A slim finger of a nation on Africa’s sunset coast, enveloped on all sides bar the ocean by Senegal, The Gambia wraps itself around the lower reaches of the River Gambia, hence the country’s sinuous shape – its borders clinging to the river’s shores as it flows west towards the Atlantic.
Thanks to its ocean port and the river’s navigability deep into the continent, The Gambia has for centuries been a hub for different cultures as well as a trading post, including slave traffic. Arab merchants, Muslims, the Mali Empire, Portuguese, the Baltics, the Dutch, the French, the British – all at different times struggled for commercial and political dominion over the region. From the end of the 19th century the British established a ‘protectorate’ there and The Gambia progressed towards independence. Gambians fought alongside the Allies during the Second World War, and finally gained independence in 1965 as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth. From 1970 to the present the country has undergone further change, becoming a Republic and rejecting the Commonwealth and neo-colonial power. It requested to re-enter the Commonwealth in 2017.
The country has a historical reliance on subsistence agriculture and groundnut exports and has built a welcome for tourists with golden windswept beaches and a tropical climate, hot and rainy from June to November, dryer and cooler the rest of the year. Beware: cooler does not mean cool. I was there in April, arriving on a breezy overcast day whose clouds caught me out: I was fooled me into not wearing any sun protection and by the next day my back was as red as a lobster.
Fancy resort hotels exist if that’s your bag, plus smaller eco-resorts and camps. I stayed in a mid-range ocean-side place with a pool, a selection of restaurants and even a massage parlour on site. You could choose to relax and remain there for the duration, or you could walk along the beach to other nearby villages, encountering monkeys in the trees along the shore and fruit-sellers keen for you to sample their fresh mango. Local taxi drivers are available to take you on excursions. Ratty, a local DJ who doubles as a driver, took me to the market in Serekunda, which was full of colourful stalls under bright sunshine and a labyrinthine indoor market selling clothes, gadgets, jewellery and trinkets. Schoolchildren in white and blue uniforms played behind dusty courtyard walls.
At night there was entertainment in the hotel, but I wanted to see the real thing, not a show put on for tourists. Ratty took me to a party in a ramshackle building on the shore. A soundsystem blared. I danced – until the DJ’s freestyling began to reference Babylon and the oppressor, which seemed like a good time to leave.
Later in my stay, further inland, I visited Lamin Lodge. The earth along the south shore of the tidal river here is encrusted with oyster shells. Oysters are one of The Gambia’s main delicacies. A local guide took me in a canoe to mangrove swamps where we slipped quietly among other-worldly root-systems and he used his experienced eye to point out the flash of kingfisher feathers between the trees. (Birdwatching tours are a big part of the country’s tourist offering).
We tied up the canoe and splashed through shallows, feet sinking into unctuous silt, and emerged in a small settlement to drink ‘wine’ taken straight from a tap in a palm. A gargantuan silk cotton tree was also on the itinerary. Estimated to be around 800 years old, it has seen youngsters circumcised and lovers’ wedding vows within the elephantine folds of its grey trunk.
Another day saw a longer, more solemn trip to Kunta Kinteh (formerly James / St Andrew Island). A taxi ride filled with DJ Ratty’s music to Banjul, then a ferry shared with livestock across the wide river mouth to Barra, a further 30km drive and a final wordless boat trip, took me to this UNESCO-listed monument associated with the history of the slave trade.
On the Gambia’s northern shore sit the small towns of Albreda and Juffereh where children run bare-foot past the doors of the museum that tells the story of this place. Europeans built settlements and forts here and imprisoned kidnapped Africans, for whom Kunta Kinteh Island would provide a last glimpse of African soil.
All seemed to fall quiet as the small boat I was in approached the island. There was no one else there. At 3km, the outpost seems tantalisingly close to the shore and yet forbiddingly distant. Even if you could have escaped your slave shackles, that distance would have been a terrifying swim at a time when few knew how.
The island itself is shrinking and the once-imposing fort and cannons are heavily eroded. Wind whispered in the trees growing among the stones as I walked the garrison’s jagged silhouette. Defensive work is needed if visitors are to continue setting foot there to learn about the atrocities committed and the ‘rehabilitation’ of the island: when the British abolished the slave trade and began intercepting slave ships, it was to this place that victims stolen from all over the region were returned, in the expectation they would start new lives.
Back in Barra, the main ferry service across the Gambia River’s mouth to Banjul was delayed. Restless passengers waited, sprawled on the ground in the afternoon sunlight. Finally, Ratty suggested taking an alternate means of transport. Wearing a loose lifejacket and rib-to-rib with other passengers, I crossed the river for the fourth time that day, this time in a crowded local motorboat with a deep belly where others crouched, face-to-kneecap. There were so many of us aboard I’m not sure how we stayed afloat.
The wind whipped my hair and fellow commuters variously grinned or looked ill. I kept my eye on the horizon across the choppy estuary where the Atlantic meets The Gambia – a land of water, a land of oysters and of mangroves; a land of birds, of music, of migration. A land of history and a land moving into its future.
On arrival in Banjul, there was no wharf. A man waded into the water, threw me over his shoulder and carried me safely onto the sand.