Sitting alone at a café just off the busy Senegambia tourist area in the Gambia, I suck back my beer. A waiter materializes at my table, smiling a crocodile smile, and asks, “What is your good name?”
I answer, and he churns it over on his tongue, taking possession. “Sa-rah, Sa-rah. I like that name. Sa-rah.” He practically sings it.
I’ve been here long enough to know not to use my real name. He leans forward with his hands on the table, and the questions begin in earnest. Thankfully, they are the same questions asked by the other hundred or so Gambian men who have introduced themselves to me in the past four days, so I already know the answers. After all, this is the Gambia, a former British colony tucked into the middle of Senegal, known for its kora drumming, marijuana, birdwatching, and “bumsters”. These male hustlers are everywhere in Senegambia. They will act as your guide, find you a taxi, and do, well, anything else you desire, for a price. Mainly gigolo and partly con artist, they are skilled at the hard sell.
The waiter is closing in now, but he seems an affable sort, or else I’m just falling for the charm.
“Where are you staying?” he asks. I tell him I’m staying much further down the coast. He tells me I can’t stay so far away because Wednesday is ladies’ night at the bar and he’d like to escort me. I’m getting the feeling that every night is ladies’ night in Senegambia.
I swear I didn’t know that the Gambia was a hotbed of female sex tourism when I booked my ridiculously cheap charter flight from England. I wanted to go to Senegal, and since the Gambia is located right in the middle of the country, it was the ideal launching point.
One of the poorest countries on Earth, the Gambia has no major natural resources. The only significant agriculture the country has is—literally—peanuts. The unemployment rate is extremely high. A 2004 report by the United Nations Development Programme states that 82.9 percent of the population lives on less than US$2 a day.
Evidence of sex tourism is everywhere in the Gambia. After only a few minutes on the Senegambia tourist strip, I’ve seen three couples, all weathered Euro-style women of a certain age with nubile twentysomething (or younger) Gambian men, holding hands in the bright sun. It works the usual way too: foreign men with youngish local women sipping beer in the shade of the strip’s restaurants.
This is what you see in broad daylight. Behind closed doors, a darker picture emerges. A 2004 UNICEF–sponsored report confirms that sexual abuse and exploitation of children is on the rise in the Gambia. Charges against child-sex tourists have been brought before courts in the Gambia and Europe, according to a 2007 report from ECPAT, an international network of organizations devoted to ending sexual exploitation of children. The report notes that “the occurrence of child sex tourism in the Gambia is well documented,” and that when the bumsters aren’t selling themselves, some pimp women.
The trend of female tourists visiting the Gambia for sexual relationships with adult males is reportedly increasing, and some of the relationships lead to marriage, says a 2005 report from ECPAT: “Older and relatively wealthier female tourists form sexual relationships with younger men who are eager to escape poverty and have a better life abroad.” Many Gambians are utterly dependent on tourism for their survival, and when there is nothing else to sell, some sell themselves. Immediate gratification, such as a meal, can appear to be the beginning of an escape from poverty.
But these are the things you’d rather not think about while out for a walk in the midday sun.
Stepping off the threshold of my hotel, I hear the cry, “Boss lady, bananas?” ringing across the sands. From the other side, a young man makes a beeline in my direction with his hand extended. “Shake hands,” he says. It is not a question but a demand.
Walking on the beach, I meet Abraham, Musah, Lamir, and so many more within minutes. I say, “No thank you, no thank you, no thank you” as politely as I can. Heckling results. Smiling is a mistake. I get rude, and some observers yell back at me, “This is Gambia. It’s nice to be friendly. It’s nice to be nice.”
I follow a white man in his 50s down the main drag; he keeps fending off the demands with a constant refrain of “Maybe later, maybe later.”
“It’s too much,” says a birdwatcher I meet a few days later. “You understand why, but it’s too much.”
Aside from gigolos, the country is also renowned for birdwatching, with over 300 species of birds and excellent birding sites on the coast and up the Gambia River. I join a group of Belgian birdwatchers for an offshore boat tour to Bijol Island, an important breeding site for the Caspian tern and grey-headed gull that is part of the Tanji River Bird Reserve, located about 45 minutes down the coast from the main tourist areas. Join is perhaps not the right word, as the birdwatchers are so enraptured by what they are seeing I don’t think they notice I’m there, though they do let me look through their massive telescopes occasionally. On the way back, one of the birdwatchers admits he feels a little guilty—at home in Belgium, he wouldn’t be able to set foot on such an important breeding site.
The Gambia also boasts excellent regional cuisine, including domada, a rich peanut sauce served on vegetables or meat, and yassa, a meat-and-onion dish that is worlds better than its name implies.
But the constant hassle detracts from what could be a rewarding destination. Some tourists call it greed, but I can’t tell where need ends and greed begins. Many Gambians tell me it is very different away from the main resorts, and I believe them, but all I know is that I need a break from my vacation.
I take a taxi to Boboi Beach Lodge, a rustic haven an hour down the coast near Kartong at the Senegal border. The taxi driver is friendly, not pushy. But as we approach the lodge, he starts to close the deal.
“You need a friend in the Gambia,” he says.
“I don’t want a friend.”
“One night with me and you’ll want me again and again.”
“Thank you,” I say, “but I’ll be okay.”
“I can spend the night with you,” he says, unloading my bags from the back of his jeep, smiling kindly at me. “You shouldn’t sleep alone. It’s lonely to sleep alone.”
I thank him for his kind offer, and that’s all.
He has to ask, because someone might say yes, and who knows what a world of possibilities that might bring—free beer, a good meal, food for his family, a wedding ring, or just maybe a ticket from poverty to paradise.
Access: Once in London, book a cheap flight to Banjul, the Gambia’s only airport. The currency in the
Gambia is the dalasi, and travel in the country isn’t as cheap as you might expect. A meal at a tourist restaurant might cost 200 dalasi, the equivalent of over $10. People speak English, as well as Wolof and tribal languages.