The beaming sun of the Smiling Coast was quite benign to inhabitants of the New Gambia, a snake-shaped nation that recently exorcised a demon that rattles its few thousand square miles landscape for little over two decades.
The past Sunday was beautiful. The blue skyline that hangs over the country’s only natural treasure, the blue sea, was as dazzling. All smiles were greeted with the gritting chilling wind on the beaches across the Senegambia area all the way to Lemon Creek.
The seemingly aggressive waves of the sea pounced against the shores sending bubbles all over my face as I watched, thrilled. I placed my palm by the shore and felt the cool even deeper as it caresses my skin. The paa paa rhyme of the waves and the waves itself both competed for admiration, at least in my imagination.
“It is beautiful,” I said turning back at my friend I fondly call Kuu. “Yah,” he reacted, “… this is all we have got”. He was perhaps right. The sea and the white sand are as an asset of a small nation as its people who have made history by sending a tyrant packing without using a match box.
But there was one thing that was visibly loud in its absence, the tourists. The restaurants and their beautiful dishes were empty and the juices bars on the white sand temporarily shut down. And even the sun beds were laid idling, an opportunity my friends and I thought we could use for a beautiful lazy day.
I have visited the beach with three of my friends: Auto, Kuu and Maaha, all spoilt lovers of nature, like me. We retreated back from the waters looking for a good spot to sit and pass the rest of the day. Not far from where we packed our car, were about 7 boys chatting and brewing a China Green Tea.
Among them was a smiling gentleman who rents beds for those who intends to rest by the sea. “How much for a bed?” asked Kuu. “You can pay D200 for two,” he said. There was no other person there and in Gambia, everything is bargained. “We are paying D50 for a bed and we are taking two,” Kuu argued.
It was not the best bargain for him. Only that it was an opportunity to go home with something. The English tourists have left, so have others. “OK,” he conceded, before wiping off some dust that covers its surface. The beds have clearly not been used for some time.
It would not take long before my friends and I were joined by two boys, all in their late twenties. One’s name is Mustapha and another’s is Hard Man, whatever that means. They were all juice bar operators. They make different fruit juice and sell them to tourists. A cup is for D100.
Mustapha is an old friend I knew back in my home village.
“There is no business right now,” he explained. “All the tourists have left”. They weren’t as lucky. While a readied sunbed could be used by the indigenous tourists that we were, we could not ask for a juice bar to be set operational just for us, since we will leave and not come back until another Sunday, or perhaps for another month.
We all sat for a while, silent and stared at each other. We came to the beach to escape the normal world with all its problems and live in the make-believe, the type you can find imaginable by the sea, I thought. But it appears the normal world is such that even the imaginary one wants to create for escapism is influenced by it.
Gambia has recently had a very rocky political transition were arm confrontation almost became the inevitable fate of her peaceful inhabitants. A professor in old-school African sit-tightism, Yahya Jammeh, rejected the election results which gave his rival Adama Barrow a win.
Two attempts by regional leaders to get him to cede power failed. Before a third dialogue was initiated, regional leaders who have felt tested by his defiance were forced to contemplate using traditional ways of uprooting dictators like him: boots on the ground and drone and jets overhead.
The impending arm incursion scared 46,000 Gambians into fleeing to neighboring Senegal while most western governments have issued a travel advice for their citizens to avoid Gambia. Tourists have left leaving behind a fragile country whose economy heavily depends on presence.
“I am hoping that they will come back… The problem is over now,” Mustapha said, looking over his shoulders at the direction of their abandoned juice bars.
Jammeh might have derived his mandate from Allah but the relic of his troubles that still affects the tourism sector is not as Godly.
Mustapha Darboe is an award-winning Gambian journalist – a former news editor at Today News and senior reporter at the Standard Newspaper. Follow him on his blog: The Torch