The Gambia: Calling You Home

In reality, with its bright blue skies, dusty red roads, and rural atmosphere, The Gambia brings to memory family trips of yesteryear, to small towns in the American South.

By Afra L. Vincent

Are you going on a safari? That's what others asked as I shared my travel plans for Banjul, The Gambia - - my first trip to Africa. From their questioning, it dawned on me that many picture Africa as a country, not a continent, and a place where people and animals run wild through the bush. In reality, with its bright blue skies, dusty red roads, and rural atmosphere, The Gambia brings to memory family trips of yesteryear, to small towns in the American South.

The Gambia is a small country, about twice the size of Delaware, USA. The Atlantic Ocean bounds the country on the west. and Senegal on all other sides. The River Gambia slices through the middle of the country. With 50,000 people in Banjul, the capital city, and more than 1 million in the metropolitan area, The Gambia has one of the smallest capitals in Africa.

After an eight-hour journey across the Atlantic Ocean via Ghana Airways, me and two other Port of Harlem staff members arrived in Banjul on a mid-Monday morning. We then made the Kombo Beach Hotel our home. It was a small culture shock to have a room without a television set.

Our first tourist stop was the Gambia National Museum. The exhibits on its three floors included depictions of their traditions, culture, agriculture, and history. A stroll down Independence Avenue landed us at Albert's Market. Vendors in the open air market sold practically everything from fresh fish to toothpaste! The bartering was a bit daunting at first. I quickly learned the need to quickly say no and thanks, in a pleasant, but very firm tone.

Our second day was extremely insightful. We visited the Nyato Nursery School in suburban Nema Nasirou. It was an honor to visit the staff and well-mannered students on their first day at their new location. However, it saddened me to learn that many parents cannot pay the less than $15.00 yearly fee for their children to attend the school. At that moment, I wished that every child who is slacking in an American school could have been in my seat and hopefully became fully aware that education is not something to take haphazardly.

As we waited at a junction for a public van back to Albert's Market, it became apparent that very few females get behind the wheel of any vehicle. At the Market, it also dawned on me that beyond their work on small farms and at the Market, I saw relatively few women working outside their homes.

On the other end of Independence Avenue is The Arch 22nd . The government built this gateway to Banjul to celebrate the 1994 bloodless coup that brought the country's current president to power. (The Gambia has since elected him in a process that many say was less problematic than the 2000 Presidential elections in Florida, USA). The museum there is small, but the views from either side of The Arch are marvelous.

Wednesday was our day to begin experiencing The Kairaba Beach Hotel. From the cold towel to wipe our faces and cool drink to quench our thirst that the greeter handed us as we checked in, we knew we were at a grand hotel.

The Kairaba sits at the end of a small hill along a strip cut into the bush. We did manage to get a glimpse of a farmer's goats, but no wildlife. The strip, includes a variety of restaurants ranging from Gambian to Lebanese. There are also nightclubs, grocery stores, Internet service providers, and handicraft shops.

After a relaxing lunch, we went to the home of a tailor who lives in the neighborhood of my publisher's friend. They call their homes compounds; buildings often consist of more than one housing unit. Extended family members live in the compound. Many compounds have electricity and telephones.

We joined a tour group arranged by West African Tours and spent the following day traveling by small boat up the River Gambia to Juffure and St. James Island. Though not as elaborate as some slave forts, St. James is Gambia's "point of no return" or the last place Africans saw before Europeans forced them to take the cruel journey across the Atlantic.

After visiting the local museum near Juffure, we walked to the village of Kunta Kinte. In the Mandinka tradition, our group of about 40 received permission from Chief Tako Taoi to enter the village. She is one of the few female chiefs in the area.

We meet Kunta's descendants including 90-year-old Binta Kinte. Ms. Kinte requested that my co-worker, Rhonda, sit by her since she was "family," while her grandson Omar recounted the story that Alex Haley made famous in Roots. The other three African-Americans and the Black British person in the group instantly felt the connection, too. Omar also shared that Louis and Khadijah Farrakhan fulfilled a promise made by Haley. They donated $50,000 in 1997 to build the village's mosque.

On the day before our departure to Baltimore, another friend, Suwareh Jabai, organized a wonderful dinner in our honor. We arrived at his house and many other friends greeted us. Conversations ranging from marriage customs to world affairs were continuous.
For dinner, Mr. Jabai's first wife, Sally Touray, and second wife, Dala Nyabally, cooked chicken in peanut sauce, afra (local term for grilled meat - not me!), rice, and another grain similar to couscous. They gave us a bowl and spoon to eat with, though eating and drinking from a communal dish is customary. For after dinner entertainment, we went into the village's open area. Traditional African drummers and dancers entertained us.

While Banjul's tourist attractions can't be compared with those in many Caribbean countries, its size allowed me to really get to know the town and truly experience an African country and its wonderful people. I can't report that I saw any elephants to ride through the bush. However, I will treasure and hold this trip close to my heart just as I do my trips of yesteryear to the American South.