The Gambia has been in the news a bit recently thanks to the elections late last year which saw Yahya Jammeh lose his Presidency, a position that he had held since coming into power in 1994 following a bloodless military coup. I didn’t appreciate the detail at the time but I was there then, with my sister.
My sister was 17 and had recently left school and taken on a job at a local travel agency. One of the perks of the job was the opportunity for cheap travel, an opportunity we both embraced by booking a week in this small East African Country, I was 19 at the time and stranded at home in the long Uni holidays thanks to an illness that had meant I couldn’t take part in a trip I’d planned to Indonesia. Needless to say I was desperate for adventure and this looked like being it.
We were booked into a resort during our stay but quickly became bored (as teenagers tend to do) with the walled enclosure and opted instead to get out as often as we could! One tour was with a local lad who had set himself up as a taxi driver, he was a great guide and even joined us on a tour of the local wildlife park where we saw a lion (while in Africa), some gigantic spiders and a heap of monkeys (not sure what type, I was a bit lax on the details). What I did focus on though was the feeling of joy that filled my heart when I found Cadbury’s chocolate in the local store (which had precious little else inside oddly enough), I cringe now looking back – I should have embraced this wild and beautiful land more fully and left the stuffing of face with chocolate until later.
The other vivid memories I have of that trip are a visit to the local Gambian Witch Doctor at a Gambian banquet and dance night. He read my palm and told me my fortune was that I’d become a journalist or some kind of writer – the thought never crossed my mind at that time, especially as I happened to be in the middle of a science degree (Chemistry to be precise) and had a terrible phobia of writing due to my appalling spelling and grammar skills but look at me now (kind of sort of….). We can’t remember what he told my sister – something to do with children and that she’d have trouble with childbirth I think- she’s got four kids now, I saw two of them being born and narrowly missed out on being there for the fourth (for the third I was in Australialand) as far as I remember all births went swimmingly with minimal intervention! Make of that what you will.
But the biggest memory was of the missile launcher incident!
We were on the road out to Senegal for a day trip and had to clear the way for the military to come on barging through with their gigantic missile launchers and pack of soldiers. I don’t remember caring for the details at that time and neither do I remember my parents back home being particularly bothered by this sudden turn in fortunes for this small African country, a country whose history we were now part of. Anyway, after that things did get a little bit more tense with a nightly curfew restricting our movement to just the hotel disco (very funky) and making daytime maneuvering a little more tricky (although I still managed a day trip into the capital without too much drama). We’d been coup’ed!
If only I’d have known then that the guy who ordered this activity would spend the next 22 years in power I may have taken more notice but I guess I was only 19 and had my own things going on and after all, this was a holiday not a piece for the BBC’s foreign correspondent!
So we continued on with our holidaying, got tipped out of our tour bus a bit further up the road on the way to Senegal thanks to too much mud, made friends with the local children, one of whom I continued to write to for several years afterwards – and did our best to soak in the African sun without getting burned – that didn’t exactly happen!
The main thing I took from that trip was my love of travel, my fearlessness and ability to feel at home in any environment and my ability to track down and secure chocolate rations when everything else looks to be out of stock. Those skills have stayed with me to this very day and left me very much still in love with Africa and its huge heart and spirit. One day I’ll go back and re-trace my 19-year-old steps….
There is a bit more background into the political history of the Gambia here which is interesting to read now as I look back on my short but sweet experience in the country and the experience of witnessing history in the making – OK so I was a bit oblivious but it all makes sense now….
Life sure is interesting.