What it’s like to travel as a woman in The Gambia

I stepped out of the airplane door; chin tilted towards the sun, grin like a Cheshire cat.

“Excuse me miss, can you come here?”

At the bottom of the steps was a line of Gambian security officers and one of the youngest was beckoning for me to come over.

gorgeous children in the Gambia

Some charming young Gambian men

“What on earth have I done wrong?” My mind raced in panic as I gingerly approached him.

“What’s your name?”

I answered.

“Where do you come from?”

This confused me as I had clearly just stepped off a Monarch plane I assumed he knew came from London, but I answered him, being the authority-fearing person I am.

“You are very beautiful woman.” He threw me a curveball. “Welcome to my country.”

I backed away as the shuttle bus arrived to take us to the terminal and I realised I was not in trouble. I re-joined Jai (the striking female blogger from Savoir There who I was about to be travelling with for a week) as she had been behind me taking photos of the plane.

“The strangest thing just happened..” I began to tell her.

Except in the Gambia it turns out that gushing, unexpected compliments are not strange at all. More like the norm.

The taxi driver: “You are one in a million.”

The transfer driver: “So do you have a Gambian boyfriend?”

The pool boy: “You shine bright like a diamond.” (Yep he stole a line straight from Rihanna and thought I wouldn’t notice.)

What it's like to travel as a woman in The Gambia

Our tuk tuk driver – who did not hit on us

I never knew being complimented could be so wearing but after a full week of it, myself and Jai began to grow a little tired. I must admit none of the advances were ever threatening, I felt completely safe the whole time I was in the Gambia, but it was telling that in mixed company the situation was entirely the opposite.

I asked one of the female bloggers who had travelled to the Gambia on a press trip the week before us and her experience was totally different. Similarly, when we met the group of (male) British tree climbers at Mandina and told them some of the lines we had been fed they were totally surprised. On a journey with the same driver they had been taken to see his compound and met his wife and felt warmly welcomed into their household. On our drive we had been told repeatedly that in Gambia it is normal to have many wives and persistently asked for our contact details. When I said I had a boyfriend I was told, ‘he doesn’t need to know.’

So why were Jai and I singled out? Perhaps, because we were travelling as two young women together, we appeared exactly that – single. And maybe, the men hoped, looking for a Gambian lover.

Mamadi, our private guide for four days in the Gambian, treated us with utmost respect and went out of his way to show us the best bits of his country. But by the final day, as he began to drop his guard, we learnt a little more about the context surrounding the way Gambian men act towards Western women.

“My friend has an English girlfriend,” he told us. “She bought him a house for £18,000 and he has 4 cars. He has made it.”

We questioned him on how many times the girlfriend comes to visit the Gambia – about twice a year was the answer. “And is your friend faithful whilst she is away?” I asked. A shrug was the reply.

A true story or not, our guide seemed to think this set up was the Holy Grail, and he wasn’t the only one.

What it's like to travel as a woman in The Gambia

Me and Mamadi at the end of our stay

When Mamadi took Jai and I to the local market he was high fived from all sides. Mamadi was apprehensive to tell us why but we had our suspicions. He stopped to talk to an old lady who had called out to us. She appeared to be teasing him and he shook his head in embarrassment. Then suddenly the lady grabbed my arms and began mining a dance with me.

“Please tell me what she is saying?” I asked Mamadi. He blushed.

“She says this is how she will dance at our wedding.”

Guess we had better book the venue then.

What it's like to travel as a woman in The Gambia

Mamadi took this photo for us of women working in the market

Compliments do seem to be part of the Gambian nature though (and my newly inflated head would like to believe some of them had no ulterior motive). Towards the end of my stay at Ngala Lodge, the boutique hotel on the beach we spent our first half of the week in, I bumped into the chambermaid for the first time.

“Oh I am so glad I met you,” she exclaimed, ”Everyone keeps telling me I clean the room of the beautiful girl but I haven’t seen you until now.”

I didn’t know what to say. My appearance does evidently not warrant this reaction but it made me smile regardless. In fact, it made me smile all week.

Interestingly, we discovered that apart from travelling with a man, riding a bike was also a great way to shrug off any unwanted attention or ‘bumsters’ (as the hawkers are known locally). We borrowed some wheels from the staff at Ngala Lodge and freely explored the local area and market, whizzing off as soon as any vendors tried to give us the hard sell. We were very appreciative of the men at the resort though when it came to adjusting the rusty seat on Jai’s bike – after much effort from 5 men the task was completed!

What it's like to travel as a woman in The Gambia

Jai gets some help with her bike

Back at the airport prior to our departure, I spotted, for the first time of our trip, evidence of the type of relationships Mamadi spoke of. When I say evidence, I mean, two separate white woman saying goodbye to what appeared to be their Gambian boyfriends. Hardly evidence but still notable compared to the rest of the passengers who were travelling home in couples. As Jai and I joked that we’ll be relieved to get home and not be the centre of attention, one of the English tree climbers told us we should be flattered.

“Come back in a few years and you’ll be gutted to not get any attention.”

Sounding just like the douche I suspected he was, I’m not sure I agree with that one entirely. But I guess I’ll have to wait to find out.

Have you ever been the recipient of overzealous compliments on your travels? Did you find it flattering or uncomfortable?

I travelled as a guest of Gambia Holiday specialists Gambia Experience

Read more: 

First impressions of the Gambia

About Author

Travel blogger and freelancer writer who loves boutique hotels and brunching. I've been blogging for 10 years, visited 60+ countries and called London, Sydney, Melbourne and (oh so briefly) New York home at various points during the last decade. Now travelling with a baby and trying to make it as stylish and stress-free as can be!


  • Arianwen
    May 31, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Loving the picture of Jai with her 5 men! It’s amazing what guys come out with when you’re travelling. I spent a very uncomfortable afternoon on a Colombian beach with a married man who decided it was appropriate to teach me the Spanish words for parts of my body while trying to touch each of them. Pointing would have done the trick!

    • Jayne
      June 3, 2013 at 8:20 am

      O gosh! You do learn to be quite resilient whilst travelling don’t you – and how to put your foot down in unacceptable circumstances

  • Kathryn
    June 3, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Hi Jayne, It did make me smile reading your post. I’ve been going to The Gambia for quite a few years now and while it can be annoying at times, the compliments can also be a nice boost to the ego. I’ve had comments like ‘I like your structure'(what am I a building!?) and ‘I like your cat walk’ – both of which made me laugh. And on more than one occasion women have shouted across the street that they want my hips!
    A word of warning – they don’t stop as you get older (or at least they haven’t yet).
    Oh and if you ever go during the festival of Tobaski be prepared for even more. I noticed everyone was in high spirits on the morning of Tobaski one year, as I walked to through the gardens to breakfast. I received three proposals before I’d even finished my cereal!

    • Jayne
      June 3, 2013 at 8:21 am

      Got to admire the creativity of those comments – even if they are unexpected!

  • Nicola Frame
    June 3, 2013 at 8:06 am

    I love the pool boy’s audacious use of a Rihanna line! But I completely understand why it became tiring rather than flattering. I felt the same when I was travelling with my sister in Tunisia, where men would literally follow us through the streets. Funnily, it doesn’t happen when I travel with my boyfriend…!

    • Jayne
      June 3, 2013 at 8:23 am

      Yes! An opinion/experience of a country can be totally different depending on whether you travelled with a man or not

  • Monica
    June 3, 2013 at 9:04 am

    I found it a little tiring but the constant compliments made me smile too. I think we’ll miss it when we’re old though. While I was in India I met two Australian ladies in their 50’s and they definitely got a little jealous.

  • Simon
    June 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I smiled while reading your post, and I understand what you mean by an excess of attention, that can make a girl feel a little uncomfortable. Maybe because I could be almost you mother, or because I was with two men – Iain and Tom – I was not the object of that many flattering. Not that I’m complaining 🙂 As I would have felt like you and Jai did.

    But apart from that, The Gambia is such a wonderful country!

  • Heather
    June 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    I felt the same way in Italy. All the “ciao bella”s were flattering at first, but the constant attention quickly grew tiresome. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but that ended up being one of my least favorite trips.

  • Bibiatou
    February 13, 2014 at 9:09 am

    HI evryone, in Gambia complimenting people is just our culture even we Gambian born black girls are always complimented!

  • Anon
    April 30, 2015 at 4:28 am

    Well if you are a foreigner in a land that is not commonly used to seeing someone with different features then people are going to be interested in the exoticism. So local men are going to compliment you wherever you go. I will say one thing and this pertains to what your tour guide mentioned. To my knowledge, Gambia like Bali, Indonesia is a popular spot for female sex tourists (many of them western). Often times these women are in an older age bracket and they are usually widowed, divorced, or single mothers. They usually have been working for sometime and got money to spend. However, older women in the west usually become forgotten in the dating scene. These women who may at this point just want a sexual relationship and not worry about having to see these men around find sex tourism a viable prospect. Some of these men probably see some western women and think they are there for the very reason stated earlier. Some of them are definitely trying to charm you to essentially to get you to spend your money on them.

  • david white
    July 3, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Great article, made me smile. it does seem like compliments abound and it’s certainly true that way too many lonely ladies and gentlemen visit in search of companionship, however, leave the tourist resorts and it’s a totally different feel entirely. Gambia is very safe and given an opportunity most people fall in love with its charm and beauty. I know I did !


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