Coming into Banjul was a bit of a culture shock. Firstly there were hundreds of advertising hoardings. Sampson found it surprisingly difficult to drive at first, he was so overwhelmed by them. It was browbeating by billboard. The information overload meant he was struggling to distinguish between roadsigns and adverts. You only realise how exhausting modern urban life can be when you’ve been out of it for a while.
Secondly it was shockingly touristy. We knew of course the Gambia’s reputation as a package holiday mecca and had expected it to be more like Ghana than Guinea, but as we entered Banjul, the kids were gasping at the fleshy expanse of sausage-skinned types outside the window.
The ubiquitous slogan for the Gambia describes it as ‘The Smiling Coast’. Gambia may be the crooked smile in the squashed face of Senegal (with the Dakar peninsula as the pointy nose) but I felt her put-upon people were often smiling through gritted teeth. They have a lot to bear, what with an increasingly erratic dictator and a never-ending stream of ignorant guests. They seemed lovely but weary.
At the border, I had the same disconcerting feeling as when entering Ghana, Nigeria and Anglophone Cameroon – that I was put off my stride by suddenly having to switch from French to delivering my patter in English! It might seem bizarre to feel at a disadvantage in your native tongue, but sometimes the shield of being seen to be incompetent can be useful, as you can choose what you want to understand.
The British influence was immediately apparent when we were told You Can’t Park Here. At first we were excited that perhaps that meant we had to cross over because they drive on the left hand side of the road (as in UK and SA) but no, officials were just being uptight and inflexible, and made Big Reg shift to and fro till they were satisfied to the inch.
In the biggest office, there was a Big Boep who was totally uninterested in our Letters of Introduction, just showed me a list of countries requiring Visa And Clearance, the latter being a pointless letter costing, apparently, 3000 Dalasi each (+/- R1200). I remarked that it was funny the SA Embassy in Bissau hadn’t mentioned this while we were arranging the show at the British High Commission in Banjul. When he found out we were dual citizens (there’s no visa or ‘clearance’ necessary for UK passport holders) he appeared to cave in and said “So I’m letting you off 12 000D… how will you show your appreciation?”
Big Boep resisted being ‘given’ a magic show by Sampson despite the delight of all the other blokes in the office. When he reiterated his request, I slowly and sadly said that the Dept of Arts and Culture did not allow us to show our appreciation in any other way except through arts and culture… Finally he took the passports, asked how long we needed and said “I’ll give you a month” like he was doing us a favour.
We were so glad to be out of there.
Fulsome friendly greetings from Rastas by the side of the road at every junction made up for this rude introduction. Banjul was a joy to drive around, even less busy than Bissau, with public buses and pony traps pottering along together.
The Senegambia Strip sounds glamorous but it was about as salubrious as half a high street in any seaside town in Blighty. That first morning we went scouting for oil and called in on a few hotels nearby, at one of which pink Brits were sat round a huge blue pool sinking beers or snoozing on beach loungers. Ruby said, “Oh my God, it’s just like Benidorm!” referring to the old favourite sitcom and Zola piped up wide-eyed “Did they really film it here?”
They could have.
I couldn’t help but feel shame at what the British have bequeathed to the world. Post-French-colonial popular tourist spot, Cap Skirring in Casamance, offers a range of cute bistros, sidewalk cafés, bijou art galleries and elegant hotels. Post-English-colonial popular tourist destination the Gambia provides tacky fish and chip restaurants, Indian takeaways and supermarkets full of overpriced crisps and chocolate digestives. The things the British can’t live without even for a week. Oh and did I mention beer?
We found our way down Bertil Harding Highway to the five star Coco Ocean Resort and Spa whose GM was the sole person to have replied to Sampson’s blanket email enquiries to all the hotels of Banjul. Osman Bezuidenhout is as gloriously New South African as his name would suggest, and did us proud in every way possible. Not only did the Coco Ocean donate more waste vegetable oil than any other hotel in the Gambia, Osman and his team made our stay unforgettable.
Hospitality manager Terry Langenhoven came down to visit later that night – he couldn’t get over seeing a CA number plate in the Gambia! He’s been working abroad for 18 years since he left Cape Town at the age of 20. It was wonderful to be so warmly welcomed by our compatriots; they made it feel like a homecoming.
Osman started by taking us on a tour of the hotel at the end of his busy day. We were stunned by the difference in ambience at the Coco Ocean compared to the majority of Gambian hotels we’d seen so far. As we entered the magnificent lush green setting, Ruby said it smelled like Kirstenbosch Gardens. It looked like them too – the hotel was designed by a German landscaper who trained as architect, so the gardens play a central role in creating his vision of a mini-Moroccan walled city. It’s an oasis of calm.
The décor is mostly in a monochrome palette, with deep turquoise and crimson touches. It’s breathtakingly elegant and infinitely restful.
Osman told us tales of when an actual Moroccan prince came to stay – he booked out the whole hotel but declined to sleep in the presidential suite in favour of a giant tent they had to set up on the lawn. The prince even shipped in silk brocade drapes and Persian carpets for the week.
The Coco Ocean has also hosted the Nigerian President, and the President of Guiné-Bissau. When the President of the Islamic Republic of the Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, was celebrating his 50th birthday at the same time as the Gambia’s 50th independence day, the wind carried hundreds of sparks from the huge firework display onto the thatched roofs of the hotel buildings. They lost two of them and caused so much damage, Osman was nearly arrested as a fire starter. Luckily it had been the President’s idea, and he did cover the costs. Eventually.
Osman said that during the Ebola pandemic, occupancy dropped to 5-10 guests at times, despite the fact that the Gambia was hundreds of miles from the infection zone, but thankfully trade has recovered and they’re busy again now. However, the Coco Ocean is so beautifully designed that even when it’s full, it’s peaceful.
Osman manages 300 staff, can’t be older than 35, and is on call 24 hours a day for his guests. I only realized later just how very busy he is, and how kind he was to take the time to show us round. Luckily he has his wife Natalie to hold the fort at reservations – she’s even more capable if anything – and superhost Terry at his right-hand. We are so very proud of these guys, flying the flag for SA excellence at a world-class resort.
The next morning, walking on the beach with Zola just past the Coco Ocean, I stopped to do T’ai Chi. It was a cloudy day so I hadn’t taken the camera. Of course, this would be the time when a fascinating ritual took place right in front of us. A little further along the beach appeared a figure dressed in orange grass skirt layers from head to toe, like the vertical spinning mop in a carwash. He was circling a group of boys and howling occasionally like a hyena. The cries were plaintive rather than threatening, but still clearly warning you off. It was another version of the Egungun figure that we first met in Nigeria, and have seen similar examples of through Benin all the way to the Netos de Bandim show in Guiné-Bissau.
Zola and I sat and watched bigger boys chase smaller ones into the sea with lots of laughter. A clutch of the smallest ones were already sitting shivering wrapped in thin cloths as the eldest, a Rasta youth, rinsed and hung their wet clothes out. When the ceremony seemed over and the Giant Mop had departed, we went to greet them and Rasta Moussa a.k.a. ‘Admiral’ was very pleased when I whipped off Zola’s orange hairwrap to reveal his dreads.
He told me he was looking after the younger sons of his brother while he took the older ones to the bush. They’d spent two weeks together and his brother was returning today so they’d all come down to “the river” for a cleansing ceremony in case of “any wounds… the water is good for them”. He explained gravely that when you do something like this some people come to lift you up and some people come to destroy you, so you employ (what sounded like) “Sadonka” to protect you during the ceremony: “No one bother him”. They were Fula, but said the Mandinka and Wolof do this too.
Later, my friend Lamin Ceesay at Brufut echoed this account of the role of the figure he called Kankurang. As a group of around 20 boys aged around 7 were escorted past me by another headless fringed figure while I was doing T’ai Chi one morning, Lamin told me how newly circumcised boys were protected from evil spirits by his presence for 40 days.
He also described other characters: Zimba from Casamance, the lion-man who entertains with a powdered face; Agugu, who is also found in Sierra Leone and Liberia; Kumpo, who has a long stalk on his head and his face covered with reeds. I am dying to do some research into the origins and commonalities of these figures in carnivalesque rituals across West Africa.
Semantic pedantic me was also fascinated to see how the most common surnames had morphed from Guinea to the Gambia: from Jalloh to Jallow, and Cissé to Ceesay. Same name, different colonial master writing it down.
This is Veronica from Lewisham whom we met on the beach and whose accent reminded me so much of my friend Lorraine! Her daughter got married at the Coco Ocean – a brilliant idea if you’re looking for a wedding venue… While sat outside the Coco Ocean, Big Reg was admired by Geoff Cann, the most charismatic and cosmopolitan Jehovah’s Witness I’ve ever met.
Geoff spent 25 years in East Berlin, smuggling copies of The Watchtower over the border, and had a particularly amusing anecdote about peeing on a Stasi interrogator accidentally-on-purpose. He has a Filipino wife, a Brazilian son-in-law and once drove a truck like ours to Tblisi. Geoff was the obvious candidate to undertake the challenging task of getting my long-expired UK passport back to Blighty for renewal, and he gamely agreed to act as courier. Bless you Mr Cann-do, you are our hero! Without your intervention our journey Africa Clockwise would have ground to a halt – to discover why, read on …
(Roger, your €20 donation came in handy here to cover postage, thanks a million!)
Like Conakry, the Gambia proved to be another place with an annoyingly small limit on cash withdrawal amounts (3000D or R1200 at a time) which means ABSA was doing well again charging us a R50 fee rather than a percentage every time we access our account.
We started celebrating my birthday early, on the Sunday before: a day on the Strip kicking off with a full English breakfast. We wandered up and down the road with the toubabs in an attempt to appreciate the benefits of the British colonial hangover.
‘Toubab’ is what the Gambians call tourists and is used similarly to the Cornish word ‘emmet’. Debatably, it comes from the ‘two bob’ Gambians used to beg of their colonial masters.
Some Gambians argue that they do well out of the former relationship. They have better roads and their economy is certainly healthier than Guinea Bissau’s. But is it worth it, for this Muslim country to be swamped with bacon and beer? Not to mention the unattractive hordes that demand them.
Sex tourism in the Gambia is well documented; we’ve been appalled by wizened ‘scrumpers’ pawing 20-something goddesses over dinner since the Congo and Cameroon, but this was our first time to witness so many middle-aged European women with African toyboys. By far the scariest couple, however, were the seedy new retirees in outrageously short shorts on the next table who somehow managed to be scrawny and fat at the same time.
Ruby and I abandoned our brief wander in the very touristy craft market when one man said “I’ll give you my shop for your daughter” and was only half joking; it was too tiring to keep fending off the feigned friendliness to explain we seriously didn’t have enough spare cash for trinkets. Instead we indulged in a supermarket stash of birthday goodies: Libby’s orange juice, cheddar cheese, olives and Crunchie Bars. Thanks Nana!
Sitting in the Senegambia Hotel in the late afternoon, poaching their wifi, I caught sight of a BBC news flash scrolling across a nearby screen with details of the recent bomb attack in Côte d’Ivoire, at the sleepy coastal resort of Grand Bassam where Ruby had her ill-fated horse ride. This was a worrying shift to targeting Euro tourists that didn’t bode well for the Gambia or Senegal.
Around the same time we heard news of another brutal murder of a teenager in Cape Town, while out with her family in the Tokai forest, which had rocked our south peninsula community. I held the kids a bit closer to me that night. Again, I felt keenly how lucky I am on this journey to be able to cherish every day as the precious gift it is with the ones I love.
Vultures have been visible in increasing numbers since Sierra Leone, coming quite startlingly close at times, but we hadn’t seen anything like this group, outside one of the hotels, feasting on a dead donkey.
Sampson reckons that, with their bald red heads, they look a lot like British tourists.