“What does she carry to the market? She carries her basket to the market.”
Titiana, the schoolteacher who looks like a young Macy Gray, is leading the class through an English recital. Somehow we have found ourselves at the front of the room, awkwardly hanging around the blackboard, whilst 20 pairs of young eyes are bulging at our strange and unexpected appearance in their classroom in The Gambia.
The delighted Reverend Samuel Thomas comes over to welcome us. He has a visitor book he would like us to sign; I notice it has been 5 months since anyone else dropped in.
The children are in an array of positions, some sitting and others standing, but all in stunned silence, until Mamadi asks if we would like to have our photo taken with them. Suddenly chaos ensues as the children scramble and shove each other to be at the front of the picture. When we show them the results I end up in a wobbly crouch on the floor, tiny heads crane to look at my phone screen and knock me over with surprising strength.
We’ve come with some simple gifts – pens, pencils, paper – essential school supplies of which there appear to be none currently in this classroom. The teacher proudly clutches them as she poses with us for a final shot. We exchange contact details with the promise to keep in touch.
The Gambia is a very poor nation but this is not immediately evident to the visiting tourist. Unlike areas of Asia and South America I have visited, in the Gambia you will not find sprawling slums spilling onto roads and railway tracks. Indeed, there are no railway tracks and very few paved roads to spill onto.
On our arrival, as we travel along one of the main roadways towards the coastal hotels, I am most struck by the colour of the land. The dusty, uneven tracks that lead off the main road are a vibrant tangerine colour and there are huge termite mounds protruding from the flat landscape that remind me of my time in Australia’s red centre.
Goats and cows meander freely, nosing around markets and holding up traffic. I wonder who owns them? Shops are identified by the simplistic drawings on the front of their flat buildings. For some, the goods are too big to fit inside the shop so sofas and beds sit on the side of the motorway, covered in a thick layer of orange dust kicked up by the passing vehicles.
The West African heat is largely unavoidable; air conditioning is a luxury that is unaffordable to most. The only way to stay cool on the road is to wind down the window and accept the same fake-tan-esque, dust-coated fate as the goods on the roadside.
Refrigeration is also scarce. At the fish market in Tanji bartering takes place directly on the beach. Dinner is sourced from the boats as they come in, the men carrying giant buckets of the day’s catch to the women on the sand who wait to prepare them. The women toss unwanted skins and bones to the sand and they are crushed underfoot in a pungent mush. The fish that are not immediately sold are laid out on tables in the sunshine, slowly heating and sprinkled with flies.
In the remoter villages, we learn, the ladies take it in turn to come to the market so that there will be someone gathering fresh food everyday. The overstuffed minibuses, Gambia’s form of public transport, make the journey once a day, the roofs stacked high with enough sacks of food to feed the whole village. In the compounds that multiple members of a family call home, kitchens vary from an outdoor fire to a tiny square room that fits no more than one person and a pot.
We are given the chance to visit a compound in a village called Galoya, which is filled with surprising street art as part of a project founded by the same people who run Makasutu Reserve.
Through the Wide Open Walls project a team of artists from Europe, South Africa and Israel, in conjunction with village chiefs, have turned remoter villages into a living art installation. Some of the skilled artwork is provokingly dark and often obscure, but it gives people like myself a reason to visit these places many tourists will not see; it legitimises our being there and gives us a chance to make conversation with the people whose homes we are admiring.
As it seems to be customary to do so, we give small donations to the people who share their homes and time with us – the women seem to be skilled at making the small change go further than I do.
The children in these villages are as scruffy as you would imagine little ones who play on this dusty ground to be. They are shoe-less and snotty-nosed and respond to the presence of white people with outstretched arms and cries of “Toubab” – the regional nickname for westerners thought to be derived from the fact that the English would pay two bob for a days labour back in colonial times.
They grab hold of your hands until you have a child dangling from every finger and their pleads for ‘minty’ are hard to ignore. I am torn, the desire to produce a sweet or pen and see the instant gratification on their faces is strong, but we are advised not to encourage this sort of begging. I repeatedly wish I had come prepared with clothes and shoes that would provide more long-term benefit.
Back at the fish market I am approached by a softly spoken child of about 8 or 9 who tells me he would really like a football. They love soccer here. Throughout the busier towns I have spotted rooms I assume to be bars with chalkboards advertising the next FA Cup games on them. On a bike ride one morning I spot what looks to be at least 30 children playing a game with the one ball. This child silently follows me around the market, not too persistent but constantly present, a repetitive poke to my conscience. He follows us all the way back to our minibus and realising he has not been successful sits down despondently on a rock to watch us leave. I cannot get into the bus. I ask the driver to give us a few minutes and with a guide I head back to a stall selling rubber soccer balls. I call to the boy to come over and he gingerly points out the one he would like. His friends have caught onto what it happening and gather round. I hand over a couple of pounds and as they vendor releases the ball to the boys they cheer and gallop off with it.
That evening I cannot quash my cynical thoughts as I imagine the child giving the ball back to the vendor to sell again the next day. I push these thoughts away and try to imagine the children playing instead of begging, even for just one day. Whatever the fate of that ball, I hope my actions bought a some joy, however small.
That becomes one of my overriding desires during my time in the Gambia. There is always a concern when those from a developed nation visit one much poorer that there is an element of ‘dark tourism’ or ‘voyeurism’. But in the Gambia, where there are no important mineral or natural resources and very limited agricultural opportunities, tourism is a substantial part of the country’s income (alongside exporting cashew nuts).
While it would be impossible to financially help everyone you meet directly, you can feel you are doing your part by spending time and money in the destination, every transaction helping the economy in some small way. In return, you can expect to be warmly welcomed by everyone you meet. The second question we were asked by every Gambian we met after ‘where are you from’ was ‘when are you coming back’? There is no ‘if’ about it.
I travelled to the Gambia as a guest of Gambia Experience. An 11 night multi-centre package staying at Ngala Lodge and Mandina Lodges starts at £1572pp including flights. Find more information on some of the charitable projects the Gambia Experience support in the region.
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