Fort Bullen, built in 1826, is like all forts along the coast of Africa, but different, as it was the only one built not to hold slaves pending their passage through the gates of no-return, but to stop the evil trade and set slaves free. The fort is situated at the mouth of a strategic confluence of the River Gambia with the Atlantic Ocean from where cannons could be fired to intercept slave ships from the interior trying to ship slaves to the new world. I was taken round the fort housing a museum with artefacts about the locals’ resistance to imperialism and colonialism. The other fort, which I could not visit because of its distance, was at Kunta Kinteh Island, also known as James Island, located in the area where the famous Kunta Kinteh was abducted and sold into slavery. It is a world heritage site alongside the Stone Circles Megalith of Wassu in Western Gambia. The visit to the bustling Fort Bullen town of Barra was fulfilling for me and, after an exploration of the boat building yard in the town and the market, we tried to catch the alternate ferry named Kanilai (after Yahya Jammeh’s village) back to Banjul, but we missed it, and had to go with the one we came with. Back in Banjul, I went for a live radio session with QTV, a private independent station, with my host, and, from there, we proceeded to a well-appointed bookshop downturn named Timbooktoo. At the bookshop, I saw lots of books from Nigeria –it was is like any well stocked bookshop in Nigeria. I kept there some of the Nigerian titles I came with to establish a kind of working relationship with the bookshop.
The large living metropolis, Serekunda, was the epicentre of tourism where nearly all the hotels, clubs, eateries, beachfronts, bureau the change, banks withdrawal outlets (Nigerian banks, like the GTB, Zenith and Access, were ubiquitous and prominent here!), tourism police, associations, regulatory agencies and other infrastructure primed for tourism were located. Serekunda, in the day and night time, bustled with excitement, and a walk through it at night revealed the underbelly of tourism in the Gambia. The white men and women were the dominant revellers at night in Serekunda, eating exotic meals at eateries, with all sorts of recipes from all over the world, drinking intercontinental cocktails, the men cavorting with black girls and the aging women stringing along hunky black boys. The black boys and girls, in cahoots with the white world here, were called the beach boys and girls. Moving around the Serekunda scene one night and searching for where I could get a meal to buy that had not been made expensive by the tourist economy operating there (caused by the unrelenting presence of the whites) I did not know when I started humming Bob Marley’s song “Pimpers’ Paradise.” I followed it with a hurriedly composed lines in my head thus: “Gambian Nights/ are jutting derrieres that wait for the umpteenth ravaging of the white man/ and at the same time flagpoles hoisting the sagging desires of the white woman.”
In one of my night-outs at a club house, a couple from the U.K came to sit near me. We got chatty with the male called David, and I interrogated him on how frequent he travelled to the Gambia. He told me he had visited the Gambia with his partner about four times in the year 2018 and he stays an average of three weeks on each visit. I got to learn that the tourism season in the Gambia was between November and April (when the colds were out in Europe, the tourists flock to the Gambia to catch the sun). I saw them in my hotel, and the beaches sun-tanning while I docked away for available shades. Tourists from Holland and other parts of Europe were prominent visitors to the Gambia, and they had even been associated with some “Corporate Social Responsibility Projects” in the country as attested to by some of the locals I spoke to. Regardless of this underbelly and undercurrent of excessive tourism as it affected the Gambia, their tourism infrastructure and superstructure were light years ahead of the deceptive talks that abound in my land, Nigeria, when tourism had become the subject in official circles. In fact, Nigerian tourism officials should do a study tour of the Gambia to learn how to make tourism the mainstay of the economy now the singsong of economic diversification was resonating. Though the downside of tourism glares you in the face in uptown Serekunda, the Gambia is not all that a tiny country that people think it is, and it is a beautiful country with warm and unpretentious people.
As I wound up my week-long visit to the Gambia, I looked for a Nigerian restaurant in the Serekunda area to eat called the Buka, jiggled to Nigerian music, which was played all over the place to spice up Gambian nights. I was also told Nigerian films were popular in the Gambia. Nigeria and Nigerian officials have played some major roles in setting up bureaucracy in the judicial, military and intelligent sectors in Gambian history. I made out time to shop at the sprawling market in downtown Serekunda area to get some of their local fabrics and artefacts. I was also at the arts and crafts market targeted at tourists to see what they had.
I spent the eve of my departure from the Gambia at an African club in Serekunda called the New Afric with vibrantly coloured murals of black heroes and inspiring quotes and scenes and of course with a live local dance ensemble entertaining the crowd, mostly whites. The drumming and dancing were energetic and very infectious. I cut short my immersion in the familial African spirit of drum and dance to catch Bakary, the official driver, anxiously waiting back at my hotel reception to take me to the airport so I did not miss my flight. We drove leisurely to the airport, with me telling the driver of my impression of his country and him filling me up with more details of the geography of the country. We got to the airport main entrance, and I discovered there was no toll but a soldier came close to salute and said the usual things in that universal language of African military personnel out in the cold to ensure that people sleep in safety. I understood and dished out to him some spare Dalasis left in my pocket (Dalasi and it is about 49 Dalasi to $1). He gave me a smile typical of the people of the smiling coast of Africa, and flagged us on. I left the Gambia about 4 am local time later that morning on an Airpeace flight to Lagos with a resolve to visit the country again in the near future.