Destination Gambia’s greatest edge is the genuinely hospitable people. This enviable trait, plus other attributes including the majestic River Gambia, with its meandering bolongs ( tributaries), culinary delights, the friendly and hospitable people all living in peace with each other within a limited geographic area, constitute a mosaic of advantages which combine to amplify the eco-tourism credentials of Destination Gambia. Ecotourism refers to “purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people”.
Ecotourism, responsible tourism, and community tourism have become buzzwords in the global tourism market place mainly due to the fact that tourism as a global industry is evolving by leaps and bounds due to changes in lifestyle coupled with the fact that tourists have become even more discerning, environmentally conscious and increasingly there is the urge to immerse in local cultures. At a glance it might seem that this phenomenon is new and another promotional gimmick to cash in the tourist dollar, but in actual fact tourists have always craved interactive encounter with the locals and to immerse in local culture since the seventies.
One village that played a prominent role in this form of host–guest encounter in the late ’70s was Bondali Tenda. A typical riverside village nestled on the upper riches of the Bintang Bolong – one of the major tributaries on the south coast of River Gambia and located in Foni Bondali District, a predominantly Jola region. Legend has it that the first settlers of Bondali Tenda were the Fatty Kunda clan, with extraction from the Kaabu Empire.
The village derived its name from the founding father – Bondali Fatty. Thus the Fatty Kunda family served as the original inhabitants of Bondali Tenda, and until today provides leadership in the village. They were later joined by the Saho Kunda clan (kabilo) – traditionally griots, Jobe Kunda, Jallow Kunda, Sanyang Kunda and other settlers followed mainly fisher-folk and traders. Therefore, though a small settlement, Bondali Tenda in its heyday was home to the Mandinka, Fula, Jola and Wolof ethnic groups and this depicted the rich ethnic mix of the area and further buttresses the great degree of social cohesion and peace in The Gambia – the essence of the Smiling Coast brand. The predominant occupation of the villagers is farming either in the groundnut farms by the men or the rice fields by the women. However, given its location on the banks of the Bintang Bolong, this served as a major factor to entrench Bondali Tenda’s role as a trading centre and during its hey days served as a bustling trading centre and played host to major trading houses such as CFAO and Maurel & Prom mainly to partake in the lucrative groundnut trade during the colonial era. As a riverside village, fish such as tilapia (fuuro) was also galore.
Towards the 1970s the village Bondali Tenda had lost most of its old glory, and competitive edge as a tenda (seaside settlement) and became a shadow of its former self as another name sake Bondali (Kanaf) otherwise known as Foni Bondali slowly but surely, develops into the local administrative centre and the seat of traditional chieftaincy, located on the Soma-Brikama Highway and a few kilometers from Bondali Tenda.
Bondali Tenda experience
However, thanks to its location on the Bintang Bolong, this rustic village became known for another venture – ecotourism and by the late 1970s Scandinavian tourists en-route to Tendaba (a major upriver camp and lodge in Lower River Region) would make occasional stop over (convenience stop), mainly to refresh, refill but also to have an interactive encounter with the locals and relish the local delicacies and enjoy the natural scenery of the biggest tributary of the River Gambia. These tourists cherish the winter sun mainly, but wished to experience local culture and culinary delight away from the confines of their sea side resorts, long before ecotourism, responsible tourism or community tourism came to the mainstream of global travel and tourism. This was the period when some tourism scholars “were seriously worried about the increasing obsolescence of the tourism paradigm of the ’70s and ’80s often referred to as mass tourism and which was later renamed Fordian Tourism”.
Thanks to its perfect location adjacent to the banks of the Bintang Bolong, magnificent ecosystem around the Bolong with its mangrove wetlands, friendly, and charming locals as well as historic relics such as the tomb of the legendary Masanneh Ceesay were just some of the attractions for these sun-starved Scandinavian tourists. Invariably, twice weekly, the Scandinavian tourists under the aegis of Banjul-based ground tour operators would descend on the village en route to Tendaba and the villagers would open their arms to wholeheartedly welcome the “Swedish toubabolu” as tourists were known to us in those days. The river (Bintang Bolong) provided ample opportunity for the visitors to indulge in their favourite passion. Those who fancy swimming would occasionally dive into the calm waters of the bolong to the astonishment of the local village folk, who for generations have considered the calm waters of the river to be crocodile-infested and therefore a no go area. Thus thanks to tourism, a local taboo was broken.
Truancy – Challenges and opportunities of tourism
Given that tourism often comes with a mix bag of opportunities and challenges, the occasional truancy by the village children to partake in the fun and the opportunity to have gifts and also to mingle with the visiting toubabs posed some challenges. The school authorities frowned on this unbecoming behaviour, and occasionally Headmaster Jobarteh would read a riot act during the weekly assembly and warned us to desist from following the toubabs. But the urge to close early from Bondali Primary School and trek to Bondali Tenda and interact with the Scandinavian tourists was too much to resist. My childhood friend, Pa Modou Jobe, would urge me and usually endorsed by my late paternal grandmother Joe, to proceed and not to miss the opportunity to have the rare chance of an encounter with the toubabolu and have some gifts. It was this motivation that led to the emergence and surge of the phenomenon called “bumsing” in recent times.
According to one frequent visitor to the Smiling Coast: “The travel guides put the fear of God in you when it comes to the locals who will befriend you as soon as you step out of your hotel. They are known as bumsters and have an extremely poor reputation, but if you give them a friendly handshake and have a brief chat you may find them to be really informative, helpful and above all nice. There is no reason to be afraid of them.” It is therefore obvious that “bumsing” is not necessarily evil, but hardcore bumsters who usually refuse to take a no for an answer deserve no sympathy.
Given that tourism “is an opportunity for people to do better”, and that ‘it is an experience-led industry where the consumer comes to the product’, the local women provided incredibly delicious local culinary delights such as durango or domoda, fish benechin, findo etc for the visiting Europeans in the makeshift village restaurant on the river front. I knew because one of the women “chefs” – the late Mba Binta Kanteh used to ensure that the kids including my humble self get a good share of the sumptuous meals. They would also entertain the visitors and the local kanyeleng group (traditional communicators) led by the late Naa Montang Fatty and supported by Naa Tiya would entertain, dance and sang the local folk song “sing kolling kolling sing” to the delight of the visitors, who would occasionally join the fray to try their skills in African dance.
The men including the youth would also make handicrafts and artwork to sell and my very own uncle Pa Abdoulie (Lai) Saho – a driver, but who had the word ‘“creativity” on his forehead, made best use of his English Language skills to interact positively with the visiting toubabs and provided local guiding service to showcase his knowledge of the history and geography of the village, supported by his friend the late Abdoulie Ndama, to the delight of the tourists. They would also ensure that their assortment of locally made handicrafts were purchased by the curious visitors and received a fair share of the gifts including books for us the children.
The toubabs would not only buy this artwork, but also dished out pens, pencils; books and sweets to us the local kids and in frenzy, we would pull each other down in the sand to get the precious gifts. In later years, the Gambia Tourism Dos and Don’ts would frown on such practices and would advise tourists “not to throw coins, sweets or anything to children from vehicles.” It further makes the point that “the Gambians are a proud people and do not appreciate their children to fight in the dust over such things”. This is in line with the new wave Responsible Tourism and according to one leading light of tourism “what qualifies as responsible tourism behaviour maybe many and numerous. But in essence, they all contribute in ensuring that the social, economic and environmental issues affecting tourism are judiciously harmonised for the benefit of all their hosts in a destination such as The Gambia, where the industry is in good stead to foster the values of healthy, ethical behaviour, shored up by a web of international friendships and cooperation.”
The promise of the Bondali Tenda experience
However, for a brief period in the late 1970s, Bondali Tenda became a hot spot and an exotic destination for these Scandinavian tourists and thus benefitted from the trickle-down effects of tourism as the locals interacted with people of a different culture thus breaking cultural barriers. The village women showcased their culinary delights and earned some income, entertained the guests culturally and the local men traded with the visiting tourists by hawking local artwork and handicraft. The tourists left a positive footprint and even the village children benefitted with an assortment of gifts including books and these bundle of benefits constitute the main reason why ecotourism has become the in- thing in tourism.
The Bondali Tenda experience was a fine example to lend credence to the fact that “tourism is the only hard currency earning product that can be designed, produced, packaged and operated entirely by developing countries themselves. It needs very little hard currency imports up front…” It is with this in mind that various ecotourism initiatives have emerged to spread not only the geographic scope, but the benefits of tourism. Invariably, today mention ecotourism and such diverse places as Tumani Tenda, Berefet, Ndemban, Lamin Lodge and Tendaba Camp come to mind. However, Makasutu Cultural Forest and Sandele eco-retreat lead the way in terms of quality and variety of products and services offered in tandem with the local communities. The new kids on the block include trendy Abca’s Creek Lodge, Kauren River Camp and Footsteps Eco-Lodge and these are complemented by a range of captivating tours and excursions including tranquil creek and river trips, blended with a variety of land-based excursions including bush and beach safari, bird watching, sightseeing and city tours, round trips, cultural visits with a view to accord visitors an insight into the rich cultural diversity of this small gem of a land called the Smiling Coast. The message for today’s tourist is simple: just get involved and experience the genuine warmth of the people of the Smiling Coast.
A case for responsible tourism and the way forward
Today, Gambia tourism pursues a policy that ensures that communities and their environment become permanent beneficiaries of tourism. This is possible by minimising the negative and promoting the positive impacts of tourism. Towards this end, the revisiting of the ecotourism strategy will not be farfetched. Here ‘sustainability’ is the key word – elements of the natural and the cultural environments which are destroyed for short term gain will be lost to future generations. The transition from agriculture which is the predominant occupation of the vast majority of the communities to tourism – a service intensive industry requires the creation of support systems and mentorship in entrepreneurial skills to mitigate any negative effects on the vulnerable particularly youth and women in such areas as capacity building, knowledge and skills transfer, soft loans, marketing and visibility support etc. Sustainable tourism operates in harmony with the local environment, community and cultures, so that these become the permanent beneficiaries and not victims of tourism development. It is the collective responsibility of all to ensure the sustainability of tourism in Destination Gambia, bridging the gap between the tourist and the hosts, so that both can reap the benefits of tourism. According to reliable sources, travel and tourism’s contribution to employment is substantial and generated 54,500 jobs directly in 2016 (7.4 % of total employment) and this is forecast to grow by 0.8% in 2017 to 55,000 (7.2 % of total employment) and contributes 16% of the GDP. The need to treasure this industry is paramount.
Years have gone by and the Scandinavian tourists are no longer the dominant force in Gambia tourism, ecotourism made a lot of buzz, and the hype tends to fizzle out, but still remains a major niche in tourism. Meanwhile, Bondali Tenda has become a shadow of its former self, but still has in store lots of the charm, warmth and related credentials that attracted the fist cohort of Scandinavian visitors to the village on the shores of the Bintang Bolong. Therefore to all potential investors in ecotourism, I say Bondali Tenda is the place to be.
The author is a tourism and marketing consultant and was formerly senior tourism officer at the National Tourist Office from 2000-2002, former director of marketing at GTA/GTBoard from -2006-2012 and briefly director of planning, Ministry of Tourism & Culture in 2012.