Senegal and Gambia – Another Road Less Traveled
Senegal and The Gambia are neighbors on West Africa’s Atlantic Coast. Not for the finicky, these two are countries for the well-travelled or for cultural or naturalist adventurers who wish to be off the beaten path. The geographies and cultures of the various parts of Africa differ significantly. Having visited a dozen countries in northern, eastern, and southern Africa, we wanted a taste of the west, and a small ship cruise on Greece’s Variety Cruise line offered the opportunity to build an itinerary. As a measure of the travel experience of our fellow voyagers on the cruise, while we’ve been to over 100 countries, that was little better than average in this group.
The combined political geography of the two countries is unlikely. Senegal is a rather shapeless blob on the west coast of Africa. Midway down its coast is Cap Vert, home to the capital Dakar. The cape sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean like a snooty little nose. Near the southern end lies Gambia, the smallest continental African country, intruding as a crooked mouth in the facial profile of Senegal. The Gambia’s swath intrudes 200 miles into Senegal, a strip of about 30 miles of land on either side of the Gambia River. Thus, southern Senegal is separated from the rest of the country except by traveling to the far east, beyond the extent of Gambia. In Gambia, no bridges cross the river, with the resulting anomaly that Senegal has forever petitioned Gambia to build a bridge to facilitate transport between northern and southern Senegal. Gambia has been content with ferry transport, but a bridge is finally under construction.
Both countries’ culture, political administration, and unifying language reflect prior control by European colonizers. Senegal’s main influence and second language come from France, from which the country of 15 million residents received independence in 1960. Gambia’s reason for being is that the British sought a trading presence in the bulge of Africa during the 18th century and defended a position from the French at the mouth of the Gambia River. With a population of only 2 million, it became independent in 1965.
Arriving in Dakar and driving to the city from the airport, the outskirts display much new and mostly unfinished and drab apartment construction. The city itself has many different looking neighborhoods from quite poor in appearance to more wealthy areas that include embassies, pretty beachfront, and recreational sites.
We stayed in a conveniently-located, international-standard Novotel in Dakar, one of a number of chain hotels that would meet most travelers’ needs. On our return from Gambia, we stayed in the even nicer Radisson Blu on the ocean, but removed from most walkable activities.
To see and do in Dakar: Drive around the city, walk through neighborhoods, chat with the friendly locals, shop and bargain for colorful fabrics, clothes, jewelry, and art. Mosques and city squares can be found.
The local cuisine is tasty, but not sophisticated. Perhaps the best known local eatery is Chez Loutcha, which serves local specialties such as thieb (stuffed fish and rice), yassa (spicy meat or fish with onions), and mafé (a spicy stew with peanut and tomato sauce). French, continental, and seafood restaurants abound, but perhaps the most notable is Lagon, which is on the water. On the walkway down, there are tens of brass plaques with the names of luminaries who have eaten there. A very French restaurant we enjoyed was Le Dagorne, which was charming and offered excellent preparations.
Dakar’s most significant site requires a short ferry ride to La Maison des Esclaves on Goree Island, where thousands of slaves were detained in deplorable conditions prior to being shipped off to the Americas. You can stand in a dark and dank room in the opening above the crashing waves where shackled victims were forced into ships to carry them to slavery. It creates a powerful impression. Yet the island is now a charming attraction with well-preserved buildings, no cars, no litter, and full of cafes, galleries, and flower shops.
The other most notable site is the African Renaissance Statue, unveiled in 2010. At a height of 160 feet, it is slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty, but, comprised of the figures of a man, a woman, and a child, its mass is far greater. Derided artistically, critics deem its heroic communist style vulgar. Derided culturally, it was designed by a Romanian and built by North Korea, it is nonetheless a “must see.” Actually, it’s almost a “can’t avoid,” as it’s visible from so much of the city.
Driving outside Dakar, we visited the Bandia Reserve, a modest wildlife park. It isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon, but it’s no comparison to safari in Southern or East Africa. Proper game parks with resorts can be found in the country, including Fathala Reserve, just above Gambia and just inland from the greatest bird sanctuary in western Africa, Delta de Saloum. Nearby is Rose Lake, so tinted because its high salinity attracts a red colored bacteria. If you need a bite to eat, the Hotel Palal Lac Rose has a bar-café that has been a pit stop for the historic Paris-Dakar auto rally, and rally-related graffiti covers the walls.
After a few days in Dakar, we travelled by twenty-six cabin motor yacht toward Gambia. As a reminder that we weren’t in Kansas any more, the mustering station for this “luxury” cruise was a vast, dilapidated, open warehouse, with dirt, grease, and debris on the floor, and a few fork lifts spread about. There were no signs, no services. We had to port our own luggage, and the assembled passengers had to wait over two hours in this hovel during ship’s refueling. Welcome to West Africa.
Our first stop on the cruise was Djifere, in Senegal’s Delta, host to fishing villages populated by pirogues (colorful gondola like wooden boats). This is the launch point for Delta de Saloum, a sanctuary noted for its bird populations, but we will discuss bird life further on. Then inland on The Gambia River. Gambia, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has an economy made up of fishing, rice and peanuts, the biggest cash crop (introduced by Portuguese in the 16th century). Many nut warehouses dot the riverside. Like Senegal, it relies increasingly on tourism for revenue. While the Senegal market targets the French and has some upscale resort offerings at the beaches, Gambia serves a largely British audience but is generally more down market.
The Gambia gained independence from Britain in 1965. Always poor, its poverty has increased under despotic rule, triggered by a coup let by a 19 year old lieutenant. Democracy returned in 2016, but like many African countries, Gambian political life is precarious and still dominated by tribalism. No tribe holds a majority, but the Mandinka are the largest. However, with English as the national language, communication is not difficult. Like Senegal, Sunni Islam is the overwhelming religion, but its form is largely tolerant, with extremism not well supported.
Gambia’s capital, Banjul, lies on the southwestern head of the river. Much smaller and less distinguished than Dakar, it has little to offer. The main political site in the city is Arch 22. Although it was built to celebrate a military takeover, it is now recognized as a generic civic asset. The main religious site is the Central Mosque.
At the tiny National Museum, we interacted with a group of animated high school boys and girls. Along with their school uniforms, the girls all wore modest Muslim headscarves, but they were fun-loving and enjoyed posing with us and taking selfies, like teens almost anywhere.
One element that brightens the scene everywhere in both countries is women’s apparel. Their garments are bright, often with interesting patterns. Their head dresses are brilliant and fashionable, an infinite number of variations on the turban theme, with some so large and complex that they seem to defy balance and gravity.
However, the attraction with the greatest historical significance lies outside of town in the river. The small island which has recently been renamed as Kunta Kinte Island, after the character from the Alex Haley penned mini-series Roots. This was the center for slave trade around The Gambia River. The island is small and the buildings in ruins, but its haunting past resonates.
Our cruise took us upriver to a number of small towns. Although there are marine animals such as crocodiles and hippopotamuses, the main activity is bird watching. Several hundred species are represented in this magnificent aviary environment. Away from the river, Gambia is dry and dusty, like most of Senegal, but the river is blessed with a riverine ecosystem. It is not uncommon to see flocks of 150 white pelicans in the air or more than 50 vultures in a tree. Large birds like the graceful snake bird (anhinga), yellow-billed stork, and spur-winged goose are plentiful, but so are beautiful small birds like Abyssinian rollers, pied kingfishers, and red-billed fire finch. There are really too many to mention, but this is truly one of the world’s great destinations for birders.
Adjacent to the river is a natural reserve, the Chimp Rehabilitation Project. Although visitors can stay in a resort and visit the reserve on foot when approaching from land, visitors from the river must be content to view from the water. Fortunately, the chimps, as well as howling baboons, make appearances. As they are in their natural habitat and we are not, it somehow seems that we humans are the ones on display.
Another nature visit was to a sacred pool hosting a collection of around 30 crocodiles. We were told that they are well fed. Tourists are allowed to touch – if they have the courage. We did – with a guide closer to the reptile’s mouth than we were – and are none the worse for wear.
Because we were on a cruise, we didn’t try local eateries, but on the other hand, we didn’t see any that would appeal. However, the Gambian endowment is similar to Senegal’s, with a cuisine that is alike as well.
We did have walks through villages along the river and were able to observe village and rural life. Music and dance play an important part in West African cultures, and those are other elements that seem to reduce the strain of poverty. As in many such countries, the outdoor markets are a place not just to buy food and basic goods, but a place to socialize. We were surprised to see that one of the few non-necessities that was highly valued by young women is false eye lashes. They were also fashion-savvy enough to ask whether Karin’s nails are real. And despite small population, in one village we saw five tailors’ huts near the market.
We visited a school that the cruise line had helped to finance. Two teachers spoke fluent English and though the students tried to look attentive, they were excited to watch us. The teachers didn’t seem to mind our intrusion and interruptions, and talked to us about their work. Of course, Karin took a turn teaching a class which she found great fun since the students were very lively and participatory.
We were also pleased to see that even in a poorer area of a poor country that the village had a pre-and-neo-natal care clinic. The hardware is quite dated and training would not meet western standards, but the systems and procedures seem to be up-to-date. On the darker side, witch doctors and female genital mutilation remain. The country is 90% Sunni, and many men, especially in rural areas have three wives. The current president has two.
Our great guide, Ibrahim, enhanced our trip with his wonderful English and German and his knowledge about The Gambia, it’s history and customs. He told us that Gambia is called the smiling country, with no social security net, but with no hunger, a message that others corroborated. Daily life is hand to mouth, but food is abundant and families help one another.
Although our first impressions of Senegal had been that it was drab and poor, the perspective of returning from Gambia made it look more appealing. As noted, our experience was not a thorough exploration, and included no beach communities. We enjoyed the trip and are glad we went but would still suggest the region for hardy and curious travelers.