By Lamin Saho
Cast your mind back to one of my earlier pieces. You will recall I did point out that a lot of potential is attached to the River Gambia, which if properly harnessed could serve us greatly in the domain of tourism. The point was underscored that Destination Gambia is the one-river country and that if Egypt is the Nile, and the Nile is Egypt, then The Gambia is the River Gambia and the River Gambia is The Gambia. This point amplifies the dominant nature of the Gambia River in the scheme of things and in our cultural and traditional setting, namesakes are accorded great pride in our scheme of things. The Gambia as a nation has a namesake in the form of a river and should be treated in like manner.
I always wonder why this great natural gift has not always been accorded pride of place. The colonialists did some modicum of justice in this regard; and according to historians first it was Lady Denham, followed by Lady Wright and then Lady Chilel. Way back in the early ’80s during break time, junior students of the then Muslim High School including my humble self would undertake occasional forays to Wharfi Njargo with the sole purpose of touring the exquisite facilities of the Lady Chilel and the captain – a well-groomed, tall and lanky fellow used to urge us in and would take us on a conducted tour of the various cabins of the river-going vessel. In those days and I believe still today people attach lot of respect to school uniform. It was with great sadness that I learned of the sinking of the Lady Chilel in the summer of 1984 and thus died with it river transport in The Gambia. What a tragedy!
Late Monika Killi-Cole: Trailblazer in Ecotourism
The purpose of this piece is not to cry over spilt milk, but to revisit another very important and notable initiative by a non-Gambian, but someone who loved The Gambia and her river and she was no other person than the late Monika Killi-Cole. This German lady came to The Gambia in the early 1980s with her husband Peter and I suppose as backpackers. After crisscrossing The Gambia, eventually they fell in love with the local charm and our legendary hospitality just like the early Swedes, but unlike the Scandinavians they were not infatuated by the gorgeous beaches and the glorious winter sunshine. They fell in love with the River Gambia and its wonderful meandering tributaries.
Thus they quickly set up base camp on one of the bolong (creeks) and developed the legendary Lamin Lodge – the spot where the National Tourism Policy 1995-2000 was launched. It remained an icon of ecotourism but was ravaged by fire at the beginning of the millennium. The fire was so devastating that the iconic restaurant with its exotic thatched roof – the symbol of ecotourism was burnt to ashes. The then Minister of Tourism and Culture, Susan Waffa-Ogoo found time to visit Monika and Peter at the Lamin Lodge to commiserate and convey the goodwill of the Gambia tourism fraternity and by extension the government. In no time the indefatigable Monika and husband worked hard and restored Lamin Lodge once more as a haven of ecotourism along one of finest tributaries of the River Gambia. Even though it has lost its old charm and splendour, Lamin Lodge was restored, and still remains an icon of ecotourism.
True to their love of the River Gambia, Monika and Peter also made frequent forays upriver in their elegantly designed and locally made pirogues and set up another landmark ecotourism site known as the Janjangbureh Camp in the heart of the Central River Region. This upriver camp has been designed to taste and blended neatly with the local environment, overlooking the majestic River Gambia. It was a true ecotourism haven, offering tailor-made tours upriver to explore the charm and the serenity of rural communities, as well as boat trips on the majestic River Gambia for those tourists who view the river as “add-on” to their Gambia experience. Monika truly loved The Gambia and her people and it was a very sad day in 2003 when I visited her on her sick bed in Bakau New Town at their land side base only to be told by a maid that Monika was so sick that she gave instructions to her not to allow any body in to see her. A few days later I learned with great sorrow that this lady who devoted the best of her life to developing ecotourism and stretching her imagination to unravel the potential of our majestic River Gambia passed away.
‘Samba lives in Africa – The Ninki Nanka Trail’
This piece is therefore a fitting tribute to Monika Killi-Cole as she was later to be known by virtue of her marriage to a Gambian – Musa Cole who also passed away. Monika personally broke this sad news to staff of the National Tourist Office in 2001. Monika’s initiatives designed to develop ecotourism upriver were among her finest legacies, but in my humble view, her greatest legacy lies in another project – the award winning film – Samba Lives in Africa: The Ninki Nanka Trail. Samba is the one and only son of Monika and the main thrust of the film are his trials and tribulations as he set out on an expedition on the majestic River Gambia in search of the ninki nanka – a mythical creature associated with great mystery in local folklore. To accomplish this task Samba had to undertake an expedition on the river in search of the ninki nanka and in the process came in direct contact with the inhabitants of the riverside communities immersed in their culture and related tangible and intangible heritage; marveled in the fauna and flora; and experienced their legendary hospitality and genuine warmth.
The Ninki Nanka trail kicked off from the Lamin Lodge in one of the tributaries of the River Gambia, right through to Dog Island and other pristine islands of River Gambia. The trail proceeded to Kunta Kinteh island – formerly James Island, passed the Bintang Bolong Point and on to Manduar – site of the ruins of the Portuguese Trading Post and Tendaba – site of the Tendaba Camp, an ecotourism destination and home to one of the oldest and most successful upriver camps, and then to the Devils Point – a landmark in river navigation on the River Gambia. Then to Kaur Wharf Town and Kuntaur Tenda not far from the Stone Circles at Wassu and the River Gambia National Park – a chimp sanctuary adjacent to Janjangbureh (formerly MacCarthy Island) – a major destination for ecotourism, then to Basse Santo-su and finally Koina Tenda, where the trail terminated in search of the elusive ninki nanka.
This film, Samba Lives in Africa in my view deserves an award for promoting ecotourism in the Smiling Coast and Samba the hero of the film equally deserves recognition for his exploits. The film truly highlights the ecotourism potential of the Smiling Coast in a way that is refreshing and passionate. Just like the docudrama, Roots, this film puts The Gambia on the world map for all the good reasons and showcases our wonderful ecotourism credential as never before mainly in Europe and Germany, in particular. Invariably, following the release of this film, which was translated into German, interest in the Smiling Coast surged and Lamin Lodge in particular, as evidenced by the number of FAM Trip requests from Germany at the time mainly to follow in the footsteps of the trail and also savour the delights of the Lamin Lodge. I must admit however, that by then the Lamin Lodge had lost its former charm and splendour and had become a dog product in need of massive dose of investment and rejuvenation.
Another notable legacy of the project is that over time the film inspired series of initiatives and as such, project proposals have been crafted by tourism stakeholders especially those concerned with community and ecotourism in The Gambia. The core concept of the Ninki Nanka Trail Projects seeks to develop eco- and ethnotourism experience with significant improvement in the livelihood of rural communities along the river. The whole concept is geared towards product diversification and emphasis on the involvement of local communities. Invariably the project concept is geared towards poverty alleviation through tourism in terms of employment creation, capacity building, and empowerment of local communities. As such the project seeks to initially set up boat building centre to build the skills of the youth in the art of boat building, which will serve as the main means of transporting tourist within the river. Initially ten riverine villages will be identified along the river and a key component is the development of African inspired accommodation facilities, using locally sourced materials on the riverbanks.
The promise of the Niniki Nanka Trail
The Ninki Nanka Trail embodies our wishes and aspirations to fully utilise the potentials of the river for ecotourism and this is aptly captured in the Responsible Tourism Policy when it underscores that: ‘The Gambia is its people. The diverse people of The Gambia are what distinguished us from many other sea, sun and sand destinations. The cultural heritage of our people is our primary tourism asset”. It adds that ”this policy has as its lofty vision, the need to make The Gambia a better place to visit and a better place to live in – recognising that it is the interaction between guests and hosts in a secure and enjoyable environment that is the experience of The Gambia and which encourages people to return… We recognise that there is increasing interest in the inland area along the river and that over the next decade tourism will develop in the rural areas, the bird watching sector will grow as well as other opportunities to experience the country side and to interact with local communities.”
Ecotourism has emerged as a major niche in tourism and this refers to “environmentally and socially responsible travel to natural or near natural areas that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact and provides for beneficially active socio–economic involvement of local people”. Another definition by Gardner refers to ecotourism as “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”.
This form of tourism has become a buzzword in the global tourism market place mainly due to the fact that tourism as a global industry is evolving by leaps and bounds as tourists are becoming even more discerning, environmentally conscious and increasingly crave for more interactive holidays where real things matter.
Though Monika is long gone, her legacy remains and the River Gambia stills retains its undiluted charm and splendour, but remains hugely underutilised. The River Gambia is truly majestic and has in store a lot of touristic attractions, which if properly harnessed, can score big for Gambia tourism. This was not lost to the Tourism Development Master Plan which devotes a huge chunk of the study to amplify the potential of the River Gambia as a tourism resource and went further to recommend the gradual expansion of tourism development areas and these to be developed on theme basis with well-defined trails in each TDA in conjunction with local communities and by extension the local government authorities to complement the existing TDA, and here emphasis is on the development of the River Gambia as a product icon.
In conclusion, it is worth pointing out that the Smiling Coast is not among the big five African destinations in terms of wild life and safari tourism, so we will have to strive hard to craft the requisite products revolving around our unique selling points, and this means creating the most of what is unique about the Smiling Coast and in my humble view the river is part and parcel of this project. According to a leading light of the tourism and hospitality industry “most of the news of the river’s beauty is spread by the word of mouth. A lot of tourists and visitors have a great experience on the river, where rare species of monkeys, dolphins, hippos and variety of bird stocks are some of the games spotted along the banks of the river”. I must add that any tourist following in the footsteps of Samba will not be disappointed and perhaps unlike Samba who could not find the elusive ninki nanka, you might be lucky to see, feel and experience the mythical and mysterious dragon – the ninki nanka along the River Gambia trail.
The author is a tourism and marketing consultant and was formerly senior tourism officer at the National Tourist Office from 2000 to 2002; formerly Director of Marketing, GTA/GTBoard from 2006 to 2012; and briefly served as Director of Planning, Ministry of Tourism & Culture in 2012.