Travel Tips for The Gambia
The Gambia, even taking into consideration the current political climate, is generally one of the most peaceful countries in Africa and has not felt the ethnic or religious divides that are often commonplace in other parts of the continent. Even with a population that is approximately 90% Muslim, religious acceptance of the Christian minority is almost unquestionable and the various religions live harmoniously with one another, throughout the country.
Ethnically speaking, the same is true. While the population outside of the greater Banjul area tends to live in villages with the same tribe (due mostly to the fact that villages are usually extended families), there are different tribal ethnicities spread throughout the country and there is generally no tension between different villages.
Gambians are, most often than not, very friendly and open people, who will be more than happy to strike up a conversation, point you in the right direction, or even invite you into their lives or homes.
An unfortunate exception to this rule is acceptance of the LGBT community. Views on homosexuality are shaped largely by religious beliefs and with the Government making homosexuality illegal and issuing atrocious laws against any “display of homosexuality,” be it in physical displays of affection, or even as little as “looking gay,” the Gambian population seems to have become empowered with the ideas behind their homophobia. LGBT individuals should use caution when traveling to The Gambia. There have not been reported incidents of abuse of foreign travelers from the LGBT community, but with new laws and harsher rhetoric from the Government, DU would advise travelers to be aware of the situation.
In addition to what has been said, it is important to point out that the political climate in The Gambia has become increasingly worrisome over the last year, with the President making a number of derogatory statements towards different tribal groups and with his autocratic change of the country to an Islamic state, which is blatantly against the Constitution. While there does not appear to be any noticeable change in the manner in which different groups are being treated, to date, Dunia Unificada will provide updates as to this situation and encourages travelers to keep this in mind when planning their vacation.
When you think of annoyances in The Gambia, you think of “bumsters.” Bumsters are typically young Gambian men (although many may be considered boys), who come to the coastal areas to swoon visiting “toubab” (white person) women. These individuals can be extremely obnoxious, particularly if you are a white woman. They are also keen on bothering visiting men, just to see if they can get a buck here or there, or pursued the traveler to use them for any number of services.
When handling the bumsters, however, it is important to consider the situation as a whole. These young men are often from small villages, where there is little opportunity for economic betterment, often have families who rely on them to make enough to support them (many even have wives and children, which should be particularly noted by women who are feeling an urge to pursue these men), and are there to do a job. Bumstering is a job. Bumsters make their living on hustling visitors with their warm, laid back attitudes.
There are a number of cultural and economic and political and so on and so on reasons for bumstering that we could explain here, but we will save that for another publication. What we will say, is that bumsters are not harmful and with a stern, consistent no, you will likely be left alone. This is also a huge advantage of selecting where you are going to stay wisely, as there are certain hotels and places where, while still there, the constant bothering is more subdued.
One other thing we will note regarding bumsters. This is a “problem” created by western visitors, who are feeding the situation by being lured into stories of love from a strong, attractive young man. There are countless stories of women, particularly much older women, going to The Gambia specifically to find a lover and then sending large sums of money back to said lover, or even getting married and getting visas for the same individual. When visiting The Gambia, especially if you are a woman, we urge you to keep this in mind and we also encourage women to use some discretion and common sense in partaking in these sort of relationships.
Other annoyances in The Gambia include frequent power outages, which occur on a daily basis, but may be avoided if you frequent hotels and restaurants and the like that are able to afford generators. Power outages are part of life in The Gambia and while you may be tempted to get aggravated and distressed by it, we would challenge you to accept it! There is something incredibly soothing in having to sit in the dark, without modern technology (only when the power has been out so long you cannot charge). Embrace it and you will surely have a more enjoyable experience.
The capital city of The Gambia is Banjul. While it does have a sort of historical charm, having been the center of life during the colonial period, this city is now a bit run down and the focus of country has really moved to was could be called a suburban area, in what are known as the Serekunda area, which runs more along the southern coastline. Banjul proper is worth a half a day or day long excursion, but should not be the focus point of any trip to the country.
Climate and Best Weather Months
When planning a trip to The Gambia, it is highly, highly recommended that you avoid the rainy season, running from sometime in June until usually the end of October. While the country is almost always warm to hot, the rainy season can be unbearably hot and humid. In addition, torrential downpours leave the roads and pathways (made mostly of sand or dirt) almost impossible to get round. The roads in particular can be flooded to almost river like levels, making it very difficult for cars to pass. Moreover, fewer airlines will run regular flights to the country, making it more difficult to plan your travel to and from.
The remaining part of the year, particularly the end of November until around February, is extremely pleasant in The Gambia. Nights can almost be too cool, but make for much better sleeping weather, or, if you are more of a night owl, less sweaty bars and restaurants. No matter the time of year, The Gambia is a sunny paradise for people coming from cooler temperatures and for those who really love the heat!
Holidays to Avoid
While the experience of the holy month of Ramadan can be an absolutely incredible one for non-Muslims who have taken the time to understand the meaning religious significances of this month of fasting, if you are planning only a vacation and are not interested in fully engulfing yourself in this beautiful tradition, it is highly recommended that you do not travel to The Gambia during this month. The exact dates of Ramadan vary from year to year, so it is important that you look before booking.
The reason for avoiding the month of Ramadan, over all else, is respect for the people of The Gambia, who are largely (approximately 90%) Muslim. The month of Ramadan is a month of modesty and fasting. While restaurants, hotels and even most bars will stay open, it is in poor form to be frolicking on the beach in a bikini and ordering large lunches and drinking beer. If you do chose to go to the country during this month, be sure to be respectful, particularly from sunrise to sunset, of the Gambian people and the sacrifices they are making.
Holidays worth traveling for
Holidays in The Gambia are generally celebrated in private, family functions and unless you have been invited to someone’s home (which is actually highly likely if you get to know any local), you will likely not get to see the true beauty of the country’s holidays.
That said, Tobaski, as Gambians refer to Eid-al-Adha, which commemorates Ibrahim’s (or Abraham’s) wiliness to sacrifice his son to God, can be a wonderful time to visit The Gambia. The week leading up to the holiday is perhaps most interesting, as all male Muslim adults are expected to purchase a sheep for sacrifice on that day. The streets of The Gambia are lined with thousands of sheep in the days leading up to the event and it is truly a site to be seen. On the day itself, make sure to find somewhere you can sample the deliciously cooked lamb, fresh off the animal!
In addition to this holiday, December is also a popular and enjoyable time to visit The Gambia, not so much so because of the holidays, which are celebrated both by the Muslim and Christian populations, but also because this is the month where Gambia’s huge diaspora population returns home. Clubs are lively, restaurants beaming and there are events planned throughout the month and into the New Year. The feeling during this month is just more enjoyable and fun than during any other month.
Despite its political climate, or perhaps as a result of it, The Gambia is one of the safest African countries to visit. While there may be several annoyances, as further described in “annoyances,” walking around The Gambia is extremely safe and levels of crime, particularly against foreigners, is low. There are pick-pockets in certain areas, however, even the chances of this are very low, particularly compared to other countries in the region and to countries with bigger cities, in general.
As we specify in greater detail in “acceptance,” homosexuality is considered a crime in The Gambia and public displays of homosexuality could result in being jailed, which is something that the LGBT community should take into consideration when traveling to The Gambia. While there have not been any publicized cases where foreign citizens were arrested for this crime, there have been incidents where individuals who lived in The Gambia for a longer period of time reported being followed and threatened by security forces. Additionally, as views towards homosexuality are largely shaped by religious beliefs, treatment of LGBT individuals showing public displays of affection, while not a direct threat to safety, may lead to hurtful or threatening speech.
Walking around The Gambia during the day is perfectly safe. Additionally, depending on the area, it is generally safe to walk at night as well, however, travelers would be best to walk in groups, so as to avoid any unwanted confrontations with hacklers.
Travelers should note that driving in The Gambia is not the best in the world and there are often times accidents, sometimes fatal. There is little to no regulation of drunk driving, which, unfortunately, is rampant in the country, particularly considering its small size and the fact that a large percentage of the population does not consume alcohol, due to religious restrictions. When walking on the streets, particularly at night, use caution and be aware of your surroundings, as well as how close you are walking to main streets.
As a final note on safety, it is important to remind travelers that The Gambia is currently ruled by an authoritarian regime. Travelers should avoid any sort of political discussion with locals and should make sure not to make any verbal statements pertaining to the Government. Criticism of the Government, even by foreign citizens, can be met with harsh punishment and should be avoided while on holiday.