When you invite someone to your house, for the first time, you make sure that your home looks nice and tidy. You sweep the floors, make the beds, pick up all the stuff that lay in random places and put them where they belong.
Cleanliness is important and you don’t want your guests to tell someone else, afterwards, that the home they had been invited to was so messy. Imagine they would tell others that your home was dirty and had a lot of garbage laying around everywhere. They would say that the path from the road up to your house was full of potholes, broken bricks, plastic bottles, car tires and stuff that made you trip on your way in to the house. Your reputation would be damaged and people would stop visiting you.
The Gambia depends on two large industries, groundnuts and tourism. These industries employ a lot of people, people that pay taxes and are expecting to get something back from their money. Normally the tax money goes to all the infrastructure we depend on in our society. Yes, I said normally, because I wonder if anyone knows what the income of taxes goes to in The Gambia. Not to help common people anyway, so their lives would be a little bit easier than it is now. The State coffers were empty after we finally had gotten rid of Jammeh, but there seems to be big holes in the bottom of these coffers. Whenever the coffers are beginning to get filled, it seems as the money pours out through the holes and disappears.
Why did I begin this essay with telling you about how we behave when we invite guests to our homes? Because apart from the groundnuts, The Gambia also depends on its guests: the tourists. They come with a lot of expectations about all they have seen on the travel agencies websites. They expect nice hotels, clean beaches, good food, exotic souvenirs and ….garbage! Wait, what? The websites didn’t say anything about the garbage everywhere! They didn’t tell about all the mess that is outside the regular touristic areas. Many first-timers in The Gambia prefer to stay at all-inclusive hotels. They have everything they need inside the gates and don’t have to leave even for buying souvenirs. Tourists feel safe inside these gated communities and prefer not to leave it unless they have found a reliable guide.
More experienced tourists have found a guide on their own, and that guide can take them to places around the country and beyond. This will spread the incomes on a wider scale than just inside the hotels. Only a selected few are currently allowed to make business with the tourists. Musicians and dancers entertain, but they don’t get a lot for their work. Most of the money tourists pay for the entertainment goes to the hotel owners. It is the same with the souvenir shops at the hotels. The rent for these premises is expensive and the shop keepers need to earn a lot before they get some profit.
Tourist guides must pay a lot for their opportunities to make some money. Their companies must pay a registration fee every year, and that has to be payed in advance before they even have earned one butut. Very few guides are allowed to offer their services for the hotel guests, most of them depend on the tourists who are brave enough to leave the all-inclusives in their search for some adventure. There could be endless opportunities for people around The Gambia to make business with tourists. We have a lot of creative people in the country; artists, craftsmen, musicians, tailors, people who do beautiful art, bags and clothes with batik. There could be more guest houses for the tourists who prefer not to stay at hotels. There could be amusement parks for families with bowling alleys and playgrounds.
In this amusement park it would be great if someone built a miniature village, with small traditional huts and small vegetable gardens where visiting children could learn about The Gambia. You should be proud of your heritage, but this pride seems nowhere to be found. I have written about the music your ancestors once performed. The music that was forbidden by the slave owners, but that became the root of modern day music like pop, hip-hop and reggae. I teach my students about the slave trade and the African-American music history every year. Do you know anything about your own music history? Do they teach you that in school? The answer is no, and that is a shame. If you don’t care about your roots, you will not have a steady foundation. You should stand proud and tall like a baobab tree, not walk around with your eye to the ground as you do now.
Minister Hamat Bah, responsible for the tourism in The Gambia, every time I think of you I see you wearing the straw hat that is traditional in your tribe. We don’t have the same kind of attires here in Sweden, for example, and when tourists come to The Gambia they want to learn more about your traditions. This could be big business, but I wonder if there is any activity under your straw hat. It doesn’t seem that way and I wonder what you are doing all day long in your office. You seem to have been struck with the same kind of apathy as most of the Gambian people, it is like you are unable to see more than what is in front of your nose.
Minister Bah, you have all the opportunities in the world to travel around and see what other countries have done to attract tourists. You could talk to people, and I mean common people , not other ministers and dignitaries. You could learn new things that you then could present for your country men and women, to inspire them. Are you listening, Minister Bah? Wake up from your slumber, the last nap was too long and now it is time for some action.
If you need some ideas, Minister Bah, you can contact me because my head is always full of them. You are a Minister responsible for one of the largest industries in The Gambia, but it seems as the straw in your hat is blinding you.
During my stay in The Gambia earlier this summer, I spoke to a friend about the state of the country. He told me that he had been abroad for a while, on an international training. This was of course interesting because leaving The Gambia for a while broadens one’s mind, but there was also a moment where my friend was lost for words. There was a sitting, where all the participants presented themselves and they were asked to tell the others about the country they came from. There were stories told, with great pride, but when the turn came to my Gambian friend he really didn’t know what to say about his country.
Honestly, what is there to brag about when it comes to The Gambia? The narrative that it is the Smiling Coast of Africa has began to fade away. This amazing gift from our Creator is mistreated, this gem is hidden under dirt and garbage. The Gambia could be so beautiful if people came together and took care of it properly, with pride and determination. The Gambia belongs to its people, it should be a joy for the people, a safe haven where the smiles were honest and not a way to gain something. Minister Hamat Bah, tell us what you think, tell us what are you doing about it, because no-one seems to know.