When my parents visited The Gambia in 2014, they mainly did so to recharge their batteries. Much like in Senegal the year before, they made small day trips to get to know the country and its people a little bit better. In this post, my dad tells us about his experience with the Gambian people.
Seeing fishermen at work on the Gambia beaches
On our trip to Senegal, we had been watching the fishermen and the fishing trade on and around the beaches of M’Bour and Joal Fadiouth. So when we went to The Gambia and headed for the beaches of Tanji to once again see the Fishermen come in, we were a bit better prepared for what to expect.
In The Gambia, fishing is a big deal. It is one of the most important sources of food and income. Like in Senegal, pirogues are used to go out fishing, and the beach serves as a fishing harbor. The pirogues have to balance in the surf while the catch is transferred into large baskets, carried to the beach by “runners”.
Ice and old fridges
Not so long ago, there were no means at all to cool the fish during transport. Today, there is an ice factory near the beach where people can buy ice for the transport of the fish or to keep it cool locally. We noticed a large “refrigerator graveyard” full of rusty fridges and deep freezers.
Unfortunately, most people do not have electricity, so the deep freezers are used as “cooling boxes” where the fish is stored between layers of ice purchased in the nearby factory.
A lot of the catch is just sold straight out of the pirogue on the sand of the beach. Part of it is transported inland in trucks, hoping the ice will last long enough. Fish not sold immediately can either be kept in the fridges on ice for a few days, or it can be smoked and then sold on the markets. Another method is to dry it for a number of weeks and again be sold on the local markets.
The future of the Gambian fishing industry
Walking around on the beach, or between the fridges, or in the area where people are smoking fish, one can observe how many people are dependent on this industry. There are of course the fishermen and their runners, but others too make a living here.
There are the employees of the ice factory, people trading on the beach or buying fish to resell on the market, traders transporting the fish far inland, people making a living of smoking or drying fish… No wonder the beaches are crowded with people and although it looks very chaotic at first there seems to be some kind of order in it.
It’s quite a spectacle and visiting the fishing beaches is, I think, definitely one of the things to do in Gambia.
In Senegal, we were slightly worried when we had observed how the fish is handled, wondering whether to eat any more of it during our holiday.
That was totally unjustified. We have eaten fish (and veggies) in our hotels but also on trips having lunch in small villages, and never had any trouble. In fact, both in The Gambia and in Senegal we always could find really nice meals, even in a simple village. Gambian food is definitely worth the try!
As fishing is so important for the Gambian people we just have to hope that their government will start protecting the territorial waters, and maybe even extend them, to preserve enough fishing stock for future generations.
Today, anybody is allowed to come and fish at the Gambian coast. In Senegal, people have understood that the large industrial fishing ships are no match for the pirogues, so some limitations have been put in place. Let’s hope the fishing tradition, a backbone of the economy in The Gambia, can survive for many years to come.
Visiting a school – How one man made a difference
Just like in Senegal the year before, we decided to visit a school while we were in The Gambia. Luckily, we were a bit better armed this time, knowing what to bring and how to behave.
At the village of Mariama Kunda, we met with the school director, Mr. Lamin M.A. Saidy, a man for which I immediately had the utmost respect. He was fortunate enough to be able to finish college, and as I understand could have had a good and successful career teaching in the capital of Banjul or nearby Serrekunda. He decided, however, to return to his home village and start a school there.
Some concrete walls with corrugated iron sheets as a roof formed the first, hot classroom, enough for about 20 children. This was in 2004.
Ever since then, Mr. Lamin has been working hard for his school. He attracted sponsors, made sure tourists passed and made donations, but he also raised awareness within the local community so they’d send their children to school. Once convinced of the benefits of having a school, it became easier to also mobilize the locals and put them to work.
When we were there, Mr. Lamin showed us the finished digging work done by the villagers, ready for the foundations of a new building.
The demand is high
Mr. Lamin’s work has also attracted the attention and support of the government and he has been asked to expand the school so that all grades of the Gambian primary and secondary school can be taught there.
Although the school is expanding rapidly, the demand for classes is even bigger. Children and their parents recognize the need for education and the number of children attending keeps on growing. Space is a problem and they have already divided some small classrooms into two in order to accommodate more grades. At the moment, pupils have to attend school in shifts – one in the morning, the other in the afternoon – otherwise, there simply is not enough room for all of them.
We had bought some stationary, pencils and candy for the children, which we left with the teachers for a fair distribution (lesson learned!). We also made a small donation. A lot more is needed but it was good to see that donations were well invested and building continued as the money comes in.
I was impressed by the resolve of Mr. Lamin to ensure all children in his area could get access to education. He is promoting the school with potential sponsors and tourists, lobbying with government officials, running the school being its director and on top of all that, he is still teaching. A remarkable man.
Were we visitors, or voyeurs during our holidays in The Gambia?
Africa is an amazing continent and a different world in so many ways that it never stops to surprise and amaze one. Already on the plane back home from The Gambia, I decided for myself that I must discover more of it.
Still, when I was traveling around the country, via the river or the road – or no road – it occurred to me a number of times that as a tourist I am probably intruding. Having tourists around is, for the Gambian people, not by choice but by sheer necessity.
There is not much to make money in this country so over the years people have become dependent on the income tourism generates. I am not sure, given the choice, that the locals really would welcome foreigners in their village.
At times, I had a double feeling. As keen as I am on photography, I often see people don’t like it, so then I put away the camera. Never think taking a telelens and shooting from a distance will make you invisible.
I see others continue to happily snap away up to the point that the “subjects” really become upset. It is so easy to just ask people if it’s okay, and if it’s not, well, then don’t do it.
You may of course also be asked for money. I tend not to offer any. On a market or in a shop maybe I’d buy something. It is also nice to show the people what you captured, but paying for a photo just triggers the wrong behavior. Many people are truly friendly, but often tourists are also seen as walking wallets, full of dollars or euros. Our own fault I guess; I think even if not intended it feels like we’re just showing off with our wealth way too much.
Well, am I a welcome visitor then or a voyeur? I am having visions of people coming into my house to see how we live, my wife pretending to cook every time someone comes into the kitchen, and the kids near the door to get some candy or pencils. We obviously ask for a tip and try to sell one or the other something we made. As the visitor leaves, we ask for his empty water bottle, which will allow us to store our water in a clean way for a while.
Maybe I am exaggerating. But the dependency on tourism and tourists has been growing and there is no way back, and it does imply apparently giving up some privacy for the locals and accepting habits and actions not fitting their culture.
Even when trying to help a little bit here and there, one has to reflect on how help is best given in a responsible way. Giving money may corrupt, or probably never gets shared (think about the Roots story). And how can you be fair even to children handing out pencils and stationary?
I have to learn a lot still. It’s hard to be fair. And sometimes it’s hard not to be the “rich” tourist. Fairness is also about rewarding only for a service or somebody helping you. Don’t just tip when you can…
I’ll go back. And hopefully, I’ll learn. I want to.
Where to stay in the Gambia
If you’re wondering where to stay when traveling to The Gambia, I’ve looked up some accommodations that get great reviews and all offer something different.
Leo’s Beach Hotel
Leo’s Beach Hotel is perfect for those looking for a romantic, quiet getaway as it’s an adults-only hotel. It offers free WiFi and airport pick-up and drop-off at an extra charge. There’s an outdoor pool, the rooms are equipped with air conditioning and the hotel itself is located by the beach. Guests love the food and the helpful staff.
Summer Grove Villa Apartments
If you rather rent an apartment for your Gambia trip, Summer Grove Villa Apartments are a great option. They’re a minute away from the beach, offer free WiFi and are all equipped with air conditioning. There’s an outdoor pool and guests can make use of the free airport shuttle.
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