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Gambia: Summer 2005

Gambia from 11 to 18 august 2005 by Gloria Bintou Jatta

Always dreamed of travelling to Africa but still too scared of the Big Wild Continent? Go to The Gambia. Is safe, small, and they speak English. You’ll have a taste of the “real Africa” and always will be able to go to some “European” place if you need to get back in touch with your roots. If a woman can travel to The Gambia on her own without problem, you can too. And your kids. It’s a highly recommended experience and safe enough for those who still need to feel safe.

Basic Wolof words you should memorize before arriving (most people speak English):

Toubaab: white person (no prejudice here) Nanga Def: How are you? Mang fi: I’m fine or Yang Mareg: no problem Jerejef: Thank you Sawa haala: You’re welcome Salaam Aleikum: How are you to Muslim old men, usually (morning greeting) Aleikum Salaam: the polite answer to the previous greeting.

General info:

Dalasi: local currency, 33 euros in December 2005. If you change coins, their value decreases. Paper money is better, but you can give coins to staff at the airport, who help you with luggage.

What to pack?

Medicines for you and for the hospitals in The Gambia: get all you have at home and ask your friends to do the same and give you whatever they will not need in the future. The same for pens, notebooks and any teaching material (you can take it to SOS Children or any local school). Remember, please, NOT TO THROW sweets, coins or anything else from the car to the kids. It’s very dangerous for them and a lack of respect. You are surrounded by human beings, not animals in a zoo. If there are too many kids for you to handle the situation, give whatever you take with you to an adult (better old woman or man). This is good for most African countries. Older members of the community often know who needs what and they are highly respected by the younger ones.

Gastroenteritis: buy Sulfintestin Neomincina at the pharmacy before leaving: is magical.

Before leaving, take all the medicines and mosquito nets to the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital, in Banjul. You can contact Malick Mboob before travelling at malick.mboob@rvth.org, or call him on the phone once you’re there: (+220) 422.51.78 . Malick is the responsible for the donations and an extremely nice and helpful person.

Get “Relec” against mosquitoes (extra-strong) and keep on the fun or air conditioned during the night and early morning; that should be enough to keep them (and malaria) away. “Bactex”, a water purifier found in pharmacies, is also a good and small thing to carry on you even on your short day trips: it will allow you to drink any available water with only a few drops per litre. But you’ll find bottled water in the villages, or cold water in plastic bags sold by kids on most populated areas.

During the rainy season, flip-flops and /or trekking shoes are jus perfect. Dry season: comfortable, fresh shoes.

Forget about your mobile phone: they don’t work in The Gambia. Leave your watch home too, you won’t need it. If you really need to contact someone in Europe, best choice is sending a mail. You’ll find internet cafés in the bigger cities, like Banjul or Serekunda.

Shopping? Serekunda market. At least half of the city is a 24 hour-open-market, crowded and full of life. You’ll find any possible thing there. Banjul is much quieter and sometimes I’d say even too quite.

Bargain for ANYTHING you intend to buy. Take your time, relax and never pay more than half of the initial requested amount. But if you get a good service, give a tip.

Be aware of bumpsters: not dangerous but incredibly unbearable guys who wait outside the hotels or around beaches to stick like glue to you and try to get your money by any possible (but not physically aggressive) way. They will offer to be your guide, they’ll tell you the sad story of their lives and they won’t leave you in peace even after you’ll have lost your nerves. Their work is trying to get your money. Most of them are Rastafari, don’t know why. But they are a real pain in the neck. The government is supposed to control them, but the reality is tat they are still everywhere where tourists are. And a real big pain in the neck.

Lamil: name for the first born boy in virtually every family. You’ll meet many Lamils. Fato / Fatima: first born girl.

Gambia is the African country from which most black slaves where taken to work in America. So it’s the root of most modern afro-American people. Many travel sometime during their lives to find out about their origins.

The two main cities are Banjul, where the government is placed and pretty calm, even boring, and Serekunda, much more African city.

No lights in the streets or roads at night, but no real danger either. Don’t fall down on a hole, that’s all.

Green taxis provided by the government for tourists. You are on your own. Fix the price before getting on board. Yellow and green, shared taxis, up to 4 passengers. Vanettes or “bush taxis” for everyone, up to 13 –17 people, long distance (between Banjul and Serekunda, for example).

Gambian people are very quite. Specially men. Remember: forget about your watch.

From Atlantic Coast to Sindola (inside the country, mid-way, where the President was born), the roads are ok. If you’re driving further, better get a 4WD car.

Don’t take pictures of embassies, airports or military areas. Ask permission before taking a picture of someone.

Beware of the sun, use high sun screen cream. Even if you tan easily.

Always bring water with you and drink often to prevent dehydration.

Don’t buy or get with you anything forbidden: the entire luggage is open before departure, at the airport. Your luggage will go through scanning also upon your arrival, after picking it up, when you arrive to the country. So don’t take with you any forbidden thing either.

My experience in The Gambia: summer 2005 (rainy season)

One flight a week from Spain during the European summer and rainy season in tropical countries. Spanair is the wonderful airline that is brave enough to take that challenge, through Club Vacaciones or Viajes Drago... I only have good words for Spanair staff. Other European airline companies fly from Amsterdam, London … Check in the net.

First time I stepped in Black Africa it was raining and almost midnight. Very hot and humid, and one hour earlier than in Spain. We were a soaked group of “toubaabs” under the African rain on our way to the buses for tourists, in the darkest night.

Banjul airport terminal is small but modern and extremely clean. And yes, there is at least one airport in this world where you don’t have to run for miles to reach your boarding gate: in Banjul, everyone leaves through gate number 1. No more gates. One waiting room and a small bar on a side.

But we were arriving, not leaving yet.

First time in Africa? Go to The Gambia.

First time in The Gambia? Take a tourist pack if it’s still too much for you, and leave the toubaabs to join the public transport as soon as you can get rid of your luggage at the hotel. My advice: buy the Lonely Planet guide for The Gambia and Senegal, check in the net for some extra-updated info (www.gambia.com, www.thegambiaexperience.com ,…)

“While in Rome, do like Romans do”. For women, I recommend wearing a boubou (African dress): it’s beautiful, fresh, and comfortable and if you wash it at night it will be clean and dry in the morning. Wear also the scarf around your head: it will protect you against the sun when it’s too hot, and is better than an umbrella when it rains. In most cases, there is a good reason for local people to dress, eat or move in a certain way. So the best advice I could give you is: imitate. Look, learn, ask and do the same, as long as you feel comfortable with that.

Ok, around 85% of the Gambian population is Muslim. Around 10%, Catholics, and the rest, animist. But in the end, everyone respects and shares a bit of all those religions.

Respect and Solidarity is what you’ll learn from Gambians and also in many African countries, if you just take the time to get to know the culture and the people. A human being deserves respect just for being who he / she is. No matter if you’re tall, short, fat, thin, clever or idiot. We should learn from them as fast as possible. Do you think YOU are the one who has something to teach them? Forget it.

The compound is the plot where Gambian people live. There’s usually a simple house for a big family (grandparents, uncles, lots of kids…They all share the same space. Everyone has a place and responsibilities, also the kids. The water comes from a well or from the water bomb in the village; it is women’s job to collect it, wash dishes and clothes, even the elder girls wash their brothers, also the ones that are just as old as them. No electricity: candles if light is really needed, but whenever you’ll see only darkness, most of the Gambians will be perfectly able to walk around just as if the sun was shinning high in the sky. It makes you feel like a blind idiot to walk by them in the night, falling in every hole while they seem to float effortless.

The Jatta family, from Lamin, adopted me and I adopted them, so now we are family. My name is Bintou. Bintou Jatta. I was very lucky to meet this wonderful, open, honest and tender family. The first time baby Neneh saw me, she started crying. I often feel too pale when I’m in The Gambia. And I was the first toubaab who entered their compound, which makes me feel much honored. This last time, baby Neneh didn’t cry: looks like she got used to this scary white woman. Those kids just make you melt, my little chocolates, that’s the way I called them in the beginning. Now, we all know each other’s name: Nicola, Ana Gambia and Ana Dakar, Joe-my-little-husband, Edu Jr.…

Instead of “hello”, in Gambia you might be just recognized by your name. This is a much personal way to greet someone: you know the name and that means you’re very close. Remember if you say “hello”, next thing will be that you’ll be asked about your name. This is the “protocol” : “nanga def?, how are you”. “Mangi fi, nanga def?,Fine, and you?” “Fine, what’s your name?” “My name is Bintou, and yours?” “My name is Lamil”. Then, you shake hands. You’re now part of the community. Shaking hands is so important in Africa. You are family, so you receive…and are expected to give and share what you have too. Much more if you’re white. If you’re white, you’re automatically supposed to be rich.

There are some pools packed with “holy crocodiles”, that only eat fish. You can touch them but only when you’re told to do it. Last summer, a woman was bitten by a female pregnant crocodile. The staff at the pool knew, but the woman didn’t ask them before trying. Women who want to get pregnant swim in crocodile pools, they believe this will help getting pregnant soon. Dalasi coins also show a crocodile: it’s the shape you’ll see on the moon surface from The Gambia.

Main meals: rice and fish. And rice. And fish. Mango trees grow everywhere. Also baobabs, cashew trees, palm trees, rice, peanut plants…

Makasutu: they say is a holy place. What you can be sure about, is that the lodge is a paradise on earth. Check it yourself: www.makasutu.com

Palm Beach Hotel, in Kotu Beach, was my first destination, but that was before the management changed. A Gambian man was running the hotel, now it’s a Dutch woman. The staff was much happier before, and the new manager fired most of them without previous warning. Still, the place is nice and right by the beach.

The first trip after my arrival was to Serekunda Market, to buy a boubou. I wear it immediately, together with the scarf around my head, and keep my clothes in the bag. The Canon analogical camera was broken the first day. So there was only the small digital camera left. Anyway, I took very few pictures: I didn’t want to look like a tourist. I wanted to look like people around me, learn from them, be part of what surrounded me. Walk, move dress, eat, like everyone else in The Gambia. I wanted to learn as much as I can. As usual.

The red sand mixed up with water, the red water, looked like the blood of the Earth. Red mud on your shoes, your clothes, your hands and hair. A big contrast with the green vegetation. Beautiful green shades, a wide range of green colors.

If you see a woman with two little feet on her sides, at the height of her waist, is a mum carrying her baby behind, on her back. In a big piece of clothe, tied around her body with tow knots, one above her breast and around her waist. This leaves her tow hands free to hold other kids’ hands or carry shopping bags. And also her head: shopping is kept inside a round big bowl packed inside a piece of clothe that keeps sand away from food. Babies sleep close to their mummies’ body. They all seem to like it. They don’t cry and the woman can do her normal life with her baby hanging behind her.

When you’ll go to the Albert Market in Banjul, be ready to share your space with thousands of flies at. But it’s funny; you don’t feel the flies on your skin like in Europe. They seem to be lighter, so light that your skin doesn’t notice them. If it’s praying time, most man will not be attending. But there is always someone ready to work and sell.

During the rainy season, disabled people drive a three wheel “bike” that it’s moved with the hands, by rolling the handlebar connected with the wheels. It’s practical and allows them to move along the muddy roads.

Tailors in the market or in the villages can make you a dress from a piece of clothes within a few hours, sometimes less, for less than 100 Dalasi (3 euros).

Kids learn very early not to cross the street and stay away from cars. But as they grow up, they loose fear and can get too close to ask you fro sweets or presents. I won’t get tired of repeating this: be very careful while driving, especially if there can be kids around. You should also drive slowly on the roads inside the country, as many animals cross unexpectedly and they won’t stop. By selling an animal, a family can send a kid to school for one year, and school is the only way out for those kids, so think twice before speeding up.

There is a whole new sea shells collection with every low tide. If you find a crick-crick shell, this will mean good luck for you. They are used in amulets for new-born babies, as they are believed to protect whoever wears them (also in most African countries). Those amulets are tight around the waist and the rope that holds them is renewed as the kid becomes an adult. The person will wear it forever more underneath his or her clothes.

In Kotu Beach, you can meet Daddy Joe fishing on the sea shore, with a round small net made by him, wearing a short plastic coat that barely protects him against the rain. For some cigarettes, he showed me how to fish, and how to throw the net when the tide is getting high, bringing the fishes close to where he stands.

Small fishes are always thrown back into the ocean, also for the fisher men that use bigger nets and push them to the beach. Everyone helps, the net is very heavy because there are many shells and fishes and also a green sea plant used to attract them into the net when it’s placed into the water. While the adults collect the bigger fishes (Barracudas!), the kids catch the silver small ones to throw them back into the water, so they can become bigger and next time they go fishing, there will be plenty of them. The mid-size fishes stay on the sand, and the kids put them together by stringing a thin rope between the mouth and the gills. When they have 5 or 6 together, they go to sell them to the market or on a side of the road for 25 Dalasi. That’s the price of a soft drink. Vimto is a delicious one made out of hibiscus leaves into boiling water and sugar. Recommended, you’ll like it and can even get addicted to it. Also perfect for your kids. Palm wine, though, should be drunk only by adults, uff!

Boys are circumcised during a ceremony in the woods, when they are old enough, and after that they are considered adults. Only men are allowed to assist and the boys can stay there for several weeks, as this is also the time to teach them how to survive in the wild. Back in the village, boys rest in a hidden place until their wounds have completely healed. Male family members take them water, food and medicines. Unfortunately, seems like also girls are still suffering from ablation. Nobody talks about that, though.

Red Cross Gambia has projects all around the country. Mainly to inform about AIDS, and also to prevent other diseases like malaria or the ones coming from Senegal, as to reach the southern part of that country it is much faster to do it by crossing The Gambia. Up to 25.000 volunteers work for the Red Cross and most of them are younger than 30 years old. They visit people who suffer from AIDS and can not leave their homes, to make sure that they receive their medication and that they actually take it.

What you can learn during the rainy season:

How to get water from a dry will: excavate around one meter deeper and you’ll find the water again. Men are the ones who do this.

Both men and women can teach you how to separate rice from the plant, by putting together some and stepping on them with bare feet. Then, they move their feet in circles pressing against the floor, collect the plants that slide to the sides with their feet and repeat the process until all the rice has been removed from the plant.

Getting money with your credit card in The Gambia during the rainy season might be complicated. There are some ATM at the touristic areas and the traffic light / Shell Gas Station. Only VISA credit cards are accepted, and it can happen (especially during the rainy season, when there are very few tourists) that most of them don’t work. There are few of them, so it’s better taking euros with you and changes them once you arrive to the country.

Recycling is an art in The Gambia. They never throw away anything: everything has a second life…and a third, a fourth…Everything can be reused again and again till the infinitum.

Back to Europe from your first trip to Africa, you might realize up to which point we leave in madness. We travel in a fast train, so fast that we don’t see what’s going on around and what we might be missing. We might feel relieved because we are not leaving in one of those “undeveloped” countries, but stopping and looking around to them will not harm us, and we might re-discover values forgotten values that we need too. The least you have, the least you can loose.



Edited bysunnydesert on 26.07.2006

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