the grey Atlantic.
The Lodge (where we stayed for some of our trip) is one of the many tourist enclaves where you live in a wonderful gilded bubble of post imperial might. We could be anywhere really. It’s twenty four large, unique suites, each a mini museum of stunning African art. They sit atop a wide expanse of rolling green lawns, criss-crossed by a network of curving cockle shell pathways that lead down some wooden stairs down the rugged cliff, down to the restless sea.
The place has the reputation for offering the best food in The Gambia. It’s probably a justified reputation. But there’s hardly a trace of Gambia in its aggressively European offering. For that you need #7
This is a hopping spot on the crowded, touristy, music filled Senegambia strip. It’s THE place to hang out! African Queen is an open air, popular restaurant that’s as lively as its surroundings…with fabulous Gambian food served by friendly waitresses (They offered my wife a ‘companion’ should she grow bored with me. She refused. Whew). As with so many other enterprises, it’s Lebanese owned (The new colonists?). The local food (that we tried) is peanutty, spicy and plentiful. The rice dish – with local variants across West Africa – is jolloff rice. It’s a tomato-ey , herby, peppery small grain dish that’s fulfilling on its own. You can wash it down with hibiscus juice or Baobab punch. (Or crisp, cold, South African Sauvignon blanc).
This area of the country (the Western coast) abounds in restaurants. (Check out Boss Lady for more local fare or Seashells for fish). No starving on this holiday.
Gambia’s famous for its birdwatching. In our lodge, though there was no internet, we were surrounded by tweets. They’re over two hundred and ninety species of birds here and even if you’re not a birdwatcher (I’m not), it’s a treat to gently cruise along the oyster rich mangroves of the Gambia and await the homecoming egrets; or stroll through the garrulous bush, alive with bee eaters, darters, turacos, kingfishers, herons, sunbirds, hornbills, gulls and more.
You can also observe the tribal behavior and kinship rituals of the camera heavy bird photographer species, and their bete noirs, the notebook toting, bird type ticking ornithologists . One of this species pointed out to us an osprey, whose white leg-band – observable only through her zillion mm lens – signified its German origin (blue = Scottish; green = you get the picture). Here size really does matter. Even my fancy schmancy Nikon shriveled into Instamatic insignificance when compared with these camera cannons.
This isn’t the place for big game. Beyond birds, and a few crocs, (Green Vervet) monkeys are everywhere. And one morning our lodge was invaded by a large troupe of animated baboons, no doubt pissed off that their heritage route had been ruined by another swimming pool.
Another wealth bubble, this is a birdwatchers’ paradise, popularized by the regular visits of noted ornithologist and TV host, Chris Packham. Our Lodge was a floating cabin, with its own private balcony, moored on a tributary of the Gambia. You awoke, and drifted off to sleep to the sound of birds and splashing fish.
The Englishman who founded it told us it was designed to replicate and celebrate Gambian culture (As usual said culture was nowhere to be found in the almost exclusively European menus). But the tasteful designs seemed more Africa by way of Hollywood. The Gambia as a colonial’s Wakanda. No matter, art always makes ordinary reality far more interesting.
Here each guest is allocated a knowledgeable guide who arranges and accompanies you on your forest walks or (the more interesting) canoe or boat trips. There’s a sunset boat trip, that carries its own portable bar. It takes you up to a small island where just before the sun dips, thousands of egrets return after a long day of doing not very much.
It’s everywhere. Every small village, every market, every beach has its ramshackle huts with harassed hawkers haggling over the price of their craft. Most of it is terrible: brightly varnished, simplistic wooden masks and animals shapes, mass produced by generations of squatting craftsmen. So many chips off the old blocks. But some of the stalls sold beautiful, intricately carved, ancient Malian ware. The spirit that gave us the Benin bronzes is alive and well. Elsewhere.
And yet, just a few mm deeper than the bonhomie, than the “Smiling Face of Africa”, a shadow lies. The money and the real power still seem to reside in the pockets of the White (and Chinese) community. The high and mighty are still high, still mighty, still White. The poor, still poor, still Black. Nothing’s changed. And there seems to be a growing resentment. The Trini saying goes: “all skin teeth ain’t smile”.
Colonialism may no longer arrive at the end of a bayonet, but it’s certainly here at the end of a bankbook.