I had the opportunity to visit Gambia for the second time in a year as an International Programmes Officer responsible for monitoring orphan programmes for an NGO in London. My visit lasted 10 days and I met many orphans, widows and many other local Gambian people. Gambia celebrated its 50th independence anniversary on 18 February. One of the first things you will notice when you go to the country is how secure and peaceful this country dubbed the smiley coast of Africa is. You will specially notice this at nights when you see many women in the middle of the night walking alone. I said to my Gambian friends aren’t these women afraid to be harmed by criminals or sick men who may want to rape them. They told any man who rapes a woman in Gambia will face the prospect of life imprisonment and any man who resorts to such violent sexual abuse will be disowned by his own tribe due to the shame he will bring to them. One day when I was going to the market, I saw a group of young and old men circling a young Gambian man. Some were holding him by the collar of his shirt and others pushing him around. When I enquired about what was unfolding in front of my eyes, I was informed these are group of vigilantes taking the young man they are holding to the police station as he was caught shoplifting.
With a population of 1.8 Million, everywhere you look there are very young children in Gambia. Marrying two wives is the norm and when you see the numerous children in the streets you will think couples were given assignments to increase the Gambian population. People work hard for their living though. Gambia is a tourist county and many people work in the hotel industry, but tourism has been hit hard this year by the Ebola decease outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia & Guinea. Although there has been no single case of Ebola in Gambia many tourists avoided travelling to West Africa this year and the hotel I was staying lost almost 50% of its customers. Assisatou – a hard working worker at the restaurant of the hotel told me she will be out of work from 24 April until October as most employees will be sent home except few permanent maintenance staff who will receive 75% of their normal salary and continue working until the hotel reopens. Modou, the senior housekeeping supervisors who has been with the hotel for 16 years is amongst the lucky ones who will be staying with a pay cut.
Children as young as 6 & 7 are on the streets selling all kinds products. I met a 9 year old selling cashew nuts and was approached by young girls who wanted to sell me boiled eggs at the Gambian Senegal border. How many boiled eggs can a genetically modified African living in London eat? I gave them some money to share and spared myself to gulp down dozen eggs. I also met Gambian women in a village making traditional brooms. They sell the brooms for 5 dalasi each; that’s less than a penny. Despite all the hardships they face the people of Gambia are proud of their country and see working and earning a living an honour. I don’t like to see children as young as 6 working but the necessities of life and endless needs of poor families force these young children to earn income by selling whatever they can sell to support their parents.
Most of the widows I have met on my 10 days work trip were in their early & late 30s. Their husbands were 20, 30 and sometimes 40 years their senior. Some of these women remarried when their husbands died. Unfortunately for some of them the new husbands did not accept the children they had from the previous husbands and their orphans ended up in orphanages or with other family members. I asked young girls in Bakau why they marry husbands up to 30 years older than them and not look for men close to their age. They said young men our age and those slightly older than us have no means to marry us and it’s usually those older men who have the resources – so we have no choice. This was the second time I have visited Gambia and I’m already missing this great African country and its friendly smiling people.
My visit to Kunta Kinteh island
I paid emotional visit to Kunta Kinteh Island where our fellow African brothers and sisters from Gambia used to be taken before they were shipped to America to be sold as slaves. I’m probably the first Somalilander who visited the island. The island was known as St Andrews Island during the Portuguese era and was named St James Island afterwards by the British. In 2011, Yahya Jammeh – the President of Gambia renamed the Island ‘ the Kunta Kinteh Island’. It is only 3 miles from the village of Juffureh but according to my guide, 900 Gambians who couldn’t swim died there when their captors set them free. He said at those times the Gambia River was full of crocodiles and even if they knew how to swim they wouldn’t have survived the dangerous crocodiles that lurked in the river. This is how cruel & brutal the slave traders were.
During the transatlantic slave trade, young strong Gambian men and women were captured, chained and imprisoned in the Island and shipped to America were they were sold like merchandise. Many Gambian women were raped in the island as pregnant Gambian slaves were more valuable because of the baby they carried. The journey to America lasted 6 – 9 months and many slaves died on those ships due to the exceptionally poor conditions they were kept in. Many died of Malaria and hygiene problems. They were staked together like Sardines while chained and you can imagine the disease that can develop from people who had to release their basic needs without a toilet. As shown in the film roots adopted from Alex Haley’s book about slavery, Kunta Kinteh was a very strong Gambian young man who was proud of his African traditions and roots. It was painful experience for me seeing the island where this brave young man was locked amongst his other innocent native Gambians by greedy, inhuman, savage, despicable white slave traders.
About 30 million African shaves were shipped to America, around 6 million of those died while being shipped. This is Africa’s Holocaust and Arab, Portuguese, British and other countries involved in the slave trade have to be brought to justice. Those who were involved in the Holocaust are hunted up to this present day and brought to justice to face the crimes they have committed against innocent Jewish people and humanity. I’m not saying the slave traders bones should be exhumed from their graves to face justice, but the countries they belonged which benefited from this slave trade should be brought to justice and Gambia and other African countries who suffered as result of this barbaric practice should be compensated. I don’t know how it occurred to those subhuman slave traders to do what they did.
Sorry the road is closed for wedding!
( Part 3)
Gambia was not as hot as the last time I visited the country last May but my coconut oil that hardly moves in London melted. At the hotel I’m staying one of the ladies who serves breakfast is Assisatou. She makes very delicious waffles. For some reason most women in Gambia have got “tou” as part of their name. If you are called Fatima you will be called Fatimatou, Aisha – Aishatou and so on. I asked the lady who is in charge of the beach towels in my hotel, called Khadijatou why Gambians use tou at the end of their names. She said its tradition. Just like the Indians add Khan at the end of their name we add tou. I said this is fair and told her she can call me Mohamedtou. She said the tou is only for female names. She got me there.
As I was walking by the beach just before my work day started, I met two Gambian gentlemen – Abu-Bakr and Ismail. Abu-Bakr is young man who is self-employed and in his 20s, while Ismail is an old gentleman who works as a security guard at the hotel. Abu-Bakr told me “sir let me sell you some cigarettes & tobacco”. I told him “aren’t you going to ask me first if I smoke, besides why do you want to kill a brother from Somaliland who is a guest in your country”. He smiled and said “OK, buy for your family & friends”. “I don’t want to kill them either” I said. The old gentleman joined the discussion and said “I’m from the same tribe as President Yahya Jammeh; I’m from the Jola tribe and used to be a soldier when I was a young man”. I said “Good to hear that Ismail, I hope the president treats you well. I then asked Abu-Bakr his views about politics and the President. He told me he doesn’t care about politics as it doesn’t change anything in his life. I compared this to how many people are obsessed with politics. When I was about to leave them I told the young man “may Allah bless your business”. He responded “how is my business going to be blessed when my pocket is empty and I don’t have fish money for my wife”. I asked him what he meant about fish money and he told me this is the money he gives to his wife for daily shopping such as shopping for food ‘ biilka reerka ‘. He was a clever young man. He added “the old man you see in front of you works 5 days a week and makes only 2000 Dalasi. This is roughly about £30 a month. I went back to my hotel and gave Ismail & Abu-Bakr 200 Dalasi each – Enough fish money for a day.
What amazed me most about my 10 days stay in Gambia was a closed road we came across as we were heading for dinner after work one night. Local people who had a wedding ceremony basically closed the road and built a wedding tent in the middle of it with all sorts of wedding decorations. I told my Gambian colleagues how this is possible and they told me everything is possible, you just need a permit. Sometimes you can get away with this without a permit too they said.
Gambia has become my second favourite African country after Somaliland where I was born. I love this country and its people and I hope President Yahiya Jammeh will give me the Gambian citizenship one day.
Somaliland activist & writer