The glorious colours of The Gambia
Gambia is a place of huge smiles, ample sunshine and cultural diversity. From the moment I set foot in this exciting country I was struck by the vibrant colours all around me. What this tiny nation might lack in size, it certainly makes up for in vitality. And with the second most progressive responsible tourism policy in the world (South Africa being first) it is a fantastic place to visit as an ethical traveller.
The characteristic red earth, tinted by rust from iron in the soil provides the perfect backdrop to the flamboyant colour palette that, to me, has come to represent Gambia and its people. The sun embraces everything in warm tones, especially in the golden hours of the early morning and late afternoon.
It is also a peaceful country with at least seven different ethnic groups living side by side despite differences in culture, language and sometimes religion. 90% of Gambians are Muslim with 8% Christian and 2% indigenous beliefs. The fact that they co-exist without conflict gives me hope for the future. If only this was the case in more places. This is not to say there aren’t problems. Poverty is rife and tumbledown corrugated iron shacks are a common sight, as are half finished building projects along the roads. Without tourism however the situation would be a lot worse and a huge part of the economy is tied into this industry.
The clothes and fabrics worn, especially by local women, are bold and bright. There is a rich tradition of batik and dying of cloth and colours are associated with certain aspects of life. Completely opposite to European tradition, black is related to weddings and white to funerals, signifying peace and faith. Brown and yellow are associated with power, ceremonies and rituals, whereas indigo is often used in initiation ceremonies and also marriages.
Dye making used to be considered sacred, with the task often falling to older women past child-bearing age, as menstruation was believed to spoil the dye. It was also said that if a witch or wizard came close to the dye it would go bad, but in turn they would go blind. These are just a few of the superstitions surrounding this craft.
Curiously, the actual weaving of the fabrics falls to the men in Gambian society, not the women. According to one of my guides, this is because the looms require strength to be operated and the women are too busy farming to take on this task.
It is obvious from this how important colours are to culture in Gambia and this still shows in everyday life, although the use of them seems more relaxed these days judging by the explosion of colour I encountered every day.
To immerse yourself in local life, head to Tanji, a major fishing beach on the coast between Banjul and Gunjur. Each day, as tons of fish are brought in by traditional fishing boats (pirogues) the beach and the surrounding area is transformed into a bustling market place. A word of warning for people with sensitive noses – you will encounter smells, some of which may appeal (if you like seafood), some that won’t.
For me this is all part of the texture of the experience and it wouldn’t have been the same without it, pleasant or not. One of the preferable places was a herring smokery, where thousands of fish are smoked on coal fires over a period of six days. The owner gave us a fish to taste, two days into the process, and despite the multitude of tiny bones the flavour was divine. I absolutely adore seafood and to have it this fresh off the smoker was a real treat.
As my guide attended to his early evening prayers, I had a wander around the area where women were drying fish.
These cheerful plastic teapots are used by people to wash and keep themselves clean during what can be dirty work.
As the sun started to set over the sea, I had a surreal smell experience as the wind provided random whiffs of odour. One minute it would be enjoyable, the next incredibly foul. It was a bit like a box of Harry Potter jellybeans, for those familiar with the concept. Although I felt slightly uncomfortable at times, I loved the feeling of being so close to the reality of life. Much more authentic and exhilarating than sterile supermarkets so far removed from how the food chain really works.
Prayers completed, my guide led me through a maze of little stalls thriving on feeding the thousands of people making a living in the fishing trade. Here people strike deals, catch up on the latest gossip and sometimes love will blossom with groups of youngsters coming here to socialize, quite likely one of the main places of unrestricted access to the opposite sex available to them. Seeing a young couple sitting in the evening sun on the beach, nestled in between two fishing boats with a bucket of raw fish between, clearly stealing a moment of privacy was very touching and I couldn’t help but break into a big smile. Gambia has a way of doing that to you.
The colours of Gambia definitely got under my skin as well as onto my skin. Practically on the Equator it’s difficult to get much closer to the sun without leaving planet earth. Tan aside, the soft, powdery earth turned my feet a dark reddish brown every day. Far from this bothering me, scrubbing my them clean in the shower before dinner every evening became a satisfying cleansing ritual. As well as making me smile, Gambia made me feel very much alive.
The best time to visit Gambia is during the dry season from November to April. The coolest period is leading up to the wet season in late April and May. During this time it's a good idea to bring a jumper as the evenings can get a little chilly. The days are still generally hot.
This is the first in a series of stories about Gambia. Next up is the low down on the two ethically run resorts I stayed at: Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Forest and Sandele Eco-Retreat near Kartong in the south of the country.
Many thanks to The Gambia Experience for hosting me on this trip. All opinions expressed are my own.