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Phespirit goes to Gambia
Kotu     November 2003

There was never a plan for this visit. Phespirit was thumbing through holiday books, looking for a budget sunshine break on a beach somewhere, probably on one of the Canary Islands, when he stumbled upon Gambia. Return flights between London Gatwick and Banjul, with bed and breakfast accommodation in a good hotel, need cost no more than a mid-range Canarian vacation, whilst being infinitely more exotic. So, armed with a guide book and a box of Malarone® anti-malaria tablets, Phespirit headed for Africa.

His base in Gambia was the Kombo Beach Hotel, an excellent hotel providing comfortable rooms and a high standard of food, set fairly on the golden sands of Kotu village. How can this be the Third World?

The successful development of package tourism in the Gambian beach resorts has not lead to a parallel development of the Gambian economy. European travellers are cosseted in cocoons of material comfort, but on venturing outside they find themselves in a cash-strangled landscape of desperate poverty, where to escape the rawness of the local markets into the sanctuary of an American-style air conditioned mall peddling Western designer goods and pre-processed fast food is simply not an option. Everything on the wild side of the hotel walls is pure Africa. This is indeed the Third World.

Bridging the social and economic divide are the Bumsters; opportunistic young Gambian men who loiter around the resorts, searching for foreigners to whom they might offer their unsolicited services as guides and guardians, fixers and 'friends'. There is nothing dangerous (implicit or otherwise) in this hassling, but the practice is nonetheless illegal, unceasing and extremely wearisome. Phespirit cannot hold it against these lads if they view him as a walking wallet in their own country. For himself, however, he would have liked to be able to walk peacefully along the beaches and streets without their unrelenting approaches.

To avoid such irritations, Phespirit was reduced to spending the majority of his time either sunbathing in the security-patrolled Bumster-free beach zones or heading further afield on 'Gamtours' excursions.

The 'Roots Tour' excursion on the Joven Antonia out of Banjul is a one hour-forty / two hour cruise up the River Gambia to visit Albreda, Juffureh and James Island. All these places are synonymous with the slave trade, especially since the author Alex Haley identified Juffureh as the village of his ancestor Kunta Kinte. His Pulitzer Prize winning saga, 'Roots', gives its name to the tour. Who could blame the local families if they were to cash in on this notoriety? Despite the regular influxes of European and American (especially African-American) visitors, the town keeps an uncommericialised, authentically-African feel. The national museum at Juffureh, with its simple but solemn Exhibition of the Slave Trade, keeps the truth at hand.

Other excursions took Phespirit north via Senegalese waters to Jinack Island, south to Sanyang beach, and east to the capital city, Banjul, and its neighbour, Serrakunda. All of which gadding about had to be paid for, but then why keep the coffers tight if not to blow them like winds of loose change across Africa?

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