How it all started
In the summer of 1995, a promotional film from our tour operator was shown on the airplane taking us back from Tunesia to The Netherlands about a relatively new and sunny destination of the tour operator, namely The Gambia. Colourful pictures and eloquent commentaries had to persuade us to visit these smiling and extremely friendly people. The nickname of “The Smiling Coast” is not an easy thing to accomplish.
Since we are both sun lovers, we thought it would be a nice destination for our Christmas holiday there, although neither of us had ever heard of this African nation before. It would turn out to be a holiday we would never forget and – also – it would change our way of living and thinking thoroughly and permanently…! In the course of time, our intense contact with the local population and the mutual respect have created a rather large Gambian network that we can make use of in order to get things done in our second homeland. Gradually and silently we have changed from regular, white holiday makers to development-aid workers, simply because we believe that we have too much over here and they have too little over there!
We have penetrated this Gambian world so gradually, that we did not even notice that other people in The Netherlands – and possibly also abroad – are curious as to how we managed to provide help for the ‘natives’. As a rule, we do not believe in help from day to day; that is to say, that we never intended to give the Gambians some money so that they could get through the day in an easy way, and then cheerfully present an open hand again the next day! Instead, we try to give as much structural help as we possibly can, like giving them an education or offering them courses or supplying them with machines and materials with which they can develop themselves and, as a result, can earn their own living later on in life!
For example, we always take the trouble of personally visiting the schools in order to have ‘our children’ registered in the principal’s office as pupils for the coming school year and we also personally visit the DIY’s in order to buy materials there for the families we are assisting. By going there ourselves, we prevent our sponsor money from being used for a purpose deviating from that for which it was originally intended!
This kind of help does have a disadvantage as well: you don’t see the results of your effort until a number of years have passed, but once the goal has been achieved it gives you a lot of satisfaction. For instance, we sponsored a Gambian boy called Alfusainey for twelve years, paying for his complete secondary education, having him attend computer courses and to top it all off we provided him with the means to have an electro-technical training at degree level. Of course, twelve years is a long time and the former boy is an adult now, but with a steady and well-paid job! He is being employed by a Dutch-Gambian company who deal in solar panels and not only is the Dutch director extremely satisfied with his willingness to work, but also with the fact that he did not have to get well-trained employees all the way from Senegal this time, but simply a local boy. A degree is still a very exclusive education, only attainable for the happy few!
The Gambia in a nutshell
The Gambia is named after the river flowing all the way through it from Guinea-Bissau and Senegal and which is about two miles wide at the mouth between the capital, Banjul, and the town of Barra.
The British conquered this territory and took it away from the French and the colonial boundaries were determined in 1884. The Gambia is entirely enclosed by Senegal and therefore it is not possible to leave the country by land without ending up in Senegal. It only borders on the Atlantic Ocean in the west where there are sandy beaches and so that is the place where the tourist centres are situated.
The Gambia became independent on 18th February 1965 and in those days the plan was conceived for a cooperation between The Gambia and Senegal, which was to make a state called ‘Senegambia’. However, Senegal was of the opinion that The Gambia was not developing fast enough and cancelled the fusion. That is why the two official languages of both countries remained separated: French in Senegal and English in The Gambia.
The Gambia is about three times bigger than the County of Kent, with a length of about 300 kms. and an average width of circa 30 kms. With over 135 inhabitants per square kilometre it is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. The highest point is at only about 53 metres above sea level and so you will not encounter many adventurous mountain climbers there! However, The Gambia is a true paradise for bird lovers, who can wholeheartedly enjoy the great variety of winged flappers inhabiting the country.
Apart from the fact that The Gambia makes some money from the export of peanuts, it does not have any industry worth mentioning and that is why you will not find any product stickers saying ‘Made in The Gambia’. The main source of income in this country is the tourist industry and in order to make it more appealing for the holiday makers, the slogan for a carefree holiday there is : ”The Gambia, no problem”.
The ‘Big Shots’
The Gambia is a democracy with an elected president, although the current president ‘His Excellency dr. Alhaji Yahya Abdul-Azizz Jemus Junkung Jammeh’ was not elected by the people when he became president for the first time. He came to power by means of a military coup on 22nd July 1994. The triumphal arch in Banjul, ‘Arch 22’, is intended to remind the citizens and tourists of this memorable day. Currently, President Yahya Jammeh is the ‘Big Boss’ of about 1.7 million subjects.
You might call it very special that in a developing country like The Gambia that the vice-president is a woman! Especially so when taking into consideration that about 90% of the population are Muslims and it is their belief that “men have a rank over women”. In this respect, Her Excellency Mrs. Aisatou Njie-Saidy may rightfully call herself an advocate of emancipation and at that she is also the Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs.
Just like white people are called ‘gringo’ in Latin America, the Gambians have their own word for us, palefaces, namely ‘Toobab’. Since tribal languages were not recorded in writing (there was no tribal word for a book or a pen, so they borrowed the word ‘book’ and ‘pen’ from English and added an -o- as a suffix), there are various ways of spelling this word. The common explanation for its origin is that Gambians working for their white bosses during the time of the British occupation were rewarded for their services with a salary of two shillings. Since the slang word for shilling is ‘bob’, they were handed two bob, which was corrupted to ‘toobab’ through the years.
The Smiling Coast
Everyone who has spent a holiday in The Gambia will be able to confirm: they are very friendly people, who – in spite of their grinding poverty – mainly go through life in a cheerful and smiling way. Hence, this part of the Atlantic Coast is also referred to as the Smiling Coast.
The rate of criminality in The Gambia is negligible, although there will always be room for an incident every once in a while. However, this mainly involves theft and in a great many cases the tourists themselves are to blame for showing off their expensive possessions a bit too conspicuously or they are simply too negligent. Armed and/or violent robberies with cuts and bruises are very, very rare indeed. If you are wise enough not to carry around too much of your visible wealth, you will – in general – be safer in The Gambia than in any major city in Europe!! Just a note of warning to look out for pickpockets at the busy market place in Serrekunda and the boys waiting for you after you come out of the airport terminal, who are often cunning thieves!
Gambians live together with their families consisting of many children in ‘compounds’, and – in this case – the word says it all. Often, a certain place was selected by a father or (great)grandfather to build a house on and later on the rest of the family added houses for themselves to the original one.
So every family has a part of the compound to themselves, but the yard, kitchen and toilet are communal.
Gambia Experience and Gambia Maybe Time
Events that are typical for Africa but nearly unthinkable for European tourists, like frequent power failures or the lack of running water, are referred to by the Gambians as the ‘Gambia Experience’, which you are supposed to have witnessed being a white holiday maker!
Since the time zone for The Gambia is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), they also know this abbreviation, but they have given it a different meaning, viz. ‘Gambia Maybe Time’. They use it whenever a driver or guide missed the proper time for an appointment again or when the waiter forgot all about your order and your food and drinks do not show up for a very long time!
Bumsters and hustlers
‘Bumsters’ and ‘hustlers’ are two types of young, male Gambians who are trying to profit as much as possible from the white tourists, who they think are immeasurably rich. However, there is a very big difference in their MO: bumsters try to infiltrate the world of the holiday makers gradually and in an extremely friendly way, whereas hustlers act aggressively and make frequent use of bluff and intimidation. Please, avoid this last group when spending your holiday in The Gambia, because they are the downright opposite of what the true nature of Gambians is like.
There is not any railway system in The Gambia and there is not really any system for the rare bus services either. That is why nearly all tourists have themselves transported by taxis, which have been established specifically for this purpose. These ‘tourist taxis’, as they are called, charge a fixed amount for any transport from A to B, regardless of the number of people. When they take you to a certain tourist sight and back to the hotel, they will also charge you for their waiting time. That is why it is imperative to agree on a price beforehand!
These tourist taxi rates are impossibly high for the Gambian wallet, and so they make use of the other version, the ‘bush taxi’. It has a set route along connecting roads and it stops on request (= raise your hand). For this transport, you pay per head and it will only cost you a fraction of how much a tourist taxi would charge you. However, if you think you are in for a spacious and luxurious ride, think again: the car is literally filled to the roof! Wherever you would like to get off, you only have to tell the driver and the taxi stops. For your highly essential Gambia Experience, it is obligatory to take a ride in this type of taxi, preferably in the early morning hours since it is still relatively cool then.
If you think it would be nice and interesting – having read the above – to learn more about The Gambia and its inhabitants, click the “Gambia book” button to order the book written by Henk Meeuwis, based on his direct and intensive experiences with the local population over a great many years. As the book contains many practical tips for tourists, it is a real must for people planning to go on a holiday to The Gambia for the first time…