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My Gambia

An honest journal written by a development worker while living in The Gambia in 2003-2004

The Gambia: Info

This is written for those people who are going to move, or thinking about moving to The Gambia. Tourists usually stay in an area called Senegambia, and they don’t get to experience much of the African lifestyle. They do have to deal with the heat and being taken advantage of, financially, by some of the Gambians, but overall, they usually stay close to their hotels and don’t experience a lot of what I’m going to write about.

The following is information about the Kombos, the “cityish” part of the country. Upcountry is a completely different thing, and I know very little about it.


In Brief
Terms

  • Toubab
  • Bumster
  • Bush Taxi
  • Gelly-Gellys

Up Country vs Kombos
Banjul
Bakau
Serrekunda
Westfield
How to Dress
What to Bring
The Languages
Transportation
Toilets
Etiquette
The Men
Food
Some Things that may Shock You

**

There are several things you should know when you first arrive at the Gambia.

1. It is hot, but you’ll get used to it quickly. If you arrive in the Rainy season (June-November), you’ll find it muggy; it was strange to breathe in so much moisture all the time. It’s hard to imagine getting used to 40 degree weather, but you will. Find shade. You will befriend water more than you ever thought you could. In the Dry season (November to May), it gets cold at night (around 23-25 degrees), and normally never rains.

2. You will get noticed by The Gambians when you first arrive because of the paleness of your skin. Spend your first few days at the beach or outside, and they’ll stop pestering you as much. This is especially important for women. Gambian men know that you’ve just arrived in the country because of your colouring. After a while, you’ll also be able to tell if someone has just landed in The Gambia.

3. You will be yelled at. “Boss Lady,” “Nice lady,” “Boss Man,” “Toubab,” “Toubabo.” The list goes on. Be friendly, but don’t be afraid to tell them that you’d like to be alone, you’ll see them another day. It’s part of their culture to talk to you. Do NOT be offended when they call you a Toubab. Although they are calling you “White Person,” they usually don’t mean it negatively. They’re just telling you that they notice you. If you want to impress them and let them know that you know what you’re doing, call them “Mofi” back. It’s Mandinka for “Black Person,” but it’s not negative- as long as you’ve got a smile. Being light-hearted is the key. Remember, they’re just different than you. ANYONE who isn’t Gambian is a Toubab, not just white people. They’re just announcing that you’re different.

4. Be friendly, if I can stress one thing, it’s to be friendly. It takes a while to get used to the fact that on your way to store, you’ll have to converse with five people, even if you’re only going out for bread. Their pace is slow, they really like learning about other people, and if you take the time to talk to them, they will respect you more. There is no reason to let them in your home if you don’t want them to visit. Sometimes you’re busy, they can respect that, just tell them that you don’t have time to talk, and they will understand.

5. It’s sandy everywhere. It’s difficult to keep clean for that reason, and I often found myself washing my face three times a day.

6. Power outages are harsh. They happen at least once a day, and will last for hours (and sometimes days) at a time. Bakau has more of a stable power system for whatever reason. Water shortages are also commonplace. Bakau, however, was pretty good, and I had water almost every day for the five months I lived there.

Terms:

Toubab:
White person. Children are especially fond of calling us “Toubab,” but sometimes you hear it from adults as well. Women will usually ignore toubabs, they don’t really care to make a big deal about our presence.

Bumster:
Bumsters are men who are looking for white wives. They will try ANYTHING to get out of The Gambia. They will lie and cheat and pester you to no end. I had very little patience for bumsters, and I told them so. For some reason, there is a huge sub-culture in The Gambia for men to look for Toubab women. They believe that they will bring them back to their country and make them rich.

Surprisingly, there are lots of women that go to The Gambia to GET young, black men and bring them back to their country! You often see these women (50+) at the beach or walking down streets with a 20 year old man on her side.

The beach is where the Bumsters “train.” They spend all day flexing their muscles and exercising on the beach, hoping to be noticed by a lonely lady. If you’re a female on the beach by yourself, you WILL get harassed by these men. Best thing to do is bring along someone with you. If you’re by yourself, you’re asking for it. You’ve been warned.

Bumsters also like to hang out where Toubabs shop- outside of the grocery stores etc.

Bush Taxis:
They’re the yellow and green taxis that go around the same routes every day. There is a fixed fee (when I lived there, it cost D4 to go from Westfield to anywhere in the Kombos (see below), and D5 to get from Bakau to Banjul or Westfield to Banjul) for rides, but if you seem like you don’t know what you’re doing, they will try to rip you off.

Riding in bush taxis at first can be stressful. The drivers will ask you for a “Town Trip” which means that instead of paying the normal Gambian fee, you will ride in the taxi by yourself, and pay D80-D100. A lot of tourists don’t care about this, because it’s still only a couple of dollars or pounds, but to volunteers, it’s a lot of money.

ALWAYS check before you get into taxis that it’s going where you want to go, and that it’s a D4 fee. Lean over, and talk through the window, and say “Bakau, uh? Four Dalasi?”

I know I may seem a bit anal about HOW to say it, but trust me, this is how EVERYONE says it. Especially with the “Uh” at the end of the place name.

If they don’t want to accept your offer of paying the fair price, they will drive away. If they accept it, they will nod. Get in the car.

Gelly-Gellys:
Are big, cramped, crammed vans. Tourist Toubabs don’t often ride in these. It took me a while to get comfortable with it. They’re about the size of minivans, but they’ve adjusted the seats to fit up to 13 people inside. Like I said, it’s cramped. If you’re a bigger person, I recommend avoiding these, they’re sometimes hard to maneuver around. You will not get ripped off in Gelly-Gellys.

Boys who don’t attend school are often employed by the driver to take the money (about halfway through the ride) from all the passengers. They will give you change if you need it. The boys are called Apprentices (“Apprenty” is usually the word used, actually, but that’s not proper English.)

Watch your head when getting out of the van, it’ll hurt if you bump it. Everyone does it.

Up Country vs The Kombos:
There are two sections of The Gambia. Up Country is everything outside of the main part of The Gambia. It’s where Gambians live without much electricity or running water. They live off the land, and have very little resources or money.

The Kombos is where I spent all of my time, and it mainly is the capital city, Banjul, Fajara, Senegambia, Serrekunda, and Bakau.

Banjul:
Banjul is a dirty, hectic city that’s sometimes hard to get out of- especially at the end of work days and especially on Fridays at 1pm. You’ll share the road with goats and school children and business men and women. It’s the best place to buy cloth and shoes. Most toubabs dislike going into the city. They’ve got many schools, a hospital, the President’s house etc etc. It’s a capital city, mostly paved roads, bush taxis and gelly-gellys.

Bakau:
Bakau is a lovely little place with the best fruits and vegetables and fish market in the country. It’s the place that I called home. It’s got a couple of supermarkets with decent prices as well. The tourist market- where they sell jewelry and wood carvings are of high quality, and if you dare go in there, you will be harassed to buy something from everyone. They will try anything to buy from them, including guilt trip you about their sick children.

Serrekunda:
My least favorite place in The Gambia, but at the same time, so GENUINELY African! It’s got a HUGE market full of authentic Gambian ingredients, and stalls of buckets and pots and pans and trinkets. It’s hectic and horrifying and busy! Do NOT take pictures in this place. Horror stories of toubabs getting chased by Gambians. They all think that you will put their images on postcards.

Westfield:
This is a main “terminal” for bush taxis and gelly-gellys. It’s also hectic, a bit confusing, but necessary if you want to get anywhere. There’s also a bar right in the middle of Westfield that toubabs visit. A good place to get a beer, and for a meeting place.

How to Dress:
As you’re in a Muslim country, please do not wear things that show your thighs. I know it’s hot, but it’s not only disrespectful, you will get a lot of (usually unwanted) attention from Gambian men. In the touristy sections of The Gambia, it’s alright to wear bathing suits on the beach, the Bumsters will give you attention regardless, but don’t wear your bikini tops to the market.

We found that a lot of British tourists would go topless on the beach. We never really understood why- maybe it’s the idea that all Africans go topless, but it’s not true. The Gambian men and women don’t really like it, and we toubabs certainly don’t like it- it makes you (and us!) look bad.

Wear cotton underwear and cotton clothing. Skirts and longer shorts are fine as well. Bring a good pair of sandals with you from home- it’s extremely hard to find a good pair at any market. There are lots of hats for sale at markets, usually cheaper than ones from home- if you can bargain well, so the choice is yours if you want to bring one or buy it there. I didn’t often wear one, but I know some toubabs who would never go without one.

Regardless of you being in a Developing Country, you will be surprised how often you want to get back to your roots and have a good night out, with lots of dressing up and hanging out with the Toubab tourists. Bring nice clothes! Jewlbrew is the local beer and is quite tasty. We usually went out to Senegambia to party, and you can get mixed drinks just like at home. There is a strip of lots of bars and hotels.

What to bring:
If you like having specific shampoo/conditioner, facial cream, soap etc, bring it. The Gambia, for whatever reason, has the crappiest brands of stuff like that. It’s as though we make products of the poorest quality and ship it down there. I have seen Oil of Olay and Pert Plus, but the price is high. They also don’t really have makeup there for toubabs either.

Bring a nice bathing suit. I’ve heard The Gambia has the highest population of Volunteer workers in Africa, and we do tend to stick together. I made the mistake of thinking that I wouldn’t meet many people there, and brought a lot of ugly clothes and an ugly bathing suit. Not such a good thing in social situations.

Bring bed sheets and pillows. They’re difficult to find.

Also bring a pair of sunglasses. Nice ones are hard to find. Don’t forget your own sunscreen, Gambians don’t ever use it.

The Languages:

There are two dominating languages in The Gambia. I can’t tell you how important it is to try to speak them to the locals. They respect you a BILLION times more than a toubab who doesn’t speak their languages. This is especially important for women.

I learned mostly Mandinka, and here are some of the key phrases (mostly greetings). They’re spelled phonetically:

Yes: Ha
No: Hani
Thank you: Abbat-a-ka
No Thank you: Hani Abbat-a-ka

General greeting (the translation doesn’t make any sense): Quar-ta-nan-teh
To which they’ll reply: Ta-nan-teh
(and vice versa- if they say “Quar-ta-nan-teh” to you, you say “Ta-nan-teh” back)
Another general greeting is: “Soo-mo-leih”, which they’ll respond, “ee-be-jay.” If you are told “Soo-mo-leih,” respond with “ee-be-jay,” of course.

These two greetings are often repeated over and over between Gambians, and each of the questions they ask only really have one answer, which is what I gave you above. You, as a toubab will likely have to start the greeting process, as they have no idea you’ve gotten the insider’s view to the language.

When getting on Gelly-Gellys or bush taxis, greet the whole bus by saying (in a normal volume): Salam Alaikum. They will respond by saying “Alaikum Salam.” This is a Muslim phrase, but it’s become part of their culture, and everyone will say it, regardless of religion.

Wolof is also another language spoken, but I didn’t learn very much of it. The two key phrases I learned was how to tell the bush taxi to stop: “Nang-na-fee,” which means, stop here, and “wow” which means “yes.”

Transportation:
I mentioned the modes earlier, bush taxis and Gelly-Gellys. The prices when I was there are as follows:
From Fajara (ie Sabina) to Westfield: 4D
From Bakau to Westfield: 4D
Serrekunda to Westfield: 4D
From Westfield to Banjul: 5D
From Bakau to Banjul: 5D

The prices will probably be a little different, but they’re all very reasonable. That’s only about $0.04-$0.06 Canadian. From Bakau to Banjul it usually takes about 20 minutes.

You can get in and out of bush taxis and Gelly-Gellys at any point of the trip. If you’re in a bush taxi, you just have to tell the driver to stop, and pay the full fare. If you’re in a Gelly-Gelly, you tell his apprentice that you’d like to get out, and he’ll tell the driver himself.

When you’re on the side of the road, there are certain hand signals you need to know to catch a bush taxi going to the right place. If you point your index finger at the ground, that means you want to go to Westfield (you will, of course, have to be on the proper side of the road heading towards Westfield). If you want to go to Bakau, point to the direction of Bakau, and they’ll know. Apprentices will often hang out the window and yell the name of the place they’re going. Banjul apprentices will yell, “Banu!Banu!Banu!” very quickly. If you want to get in, just nod and they’ll make the driver stop.

Toilets:
There are very, very few public toilets. I will warn you now. There is also never toilet paper (though there are cans or jugs in Gambian’s washrooms- schools have toilets. The cans are used to fill up water from the sink and they wash themselves with that). These two things were a huge shock for me. Toilets also usually don’t have seats, and when you live in Africa, you will get used to peeing standing up. There are also toilets that are just holes in the ground.

Etiquette:
Greetings are of utmost importance. Some Gambians will greet each other (repeating some of the ones I mentioned above) for several minutes before starting their conversation. It is rude to go to work and not go around to everyone and say hello. They are used to asking questions in greeting, as well. The way they phrase their questions caught me off guard, and some of those are:

How is your body?
How is the day?
How is the/your family?
How is your husband?

They are very good at remembering details, like if you coughed the last time they saw you, they will ask if you’re feeling better.

NEVER, EVER eat with your left hand in public. The left hand is the one they use for cleaning themselves after going to the bathroom, and they consider it disgusting.

Some men who are very devoted to their religion, will not shake a woman’s hand. They feel that it is not being faithful (or something) to their wives. Most men will, though, as it only happened to me once during my time there. If you really want to impress them, after you’re done shaking their hand, put your right hand over your heart. This means that you have high respect for them.

White people are always looked as having a better life, or having lots of money. If you’re invited to a wedding, you will be expected to bring a present (usually money) for the bride/groom, but also for the one(s) who are organizing the wedding. You should also wear traditional African wear, which you can get made by a tailor. Shopping for fabric in Banjul is a blast- but very tiresome because of the attention you will get, and also from having to bargain so hard.

You will become a master of small chat. I know that it’s easier for toubab men in The Gambia, but women will get a LOT of attention from men. Usually, women don’t really care about you being there, but often men will love to talk to you and ask you lots of questions.

The Men:
This was probably the most stressful thing about The Gambia. It didn’t matter if you wanted to be alone or if you just wanted to do some shopping- men were always around, willing to talk and to try to get you to fall in love with them.

Here’s a WONDERFUL tip that took me months to figure out. Make up a husband if you don’t already have one. Pretend that he is the most controlling man on the planet, and tell the boys bothering you about him. I realized that the more controlling I made my fake husband, the more they’d leave me alone and RESPECT me!

Ie) “Oh yes, I have a husband. He is very nice to me, but he would not like it if he knew I was talking to you. He is so scared that a Gambian man will take me away from him. He loves me very much and doesn’t allow me to talk to other men. He doesn’t even like it when I look at them. You can understand, right? If you had a wife, would you like it if she was talking to other boys? I’m sorry, but I must make my husband happy and proud of me, so I have to go now. Bye.”

As stupid as it sounds, it works like a charm.

For some reason, a HUGE part of their culture is to find white wives. White (and usually) English women come to The Gambia and find younger men and take them home, or at least, have a short affair with them. There are men, as I mentioned, Bumsters, who spend their whole lives waiting for a white woman to take them home so they can live a rich life. Toubabs are looked at as having everything anyone could want. Toubab women get so much attention, regardless of what they’re doing or how long they’ve lived in the country, it becomes a bit overwhelming.

Food:
I didn’t eat much traditional food because I’m a vegetarian, and Gambian’s diet is mostly based on fish and meat, along with rice.
Bread, named Tapalapa is very popular and cheap. It’s a big, dense white bread that’s really good. You can buy Tapalapa at bitiks.

Bitiks are little “convenient stores” that usually have one worker and behind him are canned goods, sandwiches, bread and cigarettes. They’re usually a good place for fair-priced items.

Bitiks are also the only place I found for eggs, which are never refrigerated. You can buy them either hard boiled or raw. Canned baked beans are cheaper at bitiks than at supermarkets.

Supermarkets abound in Bakau and along the Pipeline. They’re a good place for chocolate, cookies, canned foods, cereals (watch out- very expensive), and candy. It’s also a good place for candles, matches, cartons of cigarettes, liquor, Bop (or other insect killers), and frozen foods. They’re quite well stocked, but are usually overpriced. You don’t see many Gambians shopping at grocery stores. Bums often hang out in front of supermarkets looking for a donation.

The best place in all the country for fresh fruit and vegetables is the Bakau market. Depending on the time of year you can get mangos, pineapple, star fruit, bananas, potatoes, onions, green pepper, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, garlic, cucumbers, oranges, amongst other things. Gambian fruit and vegetable markets have a lot of variety, and we only really missed green vegetables like spinach.

Some Things that may Shock You:

  • You share the road with animals. Goats, chickens, ducks, dogs. They’re everywhere. There aren’t many farms… animals just wander around all the time.
  • Cats aren’t well regarded. Neither are dogs. They usually don’t keep pets.
  • They don’t have a garbage disposal system. They burn their garbage (plastic, food scraps, aerosol cans- everything) in the streets.
  • They don’t use utensils to eat, but rather their fingers from a communal bowl.
  • You will see people with things on their heads. Everything from bowls to kitchen tables and chairs. It’s a wonderful thing. Strange to see at first, but really beautiful. I’ve seen women carrying HUGE basins of water on their heads that must have weighed 75lbs. Their necks are so strong.
  • You will pay at LEAST twice the amount that Gambians pay for the same item. Unless you make some reliable Gambian friends, you will get ripped off.
  • Most Gambians make less than 300D a month, which is roughly $10.00 USD.
  • Gambians are the nicest people I’ve ever met.
  • They’re also the most resourceful and hard working people I’ve ever met.

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