My Gambian Experience

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Where I stayed
Guest House at Senegambia
What I did
Arch 22, Serekunda Market, Cassamance South Senegal and more...

Flag of Gambia  , Banjul,
Thursday, January 31, 2013

Arrive on Thursday 31st January 2013 by Thomas Cook Airlines.
My first impressions:

Modest airport but well organized for African standards

The airport terminal is a huge arch-shaped building that visitors can't fail to notice. It looks impressive from the outside but the quality of amenities within is still shabby and sub-standard. The Gambian immigration and customs officials outperform their counterparts in Europe and North America. The officials were professional, thorough and very competent. I was very impressed with the decision of the senior immigration officer on duty to allow foreign passengers to be processed by the immigration booths reserved for Gambians. That eased the queue that was building up; resulting in most passengers clearing immigration and customs within 30 minutes max.

What impressed me the most was the lack of hassle by customs officials and pestering by porters. This was a great plus for me; having gone through the gauntlet of officials harassing African passengers for bribes and tips at Lungi Airport in Freetown and one's luggages at risk of going missing through the actions of overzealous porters; everyone wanting a tip from you. Sierra Leone has a lot to learn from the Gambia.



WHY DOES GAMBIA SEEM TO ATTRACT MORE TOURISTS THAN OTHER WEST AFRICAN COUNTRIES?

This is a question that I have pondered over since my arrival, so I decided to ask a few people.

Andrew Kamara (Guest house Landlord)

"Tourists feel very safe and the Gambian people are very friendly." Whilst I agree with Andrew, there must be more to the Gambia than just safety and friendly people. After all the Sierra Leonean people are also very friendly and their country is relatively safe as well, yet they do not attract the number tourists the Gambia attracts.

SAFETY

The Gambia is really safe. We walked from our guesthouse for over 200 metres to one of the restaurants at the kololi beach resort; something we daren't do in Johannesburg or Nairobi. Tourists seem to freely interact with locals than I have seen anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. 

TRANSPORTATION

There seem to be a lot of taxis and local minibuses around. Taxi drivers actively solicit for trade and are quite competitive which works out to the advantage of the customers. Contrast this with Sierra Leone where customers have to literarily beg and offer to pay more to be transported. The taxis charge per journey as opposed to per head as is the case in Sierra Leone. The general conduct and discipline of taxi drivers is astonishingly high in the Gambia; I noticed all taxi drivers wearing their seatbelts and insist that front seat passengers do the same. Our driver from the Senegambia Highway to Banjul actually took us right to the gates of the Albert Market on our last minute request. If we thought that was a one-off, we were proven wrong when another taxi driver on our return journey actually took us to our front door when requested. This may not seem much to westerners not used to the attitudes of commercial drivers in Africa, but an astonishingly huge plus for veteran African travelers. To top it up for Gambian taxi drivers, we witnessed a driver going off the main road into the a dirt tracked side road to drop a disabled passenger and our driver actually pulled up by the kerb to take an incoming call on his mobile; you'll be hard pressed to find drivers in the west doing this, let alone elsewhere in the third world.

FOOD

There is a huge selection of restaurants and other eateries around the tourist resorts of Senegambia and Kotu. The cuisine is varied from international to African / Gambian. The selection includes French, Italian, American, Mexican, British, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Caribean and Gambian. The price range is relatively lowfor the western tourist. The total bill for a meal for two at the Ali Baba Restaurant came to Dalasis 575 / 11.00. A dish of steak or chicken with chips or rice can cost between D150.00 to D300.00 / 2.90 to 6.00. Compared to the prices in Europe, it is indeed cheaper to eat out in the Gambia. If you fancy authentic African dishes, you have a choice of very good Gambian / African run restaurants with the average price of D50.00 / 0.96. A skewer of locally roasted meat called 'Afrah' can cost as low as D25.00 / 0.48 and they are amongst the best tasting street food I have ever tried. The hygiene standards in local restaurants are very high by African standards. I normally don't eat salads or drink tap water in non-western countries, but I break this rule in the Gambia without any bacterial infection.

Kadie Kadie Restaurant

Run by an indefatigable and lovely Sierra Leonean lady, this restaurant would rank amongst the best for quality of food, diversity of menu and customer service. Amongst their best dishes are 'Plassas & rice', 'Benechin' and roast chicken with chips. They also do burgers and steaks. Situated in Kololi Highway off the main Senegambia Highway, Kadie Kadie's is a must for all lovers of authentic African Cuisine and to top it all up, their prices are a fraction of those situated in the resorts.

Mamadu Jallow's Afrah Kiosk

Mamadu and his young wife run their little Afrah kiosk on the junction of Senegambia and Kololi across the junction from the popular Yasmina Restaurant. Afrah is the local Gambian grilled lamb, beef or chicken, sold on most busy street corners. One may describe it as their version of a Sausage & burger cart in the Uk, but I find Afra tastier and healthier. What made Mamadu's joint more appealing is his personality; a very polite and friendly young man who goes the extra mile to cater for his customers' needs.

ARCH 22

An imposing structure overlooking the city of Banjul, the arch serves as a great viewing platform. It's a vantage point for a panoramic view of all corners of the city and its environs, including the spectacular beaches. It houses a less than impressive art and craft gallery and museum that seem to be dominated by the practice of "Juju / witchcraft" in the Gambia. Curiously, the exhibitors seem to be celebrating and promoting these dark arts alongside the country's Islamic heritage. Though imposing, the structure is grotty and lacks slickness and quality finish. The lift is rickety and the stairs dark and dingy. We nearly tripped on water hoses and other items on our way down. The military statues and parade grandstand seem to reflect the the the ego and masculinity of the country's leader -whose photos on huge billboards could be seen almost everywhere- than the country's national identity and heritage.

TRIP TO SOUTHERN SENEGAL

Amazingly it took around 1 & 1/2 hours from Banjul to the Gambia / Senegal border. The border formalities are pretty quick and effective; there aren't the long and pointless delays associated with border crossings. People with passports of Economic Community of West African States ECOWAS Countries are waved through without mu h formalities. Indeed Gambians and Senegalese in the border regions crisscross the borders several times a day; their families and workplaces in both countries. The border guards are very friendly and relaxed. On the Gambian side there are no armed guards, whiles there were a few soldiers carrying firearms on the Senegalese side. I was told that this was due to the presence of insurgents from some of the Jola people of Cassamance who are fighting for an indepent homeland from Senegal. The Jola people complain of unfair treatment and discrimination from the Senegalese government. One only has to visit the fishing village of Kafountine to witness the relative poverty and lack of development in the Jola areas. A number of the Jola people have retained their African Animist religion whilst the majority of the Senegalese and Gambian peoples are adherents of the Islamic or Christian faiths.

SEREKUNDA MARKET

Probably the largest in the Gambia, Serekunda is like most African markets with stalls and shops selling everything under the sun. We bought sorrel, baobab and hot chilly sauces there. If you don't mind mingling with people and haggling, you will make substantial savings shopping at this market as opposed to the 'posh' supermarkets and boutiques in Senegambia.

HE Sheikh Alhaji Dr Professor Yahya Jammeh

A sign that you are in a country ruled by an egocentric megalomaniac dictator is the number of titles that precedes the president's name. This is rather comical and I can't help but chuckle with laughter whenever I hear all the president's titles being mentioned by newscasters or read them on roadside billboards. You are left in no doubt as to who is in charge going by the larger than life photos on gigantic billboards of the savior-like depiction of the great messianic leader beaming down at his subjects. With his brilliant white 3 piece agbada suit, tasbeeh and staff, the president's portraits assumes that of a spiritual cum patriarchal leader and at the same time ooses youthful vigour; the tag line on one of the photos read, "we will not only vote for the president, we will die for him". Another read, "supporting the president is a spiritual responsibility". With evidences like these, the only choice the Gambian people seem to have is Yahya Jammeh or Yahya Jammeh; what a great democracy and pluralistic state!
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