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Tourism in The Gambia: Cardboard cut-outs or the real thing?

A warm welcome from smiling, sharp-witted traders awaits anyone who enters the sprawling alleyways of a Gambian market. These places are hives of activity with constant hustling and hassling, bustling and bartering.

Three cloves of garlic

But the economic reality of all this activity is very bleak. The traders often have only a handful of goods; tiny clumps of tomato and groundnut paste, dust-covered tins of sardines, evaporated milk and instant coffee, individual cigarettes, garlic cloves, peppercorns and the ubiquitous Maggi cubes seem to be the main items changing hands. Depending on the time of year, ripe or rotten fruits and vegetables also pass from seller to buyer.

How can someone afford to feed their family from the sale of three garlic cloves? How can it be worthwhile for a trader to sit all day under a hot tin market roof? Sometimes I think the gossiping and chattering and bantering and plaiting of each other’s hair is as important. It binds the community together; it creates a sense of ‘we are in this together’.

Used socks hang from wires. Boxes upon boxes of well-worn shoes line the shops, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Stacks of university-of-anywhere sweatshirts, mounds of aloha shirts, mountains of fake designer gear spill on to the road. These are the items rejected by Western charity shops.

Among the piles of tat, however, there are a few Western-desired gems. An almost new pair of Birkenstocks cost 15 dalasi (about 54 US cents). A ‘Prada’ bag goes for 45 dalasi (US $1.50). All of these items probably donated and then cleverly re-routed to the market. The bargain-hunting expatriates rummage through the piles looking for the designer labels. The Gambians reach out for the brightly coloured ski jackets and nylon tracksuits and polyester nightgowns. There always seems to be something for everyone.

Horns, many types of horns – from both domesticated and wild animals – are also sold in the market. Stuffed with a secret formula of various root powders, one horn is said to be just as powerful as any weapon and just as protective or offensive as any shield. Worn anywhere on the body or tied to a gun they afford the possessor supreme control. Another horn will cure impotence. Although it is illegal to sell wild animal parts, they are found in most markets because the wildlife conservation department does not have the resources – money, fuel, vehicles, people – to patrol the markets and confiscate these illegal items.

Karite, shea butter cream, used by the women to keep their skin smooth and youthful, is sold by the block. Women in their sixties often look decades younger. If I slather this rancid smelling cream on my face, will I wake up tomorrow looking 10 years younger? A long string of tiny pebbles lies on the market table next to the karite block. A smiling, stick-chewing, turbaned woman tells me I must buy it and tie it around my waist and ‘it will make my man love me forever and he will never go with another woman and he will do it all night long’.

Evil spirits at bay

Handmade wooden stools and washboards, neatly woven small rattan cupboards and hollowed out and dried calabashes, brightly coloured natural fabrics from neighbouring countries and slinky polyesters from Asia all fight for space in the alleyways and roadsides.

My favourite stall is run by a bearded, toothless old man covered in jujus to keep the evil spirits and evil-doers at bay. He sells filthy, broken toilet seats, at least 100 used and dirty bottles, holey, odd shoes and socks, crooked cupboard handles, ragged pieces of cloth, cracked and empty perfume bottles, dead tires, chipped plates, cups and jugs, twisted and tortured pieces of corrugated iron, bottle caps, and pots without handles: everything that belongs in a rubbish tip. In all my years here, I have never known anyone, except me, stop to inspect his goods.

This foul-smelling rat-run of buyers and sellers is not the Gambia found in travel magazines. Very few tourists come here – they are told to stay away. ‘It’s not safe. You will be robbed,’ their guides warn as they usher them into open-top jeeps for an expensive excursion into the bush to find the ‘real’ Africa. The tourists treat The Gambia like a zoo. They come to see how the ‘natives’ live but the real people, the real scenes elude and scare them. But for me, the people in the market are plugged into reality. It is the tourist who is totally disconnected from it.

Wandering through the markets my eyes are glued to the passing feet. Splayed, cracked heels, ragged and torn toenails, toes at odd angles. Brown feet, pinkish soles. Each foot is different; this foot works in the field; that foot walks the corridors of civil servantdom. All amble and stroll and meander. There is nowhere to go. Nothing to see or do. Just the daily routine of eating and sleeping, buying and selling.

Assanatou, a 53-year-old market trader and divorced mother of seven and grandmother of five, with her gold-capped teeth, traditional scars and tattoos on her cheeks and elaborate headscarves, is having a hard time. Her electricity and phone have been cut off. Her rent has gone up, her taxes have gone up and her profits have gone down. She does barely any business during the rainy season and finds that the dry season (or ‘tourist season’ as she calls it) is no better. The 30 jujus she wears on her waist and the two solid silver rings on her fingers that protect her from evil and bring ‘business luck’ are not working this season.

‘I wake at five, bathe my body, say my prayers, talk to my children and work from seven to seven everyday. I take no days off. I come if I am sick. For what? For nothing. We have no business now,’ she says. ‘We have no business for years since that man took over from President Jawara. Then it was good. The tourists came and they weren’t afraid to shop in the market and they were friendly. Now the tour guides and hotel owners tell the tourists to stay out of the big markets and stay in their hotels where they will be safe. Now the tourists pay too much for food and drink and clothes and beads in their hotels and never see Gambia or real working Gambians. They go to fake markets set up in the hotels, not the real markets.’

Assanatou was taken out of school and married at 14. ‘I screamed and screamed until there was no scream left.’ She had her first child at 15 and vowed that she would never do the same thing to her girls. She hasn’t. Both her 21-year-old daughter and her 33-year-old daughter are happily unmarried and not working as market traders.

My wooden crafts will see the world

Market prices vary according to availability and the colour of the buyer’s skin. Often there is one price for Gambians and another, higher price for toubobs, whiteys. The price also depends on the seller’s mood and financial situation.

Musa, wearing his jujus to protect him from vampires, devils and the evil eye, sits under a tin shack weaving his baskets.

‘How much do you charge the tourists for the baskets?’ I ask him.

‘The price depends on who is doing the buying and how much I have in my pocket. If I have money I am tough. If I have nothing in my pocket I am soft.’

‘Are you tough or soft today?’

‘I’m telling you today and this week and this month I am soft. There is no buying now.’

Sitting by the side of the road, Abdou sculpts his wooden bowls, plates and chairs from huge slabs of kenno wood. He knows what woods to use, where to get them and how to preserve them. He also knows which trees are disappearing from The Gambia and how it’s impacting on his livelihood. His work is beautiful, but it barely brings in enough to feed him and his family. Abdou tells me that he is glad when his bowls go off with a tourist because ‘then the bowl can see the world outside, something I will never see.’

‘Where have your bowls gone this month?’ I ask.

‘Now my bowls go nowhere. The tourists don’t buy my bowls this month. My bowls just sit here and watch Gambia go poor.’

Crucial and nothing

The first Gambian-European contacts were established in the 15th century. Colonialism, reliance on peanuts, and the slave trade followed. Small-scale tourism started here in the 1960s with the Scandinavians. Because The Gambia is only six hours flying time from northern Europe, often in the same time zone and has guaranteed sunshine from November to May, it soon became popular with British, German, Dutch tourists.

Tourism contributes approximately 16 per cent to the national income, is a top net foreign exchange earner and is responsible for over 10,000 direct and indirect jobs. In short, tourism is crucial to the Gambian macro-economy.

But how much of the tourist’s money will trickle down to the local people in the local markets? Some of the money will go to the foreign-owned airlines and tour operators. This foreign-directed money, known as ‘leakage’, consumes anywhere from slightly less than 50 per cent to almost 90 per cent of the tourist revenue in The Gambia, depending on whose arithmetic is being used.

Obviously, the Gambian economy is not entitled to 100 per cent of the revenue. But the local people who sell local goods in local markets should receive a fair share. Studies on Gambian tourism appear to show that tourism here is pro-poor and that the local people are benefiting. But the market traders I know seriously disagree.

In the present scenario Assanatou, Musa, Abdou and their fellow stall-holders and craftsmen are losing out, because many of the tourists visiting The Gambia stay in their hotels and rarely venture out into the real world.

These tourists are also missing out. They’re not in The Gambia. They are simply dropping in on an African beachscape, getting a quick tan, drinking imported beer and liquors and eating a European diet often made up of imported groceries with a few local chillies thrown in, taking hundreds of photographs, getting back on the plane and going home.

Photos by the author unless otherwise indicated. People in the pictures are not the ones interviewed for the story.


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