Bicycling in Gambia – some thoughts from my trip
I really enjoyed my riding there, along all of the surfaced roads, north and south banks, and a considerable amount on the red rough stone roads too. The soft sand tracks often down to the beach or banks of the river were very difficult to ride, especially with my big bag on the back. I found all the taxi and car drivers very considerate, with a gentle toot of the horn to warn me of their approach. The heavy trucks were not as considerate.
My first three weeks were very hot but the mornings cooled enough to be pleasant in 2nd week of November.
My couchsurfing was brilliant, making the whole trip so much more ‘Gambian’ than staying only in guest houses or hotels.
I had only one puncture, and one spoke break which was fixed by Malik, in Gunjur village.
I cycled 948 miles along north and south banks of the winding river, slept in 22 beds over the 52 day tour, drank ceremonial ‘green tea’ with many groups of young and old Gambians, stayed on local compounds, in a few guest houses, and the occasional Residence or Motel. For 7 weeks I lived as a white Gambian, called Dowda (David) Ceeshay, sharing my life with the most friendly, open, honest and happy people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. I never locked my bike once !
But, Gambia also has the most corrupt government, and extravagant, callous President that I have ever had to witness. He drives to his newly-built Mosque in a cavalcade of armed military vehicles, six huge new limousines, and other motorbikes and vehicles, which the general public are not even allowed to photograph. His fellow Gambians just a few miles up river are desperate for food for tomorrow, with babies lying on sand floors along with the goats and chickens, and children fighting over half a banana. Schools without furniture, and teachers so poorly paid that classes of 50 are the norm, with children walking several miles to school each day.
If you book a Gambia vacation with a recognised tour operator, I am sure that you will find, perfect weather, very good hotels, food, guided tours, and souvenir shops, They are all situated in an area south of Banjul, called ‘Combo’, along a beautiful long and varied stretch of beach, from North Point down to Senagambia. Beach bars, sun shaded recliners, large pools, bars, and all you need to relax for a short break from work. BUT YOU WILL NOT SEE GAMBIA AS IT REALLY IS. Gambia is a vast divide, Government sponsored TOURISM by the sea, probably only 8% of the country, and the other 92% of the country, UP-RIVER.
All the Voluntary Aid, World Subsidies, EC Grants, Sponsored Projects, and a host of other charities, are pouring money into the country that is mostly squandered, either by corruption, a lack of initial supervision, or more usually, by no follow-up maintenance, or a complete lack of skilled technicians paid to oversee the project.
There are exceptions to this of course, and far more than I managed to see, no doubt at all. Three at least are shining examples of successful external funding.
If you have time to Google, ‘Gunjur Project, Gambia‘, you will find a holiday to remember, in a small enclosed area, lovely private rooms, great bar, restaurant and swimming pool, quiet district, and even tours and entertainment. The unusual aspect here is that it was built, and is run by a family from UK, Mum and Dad, daughter and husband, and toddler Charlie. All the local employees are virtually members of the family, and Jo. the Mum looks after the charitable side of the business, sponsoring local children and schools, with INDIVIDUAL attention to each and every pound donated. A very well worthy charity, and an even better holiday venue.
Another, quite different approach was another accommodation type, Tumani Tenda Ecotourism Camp, up-river on the south bank. This was started with a private European donation, but it was built and is run entirely by the locals living in the village. This was one of the best basic places I stayed in, with exceptional food. Every Dalasi spent was meticulously recorded, income and expenditure, it was staffed by the village, and a commitee decided on development and maintenance matters. Swimming was in the river, and you would really be, and feel, as though you were in the true Africa.
I stayed too in Juffreh Resthouse, again basic, but built and run by the village, clean, very friendly, right in the middle of the old ‘slave trade area’ and on the north bank of the river, a fishing village with historic connections.
It was difficult to travel around as I did, without guides or recognised normal transport, but I was in constant close contact with the local community, and individuals. I can honestly say that up-river I met hardly anyone who was NOT in need of some kind of assistance, from needing food, school fees, books, or a host of other basic necessities. I have returned, certainly changed. I can not switch on the light, without thinking of candles or a flashlight; clean my teeth, drink water, eat breakfast, or go to the toilet without being thankful.
I have in mind several situations where I think that I could maybe make changes for the better, either for a group, or for an individual. Once things have settled down after the holiday, I will try to consider relative merits and methods.
Coming from real poverty to Christmas holiday madness. Where has Christ’s message got lost ? Holiday season, yes, but celebrating the birth of Christ, maybe not !
by David Moseley