– visited April/May 2016 –
The Gambia is the smallest country within mainland Africa and shaped as only a colonial administrator can dream up a country. It stretches 200 miles (320 km) inland along the Gambia river and 10 miles (16 km) north and south from the river. Towards the coast it is a bit wider with straight borders, drawn up on a map and not shaped by events on the ground. It was a British (and before that Portuguese) “possession” darting into the French Senegal.
The Gambia, at least by West African standards, sees a fair share of tourists as the weather is nice all year and the beaches have plenty of sand. Tourism is an important export earner for the Gambian economy. It is popular especially in the European winter.
At the time of my travels, the border with Senegal is open for pedestrian traffic only. No cars or trucks can pass. The reason is a dispute about a steep rise in customs duty but also the perceived openness for Gambian dissidents by the current Senegalese government. The Gambia became independent in 1965 as a constitutional monarchy with Elizabeth II as Queen of The Gambia. Shortly thereafter, the national government held a referendum proposing that the country become a republic. This referendum failed to receive the two-thirds majority required, but the results won widespread attention abroad as testimony to The Gambia’s observance of secret balloting, honest elections, civil rights, and liberties. In 1970 another referendum was successful and the Republic of The Gambia was established.
Political power since independence was held, first as Prime Minister then as President, by Sir Dawda Jawara who was re-elected five times. From 1982 to 1989 The Gambia formed the Senegambia Confederation with Senegal to ensure closer cooperation between the two countries. The project failed as both sides had no interest in anything closer than a very loose confederation. In 1994, after 29 years of rule by the same man, discontent was growing and the government seen as corrupt and ineffective. Junior officers in the Gambian military had not been paid for months and mutinied. They had made that plan the day before. It all proved so easy. After seizing the airport, a radio station and a power station, President Jawara was soon on his way out of the country. As the mutineers realized that power had fallen to them the mutiny transformed into a coup d’état and the Gambia was ruled by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council. All opposition parties were banned and the constitution suspended.
Civilian government returned with the election as president of Yahya Jammeh in 1996. Jammeh had been the coup leader, only 29 years old at that time, and had proven his ruthlessness by getting rid of his closest co-conspirators. Now he promised democracy and the rule of law. The elections were stacked in his favour. From there on, The Gambia would see elections every five years but the man in charge would make sure that he would win. In 2016, Jammeh is in power for 22 years and his rule shows all the signs of a traditional dictatorship. His face is on every Gambian banknote, a picture in a museum shows the tractors the President gave to his people (paid for by their money by the way) and to commemorate the 1994 coup the ugly triumphal Arch 22 (the coup happened on the 22nd of July) has been erected. Inside the arch, there is a small exhibition but no light and the elevators have been out of service for a long time.
Banjul is the capital of The Gambia. To get there from Senegal, I first have to take a shared taxi and then the ferry across the wide mouth of the Gambia river. Banjul has only about 30,000 inhabitants but a fair number of colonial buildings and the colourful Albert Market. I want to check out if it is true that the beach in front of the presidential palace is really closed to the public. It turns out it is, and all around the palace is a military area with signs of “no loitering, keep moving”. The newly built but deserted-looking parliament carries a sign: “Thank you Mr. President, for investing in Parliament.” The next elections are to be held in December 2016, and in the weeks before my visit more than 50 demonstrators had been arrested and at least two prominent opposition figures had died in custody.
[After-trip-update: In December 2016 the unthinkable happened and the electoral commission declared opposition candidate Adama Barrow the winner of the presidential election. Yahya Jammeh conceded but then retracted his concession and demanded a new vote. As negotiations led nowhere, some members of the Economic Community of West African States decided to act. Troops from Senegal and Ghana entered the Gambia while the Nigerian navy was patrolling offshore. Mali and Togo lend diplomatic support for “Operation Restore Democracy”. Presented with an ultimatum, and being deserted by his own army, Yahya Jammeh finally went into exile in Guinea (and later Equatorial Guinea).]
Kunta Kinteh Island
Tiny St James Island, located off the villages of Jufureh and Albreda, formed a staging post in the slave trade 30 kilometres inland along the Gambia river. As US-American author Alex Haley searched for the origins of his family, especially for his ancestor Kunta Kinte, his search led him to Jufureh. He learned about the existence of griots, oral historians who are trained from childhood to memorize and recite the history of a particular village. As the griot confirmed to him, that a Kunta Kinte once disappeared without a trace, he had found the missing piece. Since the publication of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” a steady stream of visitors comes to the area. Recognition as an UNESCO World Heritage Site has helped to draw even more people.
Most people visit on tours but I decide to make the way on my own. To get to the island I have to cross the Gambia river again and then take a minibus along the river’s northern shore. The paved road soon ends. There are some crumbling old houses and a small museum. In the river is the island, now called Kunta Kinteh to honour the lost son, with the ruined Fort James where the slave traders once resided.
Getting back to Banjul is more difficult than expected. It takes a long time for any transport to depart. And when it does, we are all over the villages on tiny roads, picking something up here, leaving something there, dropping people and taking new passengers. It takes a long time but is an interesting journey.
Serekunda is only 13 kilometres from Banjul. It has grown from nine villages into The Gambia’s largest urban centre with a population of about 350,000 people. For many visitors Serekunda is all they are going to see from The Gambia as most hotels and some of the best beaches are located here. Transport around town is by shared taxi. They connect various waypoints and for longer distances you will have to switch cars a few times. The difficulty is knowing the names of the waypoints to get to the right place. One waypoint that turns up repeatedly is Senegambia, the crossroad outside the oldest tourist hotel.
The hotel where I am staying is weird. I had booked the Keapar Maryam Lodge online but as I arrive it looks deserted and like if nobody had stayed there for some time. I will be the only guest for my visit but people turn out to be very warm and friendly. Gambians like to have a party and in the evening many groups assemble on Kololi Beach for picknicks or barbeques. I visit Bijilo Forest Park for the birds and vervet monkeys, and on my second visit I even spot some red colobus monkeys.
Another attraction is the Kachikally Museum and Crocodile Pool. Privately owned, the pools are considered sacred and populated by about 80 crocodiles. They are being fed and crocodile handlers allow people to come close and even touch the crocodiles. I keep my distance, knowing how dangerous these animals can be. With my 600mm lens, I can take close-ups without being close.
I have a very successful visa day. Only a watchman is at the Sierra Leone embassy but he connects me on his phone to a diplomat. I have to wait for an hour (and am being offered food in the meantime) but then I am being issued the visa for the small fee of 100 $ (properly written on the visa as the fee) right on the spot. Instead of four weeks I receive six weeks. I am being told that in Africa, many things can go wrong. I immediately head to the embassy of Guinea. Again, a friendly reception, I leave my passport, get some more money and return two hours later to pick up the visa. Again, a cadeux, two months and double entry. Let’s see if that will come handy.
Part of the tourist experience in the Gambia are bumsters. Usually harmless, unemployed young men who try to get tourists to give them money or some other benefit. One special form is directed towards white woman travelling alone who are offered a part-time boyfriend experience. Bumsters come up and want to talk with you, offer to help you (“as a true Gambian brother”), bring you somewhere and in the end ask for some money. I have no trouble with them, I find some of the conversations interesting and telling them clearly that you are not interested in their help will make them look for someone else.
One of them proposes to bring me to the small village of Tanji. I politely decline but think that heading to Tanji is a good idea, but a trip that I can do on my own. It is a small fishing village and in the afternoon the boats come back from the sea. The catch is unloaded onto wheelbarrows or big buckets and the preying seagulls try to get their share. The sun sets beautifully.
Abuko Nature Reserve
My personal highlight in the Gambia is the Abuko Nature Reserve. Not the rather dreadful fenced areas with some deer, hyenas and monkeys but the small pond with the viewing platform that is overlooked by most visitors. They come onto the platform, see nothing and leave again. But if you stay and take your time, you are guaranteed a steady stream of birds and monkeys visiting the pond. You will notice the fish, suddenly realize there is a crocodile lurking in the water and can observe successful and unsuccessful attempts at hunting. I stay for hours and return the next day. Fabulous.