In the preceding entry I gave a list of good stuff about a Gambian vacation. Here’s the flip side.
My first trip to Africa, a week in Agadir, Morocco in the mid-1990s, was marred (but not ruined) by the locals’ constant begging and aggressive attempts to sell me stuff. I recently relived this experience in Gambia’s coastal resort district. The Gambians don’t beg. But everybody tries to sell you goods and services all the time, often making you feel quite besieged.
The room cleaner tried to sell my wife apples in the bathroom. The hotel’s tailor nagged us daily about arranging an outing for us. I’ve already told you about “Do you need a fish” dude. You soon learn to dread meeting any young guy in the street because he will invariably try to become your local guide and buddy.
One trick I read about in the excellent Lonely Planet guide for Gambia & Senegal and soon encountered in the street was “Hey, don’t you recognise me? I work at your hotel!” It is difficult at times to recognise all these brief acquaintances, and you may feel a twinge of post-colonial bad conscience at not being able to tell one young black guy in a rasta hat from another. But when I was asked this question (on day four) I replied, “My hotel? Really? What hotel is that?” And the guy guessed wrong.
Another time though I ignored my driver for several minutes despite his calls because he had removed his rasta hat and I thought he was just another random street hustler trying to get my attention.
But the encounter that really brought home the huge economic gap between myself and the locals was when I ran into, lets call her Liz. She worked at my hotel, a shapely and pretty young single mother with an outgoing manner and good English. Many Gambian women don’t get much schooling and are neither Anglophone nor even literate. But Liz has a good job and I guess she must be quite a successful Gambian despite being sole provider for a child.
The second time we met, Liz flirted shamelessly. The third time she cheerfully offered to become my mistress, perhaps in Sweden, proclaiming that she didn’t mind my being married. I replied that though I was flattered by the offer, my wife would most likely mind quite a lot, and that my wife is a very dangerous woman. Thus spurned, how did this young lady move on with the conversation? She asked me for a t-shirt “to remember you by”. I knew from other conversations that a used t-shirt represents a considerable value in Gambia.
I must emphasise that of all the Gambian ladies I talked to, Liz was the only one who made any lewd hints, and I don’t think she sells herself in the usual sense of the term. She probably quite liked me. But as a Westerner in Gambia, I was clearly seen by men and women alike mainly as a source of cash and possibly a ticket to Europe. And since I was constantly reminded of this, I sometimes wished we had gone somewhere else for our vacation. If we had, the Gambians would have been even poorer.