Adventures in West Africa: Banjul, the Gambia

Revamping some old stories from West Africa, with a hint of nostalgia and wanderlust. 

The Longest Flight

The longest flight I ever took was from Bangkok to Banjul, the Gambia: 40 hours, with stops in Cairo (Egypt), Lagos (Nigeria) and Accra (Ghana).

Once I arrived in Africa, the adventure started! 

Lagos airport – waiting time for the next connection: 8 hours plus 3 hours delay. The good: I was allowed to use the business lounge. The not so good: I had to hand over my passport to a plain-clothed official without any explanation.

Time passed faster than I thought, thanks to the free flowing of Johnnie Walker whiskey and the dancing of the waitresses on the music of Nigerian singer, Aṣa. Despite the entertainment and being the only one customer there, the thought of not knowing where my passport is, was unsettling. “Don’t worry” – the dancers told me, and Mr. Johnnie Walker seemed to agree. After few hours I got my passport back!

Intro to Banjul

In Banjul, the Gambia, I arrived next day, on December 24 early in the morning, with little knowledge about Africa…

Banjul, the Gambia

Banjul, the Gambia

My good luck there was Joyce, a volunteer nurse from Taiwan.

Everything that worked in other parts of the globe, doesn’t work anymore here. “This is Africa Ovi!” – Joyce kept repeating, after I was trying in vain to withdraw money from the bank using my VISA card….

The first evening in Banjul was the Christmas party, in a nice expatriate villa near the ocean.

Bottles Christmas tree - Banjul, the Gambia

Bottles Christmas tree

Not too much to do and see in Banjul, but it is always exciting to be in a new country, on another continent. Serekunda Market is a must see. There are nice restaurants and hotels on the Atlantic Ocean.

Colorful fisherman boats

Colorful fisherman boats

The Zoo has only monkeys, deer and hyenas…

Monkey, Banjul Zoo

Free monkey, Banjul Zoo

Serekunda Market

In the Christmas Day I went to the Serekunda Market, despite being warned to not go there alone. First thing I noticed, the people become angry when they see a photo camera. Nobody wants to be photographed and everybody ask for money if you try to. It is the opposite of what I experienced in Asia.

"Police! He is taking photos!" - Serekunda Market, Banjul

“Police! He is taking photos!” – Serekunda Market, Banjul

“Don’t talk to anybody”, I was told. But I talked…

And now the tricks:

  • “Hi, I am Buli, do you remember me from the hotel? You are the German” – No, I am not…
  • “Where are you from?” – From Transylvania (so nobody knows)
  • “Come to show you something” (the con artist tries to drag you, just keep walking)
  • “Do you want her? What about this one?” – the touts were pointing to every woman in the market, and they were quite aggressive…

On the Street

A smile from Gambia

A smile from Gambia

Groups of children were celebrating Christmas on the street. One of the children was dressed like a goat, wearing horns, somehow resembling the Christmas traditions in Eastern Europe. Gambia is a predominant Muslim country.

Children celebrating Christmas in Banjul

Children celebrating Christmas in Banjul

Children playing foosball, Banjul

Children playing foosball, Banjul

Mother with three children, Banjul

Mother with three beautiful children, Banjul

Coming back home, I was unable to find the volunteer house (the place where I stayed for my first days in Banjul)! I didn’t know they don’t have street names (except for the main roads) or house numbers. Lucky, Joyce borrowed me a cellphone. And the help was on his way!

On the streets many people sell everything: SIM phone cards, DVDs, driving wheel covers, games, etc. The women carry their products on the top of their heads, with a certain level of elegance. To maintain balance, the body needs to stay straight. One woman was carrying in this way an antique iron (the heavy one, made entirely from metal).

Mobile doctor

Mobile doctor

The hospital where Joyce works is crowded and poor, but colorful. The patients have their own bed and they receive basic medical assistance.

Taking photos of the hospital entrance in one night, prompted a call from the nearby military base. It was good to be on the other side of the fence, when I was scolded by two really big soldiers, one of them being very menacing…

Mosques are everywhere in the city and the call for prey is heard all day and night.

The Military

In Banjul are many military checkpoints. Sometimes you are asked to present your passport and the military can demand money without any reason. To avoid problems, I always gave them (and to the border officers) the name of an expensive hotel (Atlantic), never the real place I was staying.

Many times on the street the military jeeps speed up with soldiers standing with automatic rifles ready to shoot. When a government official travels, all the cars should move out-of-the-way and stop, and everybody should stay still.

Quirky Things

  • From place to place in the city, there are walls with the inscription “Urinate Here”.
  • Tourists come to Gambia for beaches, fishing or sex (mainly older white women for younger African men).
  • When I left Africa, one of the Banjul’s airport cockroaches made his way to Brussels, courtesy of the Brussels Airlines.

Banjul may not be on your “must seen” destinations, but it is worth a visit.

“It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely or consistently ignored capital city than the tiny seaport of Banjul. It sits on an island and sulks, crossed by sand-blown streets and dotted with fading colonial structures. And yet, it tempts with a sense of history that the plush seaside resorts lack, and is home to a busy harbour and market that show urban Africa at its best.” – Lonely Planet