Ever had the feeling that you knew a country before even visiting it? Well, that was me and Gambia; my father was born there but, like me he grew up in Sierra Leone. Family connections being responsible for that accident of birth.
This, however, did not stop him talking fondly of ‘Bathurst, Gambia’, a place he barely knew as a baby but which he visited in his adult life. Growing up in Sierra Leone, the place always held an exotic draw for me and my siblings. History had taught me a lot about the close ties between the two countries. My first ‘visit’ happened to be in the company of my brother, John. It was the briefest of stopovers en route to Freetown: we asked the crew if we could step off the plane and kiss the tarmac at the airport and they obliged. By the time of that visit, Bathurst had become Banjul and the man who had been leader since
Independence, was no longer in power. Two years later, I was there to do an article on how the Gambia and Gambians had taken in Sierra Leoneans escaping war in their own country. From the first moment to when my trip was curtailed due to a family bereavement, I was embraced by both the country and its people.
I couldn’t have received a warmer welcome. For a ‘run’ of 5 years after that, I came back annually to visit friends and make new ones. As I did so, the country grew on me and I began to believe there was a mystical reconnection with my father’s place of birth. When I started planning my retirement, it was always with the aim of returning to one of three West African nations: Gambia, Sierra Leone or Cape Verde.
A variety of personal factors ended up with it being that Gambia won out. So it was that I started the long process of readjusting my mindset and resolving matters in England for the ‘move back’: looking for a house or land to build one, opening a bank account and sundry other matters.
Lest anyone should think otherwise, it is only fair that I should point out that even though I love the place I am not blind to Gambia’s failings and there are many; the education system needs a shake-up, the streets need serious and sustained cleaning. I quickly learned you can love a place and not romanticise it.
One of the countries I mentioned earlier, Cape Verde , which is a hour along the coast, as the crow flies, could teach this and every other country in West Africa, a thing or two. That country has the cleanest streets and street markets in all West Africa. If they can do it, why can’t we?
I seriously propose the civic and national officials visit and see what is possible. I regularly see people discarding sweet or cigarette packets on the streets as they walk along; in 5 years of visiting Cape Verde, I have never seen anyone do that.
To any Gambian reading this and getting upset, I say good; get upset and do something about it. To end on a positive note, I intend to be an active (and occasionally noisy) citizen. Why, because I know we can and must strive to improve that which is within our reach to change.