22nd February 2019
When we first arrived in The Gambia in the last week of August 2018, we stayed in a serviced two-bedroom townhouse at Riyan Apartments in the Senegambia district.
No sooner had the jet lag brought on by an exhausting 30 hour journey flying halfway across the world (Colombo – Doha – Casablanca – Banjul) worn off than Jordan, our home grown Indiana Jones, started exploring the Atlantic beach front of our immediate neighbourhood in this new country on this hitherto unknown continent.
Within hours he had made friends with the beach boys who roamed the Senegambia strip and after that spent every afternoon and evening of the next two weeks in their company. They are called ‘beach bumsters’ in The Gambia and frowned upon by society here – an attitude that is not unlike our Sri Lankan disapproval of the beach boys in our southern coastal towns.
However, this is The Gambia where even the ‘no good’ boys who try to eke out a living by selling things (including their bodies) to foreign tourists are actually a harmless and good-natured bunch of young men. I recall becoming frantic once when Jordan didn’t return to Riyan Apartments by nightfall and I became convinced that he had been kidnapped (or even worse) by one of the beach bumsters none of whom we had ever met. He turned up at nine o’ clock at night munching on a tapalapa (French bread stuffed with corned beef, egg & onion) saying that he was sorry he was late but that he had been invited to a beach party by them and had waited until his bumster friend Musa was able to walk him back home to us down the dark lane leading up to the main road from the beach.
Even after we finally moved into our place (the Wacky Warehouse) in Bakau which is quite a distance away from Senegambia, Jordan still insisted on visiting his bumster friends to play football on the beach with them during the weekends. Whenever I called him on the phone to check if he was okay, I would always hear loud reggae music in the background. He also developed a love for Gambian street food by hanging out with them and was able to introduce us to the delights of traditional dishes such as ‘Benachin’ and ‘Domoda.’
Musa was the leader of the gang and was the self-appointed ‘carer’ of our Jordan who we found out used to sometimes go in the sea with them. I freaked out when I first heard of it because I just didn’t trust the Atlantic ocean the way I did the Indian ocean but realised that that was completely illogical so I took a deep breath and trusted in God to take care of our son instead. He was certainly keeping his guardian angels busy in those days.
Our friend William once walked down the beach with Jordan to meet the beach boys and reported that they were all much older than him (being in their twenties) and that they were all smoking cigarettes (which are obscenely inexpensive in The Gambia!) as well as weed.
We became very anxious at that and spoke to Jordan about our concerns. He admitted to us that he was often offered ganja by them but he assured us that he was aware of the risks of taking drugs and would not harm his own health by using them.
To their lasting credit, Jordan’s bumster friends never laid a hand on him throughout the time he spent in their company and we gave him extra money on his birthday in November (which fell on a Friday) so that he could treat them to some dinner at a beach restaurant.
By the end of November, however, Jordan met one of our immediate neighbours, Kenny, who became a very good friend of his and, much to our relief, by December he had completely stopped going to Senegambia beach to meet his bumster friends.
Kenny is the son of a Swedish father and a Sierra Leonean mother which probably accounts for his good looks. He turned seventeen in January. He lives three doors away from us and grew up in The Gambia so is able to speak the local language Wolof as fluently as he does English. He had dropped out of school by the time we met him and was waiting to go abroad to seek his fortune in Sweden or elsewhere.
Jordan and Kenny got on like a house on fire and we were glad that JJ had finally found a friend who was also a neighbour – something both Paul and I remember from growing up in the 60s & 70s when our neighbours were our childhood and teen friends and we were in and out of each other’s houses. This is an experience that Jordan and Rai have not really had either in Brunei or Sri Lanka. So we were happy that Jordan and Kenny developed this neighbourhood friendship with Kenny dropping in daily at our place and Jordan sleeping over at his during the weekends.
However, Kenny’s longtime dream of seeing his mother again came true when he flew off to meet her in Germany last week where she has been for the past eight years since she and his father split up. He is also hoping to pursue further studies to get a diploma while he is there.
Jordan really misses his best buddy but doesn’t seem to miss a beat when it comes to making friends. He is now hanging out with a Marina schoolmate and is spending the mid-term break at his house in the Sukuta suburb of Gambia.
He also recently made two new friends from another international school here and has fun playing football with them in the afternoons in the open grassy fields that you find here (like it used to be in SL when we were young!) as well as playing pool at a nearby restaurant in the evenings.
So although he wouldn’t dream of giving us the satisfaction of admitting that his social life has blossomed after coming here, he is obviously in his element in The Gambia.
This is the only country we know where teenagers seem to have the freedom to walk around at night feeling completely safe and sit in a restaurant all night for the price of a D300 pizza using their high speed internet to play computer games and return home in the early hours!
On New Year’s Eve Jordan and Kenny and their friends went to Senegambia beach to watch the fireworks and party – and returned home at 6 o’ clock in the morning. I has taken the precaution of asking him to stay overnight at Kenny’s place – but had no idea that they would stay out all night. They apparently walked around the area soaking in the cool vibes and then began walking home at 4:00 am taking two hours to get back to Bakau where we live.
I was taken aback by the fact that they had been out all night and put it down to Jordan’s ‘party animal’ outlook on life (he wants to go from one event to another and cannot bear the thought of calling it a night as long as there are others still around him!) albeit thankful that I had not waited up for him!
So imagine my surprise when we returned to school at the beginning of January and I asked my Form 4 students to write me a letter about how they spent their Christmas break. They (both boys and girls) all wrote detailed descriptions about the fun they had had on New Year’s Eve walking the streets of Senegambia and returning home only in the morning!!! When questioned about whether it was safe to do that, they all looked at me wide-eyed and assured me that it most definitely was because the area was patrolled by the police.
In fact, expat colleagues (from Nigeria and Sierra Leone) who work with me at the High School have told me that a few years ago, you could leave your front door open and walk to the market and nobody would ever dream of entering your house. According to them, things have changed since then and you cannot be that indiscreet! The tourist guide books still say that The Gambia has no burglaries and the only way you may have money stolen from you is only if you insist on returning home dead drunk at 3 o’ clock in the morning along a lonely beach with your purse hanging from your finger tips! Utopia – or what???!!!