Beyond The Lonely Planet
Cast along the golden sands of The Gambia’s smiling coast, a nexus of working boys are engaging in the setting up of the day’s business. Not all, however, are the traditional hucksters openly trading from every vantage point, coaxing tourists to buy at grossly inflated prices, as they try to scrape together enough money to pay the rent or their brother’s school fees. Not all are content to travel life’s path as their fore-fathers had done. Linked to the flood of foreign tourists is an acute rise in material expectations and hopes of a more luxurious lifestyle, resulting in some boys placing themselves on the market; the marriage market.
Almost inconspicuously, they prepare their wares for market, preening their already taught bodies like athletes before an international event; caressing every muscle with moisture rich oils before taking off along the hardened, wet sands for an energising jog in full view of potential helpmates. Of course on the surface this gives the impression of fit young men enjoying a healthy lifestyle; but with the knowledge that these lithe young bodies do not inherently conduct a sedentary, western existence puts the need into question.
“Welcome to The Gambia! How are you? Are you going to the beach?” was my introduction to an enterprising tourist guide who leapt to his feet to greet me, almost shyly, as I took my first nervous steps outside the confines of the hotel. From then on his services as guide and bodyguard became invaluable; uncovering the mysteries of his culture and shielding me from the invasive, but highly amusing, zealous bumsters.
Everyone we met were his brothers and sisters, and with polygamy being commonly practiced it wasn’t hard to believe. He told me he wanted to give me a real Gambian experience and so took me to visit many members of his family and friends in Brikama – famous for its skilled wood carvers. Fully appreciating the cultural differences and exoticisms I was fascinated by the role of the women he introduced me to. They were the heartbeat of the compounds, working extremely hard to service the extensive households, creating a living equilibrium, through the prolific production of offspring, to keep the bloodlines and welfare system alive.
The smell of wood smoke and spices impregnated the women’s quarters within the compound as a handful of young girls entertained their peers and elders while cheerfully pounding grain and cooking the rice dishes which were in constant demand throughout the afternoon. Chores were conducted in an air of social contentment where animated chatter prevailed and time enjoyed little importance. The Gambia is no land of plenty, but there is an ample supply of food, water and mobile phones. Its people are fiercely proud of the fact that no one dies of hunger and are subsequently eager to have you experience the feast of accompaniments to their national staple of rice. Without a doubt the food is delicious; made with extremely fresh, aromatic and spicy ingredients and shared, from a communal bowl laid on the floor, with five or six right hands delving in till everyone has had their fill. As a guest of the largest compound in the seaside town of Brufut I was coaxed to eat more than I needed, with choice pieces of fish and vegetables placed in front of me like valued gifts given at Christmas; it would have been rude to refuse. Enjoying the meal was not just a matter of taste, the whole sociable experience of sharing food the Gambian way was an undeniable highlight of my trip.
Only with hindsight, however, have I become aware of the undertones which I naively missed from Jerreh, my guide, and his choice of tourist attractions. Little did I realise that he was attempting to endear me into the Gambian lifestyle. Only after his, unforeseen, declaration of love and proposal of marriage was I able to fit the pieces together: being vetted by his family and friends; being introduced to the apparent normality of 20-something Gambian boys marrying 40-something white women who can offer a secure future, either with the promies of a European visa or by means of supplying the funding to encourage the boy’s entrepreneurial flare in Gambia.
Some women may feel thrilled by the attentions of these undiscerning toyboys, falling for the smooth talk, convinced that, “to be loved by a younger man not only increases your value but gives you security in old age as I will appreciate your generosity always.” But personally I found the proposal totally contrived, unflattering and quite farcical. I was revolted by the thought of the young bumster keeping himself fit so that his wrinkly conquest “would be proud of him at the night clubs”. Apart from my personal reaction to this situation I feel unable to condone such matches as there are deep cultural concerns which have the potential to eradicate an entire culture.
Britain’s record of social care is hardly one to aspire to as nearly 2,000 old people die alone in their own homes every year, with many more thousands being stored in homes, awaiting death. On the other hand the Gambian way of life, in the extended family compounds, nurtures the valuing of both the elderly and the young throughout their lives.
In a few short generations as more and more boys marry western women, and so remove themselves from the welfare structure of compound living, not only will there be a shortage of eligible bachelors for the ample supply of nubile Gambian girls, but fewer people will be born into the system creating an erosion at the foundations of the Gambian culture.