Travel writing for us was both a passion and past-time. When I say us, I mean myself and the person they called my partner in crime; Alhagie Mbye. Our foot and mouth disease took us to almost all the nooks and crannies of the Tourism Development Area and through this, we’ve managed to build fruitful relations with many players in the tourism sector. One such stakeholder is Solomon Tamba of the now re-named Kunta Kinteh Beach Complex.
Ten years ago, Kunta Kinteh Beach Complex was referred to as Kunta Kinteh Beach Bar and Restaurant but when I visited the place two months ago after spending almost ten years in exile, I was enthusiastically overwhelmed with what I saw. The hitherto threadbare Kunta Kinteh beach bar is now complete with holiday apartments, swimming pools, an array of sun-beds among coconut trees on the beach and by the sea. Wowed by this massive transformation, I returned to Kunta Beach Bar and Restaurant now re-baptized Kunta Beach Complex to enquire from the proprietor Solomon Tamba as to how he did it. But first, I started by asking him about his journey so far.
I was born in Latrikunda German in 1970 and attended Wassadu Primary School in Foni Jarrol district. In 1988, I proceeded to Sukuta Secondary School and later Bakau Secondary Technical School. I had to transfer to BS as it was called because travelling to and from school in Sukuta was unsustainable. My mother was a fish-monger and a single-parent and since BS was just 30 minutes’ walk from my house, she felt it was wise to transfer me there.
How was it like growing in Wassadu? I mean your formative years in school
I wouldn’t say those formative years were full of fun. No! I think I found myself in certain situations that I wasn’t prepared for. For example, whilst going to primary school I used to make money from the forests of Wassadu by fetching kaba, taloo and Baobab to support myself and during school holidays, I would join my mother here in Kombo.
So you were not living with your mum in Wassadu. Correct?
Yes. I was actually living with my aunt there but as soon as I grew a bit older, I could no longer share the room with her and there was no empty room in the compound. A friend of mine,Sutay Sanneh aka Lord, came to my support and he offered to share his room with me. But sometimes Sutay’s family would have guests in the compound because his step-father, Laybano Sanneh, was a trader and lot of people came there from Casamance to do trade with him. So, I had to sometimes sleep with friends like Lamin Bojang, Abba Hydara and Samba Bah and it was Samba that I actually settled with in Wassadu until I joined my mum in the Kombos in 1988.
And in 1992, you completed school. What happened then?
Actually when I finished school in 1992, I had wanted to enlist in the army. Despite being involved in a lot of physical exercise in preparing for the recruitment, I was also going to construction sites to find work as labourer. I could remember, I used to be paid D7 and I increased this daily wage by polishing the empty cement bags and selling them to one trader in Latrikunda German called Ceesay. But while all this was going on, I was also giving private classes to students to augment my income. And it was through this that I met a very nice gentleman called Landing Jarju. He lived in Kotu and his kid was one of my students. One day I told Landing about my desire to join the military but he discouraged me and said he would have rather wanted me to join the hotel industry. Landing was at this time working at the Bamboo Chinese Restaurant in Fajara. Initially, I was curious as to how that was possible because I had no experience in this field. Even though I left school with good grades, I wouldn’t be able to go to hotel school because I hadn’t had money at the time. But Landing assured me that working in the hospitality industry was a possibility and the only thing I needed to do was to alter my timetable with the kids so he can give me in-house training to become a waiter.
Of course, I agreed and we started the training in his house after he closed from work. He would train me how to carry plates and how to carry drinks on a plate. We did that for about three to four weeks and guess what, in between Bamboo Chinese Restaurant needed a waiter and as the head waiter, he [Landing] told them that he’d got a qualified waiter and that was me.
But why do you think he thought you were a qualified waiter only after three to four weeks of instructions?
Because he saw that I was a quick learner. He used to call me brother Saul number one because he said I pick quickly [laughs].
So, because of this he recommended you?
When was this?
I started work at Bamboo Chinese Restaurant in Fajara on 15 October 1992 and could remember I was paid D750 per month.
Good money at the time, I guess.
I wouldn’t say it was that good but I was a beginner and also as you may probably know, Chinese are known for paying low wages.
And D750 per month was not motivating?
I was discouraged in a way because having at the back of my mind that I came from a family of five and I was the only one opportuned to be educated. So, you can see the pressure. The family’s hopes were pinned on me. My elder brother was an apprentice at a carpentry workshop and he was very helpful to me when I was going to school by selling what we calledTek Daj and my sister too was very supportive working as a maid. So, I had felt it was time to pay back. They together with my mum paid my school fees.
Going a little bit back, is it fair to say that you got into the hospitality industry by accident?
Indeed. When Landing Jarju or Lens as he used to be fondly called, took me to Bamboo Chinese Restaurant it was not easy for me because it was my first experience. The first difficulty I was confronted with was the British accent. It was quite awkward because I wasn’t able to communicate with them with ease. I was kind of panick because I didn’t want to make any mistake. So, I pleaded with my boss to be in charge of orders by British guests which he did for three days and the fourth day he insisted I must take orders from the British because I could do it. I worked there for one week and after my performance was assessed, the management was impressed and that was how I worked there from 1992 to 1994. In 1994, I left Bamboo to join Loulou’s Bar & Restaurant at Manjai Kunda. By the way, this place was owned by a Swedish called Ronald Rosenberg and his Gambian partner Louis Badjie. I worked there for some years and they decided to sell the restaurant and I bought it.
I can tell you that anything that I do, I can adapt and make big moves.
How did you actually come to own Loulou’s?
Actually, at the time of negotiating for the buying of Loulou’s I was a bit young but I managed to use someone as the front-man to acquire it. Rosenberg thought I was young for Loulou’s acquisition but I decided to go round by using a friend to get it.
It was a long story and I don’t know whether I should even say this.
But why not?
You see, when I wanted to buy Loulou’s I had to bring an older friend of mine as I told you earlier Rosenberg thought I was young at the time to buy the outfit. So, I brought this friend of mine who pretended to be the buyer and he signed everything with Rosenberg as the buyer and I signed as the witness.
But this could have been suicidal.
Exactly. It even was suicidal as this friend of mine later insisted that he owned the place even though it was mine.
How did you feel?
I felt devastated. I felt my entire life was ruined. That was how I felt. That was how exactly I felt. He even went to court to seek an injunction so I could be restrained from stepping my foot at the restaurant. And one day, upon my return home from Banjul my mum handed me a letter and said it was given to her by a police officer accompanied by my friend and when I read it I realized that I was being sued at the Kanifing Court where my friend sought for an injunction to prevent me from coming to Loulou’s.
This must be shocking
Terribly shocking. When I came from Banjul, I was feeling hungry but upon reading the letter I felt like I have eaten a full basin of rice.
And it also broke your spirit?
Honestly, I was broken down. I did not know where my life was. I did not know where I was going. I thought I was climbing and suddenly I saw myself on the ground being buried or tried to be buried by a friend that I helped a lot of times.
And you raised your hands up to say it was all over?
Yes. That time I said it was all over because I knew the silly mistake I’ve made without a any documentary evidence because I trusted him as a friend, looked after him and to make matters worse, I was never prepared for it. So, at that time I couldn’t tell my mum what had really happened but I had already secured the services of Lawyer Edu Gomez. In the interim, I kept on going to Loulou’s and we used to have problems over who should handle cash. It was very shocking because it was my investment. And matters degenerated one day when we fought in the kitchen and he pretended to have fainted. I was arrested and taken to Kotu police station. Whilst giving my statement, the OC walked in and when he looked at my friend, who was pretending to be harmed, ordered that I be kept in the cells. I was immediately put into the first cell where I was detained until the next day. I later learnt that my mother woke up that day and when she saw a padlock on my door, she informed the family and they all went to Loulou’s to enquire my whereabouts. They were informed there that I was under custody at Kotu police whereupon they rushed to the station and it was around 1pm that they succeeded in securing my release on bail.
And you went on with business as usual?
It wasn’t easy but I had to. My mother had counseled me to stay steadfast and move on.
But how did it feel like starting it all over again?
It was tough but my mum was my tower of strength and I knew whatever she told me was in my best interest. It was difficult. It was a nightmare. I was paying salaries and all of a sudden, I found myself job hunting which was very difficult financially and psychologically. I was without a job for nine months and life was tough as even green tea was sometimes a problem. I used to have lot of friends hanging around in my compound and we used to organize Afras and breakfasts. But after the incident at Loulou’s, they all abandoned me except one Landing Badjan who was at the time working at Afro Honkong in Kanifing, a company specialized in assembling watches. He helped me both morally and financially. Are you aware that this man used to buy bag of rice from his meager salary and would take it to my mum to say it was me who sent him there to give it to her? He used to give me pocket money too. He even shared his clothes and shoes with me because we were coincidentally of the same size in shoes and clothes. A good friend in need, indeed [laughs].
How then did you manage to bounce back in the hospitality sector?
It was just by luck that I applied for a job at a Thai restaurant called Siam. This must be in 1996. I later moved to Tao Thai restaurant which was owned by a Danish Ola Hansen but a new management took over in 1997. At the same time, Chinese Bamboo Restaurant also changed hands and I was recommended to the new owners and was made manager. I went in there, recruit staff and set up a team and some of them I trained myself.
Will you describe this as a compensation for what you suffered at Loulou’s?
No. I didn’t see it as such but my route of life. My mum used to remind me that God does things for reasons
Can you tell us about Kunta Beach Complex?
I was running a restaurant at Badala Park Hotel in which I owned 5%. I was running this restaurant with the Chinese and Badala and a British couple used to come there to eat and drink and they would always want to interact with me. They were Ron and Christine Wallace. There was an occasion in which I accompanied them to Juffureh and upon our return, they offered to pay me but I declined. They saw that as very strange having spent a whole day with them. So they were impressed. The interaction continued up to the last day of their stay in the country and before they returned they told me they were impressed with how I was running the restaurant and proposed that they wanted to partner with me to open a restaurant. Initially, I didn’t take it seriously but when I realized that they were very serious about the project that was the time I came here to Kunta Kinteh to negotiate its take-over. The owner had wanted to rent it but it had no running water, electricity, good toilets,shops and other amenities. It was only one block house of sand with four small coconut trees on the beach and no terrace. We nonetheless rented the place for five years and in 2004, the owner approached me to say he wanted to sell the place off. We bought the place and in four years, we were able to transform it into a place to be and feel like home away from home.
So, how did the idea of accommodation came about?
I have applied for a land behind the beach bar in 2008 and approval was given same year. It was not easy at the beginning to build these apartments but my friends the Wallaces gave me 5000 pounds, my friend in Holland, Ronald Morien sent me 30,000 euros and I started constructing this place.
It was a simple beach bar but is now an exquisite holiday home.
It’s all about dedication, hard work, honesty,passion and confidence. Lot of things, actually. But I must thank my tireless staff such as Seedy Colley who has been with us for 15 years now. I would not also forget to thank my sister Combeh Tamba who has been here since at the outset. Before her, it was my late sister Nyima Tamba of blessed memory. I would also like to put my hat off for staff like Bintou Sonko aka Nyoyo, Bernard Colley and people like Ron and Christine Wallace, Herman Van Klarven and wife Gerda.
Thank you so very much for speaking to us
The pleasure is all mine.