My first impressions of The Gambia were, I have to admit, distinctly unfavourable. Oluchi and I endured a manic stampede to embark on the ferry that would take us across the river into Banjul; not only that, the weather had this oppressive feel about it - equal parts high temperatures coupled with the feeling that a mighty, invisible wet blanket of moisture had been added to our outer clothing without our consent; and in addition, some of this moisture, the quantities the blankets hadn’t been able to absorb, had leached into the streets, turning walking into an experience in mud-sliding that a frolicsome pig would have revelled in. Last but not least among the annoyances that made me question my sanity for adding this country to our itinerary, was the presence of a highly aggressive species of human mosquitoes known as immigrations officials darting this way and that on the streets, asking us to ‘identify’ ourselves.
As the old saying goes: “Beware of identification, it often leads to briberification!”
So, let’s just agree to say: Gambia, the first time wey I land for your top, no be your best side wey I see!
But we were there, we were committed, we knew that sometimes the book’s cover didn’t tell the whole story, so we gave it the good college try: we did the usual ‘touristy’ stuff (yawn!) we visited the beach, went to the local franchise for Crocodile Villages, Inc. (mainly to see whether the locals could compare to the ones we had seen elsewhere, especially in their ability to inhale the sacrificial chickens, turns out they are fish-vegetarian.), we were so enthralled by the available options on our visit menu that we even went to the port just to see cargo being laden and unloaded. Boy, I tell you, this was big fun that we were having. It’s no wonder that after three days we thought we had written the book on The Gambia: too small, too expensive, too wet – that just seemed to sum it all up for us.
The magnitude of our disappointment at that point seemed to be in direct proportion to the magnitude of our initial high expectations. The Gambia was destined to end up as a cautionary tale in our travel journals.
“Not so fast, girls,” some guardian angel of Gambia up there must have said!, “Allow me,” the angel went on, “to put on a real Gambia show for you.” In rapid succession, the angel arranges for us to meet, the day before we were supposed to leave, some Gambians and ‘Naigambians’ (transplanted and the results of intermarriage) and our view of Gambia changed dramatically. While the previous week – after we had done crocodiles, the beach, the port - had been spent flipping channels, watching satellite TV stations from the Middle-East and going to bed – at the same time as, I mean, just to make sure our more lascivious readers don’t get the wrong ideas - with the birds, we became more optimistic that the second week would be different. Our brothers at immigration had given us only permits for a 7-day stay, but we were ready to risk their wrath (read extortion) for another 7 days just to rectify our dismal view of Gambia. So we did.
Gambia’s image rectification – the process. First, now that we were hooked up with the right people, was the exploration of the nocturnal – the night spots featuring groovy music, groovy people shaking it. These people could have been on something, the energy with which they danced. Step Two: a tour of Senegambia with people who knew what they were about. Hey, it wasn’t just about the mud on the streets, you know! Once you lifted your eyes and concerns up from the pressing issue of which mud sinkhole would engulf you completely, you realized that this was a miniature jewel of sights.
But best of all, by some happy coincidence, we had managed to time our sojourn to coincide with ‘Koriteh’(The Gambian word for Eid-el celebration after the holy month of Ramadan). As part of the observance, the government declared a 3 day holiday, for us, liberated as we were from the obligations of religious observance, it was enjoyment galore. We experienced first-hand how Gambians celebrate Koriteh , largely, by visiting family and eating Benachin with them. Let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you have eaten Benachin, nothing beats the feeling of oneness you get from eating from the same platter with your friends and family. Then there are the cheeky kids barging into the house demanding ‘salibo’, i.e, a monetary gift to, ostensibly, mark the festival.
Talking about Koriteh, It seemed to me that the best time to see Gambians looking their best was during the Eid-el festivals. Beautifully-clad women in their lovely, heavily embroidered dresses, glamorous hairstyles complemented by the dashing dark-skinned men in colourful kaftans: you would be forgiven if you wished they dressed like this everyday.
Famous for being a tourist destination, The Gambia is also the most stable economy in West Africa and the one the with most rapid economic growth, which I think is why all the Nigerian banks are opening up shop in every corner of the country. (Trust Naija now, we no dey carry last) Apologies o, if you’re not from Naija.
Anyways, for me, the most interesting part of our stay was meeting the people of Gambia. Gambia was a very enjoyable contrast between a relatively unprepossessing environment, if you compare it to the beauty of Mali, and a wonderful populace, once you got to know them. I more than enjoyed the warmth, the generosity, the friendliness, and I love the sing-song Wolof or Madinka tinged accents.
On a personal note (yeah, like all this hasn’t been personal?), Gambia holds some promise for me and I’ll definitely be going back. The morale of this chapter of the journey: don’t trust first impressions all the time.