The Crying Coast of Africa

120

With Aisha Jallow

I have been exited, happy, curious, and proud of the country I think of as my second home. Despite the struggles you have been able to remain friendly and welcoming. Whenever I have read a post about the Gambia, I have seen people praise you and telling how much they love the Gambia and the people. So many foreigners are involved in businesses in the Gambia. Schools and nurseries are built, vocational schools where young people learn a trade. A Swedish dental clinic lies in the outskirts of Banjul and we are many who share a shipping container together with the dentist who owns the clinic. With this container we send clothes, shoes, furniture, medical equipment, even music instruments and whatever people need in the Gambia. We are many who pay for school fees, gifts and money to buy a sheep at Tobaski. We send money for the celebration of Eid al Fitr, money for charity during Ramadan.

Many of us help to gather money to pay for someone’s medical bills and hospital stay. There is something special with the Gambia that touches the hearts of so many. We are also many who worry about the current situation in the Gambia. Not only the decreasing tourism since the world’s largest travel agency Thomas Cook got bankrupt. For all of us who have been in the Gambia several times, and who understand how life is in this small country, we immediately understood the blow this bankruptcy would be for you.
So many depend on tourism that together with the growing of groundnuts makes the largest parts of the Gambian GDP. So many had high expectations on the new tourism season, so many had prepared their small or larger businesses for the invasion of tourists everyone was hoping for.

People had borrowed money so they could buy material to create crafts to sell. Buildings needed to be painted after the rainy season, roofs needed to be mended, furniture polished and replaced. So much had to be done in advance because it had to be ready when the tourists came. Promises of paying back the money as soon as the season had started were impossible to hold. People don’t answer their phone calls when they recognize the phone number of someone who has lent them money and now wants them back. The intention to pay back is there, but the means are not. People struggle, they work hard, they hope and pray for a better day to come. ”Maybe tomorrow! Tomorrow will be a better day and then you will have your money!” This is how you push the demands a little further while you ponder how you will be able to pay school fees for your kids.
How will you be able to give fish money to your wife and some small change for the kids so they can buy lunch?

When the huge blow came and the tour operators and hotel managers were called to a meeting by the GTB, Gambian Tourism Board, promises were given by the Minister of Culture and Tourism that everyone should get help by the government. All kind of businesses involved in the tourism somehow were there. This Minister, a pathetic figure, is known for talking a lot but there is no substance behind his words. There has been no help from the government and I am not surprised. Sadly I am not surprised at all, instead when I heard about Minister Hamat Bah’s promises I smirked. I didn’t expect him to hold his promises and now it is obvious that it was only hot air that came out of his mouth.
The tour operators and other businesses involved in the tourism have to pay a huge fee to the GTB every year.

The fee is around 100,000 dalasi and has to be paid before December 31 every year. If you are unable to pay it your licence will be revoked and you are out of business. Imagine raising all this money when the tourist season just has begun! You must have saved money from the season before because you don’t get a lot of money in an instant when the season has begun. When this tourist season began the GTB twisted the arms of every little business to make sure that they got their money. No mercy was shown!

Look at the struggles of every tour operator, it is they who pay for the fancy cars the people higher up in the food chain are driving.
This fee is very hard to pay for every little business that is depending on the generosity of the tourists. The competition between the tour operators is high and there is not much left when all the expenses around every trip is paid. Hopefully some tourists give a generous tip, but not all do that. Too many tourists are not aware of the financial state of the operators. They believe that the operators get a monthly salary, enough to support the family. Not all know that the tourist season is very short and that the income from this period must be stretched out for the coming seven months when the season is over.

A good gesture from the government would have been to lower the fee to the GTB this season. The tourism has decreased with 60% but the fee is still as high as before. Why isn’t anyone in the government looking at these things? Why is no one considering the struggles of all the businesses that depend on tourism? The income from this business is one of the largest parts of the GDP, what kind of income will there be this season? This current tourist season is a disaster, more or less. Some hotels are closed, others divide their staff in two groups. One group is working for one week, then they are free for the second week. During the second week another group of staff has job. This means that every staff has work during half the season and therefore gets half the salary.

The salary wasn’t high from the beginning and now they have to manage with half of it. Well, everything is better than nothing, but imagine to split this little money in parts small enough to reach for the coming months. Minister
Hamat Bah, have you visited the small business owners and spoken to them? Have you spoken to the hotel staff? Where is the help you promised all involved in the tourism area, because no one has heard anything from you? How come it is so easy to bla bla, give empty promises and then head back to your office without

a thought of those you left behind? You have worked in the tourism area yourself, where is the solidarity with your former colleagues? Solidarity seems to be a word that is lacking in the vocabulary of so many Gambians. As soon as you get one step up the social ladder you don’t hesitate to kick the ones that are below you.

A government is supposed to be working for the benefits of its country. This current government hasn’t done much, I try to be fair but as much as I try my memory I can’t think of anything in particular that has improved. Things seem to have gone out of hand and instead of democracy we have got anarchy. There is so much dissatisfaction on all levels and it becomes harder and harder to handle. Communication is the key to democracy. Speak to people, show that you are willing to listen to them, that you care about them and are willing to be of assistance. It begins on the highest level and spreads down, if the head is properly functioning the whole body will feel good.

Fear is ruling the Gambia. Fear is ruling the president and he hides behind his power.
The president feared the outcome of the 3 Years Jotna movement, he knew that if he would have held his promise and stepped down after 3 years he wouldn’t have been re-elected. The movement is not about violence, it is about the president keeping his promise. If the president would have been wise he would have communicated with the citizens. He would have explained his decision to stay for the whole mandate period. People are not stupid, they would have understood and even if they wouldn’t have liked it, at least they would have got a proper explanation. Aren’t the citizens of the Gambia worthy to be treated as human beings with a dignity? You are not a flock of sheep that are moved from one direction to the other by your owner. You are the ones who have suffered for the democracy. You have paid for the fortunes of the high and mighty with your own blood.

Fear is ruling the Gambia! People fear the future, how will they be able to feed their families? Will the situation in the Gambia ever get better or will new people always look for opportunities to suck the blood out from you? This fear is making people angry, there will surely be more demonstrations because anger is a strong force. No one wants it to be like that, but as long as the rulers of any country suppress their people in one way or the other there will be protests. This is normal because people want to be free and live a good life where they don’t have to worry about every day. It is hard to be content when you know that someone else is eating the food you have paid for. It is hard to be content when your child has died because you couldn’t afford medication and proper treatment.

You weep while you wash the body of your child, knowing that you have paid for someone else’s sick child to get treatment in a fancy hospital abroad. You bury your child and you look at your other children wondering how you will be able to support them and give them a good future. You accuse yourself for your inabilities, but it is not you who should bear the blame. It is the duty of the government to make sure that every citizen is cared for in the best way possible. That is why they are elected and that is what you are paying them to do. You could be standing outside the State house every day to claim your rights. They should be forced to listen, but instead they fear your force and fight you back. The Gambia is ruled by fear and that is so sad. You were terrified for 22 years so isn’t it about time that you are allowed to heal?

My beloved Gambia, it seems as you took one step forward and several steps back. Where will this end? Is it possible to make any changes for the better during this mandate period? I am full of doubts as I think many of us are. This beautiful country has turned out to be a stepping stone for those who want to exploit it and become rich. Forests are cut down, Monkey Park partially demolished, the beaches destroyed by dirty and poisoned water from Chinese fish factories. No wonder I call it the Crying Coast of Africa.