An unforgettable journey to the land of Kunta Kinte

With a warm climate year round and an abundance of beaches, The Gambia has become a popular budget tourist destination in recent years. The country has a lot to offer. However, there is an odd feature of the tourism industry—gigolos. Young Gambian men have relationships with female tourists, many in their later years. Romances between local men in their 20s and white women in their 60s and 70s are common sight. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter recently traveled to the small West African country and experienced this and other attention-grabbing things.

Kunta Kinte is a West African slave, who was taken to America in the mid-1760s. His epic story tells his persistent fight against slavery and the atrocities that came with it. He is considered to be a paramount icon in African-American history. A principal character of the hit TV miniseries “Roots”, Kunta Kinte was kidnapped while he was searching for wood to make a drum for his younger brother. He found himself blindfolded, gaged, bound, and a prisoner. He and others were taken on a slave ship to North America. It was very difficult for the insubordinate man to swallow the gut wrenching truth that befell him. His slave masters renamed him Toby and forced him to accept his fate. However, that was not acceptable for the defiant African and tried to escape recurrently; that resulted in ghastly tortures and a cruel choice—castration or having his right foot cut off. He chose to have his foot cut off. Till his last breath he always dreamed of going back to Africa; back to his home land.

Many in Addis Ababa, who grew up watching Ethiopian Television, are well acquainted with the name Kunta Kinte and Roots. The well-celebrated book, which was written by Alex Haley [a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte] and was later adapted into a hit miniseries, unfolds the brutality of slavery. This book is based on Haley’s family oral history, which traces the capture of his ancestor [Kunta Kinte] from the Mandinka village of Juffure, in The Gambia. In the final episodes of the series, Haley (played by James Earl Jones) arrived in Juffure tracking his lineage and was finally in touch with is ancestral roots. As he arrived in the village, the film depicts the greenness of the area and the self-effacement of the people. This is an informal introduction of The Gambia a.k.a. the smiling coast of Africa. The small West African country is bounded by Senegal with a narrow Atlantic coastline. Gambia’s river-focused geography has given it a pivotal role in the trading history of Africa – particularly the slave trade.  Some three million slaves are believed to have been taken from the region during that period. Today, one of the most popular heritage products is the Gambia Roots Tour, inspired by Haley’s book.

Though a vast majority of Ethiopians are not well acquainted with this small country, nowadays, the periodic session of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which is headquartered in Banjul, The Gambia, have allowed some to travel to one of the smallest African countries.

The African Charter established the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Commission was inaugurated on November 2, 1987 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Commission’s Secretariat has subsequently been located in Banjul. The Commission consists of 11 members elected by the AU Assembly from experts nominated by the State Parties to the Charter. One of the commissioners is an Ethiopian by the name of Solomon Ayele Dersso (PhD).

So far, various sessions have been held in Banjul and human right defenders, activists and various stakeholders gather from all over Africa to deliberate on issues. I was invited to be part of the NGO Forum that convenes twice a year just before the ACHPR sessions. I was excited to visit the country I knew nothing about and my Gambian adventure started from the embassy, which is located around Sar Bet.

Embassies usually establish what sort of people you will meet and what sort of culture you will experience once you travel to the respective country. Still, you expect some sort of a procedural practice whenever you apply for a visa. That was my anticipation when went to the Gambian embassy. A couple of applicants including myself were welcomed by Yaya Dibba, protocol officer, in a humble manner. Though the day we arrived was a holiday (Good Friday in the Gregorian calendar) he was highly cooperative and started to facilitate things for us. He offered to make tea and introduced me to his family. That was a bit strange for since this does not happen across the board.

When he asked me how long I was going to stay? I told the gentleman that I was going to stay for a week. “You might like the beaches and want to stay more so I will give you a month’s visa just in case,” he said while smiling. He even gave me a contact so that my stay there would be contented.

I departed Addis Ababa on April 1 on-board Kenyan Airways transiting in Nairobi with stopovers in Djibouti and Abidjan. After finally reaching Dakar we had to connect to another flight to Banjul via Brussels airlines.

We had very little time and we hurried to the luggage area to collect our stuff and catch the other flight. We anxiously waited to see if our luggages made it. A gentleman, who was on another connection flight to Mauritania, seemed to have understood what was happening and kept saying: “Our luggages is delayed.”

His assumption turned out to be true. Travellers on connection flights were told that their luggages have been delayed. After filling the forms for missing luggage we literally had to run to catch our flights. The check-in area was a bit scattered and when we enquired on what is going on we were notified that the flight was cancelled following the Brussels terror attack on March 22.

At the counter they told us to go to Senegalese Airways to ask for alternatives. Many of us immediately headed to the office of Senegalese Airways and were told that the next flight was on Wednesday with Arik Air (a Nigerian airline).

Basically what they proposed was to stay five more days in Dakar. In the middle of this mix-up a lady, who was also travelling to attend the conference, suggested that we travel by car.

Some of us were not comfortable with the idea but she assured us that it was safe. Those of us, who were participants of the conference decided to meet up at a certain Fana Hotel. The name Fana Hotel took me by surprise and I asked the receptionist if the owner is Ethiopian. I noticed from his expression that my question had bewildered him. He then replied that the hotel is owned by an Ethiopian; but the rest of the conversation was downright confusion. He was speaking in French, I was trying to communicate in English and the end result was riling misunderstanding. After leaving Fana and the beautiful city of Dakar, we continued our journey late in the afternoon listening to Senegalese music including the timeless tunes of Youssou N’Dour.

Public buses overloaded with passengers filled the roads. Sadly, Dakar is no different from other African cities that I have visited so far. Public transportation has a long way to go.  In fact, things are a little bit extreme and one can even call it dangerous. For instance, two passengers were hanging out back door of a bus and jumped off while the car was moving. That was a bit shocking. I can boldly say that the suffocating and overcrowded Anbessa Bus is way better.

The air was cool and refreshing and was complemented by green surroundings. Though the road was smooth at first when we approached the border it became terrible. Since our journey started late we were forced to spend the night at a border town. We spent the night at Africa Strike Lodge. The accommodation was modest and clean. However, you will not be charged for a room. You will be charged for bed. So, if you rent a double bedroom you will be required to pay for both beds.

Early in the morning we started our journey to the teeming border. Vehicles, traders and foreign exchange agents with lots of cash on their hands crowded the town. The immigration process was not complicated and the long journey to Gambia continued. After a while, we reached a spot where we were required to board a ferry.

The town was overcrowded with thousands of people who were also waiting for the same ferry. There are many facilitators who wanted to help through the whole process including a man who seems to have some knowledge about Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Ethiopian calendar. While waiting for the ferry the man was talking about the Mandinka village of Juffure.

Though the ferry arrived, getting on it was not an easy undertaking. Thousands of passengers, who were anxiously waiting for hours, started rushing towards the ferry. Since we did not want to miss the ferry had to tell facilitators that we are delegates of the African Union which surprisingly got us priority. The ferry was overcrowded and people were crammed like chicken. After 30 minutes of an uncomfortable ferry ride and an arduous two-day journey for the Ethiopian traveler (me), we arrived in Banjul; the smiling coast of Africa. Apart from a short Atlantic Ocean coastline on its western end, Gambia, which is one of the smallest countries on mainland Africa, is almost surrounded fenced by Senegal.

After the long journey, the break we took was frivolous since we had to rush to the NGO forum. The forum provided a discussion platform for over 200 organizations working on democracy and human rights issues in Africa.

One of the compelling issues that were raised on the side meeting was the issue of internet freedom. Comprised of many stakeholders the discussion revolved around the nature of internet. The internet has a tremendous impact on freedom of expression and other human rights across the African continent, including citizen participation and the rights of women and marginalized groups. But as a highly complex and fast-changing environment, the internet also brings its own challenges.

During the forum issues such as the current status of freedom of expression and internet in Africa and the threat it brings to human rights through measures that curtail freedom of expression and undermine individual security were discussed.

The forum aimed at exploring existing initiatives and identifying concrete ways forward for an internet that will serve as a tool for equitable socio-economic development and empowerment on the continent. The main issue that was raised regarding freedom is online and tech-related violence, which is part of the continuum of gender based-violence.

 Many pointed out that the challenges of misogynistic attacks, threats, intimidation and policing experienced by women online is escalating at an alarming rate. Surveillance by the state and non-state actors to control and regulate information—such as the registration of personal information by telecom companies all over Africa—was also discussed.

After the three -day NGO forum the 58th ordinary session of the African Human Right Commission continued with various events. On this occasion countries presented their human rights reports. Ending Violence and Other Human Rights Violations Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Decimalization of Abortion Campaign and General Comments on the Right to Redress for Victims of Torture and Ill Treatment were some of the panels.

Apart from the main meeting, there were also sideline meetings on the relentless civil war regarding Burundi and Sudan. Human right defenders, who work on the ground, presented the magnitude of the atrocities and the negligence that exist. The meetings were held at the exquisite Kairaba Hotel in Senegambia town. This town is also a tourist destination. With its marvelous beaches, all-year-round sunny weather, history and heritage the place has managed to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  According to an article published by the BBC on January 7, 2015, tourism accounts 40 percent of Gambia’s annual economic output and 60 percent of all tourists come from the UK.

The article also states that in a normal tourist season nearly 200,000 people choose it as their holiday destination. Already established as a haven for winter sun visitors, many western tourists are seen in bikinis while some are even naked and sunbath around the beach. What took me by surprise is one very unusual sight. Interestingly, in this part of Africa old white women—some in their 70s—can be seen bumping and grinding in the nightclubs and outdoor beach parties with Gambians young enough to be their grandsons.

The extent of old white men and women going out with young Gambians a.k.a. Bumsters is very shocking. Similarly, the problem of sex tourism is increasing at an alarming rate. It is very common to see 12-year-old boys and girls with old white tourists in restaurant, resorts and on the streets. This practice seems to be a mockery of a Gambian slogan which reads as: “Break the Culture of Silence: Speak out Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children.” 

During the 2002/03 tourist seasons, Gambian law enforcement agencies, in collaboration with the national tourism association, launched an anti-bumster campaign. It was reported that uniformed security personnel rounded up “obvious looking bumsters”, shaved off their dreadlocks and began routinely patrolling the tourist areas along the coast. However, the tourists traveling for sex are not being discouraged.

A Sierra Leonean bartender, who works at a bar called Paradise a Lebanese was told my acquaintances and myself that he has one day witnessed an older tourist refusing to pay money to a very young girl. Disgusted by this state of affairs, he says that Gambia is a place where a person’s skin is a privilege and many Gambians do not enquire if these people are criminals. “The white people are worshipped for their money and tourists take advantage of their [Gambians] vulnerability,” the bartender says.

Still Gambian men are ready to flirt with tourists especially with those at the beach. One evening I was walking on the beach and met a Gambian man who calls himself “painkiller”. He offered to take me to the beach and showered me with compliments. He persisted in following me everywhere. That made me uncomfortable and declined. The next morning I saw “painkiller” with two white women tourists walking down to the beach close to the hotel I was staying at. It was not just him; many Gambian men flirt and invite me to a party on the beach. The even go further and ask me if they can come to my room.

On the other hand, there are others who are genuinely humble. They respectfully ask you how your day was. For instance, when you enter a shop or a restaurant warmly greet y you and offer you tea.

Ibrahim, a young Gambian, made mint flavored tea with an intrinsic ritual and offered me a cup. While having tea he told me that love had no age limit. “My friends don’t agree with this. They say that if there is a huge age gap then that is not love,” he says. One of his friends said that there are many Gambians who have made the wrong choices and faced some harsh realities. “Some Gambians who were married to white women/men in order to leave the country ended up being sex slaves or deported. If they ever reach Europe they will be locked in one room and are treated like dogs. This is not love rather they are used as sex toys,” Ibrahim’s friend says.

Though some criticize the notion there are others like Musa a.k.a. Moses. A cab driver, Moses is an interesting guy who has deep love for dance hall musicians such as Jamaican dance hall artist Vybz Kartel. Moses, who calls himself a Mandinka warrior, has a white girlfriend who visits him frequently. He says that he is not bothered by the situation at all. Changing the subject from his white girl friend he asked if I am a Fulani (a fairer skin people who are mostly nomadic and widely dispersed in parts of West Africa and northern parts of Central Africa).  In fact, it was not only him who asked me if I was a “Fulani”. When I tell them that I am an Ethiopian, they say that it is the same. “Fulani people came from Ethiopia,” Mussa, who himself has a fairer skin, says. “People think I am a Fulani but I am a Mandinka warrior,” he proudly says.

With its big resorts, various international cuisines and vibrant music scene, Senegambia does not sleep. For instance, if you go to a Lebanese restaurant you can listen to a melodious live music. The time I went there a duo were singing Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” while playing their guitars.  Reggae and dance hall is very popular in Gambia. Likewise, live music everywhere. Apart from reggae kora is also popular and Kora Jaliba Kuyateh, who is referred to as the “King of Kora”, is highly adored. He sings about burning issues and relates it with the majority of Gambians.

Unlike the dishes of various African countries, Gambian cuisine is very delicious. Dishes such as Benachin (fish, seasoned with herbs, lemon juice, basil and vegetables cooked in one pot), Damoda (concentrated peanut paste, meat or fish seasoned with salt, vegetables and other ingredients) and Yassa (a lemon whole chicken or fish dish made with salt, pepper, onion rice and other ingredients) are to die for.

Apart from this, Gambia is a sanctuary for many types of bird species and the meandering waterway of the Gambia River lends itself to watersports, fishing and inland cruising. Whatever the holiday is, Gambia has something for everyone.  Tourist can also enjoy horseback riding, jet skiing, windsurfing, sky diving, fishing and other alternative packages.  Many African Americans also come to visit Juffure. It is believed some three million slaves were taken from the region. Many visit museums where they will see some historical artifacts of enslavement on display such as chain neck-locks and foot-locks.

Muslims constitute 90 percent of the population of the Gambia. An estimated 8 percent of the population is Christian, and less than two percent practice African Traditional Religion. In addition, Intermarriage between Muslims and Christians is common. In some areas, Islam and Christianity are syncretized with African Traditional Religion.

The streets of Gambia are filled with posters of the country’s president Yahyah Jammeh which reads: “Jammeh for Your Future.” The president is known for claiming to have discovered a cure for HIV/AIDS using a green herbal paste and bananas. In addition to that, he is also known for making a bold move in leaving the Commonwealth after a 48-year membership of the Organization.

"The government has withdrawn its membership of the British Commonwealth and decided that the Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism," the Gambian government said in a statement back in 2013.

The Gambia got its independence from Britain in 1965. Since gaining independence, the country had two leaders Dawda Jawara and the current leader Yahya Jammeh. He seized power in a 1994 bloodless coup at the age of 29. 

Officially called the Islamic Republic of The Gambia, Friday is a holiday and government offices do not working on this day. And my stay in Gambia came to an end on Friday April 8. My next destination was supposed to be Dakar but that was not possible since there was a problem finding flights to Dakar so I had to fly Casablanca via Royal Air Maroc.

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