Saturday, February 21, 2015


Properly: The Gambia.

My introduction to Burkina Faso also applies here. The BBC on this occasion has put two paragraphs together rather more pointedly. The first reads:

"The Gambia is one of Africa's smallest countries and unlike many of its West African neighbours it has enjoyed long spells of stability since independence."

The second then reads:

"President Yahya Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and has ruled with an iron fist ever since."

Put these two phrases together, and the concept of "stability" can then be understood as a euphemism, after which the remainder of this account becomes entirely predictable.

Why The Gambia exists at all, geographically speaking, is a question I am unable to answer. As anybody can, I look at the map of Senegal, which exists both to the north and to the south of The Gambia, and wonder why its major river has been carved out as a separate country, all the way from "the smiling coast" to "the uninhabitable hinterland", depriving Senegal of a key artery, setting The Gambia up to be attacked and conquered at some moment of economic hardship in the future.

From Gambia's point of view, of course, or at least from the perspective of the capital, Banjul, which sits on the estuary, it makes a certain kind of theoretical sense; the river bournes in the Atlantic, and it is deep and wide, providing the nearly two million Gambians with some of the most fertile soil in Africa, so that farming, fishing and tourism can combine to give it a theoretical wealth, or at least the theoretical potential for theoretical wealth, not to mention the oft-repeated promises of President Yahya Jammeh to transform the impoverished nation into a global super-economy (from farming, fishing and tourism? he has to be crazy!)

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out that way. What looks rich and fertile from Banjul dissipates somewhat as you go inland. Despite the river, less than one-sixth of the country even has the capacity to produce food, and what it does produce is mostly peanuts – nor is that a euphemism; peanuts here really does mean peanuts. The President is very keen to turn The Gambia into an oil-state; so am I in my personal domain, but alas I have had no more success in finding oil in my back garden than he has in his. Instead there is that great fall-back of all failed economies: tourism. When you have nothing to grow and nothing to manufacture, employ people in the service industries, and pay them less than minimum wage (sorry, that last clause should appear under United States of America, not The Gambia…well, actually, yes, The Gambia too). 

The Gambia left the Commonwealth in 2013, claiming it was a neo-colonialist institution, which of course it is. However, given that the country is virtually dependent on foreign aid, this may not have been an intelligent move; on the other hand, when every country in the Commonwealth, and many outside it, are challenging your appalling record on human rights... sixty-two of them stood up in unison at the United Nations in Geneva, October 2014, to call for precisely this. Among the complaints, the inevitable journalistic disappearances that are the norm in totalitarian despotisms, but also a regression to the truly mediaeval, with activists facing torture through having their legs burnt with boiling oil and their backs slashed with metal rods. I can’t help but wonder why so many British schools advertise The Gambia as a top choice for a GAP year, "Combining Charity Work With Adventure Travel in The Gambia For A Unique and Exhilarating Experience" is how one company presents it.

Marks For:  2

Marks Against: 7

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
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