A Blend of Two Worlds – Afropean in The Gambia

Gambia is a place that is on the move.  With a past haunted by slavery, colonialism and corruption, Nat Illumine searches a West African country through contemporary eyes, and sees one that is ripe with creativity, warmth, and opportunity, and one where she found her own personal sense of ‘Afropea’.

Text by Nat Illumine. Photography by Jonathan Oppong-Wiafe
When I was young, my best friend and I used to imagine that one day we’d leave London and build a commune on a beach somewhere in the world, where we’d be free to play Reggae all day, smoke a few spliffs, and live in harmony forever after. One day my friend told me he’d found it – the ideal country we’d been searching for. Known as the smiling coast of Africa, this country is a tiny enclave nestled amidst Senegal on the western coast, and it is called The Gambia.
Reggae artists from Jamaica are treated like visiting royalty, literally– in 2008, Sizzla was received by the President himself at the Royal Palace.
Clearly the desire to set up a commune is less pressing now we have careers, children and a good few decades under our belts, but nevertheless, I rounded up my family and friends and went to see this paradisiacal land for myself, and it did not disappoint. We have since been back multiple times. We have developed friendships, formed relationships, set up radio stations, built houses and made babies. Sometimes you just fall in love with a place and are pulled back time and again. We just cannot stop returning to The Gambia.
Our baby on the beach

Our baby on the beach

Little Jamaica
The smallest state in Africa, home to less than 2 million people, it is also affectionately known as Little Jamaica, because the love of Roots is so ubiquitous. Reggae artists from Jamaica are treated like visiting royalty, literally– in 2008, Sizzla was received by the President himself at the Royal Palace.
© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

The Gambia’s President, and his questionable 2011 election campaign

Weed is in abundance, Reggae parties happen daily on the beach and in the clubs, and chanting down Babylon is a national pastime. Like Jamaica, The Gambia is also an ex-British colony, but it’s a lot closer to Europe, and whilst some parts of Jamaica are a no-go zone for tourists, The Gambia prides itself on its lack of street crime and the safe environment it provides for people bringing in those much needed Dalasis (Gambian currency), making The Gambia a magnet for European tourists.
© Jonathon Mponge-Wiafe

Children in Lamin Village

 

Tourism and the locals

With tourism one of The Gambia’s main economies, tourists are encouraged to visit the smiling coast, welcomed by Gambians with wicker fans as they step out of the airport into the dusty Gambian heat. Because the economy is developing slowly, many people make a living off of tourists, but unlike other countries where the locals can be aggressive in their hassling (particularly to women), the Gambians are renowned for being extremely chilled out.
Do not be surprised or unduly alarmed when groups of kids or young men approach you as you idle on the vast, beautiful beaches. The intent is benevolent – they wish to assist you in any of your holidaying needs in return for some cash, a pen pal, and/or the promise of potential presents as you return armed with outdated tape decks and mobile phones for the kids who made your last trip so enjoyable. We made many friends this way, and met some brilliant characters – for example, the young Gambian tour operator who called himself ‘Terry Cooper’, spoke in a faux East End accent, but who had never been to the UK.
© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Football players on the beach

Parties on the beach are the norm. On the last night of our first trip, our friends assembled with us on the beach for a dusky barbeque of fried fish and rice, made all the more enjoyable because we had with us a large, portable speaker and a mic. There is little our Gambian friends like more than to play football and spit rhymes on the beach. The speaker was eventually gifted to our friends and used for endless raving in the township of Bakau.
© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Our MC for the day

If you’re planning on moving around a lot it’s definitely worth befriending a driver, who will happily drive you about and wait whilst you do your thing for a very reasonable price. Taxi rates fluctuate depending on the type of taxi you take – green taxis exist entirely for tourists, whereas yellow taxis and bush taxis are cheaper and used by locals. If you’ve got a Gambian mate, have them do the negotiating and you’ll get a much better price.
Sex tourism is rife, however it appears less salubrious than in certain other countries. It isn’t unusual to enter a tourist bar full of old, white Englishmen surrounded by stunning Gambian or Senegalese ladies, but the more interesting aspect is the large number of older, white women who attach themselves to hot African men, ostensibly trading school fees for the extended family for some of that ‘good African loving’. It’s important not to be too cynical though – one of my closest friends has married a Gambian who happens to be a fair bit younger than her, and who is currently building her a house with his bare hands in his village for their retirement.
“It’s funny that in Europe when they ask me where I’m from, I’m expected to say Gambia, but over here if I say Gambia they laugh and say no, no, no,”

Speeding through The river Gambia

Where To Stay
Having been to The Gambia numerous times now, we’ve stayed in various hotels along the coast, from dilapidated old hotels such as Ocean Bay or Bijilo Beach Club, to the swanky Coco Ocean where the grounds and rooms are stunning, but the waiters will not fail to forget half your orders by the time they make it to the kitchen. Do not expect Western standards, instead enjoy the breezy atmosphere and genuinely good vibes.
If you’re not into the tourist trap, avoid areas like Senegambia when booking accommodation. Although a lot of the cheaper guest houses are situated in this area, this is the chief tourist zone, manned by military and aimed at the more mainstream holidaymaker. There is an abundance of food and nightlife spots here, but it is avoided by the more discerning. Instead, stay in Bakau or Bijilo, where the clubs have local patrons and the beaches are less dense with sunburned flesh. My favourite area is Bakau, a relatively poor town situated towards the northern tip of the southern bank, near the capital Banjul, where clubs like Romana’s and Lama Lama are full of dutty win’ing locals praising Jah, and relatively few tourists.
Chilling with the crew

Chilling with the crew

 

For The More Adventurous

Because the coastline is so small, the majority of hotels lie within half an hour drive of the airport, but the more adventurous could head further south down the coast to the little fishing villages that dot the shoreline, such as Sanyang. Monkeys, exotic birds and crocodiles roam the Gambia,and there are various national parks where you can observe these animals up close, although the monkeys often scamper about hotel grounds, and crocodiles can be found sneaking up marshlands near beaches.

As we approached the island, the skeletal baobab trees that are the island’s only inhabitants loomed majestically, ominously reflecting the weight of the island’s past. Formerly named by the English as James Island, it is home to an English fort that is now crumbling into the sea

In the crocodile park in Bakau and the monkey park in Bijilo, the animals are tame enough for tourists to feed. It’s safe for children, which I know for a fact as one audacious tour operator once placed my two year old on the back of a croc for my husband to take a photo, whilst I panicked and pleaded for the return of a full-bodied child.

© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Our baby hanging with a croc

 

It’s worth journeying inland along the river, ideally in a motor-propelled fishing boat (which can easily be arranged) rather than the tourist tour ferries. It’ll take a while, but you can make it to Janjangbureh (formerly known as Georgetown), where the world’s least friendly yet seemingly huggable animal, the pygmy hippo, can be seen basking in its natural, muddy environment. There is also an island known colloquially as Ganja Island, used entirely to grow weed, which is allegedly outside the jurisdiction of the Gambian authorities. Unfortunately we have not been taken there yet, but one day, one day.

Kunta Kinteh Island

Only a few hours ride away from the coast however is one of Gambia’s main tourist attractions – Kunta Kinte Island. The river Gambia leads seven hundred miles into the interior of Africa, and therefore was integral to the transatlantic slave trade, with an estimated three million slaves transported down the river to be transplanted in the Americas. The island lies at the mouth of the river, only thirty kilometres from the estuary, and was used as a trading post from as early as the fifteenth century. Initially taken by the Portuguese, it soon became a strategic stronghold fought over by the French and English.

© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Breaking free from chains

We set sail armed with a mini rig and a bag of herbs as our boatsman steered us through the mangroves, sunning ourselves on the hull as dolphins flipped and frolicked around us. As we approached the island, the skeletal baobab trees that are the island’s only inhabitants loomed majestically, ominously reflecting the weight of the island’s past. Formerly named by the English as James Island, it is home to an English fort that is now crumbling into the sea. The remnants of the fort comprise the various quarters of the British administration, alongside one surviving slave cell, a tiny shoebox in which many unwilling captives were undoubtedly crammed.

© Jonathon Mponge-Wiafe

The entrance to the villages

Only a glimpse of sunlight could splinter through the manmade porthole in which the captors would drop the measly amounts of baobab fruit that would sustain the slaves at the beginning of their tumultuous journey of no return. Tourists are regularly brought here on tours, but it’s a more pleasant experience to rock up on your own and imbibe the history in your own time. Our friend told us that travellers often cry on the island, as the presence of the past engulfs them, and it is a reminder of the shocking inhumanity that occurred when Europe met Africa those many moons ago.

Nearby on the shore lies the villages of Albreda and Juffureh, the latter from which Alex Haley’s famous protagonist Kunta Kinteh is said to have lived prior to capture. The Gambian authorities have set to capitalise on the popularity of ‘Roots’, with the village home to a rudimentary museum funded by Haley that covers the history of slavery in the area. There is also a replica slave ship that can be boarded and explored, although I personally couldn’t muster up the courage to actually enter the holding area.

© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Outside the Museum of Slavery

It is opportunities like this that show the true extent of the impact of the slave trade on African countries, and the poverty that persists. These ramshackle villages are devoid of most of the trappings of Westernised life, and it is easy to see just how hard it is for rural Gambians to eke out a living.

The Creative Industries

However the coastal area has seen a rise in young Gambians who are building a burgeoning creative industry. Music artists and related infrastructure, advertising and promotion agencies, television presenters, radio DJs, photographers, fashion designers and entrepreneurs are rising up to meet the untapped potential in this small state. There is a huge lack of development and infrastructure – for example Sizzla (a near deity to Gambians) headlined a massive show recently at the Independence Stadium in Bakau, but four songs in, the power cut out, leaving fans distraught.

© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

A heavily pregnant Lena

However, there remains the potential to create and inspire. Our friends Lena and Bankie, for example, run the successful marketing agency, Hot Ink Media, which provides media planning across print, web, TV and radio, as well as brand-building, graphic design, photography and music videos. Lena was raised in Sweden by a Swedish mother and Gambian father, and Bankie was raised in The Gambia and educated in the States at Howard University, The Art Institute of Washington, and the International Academy of Art and Design. They met in The Gambia and have since married and started a family.

Lena is a photographer, graphic designer and promoter, having organized the recent Fashion Weekend Gambia, as well as a monthly spoken word event called Word Of Mouth. Another of our crew is Ndeyfatou Ceesay, a Gambian-born but Togo-raised fashion designer, who has also lived in Mali, Mexico, London and New York. Ndey currently has two lines – Hahatai, Afrocentric-slash-Bohemian women’s wear (“a mash up between African woman meets urban street gal”), and her soon-to-be-launched haute couture menswear range, called Noir – “It’s more traditional than anything I’ve ever made so far. Never been so proud of anything I’ve ever embarked on”.

“It’s funny that in Europe when they ask me where I’m from, I’m expected to say Gambia, but over here if I say Gambia they laugh and say no, no, no”

Every Wednesday Lena and Bankie host a games night at their house, where we discussed the state of play in Gambia’s creative industries. “There is something about being in Gambia that makes me feel inspired to create,” Ndey tells me, inbetween bouts of playing a particularly vociferous game of Articulate! “When I returned to Gambia I launched a new brand in less than six months and it’s my best work so far. Defos hanging around this time,” she laughs.

© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Hahatai by Ndey

Lena also returned after spending time in London and Zimbabwe. “I came to find my roots, get to know my family better, learn more about my culture,” she states. “But I also came because I needed a new environment to explore. Gambia has so much potential and it has so many opportunities if you are just creative enough to see it.”

What the Gambia lacks in cultural entertainment such as the theatre, movies and exhibitions, it makes up for with the potential for fledgling industry and raw, untapped talent, for example the Black Lynx crew who put on the annual Open Mic festival, the biggest music festival in The Gambia, and Killa Ace, a homegrown Hip Hop artist who heads his own movement called The Cypher.

“There are so many things you can create here mainly because there is a need for creative and inspiring activities,” says Lena, “I had to take that opportunity to make some of these things happen so that I can get inspired and also inspire others.” For Ndey as a fashion designer, cloth and tailoring labour is abundant and cheap here, however the flipside is that everyone is able to design and make their own clothes. There is also what they refer to here as GMT: Gambian Maybe Time. “Time seems to go a bit slower in The Gambia,” laughs Ndey. However, Gambia is a space where it really is possible to make things happen. “It’s anyone’s game,” explains Ndey.

© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Mama and baby Gambian style

It is amongst these friends that I feel truly Afropean. Having travelled the world and experienced the West, unlike so many Gambians, Lena and Ndey can relate to the concept of being a part of two worlds. “I think it’s a good way to describe me,” says Ndey. “One thing I always hear here in The Gambia is ‘tubab Nga’. The literal translation means ‘you’re white’. But the true meaning has nothing to do with race. It’s more of a feeling that has to do with having a borrowed culture that you own as much as the culture in which you come from. It’s neither a compliment or an insult.”

Lena can relate. “It’s funny that in Europe when they ask me where I’m from, I’m expected to say Gambia, but over here if I say Gambia they laugh and say no, no, no,” Lena muses. “Growing up in a small place I always stood out, I always just wanted to fit in, until the day I realized the strength in being different. So, I embrace the African in me, realizing that yes I am a mix of two worlds but I think it is really important to embrace your blackness and learn the history and culture of where it came from to be able to understand yourself. Hence I find myself in Gambia.”

I too have found myself in Gambia, and happily so. It is here, in the Motherland, one can feel truly Afropean.

© Jonathon Mponge Wiafe

Footprints in the sand

Comments

Afropean, writer, photographer, broadcaster, music geek.

1 Comment

  • Reply June 4, 2014

    Layla Auer

    Great article, and stunning pictures. Take me to the Gambia now please for this salient lack of sun in England is testing my warrior skills!

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