I Was a Cash Cow in Gambia

In the preceding entry I gave a list of good stuff about a Gambian vacation. Here’s the flip side.

My first trip to Africa, a week in Agadir, Morocco in the mid-1990s, was marred (but not ruined) by the locals’ constant begging and aggressive attempts to sell me stuff. I recently relived this experience in Gambia’s coastal resort district. The Gambians don’t beg. But everybody tries to sell you goods and services all the time, often making you feel quite besieged.

The room cleaner tried to sell my wife apples in the bathroom. The hotel’s tailor nagged us daily about arranging an outing for us. I’ve already told you about “Do you need a fish” dude. You soon learn to dread meeting any young guy in the street because he will invariably try to become your local guide and buddy.

One trick I read about in the excellent Lonely Planet guide for Gambia & Senegal and soon encountered in the street was “Hey, don’t you recognise me? I work at your hotel!” It is difficult at times to recognise all these brief acquaintances, and you may feel a twinge of post-colonial bad conscience at not being able to tell one young black guy in a rasta hat from another. But when I was asked this question (on day four) I replied, “My hotel? Really? What hotel is that?” And the guy guessed wrong.

Another time though I ignored my driver for several minutes despite his calls because he had removed his rasta hat and I thought he was just another random street hustler trying to get my attention.

But the encounter that really brought home the huge economic gap between myself and the locals was when I ran into, lets call her Liz. She worked at my hotel, a shapely and pretty young single mother with an outgoing manner and good English. Many Gambian women don’t get much schooling and are neither Anglophone nor even literate. But Liz has a good job and I guess she must be quite a successful Gambian despite being sole provider for a child.

The second time we met, Liz flirted shamelessly. The third time she cheerfully offered to become my mistress, perhaps in Sweden, proclaiming that she didn’t mind my being married. I replied that though I was flattered by the offer, my wife would most likely mind quite a lot, and that my wife is a very dangerous woman. Thus spurned, how did this young lady move on with the conversation? She asked me for a t-shirt “to remember you by”. I knew from other conversations that a used t-shirt represents a considerable value in Gambia.

I must emphasise that of all the Gambian ladies I talked to, Liz was the only one who made any lewd hints, and I don’t think she sells herself in the usual sense of the term. She probably quite liked me. But as a Westerner in Gambia, I was clearly seen by men and women alike mainly as a source of cash and possibly a ticket to Europe. And since I was constantly reminded of this, I sometimes wished we had gone somewhere else for our vacation. If we had, the Gambians would have been even poorer.

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9 thoughts on “I Was a Cash Cow in Gambia

  1. Nope. I felt uncomfortable about meeting her and stayed away from her part of the hotel. Even if I’d have been single, I wouldn’t have liked to dally with someone in such an obvious situation of economic disadvantage. I prefer a level playing field where there’s no question about anybody’s motivation from that perspective.


  2. Thank you for responding. 🙂 The “no dally” rule makes sense in that situation. Did you ever meet anyone who didn’t try to sell you the shirt off their back (so to speak)?


  3. Yeah, the pool cleaning guy. He spoke educated English, listened to the radio news all the time and didn’t smile much or greet us as (over-) enthusiastically as most. And one of the security guards. He also was the only one of the guards whom we never saw stoned.


  4. When we (my wife, infant daughter and I) were in Cebu City in the Philippines, while our taxi was waiting at traffic lights, 12 year old girls (my estimate) suffering from malnutrition and wearing filthy rags were walking between the cars, knocking on windows and offering themselves for sex in exchange for cash.

    Our hotel was quite luxurious and self-contained, you could stay within and think it was a nice place. The city was a whole different story.

    Many of us live sheltered lives, some more than others, and don’t know the reality for many others. We went to Cebu for a relaxing few days holiday from our over-stressed hard-working but decent existence and came back in a state of shock and misery at what we had seen. We felt ashamed, and horrified. We wanted to do something, but how do you adopt multiple 12 year old girls off the street, and where do you house them, and how do you look after them?

    Now my half-Chinese daughter, who has grown up protected and relatively privileged with two parents who love her more than life, and is now attending university, is good buddies with a Cebuano who is a good 6″ shorter than she is, no doubt partly genetic but also partly due to dietary depression. Nothing romantic, at least on her side, they are just good pals who cooperate well and help each other out in the laboratory.

    Life is strange.


  5. As a Gambian I’m sadding and dissapointed with the experience you encountered in my beloved country. It is unfortunate that some of my country man and woman will treat an importand guest like yourself in that manner.

    As you mentioned in your previous article, Gambia is a beautiful country to visit. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP)depends heavily on the tourism industry. Your visit to the country has contributed to the growth of the economy.

    The adminstration has taken several aggressive measurements to address that particular issue. Without the corporation of the locals it will be hard to address the problem effectively. There are penalties in place to discourage solicitation of visitors in the tourism industry. I will advice all visitors to report any aggressiveness to the appropriate officials. There has been some improvements since the adminstration put in place some laws to prohibiting solicitation in some form regarding the visitors for tourism. Obviously more need to be done.

    On behave of all Gambians, we are deeply sorry for the unpleasant experience you and your family has experienced on your vacation. Hopefully you will keep visiting our small country that depends on people like you to eradicate poverty by growing our economy from your visit.

    Thank you for your visit and God Bless you and your family.


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