The Gambia in the eyes of a visitor

Author: Peter Narh, #MMN Country coordinator, Ghana.

The luggage of my colleague on the Asky Airlines to The Gambia was delayed. As a result, we were quite bitter the first 2 days of our stay in Banjul, precisely Senegambia. Nothing seemed interesting nor nice to us about The Gambia. In those two days we told time and again our frustrations to Antifa (not her real name) the attendant at the restaurant of the hotel we were staying; frustrations about Asky Airlines, about having to walk 200 meters to the supermarket to buy a bottle of water, about the unavailability of a pressing iron in the hotel, about the cold nights, about almost everything in The Gambia. Antifa would join us to rave about our luggage, but also would intersperse her talk with flashes of pretty smiles and beautiful but sometimes queer gestures with her slender arms, in explanation to us about life in The Gambia. 

After 2 days, my colleague and I resolved that luggage or no luggage life goes. As Ghanaians and the first time in The Gambia, we convinced ourselves that we would enjoy The Gambia as much as we could within the next 4 days more that we had before we would return to Accra. That was when The Gambia began to unfold to us. Our contacts and interactions with people anywhere we went, particularly taxi drivers, became experiences of relief to replace the pain of our delayed luggage. From the unique accent of English language that sounded to us more like Jamaican than African English, through the ubiquitous rasta hairstyle of almost every young man, to the almost unnoticeable Islamness in a country where most people say they are Muslims, The Gambia crept into our hearts as a haven of polite, cool, honest, and open society.

My colleague and I arrived in Senegambia (though Gambians say it is all Banjul) to support the launch of the Migrant Media Network (#MMN) project of r0g_agency for cultural and critical transformation. Supported by the German Federal Foreign Office and implemented by r0g agency, the #MMN project aims at providing access to open, reliable, and credible information for The Gambian public, particularly the youth to guide their informed decisions about migration.

Participants at the launch of the #MMN in The Gambia; 29 April 2021

r0g agency seeks to establish itself through #MMN as a leading open-source technology-based organisation for discussions and community work towards encouraging safe and regular migration. It also encourages the development of positive alternatives of youth careers in their own homes. Inasmuch as migration and #MMN were full in our minds in The Gambia, my colleague and I made space well enough in our schedules to immerse ourselves in our new environment; we did not regret! 

Both in and out migration seemed to be a big economy in The Gambia. On a couple of visits that my colleague and I made to the Banjul International Airport within 3 days in search of our lost luggage, I noticed on each visit that majority of travellers were young men and women (the youth). It was the same observation at the National Public Health Laboratories at Kotu, where my colleague and I went twice for our Covid-19 test results when we were about returning to Accra. There at the Kotu, just like at the Banjul International Airport, we met a population of Gambians waiting for their Covid-19 test results as well. Again, here at the Kotu, about 90% of this population we met was youth. One gentleman told us he was travelling to Finland, and another to the United Kingdom.

In the same measure, immigration to The Gambia was to me a high phenomenon. It appeared that a lot of non-Gambians visit The Gambia frequently. On our daily trips to Ali Baba or Caesar’s to enjoy those delicious and nutritious lunch or supper, we met on the streets or saw at corner bars and roadside restaurants, whites and other people you would certainly assume are not Gambian indigenes. In our hotel, a host of these seemingly ‘non-Gambians’ bathed daily in the pool with their Gambian partners. Antifa (our friend at the hotel restaurant) told us once that we had seen nothing really; that in the peak season before Covid-19, the hotel pool would be packed daily with black and white soul mates doing their own thing.

By now, around the 4th day of our visit, The Gambia had come to me as country of friendly access and exit; Gambians exited as they welcomed non-Gambians. It was not surprising at all that our host in The Gambia had assembled a crop of youth who were well experienced in the discourse around the exit and entry spectacle (migration), to be local coordinators for the #MMN project in The Gambia. These young fellows were deep in community work to encourage youth to harness resources at home for livelihoods or to make informed choices if they would necessarily migrate. While my observations at the Banjul International Airport and at the Kotu were scenes that appeared to me that Gambian youth were very mobile and migrate a lot, some of these youth like the new #MMN local coordinators were also resolved to discourage irregular migration, by engaging with communities in participative activities to provide credible information to guide youth in their migration and entrepreneurial decisions.

After 5 days of migration work and observations of social relations in and around Banjul and Senegambia, it was time to cool off the last time with a stroll at the beautiful and decent beach. My colleague and I again were privileged to ride in a cab whose driver was happy to join us on our stroll on the beach and then to take us to the Caesar’s for supper. There at the beach, I joined a group of young men to draw their daily catch of fish, a delightful experience!

Author and ‘friends’ drawing fish at the beach; 02 May 2021

Yet, when we eventually drew the net after 15 minutes of determined efforts, only two big fish and some garbage were caught. The about 20 young men I was drawing the net with were nonetheless not disappointed; certainly, they would try again and again the next day, they told me with conviction. 

Finally, on 03 May 2021 we flew back to Accra. At the Banjul International Airport, I had to pay 1,000 Gambian Dalasi, the same amount we paid when we landed at the same airport 6 days before. I was told the ‘toll’ was a contribution towards the provision of security for everyone. At that moment, I was convinced that Africans are really a communal people; here were Gambians eager and ready to care for and about my security even when I was one foot out of their country; at a price of 1,000 Dalasi though!