In November 1999, having worked 2 full-time jobs for the previous year, I had saved up enough money to travel to Africa with my girlfriend Deirdre. My goal was to travel overland from the Westernmost point of the continent, in Senegal, to the Southernmost point in South Africa. Along the way I wanted to make contact with whatever Leftist and anarchist groups I could find and also visit as many archaeological sites as I could manage. But more than anything else, I was keen to educate myself about contemporary Africa – a place that I knew almost nothing about.
As I travelled through the continent, I wrote accounts of our travels, the people and places that we had seen, and sent them back by email whenever I found an Internet café. This was the early years of the Internet and mobile phones were yet to become mainstream, so we had precious little information to go on. Our landing point was Gambia – below is the first email that I sent back.
Gambia: Missive from the dark continent
Happy to report our safe and comfortable arrival in Africa, Gambia was our arrival point and we have spent the first few days resting at a beach resort here (nice and hot). This has served as a good and not too difficult introduction to Africa.
The coastal region of Gambia in which we are staying is a classic example of a third-world tourist enclave. There is a paved road running along the beach front (tarmac is very rare here). On one side of the road there is the beach and every few hundred yards there is a ‘luxury’ tourist hotel, complete with barbed-wire, security guards, high prices and sun worshiping Europeans. On the other side of the road there is the ‘village’ where the natives live (and the lodge in which we stay). In between the two are crowds of young men who have gravitated to the area from all over the country in search of mammon. They are here known as ‘bumsters’ here, they survive by hustling cash off tourists – understandable since the Gambia is a country with no industry except farming and tourism and the unemployment rate must be massive.
The really galling thing about it is that the bumsters seem to have adopted various rituals of self-abasement. We have heard countless tales of how happy the Gambians are despite their poverty, and how generous the various developed nations of the world are for sending aid to the Gambia. The resort area is promoted as the ‘smiling coast’ and the local catch phrase is ‘its nice to be nice’ the government has even broadcast sets of instructions for dealing with tourists containing such lovely bits of advice as: It is rude to remind our visitors of colonialism and it makes them uncomfortable….
On the other hand this is by no means typical of West Africa. Gambia is, by far, the number one tourist spot in the region and the tourist region in Gambia consists of less than 20 hotels. A tiny part of a tiny country. A mere 10 kilometres back from the coast white faces are unknown and tourism is irrelevant. Even here on the coast they are not all too familiar with white people, The two theories for Deirdre’s freckles seem to be A) leprosy, B) a vicious attack of mosquitos.
Indeed the very existence of this country is an absurdity, the sense of it being a colonial backwater and oversight is overwhelming. The main story on this evenings main national news was: “China has donated 2 Landrovers to the Gambia”, another example, in every one of this weeks papers, the same half page ad has been carried inviting (in very great detail) companies to tender for the contract to supply the government with two bog-standard PCs.
Anyway tomorrow we leave for the much more secluded beaches of Southern Senegal to rest up before starting our journey into the interior. Next time we encounter another internet cafe we’ll let y’all know what is new.