Friday, April 15, 2011

Welcome to The Gambia Take II

You’d given up on me, hadn’t you? Well, I’m back and here I am - just about perhaps - in The Gambia, Africa’s smallest country. Geographically speaking The Gambia is ominously surrounded on all sides by neighbouring Senegal, and the country, already oddly pinched (it’s 300km long but it averages 35km from north to south), is further split into two by the Gambia river which courses through the centre. Just when you thought West Africa was all about dusty, pot-holed roads leading to faded colonial Francophile cities with a never-ending soundtrack of African music, along comes the stubbornly Anglophile bastion of The Gambia. There are dozens of ex-pats and holidaymakers here and the British influence is still very strong. Almost everybody speaks English which makes a pleasant change for me enduring a constant struggle with my French these past two weeks. Every radio you hear is tuned to BBC World Service and, bizarrely, the supermarkets stock the most un-African product lines imaginable - there’s Horlicks, McVitie’s and Tetley’s (make tea bags, make tea!) amongst many others. Jesus wept, this is West Africa - I want théboudienne - the taste of Senegal, I want benechin - the taste of The Gambia, not fucking Toffeepops and Jaffa Cakes - the taste of, I dunno, Grimsby?
The Gambia is predominantly famous for birds - it’s an ornithologist’s paradise apparently, as are many of the West African countries touching the Atlantic - and beaches. It also has a sitting President who has variously claimed to have found cures for HIV and asthma, all this whilst still having time to oppress journalists and crush freedom of speech, truly a multi-tasker. People’s voices dip noticeably to a whisper whenever the President is discussed - not a popular man. 90% of Gambians are Muslim though not that you’d notice. Theirs is a very moderate approach to their faith unlike, say, in Mauritania where people spontaneously prostrate themselves by the side of the motorway to pray.
This is also known as The Smiling Coast of Africa, a schmaltzy moniker that’s largely true unless you’re strolling down Bakau and accosted by one of the many hustlers who insist on shadowing your every move. If you tell them that you’d rather walk alone, the smile quickly turns to a frown and you’re accused of being all sorts, unfriendly being about the politest. Then there’s folk like Nuha who works around the clock at the Romana Hotel where I stay for my 5 days on the Atlantic coast, a soft-spoken, gentle and utterly charming giant of a man. Spend a little time talking to any Gambian and it’s very much the same story.
This being Africa, it’s easy to watch a football match and I get to see Madrid destroy the Spuds at the Bernebeau. For half-time entertainment, instead of listening to Bill, John and Eamonn discuss the finer parts of postmodernism in the modern game we get to enjoy some obituaries, presumably just to let you know in case any of your loved ones have inconveniently passed away during the first half. And then just as the second half gets underway, the generator gives out - the Minister for Energy must be a Nepali as power cuts are the norm - whilst someone pops off to the petrol station to get the fuel to get it started again. I wander off to watch the second half in the fish market with the fishermen who are too enthralled by the match to even comment on my presence amongst them. The generator remains frustratingly in operation however for the entire 90 minutes the following night when the sizable Chelsea contingent here watch their team come undone and even they wonder why Fernando Torres gets 90 minutes these days.
Then there’s the capital city of Banjul, population 35,000! Cute little city and it’s even got its own Albert Market, a busy place where if the smell of fish doesn’t drive you out then the attention of the bumsters will. I’ll leave you to work out for yourself what a bumster is. Banjul also has its own landmark, the 35 metre monstrosity that is Arch 22 which was constructed to celebrate the military coup of 1994. It’s ugly beyond belief - I’m guessing the President found the time in between finding a cure for cancer and ending world hunger to draw up the plans, most probably during a power cut - and in a city of such a tiny population in an impoverished country it seems ridiculously out of place.
I feel as if I haven’t given The Gambia a chance though - spending 5 days on its Atlantic coast is the equivalent of spending a stag weekend in Blackpool and claiming to have gained an understanding of English culture. There are trips to be taken upriver but they’re both expensive and time-consuming so time is the enemy and I have bigger fish to fry - Mali for one - and so it’s onward south to Ziguinchor next and the fiercely separatist Casamance region of Senegal.

No comments:

Post a Comment