The tiny nation of The Gambia is known as West Africa’s ‘smiling coast’. Jane Labous finds a warm welcome in a land of peanut fields, fish markets and fearless beekeepers.
Currency is the Dalasi (£1=46 GMD). Time in The Gambia is the same as GMT. The climate is sub-tropical, with a hot, humid wet season (June-October) and a cooler dry season (November-May). The average temperature is 24°C. The best time to visit is between November and April.
Monarch Airlines operates direct flights twice a week from London Gatwick to Banjul, The Gambia, with connecting flights from various UK airports to London.
The Gambia Experience (0845 330 20870, gambia.co.uk) organises bespoke holidays to The Gambia. Seven nights at the Coco Ocean Resort & Spa – part of the ‘Luxury Collection’ – costs from £1,097 per person sharing a Junior Suite with breakfast, inclusive of flights, taxes and transfers.
Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster (Pocket Books, £7.99). A young Gambian woman faces a choice on her 18th birthday – the consequences of which sends her life down three different potential paths.
Glance at a map and you might miss The Gambia, a little Anglophone country marooned amid the rest of French-speaking West Africa. When the English colonial powers scrambled for power on this side of the continent in the 1870s, they didn’t really want the sliver of land surrounded by the French territory of Senegal. Churlish attempts were even made to swap it for something better – but nobody was interested.
Hence the fact that, if you drive south of the Sahara, down through Mauritania and halfway into Senegal, you come upon this tiny snake of a country shot in along the Gambia River. The sandy streeted capital, Banjul, is more village than city, dominated by Arch 22, named after the military takeover here on 22 July 1994. At its centre is chaotic Royal Albert Market where peanut grinders, wig makers, fabric printers, and everyone in between, gather in alleyways that wind down to the shore of the river. An ancient ferry lurches across the water towards the Senegalese border on the other side.
West Africa rolls in a rather more exuberant way to the rest of the continent and Banjul is no exception – you might find the echo of a drum beat around a street corner, while the women are swathed head to toe in the psychedelic, waxed fabrics that so characterise this western edge of Africa. These days, adverts tout mobile networks and cigarettes, but hawkers, offering traditional staples from peanuts to papayas, still remain. The city streets are crowded with boys selling oranges from wheelbarrows, women roasting sweetcorn on oil stoves, and outdoor hairdressers.
Wander around town and you’ll come across quieter streets lined with schools, mosques and churches (the population here is largely Muslim, with a scattering of Catholics) and multicoloured buses, with boys hanging out of the back door, rumbling past bustling street stalls. You can still sense the colonial elegance of the now rather dilapidated buildings around the city; their colours are faded by the sun but they still tell the history of this former British colony.
Beyond the city lies a country shaded by acacia trees, dotted with baobabs and oyster-spotted mangroves and edged by a mixture of long, empty shoreline and fancy resorts that attract crowds of sun-seeking holidaymakers. Most people base themselves half an hour out of Banjul in the coastal area of Senegambia. Here there are ample beaches for everyone amid a cluster of hotels. They range from the tiny African fabric-draped Ngala Lodge, which has its own private beach, to upmarket boutique operations such as the Coco Ocean, where the passionate Moroccan owner Mr Bensouda cultivates his own papayas, asparagus, baobabs, bananas, grapefruits and hibiscus for the fresh salads and juices that appear on the menu.
The hotels provide a much-needed antidote to the world outside; for some reason the combination of 30-degree-plus heat, a dusty city and crowds of people always has you craving the stillness of a hotel and a dip in the pool by mid-afternoon. Nowadays, there’s an increasing emphasis on all things culinary, too. The mainly expat owners of these hotels (strangely, they’re usually Belgian) have taken local produce to heart and are busily devising menus from the fresh seafood and fruits and vegetables that are so abundant here.
But it’s out in the villages beneath the big, white-hot African sky, amid the elephant grass and the peanut fields, that you find the real Gambia. This is where beekeeping is just one of the cottage industries that abound among the local population and where English is overridden by seven local tribal languages, including Wolof, Mandinka and Aku. Most people here are, by necessity, self-sufficient. Three quarters of the population relies on agriculture for its livelihood and most people live on less than £1 a day.
Beekeeper Hawa Basju lives an hour east of Banjul. Every night for the past seven years, Mrs Basju has pulled on a jungle-green protective bodysuit and ventured into the tropical night to collect honey from thousands of killer bees. ‘Here in Africa, our bees are smaller than European bees and much more aggressive,’ she explains with a smile as we stroll through her bee farm in the village of Sifoe. ‘That’s why we gather the honey at night – because the bees are sleepy and less inclined to sting.’
Harvesting peanuts is a slightly less dangerous way for many Gambians to earn a living. It’s 35 degrees and, just a few weeks after the end of the rainy season, the humidity is nudging 60 per cent. In the village of Jalanbang, near Brikama, my guide Mueki tells me to be wary of snakes as we scramble through tall artemisia plants (they’re used as a natural mosquito repellent) to see the local women hard at work. We find a small group of them hidden in a clearing in the middle of the field, chatting as they sort peanuts into piles. A small boy is sitting in a bucket of nuts. The local imam is there too, reading the Koran. The vegetation grows along the ground, inauspicious-looking bushes planted during the rainy season that, when you look closely, are heavy with peanuts. The women demonstrate how they pull up the plants and shake off the nuts. ‘All of us at the village work on this farm,’ one of the women explains as she works. ‘We come as a group when we have time, in between cooking and domestic work.’
Down the road, at the edge of the village, Michel runs a local distillery producing palm wine, variously known in these parts as ‘jungle juice’, ‘firewater’ or ‘kill me quick’. Michel is a Christian, which means he can produce alcohol in this Muslim country where good Muslims do not drink – as long as he does it away from the main village. That’s not to say that everyone follows the rules. Someone must be drinking the palm wine. When dusk falls, Michel’s distillery doubles as a prohibition-style bar where locals come to drown their sorrows on liquor that costs little more than £2 a litre.
‘Christians drink and some Muslims drink,’ explains Michel, ‘but they hide when they drink. We call them “plastered” Muslims. They come here to drink alcohol at night because they wouldn’t want their families to find out about it – it’s totally frowned upon. On a good day, I get around 20 people coming here to my bar. On a bad day, about 10. Weekends are the best time; people come on a Friday night.’
Michel shows me the old copper barrel where he distils the coconut-flavoured jungle juice. It starts off at around 0.3 per cent alcohol when first collected from the palm trees by boys who deftly scramble up the trunk with the help of a woven palm harness. After three days, the substances rise to a heady 13 per cent. Mueki chuckles, waving a bottle under my nose. ‘The local name is zum zum,’ he winks, ‘because if you drink the whole bottle your head goes zum, zum… zum, zum…’
It’s Tabaski next Monday, the Muslim festival during which every family slaughters a sheep, and along the roads, giant billboards tempt people with seasonal offers: ‘Thirty sheep to give away for Tabaski’, ‘Tabaski Special’. We pass clusters of sheep at the side of the road being sold by Mauritanian tradesmen wrapped in sky-blue robes and turbans. Stopping, I talk to herder Amadou, who explains that his sheep are from Mali, Senegal and Mauritania. He takes me through the complex pricing system which rates the curly-horned Malian sheep at the lower end of the market, the chunky Senegalese sheep in the middle range, and the superb, tall Mauritanian sheep at the upper end (you pay a whopping £150 for a handsome one).
Back in the city, I have a go at cooking some Gambian specialties with the help of Ida Cham-Njai, a professional cook who runs a low-key cookery school for tourists. Right now, Mrs Cham-Njai is noisily eating soursop. ‘My favourite,’ she grins, as the juice runs down her chin and we sit cross-legged on a mat under the moringa tree in her backyard. The soursop is indeed exceedingly good: a prickly green, vaguely prehistoric-looking fruit that, when cut open, reveals a silky textured and milky custard interior dotted with black seeds. It tastes both sweet and sour at the same time.
As is the custom, we sip wonjo (a sour, scarlet drink made of boiled roselle hibiscus flowers) and buy (made from velvety baobab fruits) and help ourselves to spoonfuls of benachin (or ‘one pot’) that Mrs Cham-Njai and I made earlier in the morning. Probably the country’s favourite dish, this flavoursome stew is cooked over a charcoal fire made from an old wheel hub, and consists of white fish and Gambian rice in a rich sauce of garlic, tomatoes and whole carrots, sweet potatoes, okra and jakatou (bitter tomatoes).
Most women spend all morning cooking lunch here in West Africa before delivering the dish to the fields at noon, where everyone eats with their fingers from one common dish. Mrs Cham-Njai provides tourists with a small taste of this culinary tradition. She takes small groups to nearby Tanji fish market to buy ingredients, before calmly teaching them to make benachin, yassa chicken, and domoda (groundnut stew) in her outdoor kitchen. We visit the market at nine in the morning, when Tanji is a swirl of colour beneath the searing blue sky. Seagulls wheel overhead and fishing boats rear on the fierce surf as the fishermen attempt to land safely. Women in brightly patterned dresses and headscarves, with babies slung around their backs in cloth slings, come here to sell or buy.
Mrs Cham-Njai leads me through the stalls, past tomatoes and yams, bitter tomatoes, sweet potatoes and mounds and mounds of peanuts. There are piles of red chillies, white onions, cassavas, avocados, soft Gambian rice, bags of salt, peppercorns and Maggi stock cubes, aubergines, carrots, ginger, mint, green oranges and knobbly soursops. Down on the beach, the fishwives crouch on the sand before their stalls, each selling their own little heaps of fish – barracuda, snapper, the odd sea snake, capitaine and butterfish, a creamy-fleshed white fish that is much enjoyed around here (it tastes a little like cod) because, as the government sells off fishing grounds to the Chinese and the Spanish, it is in plentiful supply and cheap.
Later, as dusk falls and the heat calms, I visit the kitchens of another Gambian gastronomic stalwart. Belgian Peter Vanstalle and his Gambian wife, Jo Jo Jammeh, run Jo Jo’s Bistro and Grill House in the coastal tourist district of Senegambia. Jo Jo likes to mix up her mojitos from local mint and lime. Like Mrs Cham-Njai, the couple go to Tanji market every day to buy lobsters, giant gambas and fresh fish. I end the day with their fruits de mer platter with pineapple and lime, as the lanterns are lit and the DJ wafts a kora tune into the African dusk and the crickets begin to chirp. It is Friday night and as, out in his village, Michel prepares to make some of his punters’ heads go zum zum, somewhere in the bush, Mrs Basju is getting ready to visit her bees. I smile at the thought, here on the smiling coast, and ponder the fact that it was indeed lucky that the British never did manage to swap the Gambia for something bigger. Small, as they say, is beautiful.
Where to Stay
Coco Ocean Resort and Spa (also see Where to eat) Gorgeous luxury resort with huge rooms (some have their own pool), capacious beds, sleek Moroccan furnishings and truly delicious food. Even the jam at breakfast is home-made from fresh fruit from the hotel farm. Seven nights from £1,079 including breakfast, flights and transfers.
Omakan (also see Where to eat) A pretty boutique hotel in the middle of a small village, minutes away from a white sand Atlantic beach. Seven nights from £898 per person, including breakfast, flights and transfers.
Ngala Lodge (also see Where to eat for details) Boutique hotel furnished with unusual printed fabrics and African art with its own beach – one of the best on this coast. Doubles from £46.50 per person per night, including breakfast.
Sheraton Gambia Hotel and Spa Perched on a beach in a garden of palms and baobab trees, this is a reliable place to base yourself. Doubles from £129 per night. Brufut Heights, AU Highway, Serrekunda, 00 220 441 08 89, sheratongambiahotel.com
Mandina River Lodge Situated on a mangrove-clothed tributary of the River Gambia, right in the middle of the bush, this is an upmarket experience of the wilderness, with a great pool. Seven nights from £879 per person, half board, including flights. Makasutu Culture Forest, makasutu.com
The Kairaba Hotel On the golden beach of Kololi, in the middle of 40 acres of lush tropical gardens, this is a great place to relax. Doubles from £65 per night. PMB 390 Serrekunda, 00 220 446 29 40, kairabahotel.com
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for three courses with wine, unless otherwise stated.
Coco Ocean Resort and Spa (also see Where to stay) Magical place to eat on the beach, beautifully furnished with Moroccan lamps, with two restaurants (Thai and Moroccan fusion) stocked with fresh ingredients from the hotel’s own farm – where the hotel’s owner grows kumquats, passionfruit, mangoes, papayas, tomatoes, yams, ginger, avocados, pomegranates, grapefruits and herbs. From £43. One Bamboo Drive, Kombo Coastal Road, Bijilo, 00 220 446 6500, cocoocean.com
Jo Jo’s Bistro and Grill House Candlelit bar and restaurant serving Gambian food with a contemporary twist – the seafood platter with local lobster is particularly good. Mojitos are made with local mint and a DJ plays chilled-out tunes until late. From £32. Senegambia, 100m Past Kololi Casino, 00 220 446 5151
Omakan (also see Where to stay) Lovely fish-based dishes created by a Senegalese chef, including capitaine carpaccio, fish soup and catch of the day and prawns with mash and curry sauce. From £32. Sukuta, 00 220
768 3672, omakanhotel.com
Ngala Lodge (also see Where to stay) Worth a visit for a sunset drink and meal overlooking the beach. Serves European dishes with a hint of African flavour. From £32. 64 Atlantic Boulevard, Fajara, 00 220 449 40 45, ngalalodge.com
- Benachin: (‘one pot’) Fish stew typical to West Africa made in one pot and eaten from a common dish, based on a rich tomato sauce with fish and whole vegetables (West Africans do not slice their vegetables for this dish), with rice.
- Butterfish: A local, oily white fish.
- Buy: Fruit of the baobab tree, and the name of the juice it is made into.
- Capitaine: Large, tasty freshwater fish, also known as the Nile perch.
- Domoda: Peanut (groundnut) stew.
- Gambas: Local tiger prawns.
- Jakatou: Bitter green tomatoes used in benachin and other stews.
- Moringa: Local tree known for its health benefits. Gambians boil the leaves to make a herbal tea or you can eat the leaves in salads.
- Wonjo: A bright scarlet, slightly sour drink made from boiled hibiscus leaves.
- Yassa chicken: Typical West African dish with stewed chicken (or sometimes fish) and onion sauce, served with white rice.
- Zum Zum: Local, potent palm wine, also known as jungle juice, fire wateror ‘kill me quick’.
Jane Labous and Gary Latham travelled to The Gambia courtesy of The Gambia Experience, 0845 330 2087, gambia.co.uk
This article was published on 3rd January 2012 so certain details may not be up to date.