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The Gambia Experience

PUBLISHED: 09:33 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Relax by the pool at Mandina

Relax by the pool at Mandina

For the perfect winter-sun destination, you can't beat The Gambia, often known as The Gateway to Africa. This smallest of countries enjoys warm sunshine throughout the year, and is home to some spectacular wildlife.

In the dugouts, through the twisting mangrove swamps where the creamy oysters cling to the curving roots, waiting to be harvested by swaying, singing women swathed in vibrant red and yellow; along the salt-tang Mandina bolong into the middle of the Makasutu Forest, where wild Guinea baboons sojourn in the season when the rains pound the land; here, in a clearing where the air shimmers with heat, lies the fortune teller's hut. Against a background of calling cicadas and the aroma of sweet bush tea, a piglet squeals, and a goat rustles in the low branches of a Baobab tree.


As the light fades, I'm led under a palm roof to sit by the aged man with the white beard whose deep eyes contain all human wisdom. The holy marabua takes my hand and dabs it twice with a strange stick, before covering it with a red cloth. Then, gently, he feels the contours of my life within the palm of my hand.


The guide translates from the rise-and-fall tones of the Mandinka language: "He sees only peace for you and your family, and you will return home safely.


"What is more, you have a very good job, and you will be promoted. He says you will have great responsibility. But if you want your greatest wishes to come true, you must buy a silver bracelet and give it away."


I emerge to watch as the others in my group hesitantly make their own mysterious visits. One by one, they return triumphant. "I'm going to be promoted," pronounces Stephanie, with confident delight.


"Oh! Me, too," says Deri. "But first I have to give sugar to a local woman with a child. How easy is that going to be?"


"Consider yourself lucky," despairs Jen. "I have to give three bananas."


Strange to say, job prospects turn out to be excellent for all 14 of us... Ah! But maybe we're simply a multi-talented group. For this is Sanjatu whose greatest prediction of all did, indeed, come true.


When the gentle people of The Gambia were despairing over the destruction being done to their forests by tree-felling and overgrazing, the marabua consulted the spirits and declared that two white men would arrive to save Makasutu.


Sure enough, on Christmas Eve 1992, two Englishmen, construction worker James English and Lawrence Williams - an architect - came to the forest. They were horrified at the potential ruination of this pristine tropical paradise, home to rare baboons, birds such as kingfishers, bee-eaters, Lilly Trollers, West African River Eagle, Black Heron and Goliath Heron; monkeys, mongoose, monitor lizards, fiddler crabs, Nile crocodiles, beautiful butterflies, and many more species beside. So they set about turning it into one of the foremost eco-tourist destinations in West Africa. It should be on the list of every holidaymaker who visits The Gambia.


If you really want to splash out, you can stay in the Mandina River Lodges, tropical hideaways for a maximum of 16 people, reached by elevated walk-ways or a dug-out canoe paddled by a 'man Friday'. If your budget is more modest, you can visit Makasutu for the day - as I did - for an experience that will remain one of the most magically memorable, ever. In the dark of the evening, we watched a boat make its way up the bolong, lit by the fiery torches of local villagers. Disembarking, dressed in traditional costume, they accompanied the awesome ghost-catcher - on four-foot stilts - for a dance to chase away the evil spirits of the forest. "This is the dance performed after the boys are circumcised," explains Yankouba, as we watch by the flickering camp firelight to the pulsing beat of a drum. "In the old days, the boys had to spend three months in the forest surviving. Now they're taken there in the summer holidays to learn how to respect people, whether black or white."


It's a lesson the people of The Gambia seem to have learned well. It might be the smallest country on the African mainland - less than 48km wide - but it has a massive heart.


Ebullient, handsome Mucki, our guide on day three of our trip, chides us, "When you greet people, you don't just say 'Esamadeh'; you have to sing it because Gambians are always happy!" Certainly, as we drive over the bumpy roads in our ex-army jeep, the children wave excitedly as we pass. It's not called 'The Smiling Coast' for nothing.


Mucki married earlier this year and glows with pride as he explains that his wife is already expecting their first baby. "She will be my only wife," he says, "though she wouldn't mind if I married someone else too." He laughs. "They say eight Gambian wives are cheaper than one Western woman." We can all see the logic in that.


He himself was brought up on a Gambian 'compound'. "One of my father's four wives had four daughters so my dad got them to do a swap, and she brought up me. We all lived together, though in separate houses, so it didn't matter.


"My friends tease me for just having one wife. 'Mucki, you are very international!' they say."


Mucki knows Western women need shopping fixes; he also knows the best places to visit. We bump our way along the potholes - past one of only four sets of traffic lights in the country (they're not working) - to Bakau, and wander along the dusty, fascinating central road, lined with stalls: a craft market where you can buy the stunning wood carvings, the sand pictures and the Batik that characterise the skills of the country. Often, you'll see the weaving being done by the side of the stall. Quickly you learn that buying here is a game with many unwritten rules. "Two hundred dalasis?" you say, eyebrows raised in a way that would get you thrown out of Tesco in a trice. And you hand the dolphin carving back, intimating you're now set on leaving the country without buying a thing. The stallholder - who actively expects you to bargain - will soon rekindle the relationship.


We move from there, laden with souvenirs, to visit a 'Gambia Experience' tree-planting project in the Abuko conservation area, south of the capital, Banjul. Run by a local school, it provides more than just carbon-offset. These trees will eventually produce food, fruit and medicine for local people. Moreover, as the saplings grow, they'll kill off the grass by throwing it into the shade - and that means sweeping fires, to which the area is prone, will no longer be able to take hold in the same way.


This is the sort of project helping to revitalise The Gambia, which - in spite of a poor economy - is keen to modernise, as the many slogan-ed posters of President Jammeh consistently show. In spite of lacking natural resources, the country makes money exporting groundnuts, smoked fish and mangoes - plus the growing tourism market is providing vital employment. Most important of all, The Gambia has generally known a stability alien to many of its more bellicose neighbours.


The relative prosperity is evident all around: in the elegant women carrying massive pots on their heads; in the strong, good-looking men who sit under shady trees in villages of round mud huts, with chickens and goats grazing beside them; in the myriad taxi drivers with their distinctive yellow cars; in the children, proud in smart uniform, making their way to school on even the most rural roads.


Mucki takes us to visit the Sifoe Lower Basic School, where we walk through the bare but huge playground and into one of the corrugated-roofed huts with holes for windows where the children sit at proper desks and do their maths: "What is the LCM of two and four?" I sit, hoping no one will ask me.


We sing them 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'. In return, the little boys in their white shirts and girls in their white-and-blue, sing us a song that catches us by surprise. "On Friday, a boy saw me... Now I'm pregnant and have to tell my father," they chant.


Mucki sees our astonishment. "We have to explain things to them," he says. "When I married, my wife had not known a man. The family came to check the bed sheets the next morning." Too much information - for us, but not for them. This is a country where child exploitation is all-too common amongst the poorest, and AIDS is a serious problem; learning about sex and its place in their lives is as vital as finding Lowest Common Multiples.


As the children sing, they can't help but dance - it's as natural to them as breathing. Twelve-year-old Fatou shyly takes my hands and shows me how to sway to the rhythms. For the rest of the visit, we're inseparable. She proudly shows me her maths book with 'Excellent' written all over it; when asked, she tells me her father is dead and she lives with her mother. So much less sophisticated than her European contemporaries, she takes as her own a part of my heart.


As we pour pens, pencils and other stationery we've specially brought into a donation box, we add money for the children, too. "If you want to give to my country, then you must give to the community - to projects like this - and not to the children directly," Mucki warns us. "Otherwise, they will begin to expect it, and we don't want that."


In other words, don't do to our children what you've done to yours. That's not what he's saying, exactly - he's too kind; but looking at Fatou - asking so little and needing so much - that seems to me an undeniable truth...


We leave by driving the jeep along the seashore for miles, following the Atlantic coast to the fishing village of Tanji where, as the glowing orange sun sets, the villagers offload the catch from the boats which left the night before. Thousands of yellow-tailed silver mullet are among the rich bounty from the multi-coloured dug-out pirogues, which will be smoked in the huts on the beach.


Later that evening, as I sit further up that same coastline on the private patio of my hotel room, I watch the darkening sea lap onto the beach just 20 metres from me. The palm trees sway in the dusk breeze; the long stretch is deserted. It's a reminder of what so many Britons come to The Gambia for - a glorious sun-drenched beach in the midst of an English winter. Where do they find the time? There's so much more to the country than this...


Back under the dismal skies of home, I buy a silver bracelet to post to Fatou. The marabua told me that was the secret to making my wishes come true. Who knows? The important thing is, she'll like it.



The Gambia Experience is the UK's only specialist and biggest tour operator to The Gambia. For reservations, call 0845 330 2087, or visit www.gambia.co.uk/travel


In the dugouts, through the twisting mangrove swamps where the creamy oysters cling to the curving roots, waiting to be harvested by swaying, singing women swathed in vibrant red and yellow; along the salt-tang Mandina bolong into the middle of the Makasutu Forest, where wild Guinea baboons sojourn in the season when the rains pound the land; here, in a clearing where the air shimmers with heat, lies the fortune teller's hut. Against a background of calling cicadas and the aroma of sweet bush tea, a piglet squeals, and a goat rustles in the low branches of a Baobab tree.


As the light fades, I'm led under a palm roof to sit by the aged man with the white beard whose deep eyes contain all human wisdom. The holy marabua takes my hand and dabs it twice with a strange stick, before covering it with a red cloth. Then, gently, he feels the contours of my life within the palm of my hand.


The guide translates from the rise-and-fall tones of the Mandinka language: "He sees only peace for you and your family, and you will return home safely.


"What is more, you have a very good job, and you will be promoted. He says you will have great responsibility. But if you want your greatest wishes to come true, you must buy a silver bracelet and give it away."


I emerge to watch as the others in my group hesitantly make their own mysterious visits. One by one, they return triumphant. "I'm going to be promoted," pronounces Stephanie, with confident delight.


"Oh! Me, too," says Deri. "But first I have to give sugar to a local woman with a child. How easy is that going to be?"


"Consider yourself lucky," despairs Jen. "I have to give three bananas."


Strange to say, job prospects turn out to be excellent for all 14 of us... Ah! But maybe we're simply a multi-talented group. For this is Sanjatu whose greatest prediction of all did, indeed, come true.


When the gentle people of The Gambia were despairing over the destruction being done to their forests by tree-felling and overgrazing, the marabua consulted the spirits and declared that two white men would arrive to save Makasutu.


Sure enough, on Christmas Eve 1992, two Englishmen, construction worker James English and Lawrence Williams - an architect - came to the forest. They were horrified at the potential ruination of this pristine tropical paradise, home to rare baboons, birds such as kingfishers, bee-eaters, Lilly Trollers, West African River Eagle, Black Heron and Goliath Heron; monkeys, mongoose, monitor lizards, fiddler crabs, Nile crocodiles, beautiful butterflies, and many more species beside. So they set about turning it into one of the foremost eco-tourist destinations in West Africa. It should be on the list of every holidaymaker who visits The Gambia.


If you really want to splash out, you can stay in the Mandina River Lodges, tropical hideaways for a maximum of 16 people, reached by elevated walk-ways or a dug-out canoe paddled by a 'man Friday'. If your budget is more modest, you can visit Makasutu for the day - as I did - for an experience that will remain one of the most magically memorable, ever. In the dark of the evening, we watched a boat make its way up the bolong, lit by the fiery torches of local villagers. Disembarking, dressed in traditional costume, they accompanied the awesome ghost-catcher - on four-foot stilts - for a dance to chase away the evil spirits of the forest. "This is the dance performed after the boys are circumcised," explains Yankouba, as we watch by the flickering camp firelight to the pulsing beat of a drum. "In the old days, the boys had to spend three months in the forest surviving. Now they're taken there in the summer holidays to learn how to respect people, whether black or white."


It's a lesson the people of The Gambia seem to have learned well. It might be the smallest country on the African mainland - less than 48km wide - but it has a massive heart.


Ebullient, handsome Mucki, our guide on day three of our trip, chides us, "When you greet people, you don't just say 'Esamadeh'; you have to sing it because Gambians are always happy!" Certainly, as we drive over the bumpy roads in our ex-army jeep, the children wave excitedly as we pass. It's not called 'The Smiling Coast' for nothing.


Mucki married earlier this year and glows with pride as he explains that his wife is already expecting their first baby. "She will be my only wife," he says, "though she wouldn't mind if I married someone else too." He laughs. "They say eight Gambian wives are cheaper than one Western woman." We can all see the logic in that.


He himself was brought up on a Gambian 'compound'. "One of my father's four wives had four daughters so my dad got them to do a swap, and she brought up me. We all lived together, though in separate houses, so it didn't matter.


"My friends tease me for just having one wife. 'Mucki, you are very international!' they say."


Mucki knows Western women need shopping fixes; he also knows the best places to visit. We bump our way along the potholes - past one of only four sets of traffic lights in the country (they're not working) - to Bakau, and wander along the dusty, fascinating central road, lined with stalls: a craft market where you can buy the stunning wood carvings, the sand pictures and the Batik that characterise the skills of the country. Often, you'll see the weaving being done by the side of the stall. Quickly you learn that buying here is a game with many unwritten rules. "Two hundred dalasis?" you say, eyebrows raised in a way that would get you thrown out of Tesco in a trice. And you hand the dolphin carving back, intimating you're now set on leaving the country without buying a thing. The stallholder - who actively expects you to bargain - will soon rekindle the relationship.


We move from there, laden with souvenirs, to visit a 'Gambia Experience' tree-planting project in the Abuko conservation area, south of the capital, Banjul. Run by a local school, it provides more than just carbon-offset. These trees will eventually produce food, fruit and medicine for local people. Moreover, as the saplings grow, they'll kill off the grass by throwing it into the shade - and that means sweeping fires, to which the area is prone, will no longer be able to take hold in the same way.


This is the sort of project helping to revitalise The Gambia, which - in spite of a poor economy - is keen to modernise, as the many slogan-ed posters of President Jammeh consistently show. In spite of lacking natural resources, the country makes money exporting groundnuts, smoked fish and mangoes - plus the growing tourism market is providing vital employment. Most important of all, The Gambia has generally known a stability alien to many of its more bellicose neighbours.


The relative prosperity is evident all around: in the elegant women carrying massive pots on their heads; in the strong, good-looking men who sit under shady trees in villages of round mud huts, with chickens and goats grazing beside them; in the myriad taxi drivers with their distinctive yellow cars; in the children, proud in smart uniform, making their way to school on even the most rural roads.


Mucki takes us to visit the Sifoe Lower Basic School, where we walk through the bare but huge playground and into one of the corrugated-roofed huts with holes for windows where the children sit at proper desks and do their maths: "What is the LCM of two and four?" I sit, hoping no one will ask me.


We sing them 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'. In return, the little boys in their white shirts and girls in their white-and-blue, sing us a song that catches us by surprise. "On Friday, a boy saw me... Now I'm pregnant and have to tell my father," they chant.


Mucki sees our astonishment. "We have to explain things to them," he says. "When I married, my wife had not known a man. The family came to check the bed sheets the next morning." Too much information - for us, but not for them. This is a country where child exploitation is all-too common amongst the poorest, and AIDS is a serious problem; learning about sex and its place in their lives is as vital as finding Lowest Common Multiples.


As the children sing, they can't help but dance - it's as natural to them as breathing. Twelve-year-old Fatou shyly takes my hands and shows me how to sway to the rhythms. For the rest of the visit, we're inseparable. She proudly shows me her maths book with 'Excellent' written all over it; when asked, she tells me her father is dead and she lives with her mother. So much less sophisticated than her European contemporaries, she takes as her own a part of my heart.


As we pour pens, pencils and other stationery we've specially brought into a donation box, we add money for the children, too. "If you want to give to my country, then you must give to the community - to projects like this - and not to the children directly," Mucki warns us. "Otherwise, they will begin to expect it, and we don't want that."


In other words, don't do to our children what you've done to yours. That's not what he's saying, exactly - he's too kind; but looking at Fatou - asking so little and needing so much - that seems to me an undeniable truth...


We leave by driving the jeep along the seashore for miles, following the Atlantic coast to the fishing village of Tanji where, as the glowing orange sun sets, the villagers offload the catch from the boats which left the night before. Thousands of yellow-tailed silver mullet are among the rich bounty from the multi-coloured dug-out pirogues, which will be smoked in the huts on the beach.


Later that evening, as I sit further up that same coastline on the private patio of my hotel room, I watch the darkening sea lap onto the beach just 20 metres from me. The palm trees sway in the dusk breeze; the long stretch is deserted. It's a reminder of what so many Britons come to The Gambia for - a glorious sun-drenched beach in the midst of an English winter. Where do they find the time? There's so much more to the country than this...


Back under the dismal skies of home, I buy a silver bracelet to post to Fatou. The marabua told me that was the secret to making my wishes come true. Who knows? The important thing is, she'll like it.



The Gambia Experience is the UK's only specialist and biggest tour operator to The Gambia. For reservations, call 0845 330 2087, or visit www.gambia.co.uk/travel

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