On the surface The Gambia, a country which caters for more than 150,000+ holiday makers a year, may have the image of extreme economic conditions, with 48.4 per cent of the Gambia living in extreme poverty according to data from the World Bank, but the image of poverty is outshone by the friendliness, loving and caring nature of the people of this country, nicknamed the smiling coast.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel over to this beautiful place and work with the Eco-Tourism Society, on a promising and rewarding eco-tourism project.
The place I stayed was Serrekunda, the Western side of the Gambia and just a 10 minute walk from the beach. Wracked with nerves and excitement at the thought of going to a place solo and sharing my knowledge was daunting.
But learning about the incredibly eager and inspiring team and their hope to create sustainable projects in a country that barely benefits from the increasing flux in tourists they get yearly captivated me. I was more than happy to get involved because it isn’t fair and it isn’t right.
The organisation I worked with is called Eco Gambia, and they have dreams of creating a number of sustainable tourism developments throughout the country, to then enhance the well-being of the indigenous people living there and to give back to the community that have been exploited by foreigners for years.
The reason this project is so important is, although the Gambia is a popular holiday destination for westerners, the people of the Gambia don’t benefit a great deal from the tourism industry.
This is due to westerners coming over the last fifty years and opening resorts and restaurants, and paying little money to the Gambian workers who are still living in pitiful conditions.
Speaking with Lamin Kinteh, the chairman of the organisation, I asked about the projects that they’re promoting: “We have many projects underway, such as the permaculture house (organic and community growing of food) which we have secured a fantastic location to use as the permaculture resource centre.
“We will be using this area to develop our permaculture skills so we can boost food security. We will also be using this resource centre to host events, such as live music, with our hardworking entertainments team who are developing, and promoting music and dance both nationally and international.
“We’re looking for people to come to the Gambia and want to bring the level of talent we have here to an international level.”
The music in the Gambia consisted mainly, but not solely, of reggae music. Mixing the likes of international reggae and dance halls stars with musicians from the Gambia, every bar, restaurant and even taxis blasted out the soul-lifting music at every opportunity.
Towards the end of my visit, Marv Radio had arrived to live and work with the Eco Gambia team. Marv is three-times winner of the UK Beatbox championships and has come out to the Gambia to work with the Eco-tourism society offering his skills on a series of hip hop, rap and beat boxing youth workshops.
Due to his passion in beat boxing talents, he wants to work with the youth to encourage and reconnect back to the land and promote ‘Permaculture’, which is local and organic growing of food.
With a family history connecting him to the capital of the Gambia, Banjul, Marv has a dream of working with the team at the ESG to create the first West African hip-hop championships here in the Gambia.
“The talent in the Gambia is amazing and it needs to be recognised.”
The Permaculture Resource Center is just one of the many projects that the Eco Gambia have underway. They are currently developing an off-grid living holiday to target people interested in off grid tourism, or people who want to experience a completely different way to contemporary living.
This will help enhance their local communities in the Gambia and give them opportunities they will benefit from. Other projects include the promotion and education of the Gambian ancient history which isn’t very well known, even to the people of the Gambia.
They will be holding tours to historical landmarks such as the Wassu stone circles. This will be attractive to people who are interested in history, and at the moment they are connecting with established leading figures in the ancient history movement to bring international awareness.
But there is a bigger message behind these multitude of activities: “We are aiming to push the Gambia to become a self-reliant Eco-nation by creating these unique opportunities. By bringing ecotourism and permaculture to the forefront, we can focus on sustainable development by environmental conservation and promoting the local people to benefit from this,” Lamin Kinteh said.
“We are working towards enhancement of local communities in the Gambia by bringing projects into communities that will increase the living standard for the Gambian people.”
The team taught me about the organic super foods they grow, and cook themselves and served me an astounding lunch daily. The energy and buzz throughout the team was hypnotic.
They are working so hard to create a project that will benefit the people of a country famed for being third world. And it’s all happening.
Although the organisation is currently non-profit, they’ve got a lot of interest internationally for people wanting to work with the team.
These are early days, and they aren’t making money for themselves but the idea is once the international interest has heightened, which is happening, soon they will be self-reliant company and would have opened the doors for lots of people in the Gambia to earn some money through the tourism trade.
“The main idea was introduced after a group of students at the Institute of Travel and Tourism of the Gambia (ITTTOG) when we researched the tourism industry more in depth.” Mustapha Bah said, who is the vice chairmen of the society.
“We wanted to create more ethical travel holiday packages that we could use to market the Gambia as a destination for ecotourism. Thus, the brand Eco Gambia was born to promote and market our activities to the world.”
Jane Smith, who has worked with the Eco Gambia team called them: “A dynamic group of people, with so much enthusiasm and direction in their amibitions. Knowing the money will go to local communities, the project is inspiring.”
But what is it about the Gambia that makes this project so promising and exciting? Chairman Lamin Kinteh answered with little hesitation: “The reason that we believe in this so much is that the Gambia has so many potential resources yet to be explored, that’s why the ecotourism society is making use of these. We currently attract around 150,000+ visitors annually and we believe this number could increase through the services that we will be able to offer”.
Lamin continued: “Working with the Eco-tourism society will mean you will be working with small communities throughout the Gambia, which is one of our most fundamental issues. We want to see that the local communities benefit out of the ecotourism projects that we will be bringing.”
With all the benefits to smaller communities aside, the Gambia is one of the most peaceful, beautiful and friendly countries in the world where everyone is treated like family.”
It wasn’t just volunteer work. It was immersing myself and understanding the cultural side to the Gambia – and it was like no other I had experienced.
Everyone refereed to one another as ‘my brother, my sister,’ and the strong sense of community transcended throughout their consistent expression of love towards me, with the local people referring to me as a Gambian man.
I even got involved in dancing with some Gambian women to African music, as they taught me their moves and I jokingly danced along and understood the connection with one another.
There was no segregation, there was no racism, there was no exclusion. It was one community, one love, one family working together to create a better future for the people of the Gambia.
Even though this is just the beginning, the president of the Gambia is backing the project 100% and is working towards making the Gambia an Eco-nation. In July 2015 the Gambia banned the importing and use of plastic bags.
It’s the African country fighting back against the tourism exploitation they’ve experienced by Western society, but they’re fighting by dropping seeds and not bombs.
They’re using the natural resources they’re blessed with to create a sustainable future for the country, and a tourism experience that has endless rewards.
All images by Thomas Hibbitts