In early 1999 I went to the Gambia for two weeks on my first (and still my only) visit to a "Third World" country. I wrote a report shortly after returning home and put it on my website where it remained unchanged for nearly four years until I replaced it with this updated version.
The Gambia is poor country which has been drastically affected by the tourist industry. It is an ideal tourist trap because of its climate, low labour costs and excellent airport courtesy of NASA and Gambia Expansion. The all-inclusive hotels are a great way for multinationals to suck the maximum amount of profit out of tourons whilst providing the minimum possible benefit to Gambians. In one of these places I witnessed a fashion show compered by some clown who obviously didn't give a toss about fashion but just kept repeating that all the clothes were available to buy in the hotel - punctuated by reading out English football results! What is the point? Anyway, if you do want to visit the Gambia I would advise looking at Tourism Concern and doing some research of your own.
I initially planned to go there on a drumming holiday organised by my Guinean friend and teacher Ali Bangoura who is the Artistic director of Batafon Arts. Ali had to cancel the trip due to lack of interest but by then I had decided to go anyway and asked my friend Be if she would join me. Be had spent some time teaching in Kenya so I thought she would be a good travelling companion and she was keen to escape the English winter so off we set. Despite cancelling the drumming holiday Ali was also out there visiting relatives but due to bad planning I had no idea where he was staying or how to contact him. Fortunately I knew an English woman who had recently moved to the Gambia and had arranged to sublet a small apartment in the compound of her house not far from the US embassy. The first night was amazing, just lying there listening to the insects and a whole universe of other sounds carried through the screen windows - I don't think I slept until after hearing the dawn call to prayer from the tower of the local mosque. When I got up there were treats like being able to pick fresh oranges for breakfast. Then it was time to hit the beach.
The traders spotted us a mile off and as obvious new arrivals we were immediately overwhelmed but on the plus side a guy claimed to know Ali. We quickly retreated to a beach bar where security is employed to keep the swarms of traders/beggars/con-artists at bay and contemplated our next move. Then, miraculously, I spotted Ali sauntering up the beach - he had already heard that I was looking for him! This was the turning point and things just fell into place. We would spend the day down on the beach by one of the few bars that was not off limits to locals and at lunchtime someone arrived with huge pans of fried rice and fish which we gathered round and ate with our hands. I swam and tried body boarding (a guy called Justice ran a juice bar as his main gig but had a few boards to rent as a sideline) and played one touch football. After about 5 days Ali returned to England and then his brother Sorel, who is a drummer and dancer in a Guinean troupe, had time to give me some jembe lessons.
The classes took place in the mornings in an amazing bamboo grove with many kids coming to watch and dance. I was learning traditional Guinean rhythms called Lamba, Kuku, Soko and Dundunba. Sorel loves teaching and the teacher/student relationship was of a type that I had not really experienced before - kind of a Zen thing. When he wasn't teaching me drumming, Sorel was spending most of his time with Be and she was obviously having a lot of fun so his friend Musto took on the role of my native guide which he was happy to do - and not for entirely selfless reasons. I soon realised that he was serious when he said something like "Hey, this is Gambia, you can have whatever you want" and had to be quite insistent to avoid being set up with prostitutes!
I was very keen to hear traditional music and was not disappointed. I saw three different Guinean dance troupes - African Ballet, Folonko and Fatala. The troupes generally consist of about six each of drummers (all male), male dancers and female dancers. All the performances I saw were in big hotels which exclude local people and pay artists a pittance. Before going on stage the drummers would gather round a small fire out back of the hotel to heat the drum skins which would otherwise sound flat at night.
Anyway, on to the performance which was always on an outdoor stage by the hotel pool. The basic musical line up was a dundun player (two double headed drums struck with a stick held in the right hand and a bell struck with a stick in the left), a few accompanying jembe players and a solo jembe player who to some extent controls things. On one occasion Sorel was not taking part but just sitting at a table with us watching the show when when the solo jembe let rip with something which said to him "Come on Sorel, if you are a man get up here and dance". He couldn't resist and joined them on stage with everyone else in costume and him wearing everyday clothes. The dancers had amazing energy and I thought the shows were truly incredible. Even Be, who had never got into drumming in England despite being involved in the rave/festival scene, was converted. I guess it has a lot to do with context.
Another highlight of the trip was on a sort of safari which I got talked into joining. The rest of the group I was with were on holiday together from Ireland and when we pulled up at zoo out in the bush they all rushed off to see the animals. I dallied by the jeep to share a joint with the driver and when I was good and ready I went for a wander. On reaching the lion enclosure I was amazed by the huge lioness dozing in the sun with her back against the railings and as there was no one around to stop me I just sat down and stroked the back of her neck. There can't be many people who have felt a lion purr.
On the same safari we visited a school where all the kids were handing us bits of paper with their name and addresses and saying "for friendship". A couple of years later I came across one of these and sent a postcard to a kid called Jerome - we are now penpals. Then there was the compound across the street where I once stopped to clap and dance with some kids - before I knew it I was eating dinner and being introduced to the whole extended family.
We had little time to relax, what with constant distractions and the inevitable hustling, but it seemed quite safe, even walking through side streets late at night. Of course nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock, but what it lacked in the relaxation department was more than made up for by everything else - well worth the effort. I won't bother giving you lots of links about the Gambia but you might like to check out this account of a visit by Liesbet Zikkenheimer.
www.zenatode.org.uk Ian Gregory 2010