Greetings from the Gambia

Beach at SandeleThe Gambia |

So just where exactly is The Gambia you ask? Well, it’s the smallest country in mainland Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa and otherwise completely surrounded by Senegal. Take a look at this map.  A six hour flight directly south of the UK, it’s a little sliver of the English language in a region dominated by French. Also, if you’ve ever read or watched Roots, Kunta Kinte – the hero of that story – is originally from The Gambia.

I spent the last six weeks here, volunteering for two organizations – an eco–lodge and an organization that represents small tourism operators. There’s a lot of English tourists here and it’s very easy to get around and very safe. Although it’s a little disconcerting hearing the locals greet me in perfectly intonated loutish English “Awright”??? I’m also finding that I’m often the first Australian any of them have ever met. Nothing like having the reputation of an entire country in my hands!

With a beach at my doorstep, interesting work and inspiring people around, all is good in The Gambia. All, that is, except the electricity. Forget about circadian rhythms influencing my day. I’m now governed by a “power’s on” rhythm. At this cue, I run madly to recharge my computer and use the internet and work furiously until the power is off again and my newly charged battery is once more dead. Technically backup generators are supposed to kick in, although it appears they rarely work. Even at the hospital.

Yes – I had my first experience in an African clinic. But never fear – I was actually just there as moral support for my new friend Jess who unfortunately came down with malaria and gastro at the same time. It was quite surreal to march into a hospital with my overnight bag and ensconce myself in one of the beds with nary a murmur from anyone. Noticing that Jess did not have a towel, I went looking for one only to be informed that “the towel department is not here today madam” – well to be fair it was Sunday! Spotting some sheets drying on a clothesline at the back, I swiftly stole one of those for her instead. Hours later, as darkness fell and Jess’s IV drips were being inserted by torch and candlelight, we enquired once again about the generator and were assured it would be back on soon as they had “sent someone to buy oil”. Sure enough, we were awakened in the middle of the night as the fan and lights suddenly roared to life – not the first or last time that happened to me here!

Just in case you have the wrong impression, Jess was well cared for (and is now fully recovered) and the outpouring of support from the Gambians – work colleagues and strangers alike – was astonishing. Even the hospital cleaners would bring her food (no food at the hospital) and call later to find out how she was recovering. In fact, for me, the most traumatizing aspect of the whole experience was that the Gambians kept asking if I was her mother. Jess is 24. I’m putting it down to a combination of a culture of early motherhood, the difficulty of telling age in another race and the fact that the Africans all look about 20 years younger than they actually are. But still!

Overall, the word that probably best describes my experience here is “humbling”. The Gambia is known as a hub for responsible tourism and I’ve had the privilege of working with those who are at the forefront. Adama, Geri, Maurice, the Bozeat’s – it has been so inspiring to watch and learn how you have made such a tangible difference in people’s lives.  I’m still processing everything I learnt from you and will save those reflections for another time.

For all my other friends, I can’t recommend a trip to Sandele Eco-Retreat highly enough (stunning deserted beach, fabulous food, incredible people, yoga circles, electricity and wifi – need I say more? ) with a visit to the Asset Bantaba on the way – for the restaurant, information on community tourism and to purchase some Guaranteed Gambian craft products.

New websites for Sandele and Asset Bantaba pending. Yes – somehow my rather broad experience has been translated into “marketing expert” and I’ve been spending my days writing website copy and other related marketing tasks along with a little strategic planning facilitation and online reservation system set-up. But I have managed to get out a little and trips to Serrekunda Market, the fishing village of Tanji and Roots village Jufureh (a great example of the power of responsible tourism to create win-win for tourists and communities)  were all worthwhile.  Here are some other random thoughts on life outside of responsible tourism and hospitals:

* Any official occasion starts with both Muslim and Christian prayers being said. The intermixing of religions here is a model for the rest of the world.

* You never walk alone here. Not even if you are a 70 old woman and look like you spend a lot of time in a bingo hall. One of the more surreal aspects of The Gambia is the “partnering” of white women of a certain age with young good looking Gambian men. Ultimate goal for the men: marriage and visa to a western country.

* I was excited to meet real life explorers Jason Florio and his wife Helen Jones-Florio who were heading off to follow the River Gambia from source to sea – mostly in folding canoes.   Check out their blog and Jason’s wonderful photos (he’s an award winning photographer).

* Dance and music is a wonderful way of connecting with people – whether it is an impromptu drumming and singing session at the riverside or a beach reggae party under a starry sky.

* Being blessed by songs and chants from the female village elders as I sit with my feet facing a crocodile pool is a surreal experience. I’m convinced it gave me good luck on my travels further south (see next post – Planes, Boats and Automobiles).

So – a fond farewell to all my wonderful friends at Sandele and Safari Garden Hotel who were so hospitable to “Nikita”.  I will truly miss all of you. And a huge thank-you to my hosts Adama, Geri and Maurice for the opportunity for this wonderful experience.  Until we meet again.

Hope you all enjoyed the festive season.  Watch for an update shortly on my trip to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

– Nikki

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