The Gambia

When The Gambia is written about in the Western press it is often presented as a sunshine-filled tourist haven populated by smiling happy locals – a bit like a cheap beach party that is a hop, skip and a flight from colder climes.

On the Atlantic coast, near the airport, next to the tourist hotels with their well-manicured gardens, there are tarmac roads that are usually well lit. There is normally electricity, clean water and decent sanitation.

Dawn Starin

Leaving the tourist areas and entering rural Gambia, however, the roads are so bad that vehicles have to crawl around the potholes and it can take half a day to travel 100 kilometres. The electricity, clean water and sanitation facilities disappear. Scarecrows are made from ripped plastic bags, old rice sacks or dead monkeys. Platforms made of sticks stand in the middle of fields to sit on or under while children, often accompanied by dogs, keep an eye out for marauding monkeys.

The Gambia, the smallest and most densely populated country on the African mainland, has virtually no natural resources – except for peanuts – and relies mostly on tourism, foreign aid and monies sent home by expatriates.

Life in rural Gambia is particularly difficult for women – child marriage and female genital mutilation are still common, while women do 70 per cent of the agricultural work. At many levels it is the women who, economically and nutritionally, hold the country together.

Flag of The Gambia

The country gained its independence from Britain in 1965 and was dominated for three decades by its first leader, Dawda Jawara. It formally united with French-speaking Senegal, which surrounds it, during the 1980s after a failed coup attempt but reasserted its independent status in 1989. The current president, Yahya Jammeh, a former army lieutenant, came to power in a 1994 coup. He has since been elected and re-elected but effectively rules the country with an iron fist.

His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh – to give him the full title he insists upon – is an eccentric figure. He has claimed that he can personally cure hypertension, infertility, asthma, strokes, sickle-cell anaemia, diabetes and AIDS, amongst other diseases. He claims to have received letters from US President Obama describing him as an inspirational leader and thanking him for his exemplary dedication, determination and perseverance for the development of The Gambia as well as the advancement of humanity at large – a claim denied by the Americans.

In March 2009, a literal witch-hunt sponsored by the state led to approximately 1,000 people being snatched from their villages and taken to secret detention centres. Amnesty International reported that, after being kidnapped, they were forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions and tortured to make them confess to witchcraft. The liquid they were forced to drink led to at least six deaths from kidney failure.

Jammeh has shut down newspapers, imprisoned journalists and stamped down on freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says there is ‘absolute intolerance of any form of criticism’ in The Gambia, with death threats, surveillance and arbitrary night-time arrests the daily lot of journalists ‘who do not sing the government’s praises’. Political arrests are also regular occurrences, with several cases of individuals who have ‘disappeared’, died in custody or died shortly after release. According to Amnesty International, once people are in custody, they risk a range of human rights violations, including unlawful detention, torture, unfair trials and extrajudicial killings.

Visitors to The Gambia’s beaches should look well beneath the surface – and the international community should pay more attention to the country’s increasingly worrying human rights record.