One thing I’ve learnt here in The Gambia is that things are not always what they seem and it’s a question of going with the flow and jumping in with both feet.
Last Friday I was invited, last minute – African style - to go on a site visit to check out a new eco tourism initiative in the village of Ndemban situated around 45 minutes up country from Fajara. Dress code was casual as we would be walking the site with officials from the Gambia Tourism Authority (GTA) and a few local dignitaries.
The GTA laid on a bus for us, a spicy prawn and chicken take-out dinner and, in addition, to various officials and representatives the bus also filled up with a half dozen khaki-uniformed military types including one rather stern colonel, complete with a swagger stick, who commanded a sharp salute at every police checkpoint en route.
It all seemed a bit much for a casual site visit.
So the sight of a 12-foot tall masked man on stilts, group of chanting ladies attired in the colour of the national flag (green, red and blue), drummers and dancers, villagers dressed in their Friday best, waving kids and local elders was something of a surprise, to say the least.
Especially as I looked like a backapcker of the worst variety – a dowdy moth to the multitude of butterflies flitting around me.
The hospitality couldn’t have been warmer though and we assembled in the central square for a series of welcome speeches, prayers, introductions (this included a short intro about me in Jolla, which concluded with a Gambian version of a solo Mexican wave and bowing of sorts) and an explanation of the project and how it will benefit the community.
This was accompanied by some good-natured heckling by the multi-hued chanting ladies who are apparently a village tradition and were the ‘town criers’ in days gone by, and who are now a prerequisite for any official occasion.
We did do the site visit – surrounded by curious children, some of whom cheekily tried to nab my water bottle and some of whom shyly slipped their hands into mine or high-fived me - and had a walk-through of the areas that will transform the regular village activities into a working tourist village that blends subsistence farming with new initiatives aimed at the interested tourist without it being bumster central.
To wrap it all up, we were invited to dine in the schoolhouse from the communal bowl of benachin (rice spiced with various things and chunks of beef) and a delicious bowl of chakri (yoghurt, milk, enough sugar to ruin the dental hygiene of an entire tribe and local couscous). Thankfully this was scooped up by the ladleful, otherwise I would’ve gone home without dessert!