Having left Banjul, which is probably the quaintest capital in the world, I headed west to Bakau; a touristy town on the Atlantic coast, where my half-built hotel had Spice Girls curtains and a Union Jack towel. Months away from the tourist season, Bakau had slipped back into its natural rhythm; with reggae music floating across sleepy streets, and dreadlocks swaying in the light breeze.
Whilst in Bakau, having already visited an African hospital, I thought I should go the whole hog by visiting an African cinema, police station and stadium too…
The cinema, which was uncomfortably hot, played a terrible film from a VHS cassette. The time was displayed in the top left-hand corner. It only disappeared when a written message popped up to say that the video was only for promotional use, and that anyone who had paid to watch it should contact the authorities.
I went to the police station, not to report the film (as I don't think that would have done much good), but to get my visa extended. People hung through the bars of an overcrowded cell, as if to desperately grasp at freedom. They smelled so retched that I’ve decided not to get arrested.
Gambia’s national stadium is an 'all-seater' ground that doesn’t have any seats; just big, steep concrete steps. It’s yellow in colour, with a huge broken scoreboard at one end. The fans in attendance at the Gambian FA Cup Final danced and cheered, blew whistles and banged drums. Then they launched a pitch invasion, during which one person cycled across the arena on a push-bike, and another played a saxophone.
Having spent a week in the west I decided to head upcountry. I was the only guest at the Tumena Tenda eco-tourism village, but was surrounded by hoards of ‘Peace Corps’ (young American do-gooders with annoying accents) when I made it to Tendaba. I avoided them by making friends at the local restaurant; a small shack with a patio which overlooked the river, and a tape player which blasted out ‘Morgan Family' and 'Gentleman'.
It was whilst listening to this reggae music that I realised that pretty much everyone in Tendaba is called ‘Lamin’. I suggested that Tendaba should change its name to Lamin too, but was told that there is already another village called Lamin. That place, I assumed, must have a hell of a lot of people called Lamin. A hell of a lot of people.
The last place I visited was Georgetown; an old settlement that came to prominence during the slave trade. Today, Georgetown is a quiet place with a couple of historical sites and a bevy of friendly animals. Hippos laze about in the river, dogs follow you wherever you go, and a family of small frogs enter your room whenever you open the door.
During my time in Gambia, hopping from town-to-town, staying a day here and two days there, one thing has been constant; the overwhelming friendliness of the Gambian people. In Banjul, for example, an army-man approached me whilst I was staring at my map. The army-man started to ask questions: “What’s your name?” He asked, as if interrogating me. “What are you doing here? Where are you from?” I answered him sheepishly – wary of his gun, which did seem a little on the lethal side of things. I was polite, but reserved; inoffensive but far from friendly. I paused, looked up at that gun-wielding, uniform wearing, beast of a man. But I didn’t see any malice. “What’s the matter?” He asked. He seemed genuinely upset. “Don’t you want to be my friend?”
At that point I had to leave, as the only other option would have been to fall over in hysterics. But that conversation was typical of my time in The Gambia, where everyone wants to chat:
`Hello’, a local person might say, on one of a hundred different occasions each day.
`How are you?'
`I’m good, how are you?'
`I’m fine’. (People are always ‘fine’ and things are always ‘nice’.)
The local will then ask “What is your nice name?” or “What is your good name?” Of course, at this point the Gambian has no idea whether your name is ‘nice’ or ‘good’, but that doesn’t matter; in The
Gambia everything is 'nice' and everything is 'good’.
The one Gambian TV station, however, was neither ‘nice’ nor ‘good’. It was amateur at best. The presenter seemed to plod along at his own pace, saying whatever came into his mind. And the one Gambian radio station was hardly any better; applying the stuffy sort of style not seen in Britain since the Second World War.
The Gambian newspapers, on the other hand, were more my cup of tea. On the front page of the Sunday Observer, alongside headlines which read “Magicians and snake charmers storm Serekunda” and “I am just a pimp”, was this story which I thought was worth repeating:
“ANGRY MOB STORM POLICE STATION AS THEY SEEK JUSTICE ON PENIS SNATCHER.
“An angry mob last Sunday threw missiles at Tallinding police station in a desperate attempt to exercise street justice on one Alhagie Keita, a Malian who was alleged to have snatched the penis of one Bubacarr Fofana.
“An angry mob gathered around Bubacarr's premises as soon as rumour of Alhagie's alleged action spread around the neighbourhood.
“Tension, however, heightened when Alhagie, who had earlier promised to return Bubcarr's vital organ with a potion he was preparing failed in his attempts. Bubacarr told his parents that his penis had still not been fully recovered, intimating that what was returned was not the normal size.
“Meanwhile, Alhagie is still detained at the police station and the fate of Bubacarr's stolen penis still hangs in the balance.”
WEST AFRICA BLOGS
Back in the summer of 2003, aged 21, I went travelling on my own for the first time. The emails which I sent home, edited versions of which appear here, were my debut efforts at real writing.
Looking back, my trip around West Africa was eventful to say the least. In these blogs you'll encounter rampaging prostitutes, charismatic scammers, debilitating illness, and petite crime. But shining through it all is a real sense of humanity. The warmness of the Africans, their friendly nature and welcoming personalities, struck me almost every single day. Hopefully they'll leave a similar impression on you too...