Delightful West Africa 16 – Bumsters and Bumster Control on Gambia’s Beaches
Half of Gambia's Atlantic coast is one big tourist resort. The nicer hotels have immediate beach access, you don't cross any road.
The sand invites for walking and jogging. The Atlantic Ocean is rough and rather cold (23 degrees Celsius according to one hotel blackboard, but it feels colder), splashing's still good fun and safe. You often get a wind and half an hour before sunset, you might want to wear long sleeves. The big red ball often dips right into the water around 18.50 o'clock, it doesn't disappear in the haze first.
There are almost no restaurants directly on the beach. After dark, you're advised to avoid the beach. All hotels I saw are uninspired concrete monsters, there's no charm and no ambiance. (Senegal's Saly resort a little to the north is even worse, see part 6 and 7, while Senegal's Cap Skirring resort may be nicer for some.)
Except for some spots, the beach isn't crowded at all, no comparison to anywhere in Thailand. Even on the weekends, when the locals come to splash, you have a wide open feel.
Maybe the beach is so empty because all the tourists don't go there any more; they lounge around the hotels' pools. They shy the beach and its imminent confrontation with Gambia's very own beach population: the fruit juice vendors, the bumsters and the joggers.
I walk barefoot along the water line. Per hundred meters there are about 25 tiny, blue fruit juice booths. A fruit juice vendor approaches me with a menu in his hand. I know that he will ask all kinds of questions in a way that makes it difficult to walk on – my name, my nationality, my wellbeing, my country's wellbeing, my holiday plans, my holiday impressions, my African experience, my hotel, my thoughts on Gambian food and visual arts. After we are best friends, he will produce the fruit juice menu. If I ignore him, he will get angry.
Fortunately, the vendor wears long trousers and shoes. I walk a little deeper into the water so that he cannot block or touch me.
"You go deeper into the sea", the juice vendor now shouts angrily, "don't come back, just go deeper".
I walk on. Another fruit juice vendor approaches me. I say, "please respect my wish to remain alone and I don't need anything right now".
"Of course I respect you very much, but just take a look at my fruit juice menu, today we have – "
"Obviously, you don't respect me, I had just asked you to let me be alone."
"You know what", he screams, "you cannot come to Gambia and disrespect our culture. Here, people talk! This is not Europe! This is Gambia, this is the smiling coast, it's nice to be nice", he roars in furore, following me and making sure that he will have the last word.
Another African man watches with amazement. He is obviously no vendor. I say to him: "This fruit juice vendor doesn't respect people. He stalks me." We get into a quiet little talk until the fruit juice vendor jumps between us, shouting at both of us and telling me to get out of the country fast.
"You see how he disrespects people", I say to the other African. "Now he interrupts our private talk that's none of his business."
The fruit juice vendor bursts into another rage and scolds both of us.
I walk on along the water's edge. A tall young black approaches me with dynamic steps. That's the so-called bumster, he has no certain business like the fruit juicer. The bumster will now ask my name, my country, my well-being, my country's well-being and finally offer all kinds of services – "not for money, you know; you happy, I happy". He will talk non-stop and follow me closely so that I cannot even get a clear thought. Any verbal or non-verbal request for being left alone is overridden: "Why don't you want to talk, why do you want walk alone, what's wrong with you, huh, this is Gambia, man, this is the smiling coast, it's nice to be nice".
The tall young black has reached me and raps out his usual stupid questions. I ignore him. He talks on onto silent me, gets into shouting, laughs himself mad and after drowning me in a last bucket of abuse, walks off. He sends me his friend from the second-next dune who comes very close to me, laughs himself mad and again hoses me in abuse.
I walk on along the water's edge. 100 meters in front of me a bumster changes his steps to walk straight towards me. I put the phone to my ear. The bumster walks past me, turns around, follows my steps and shouts aggressively into my back: "You don't really use your phone, I see that, you didn't say hello. This is Gambia, this is the smiling coast, I am just enjoying myself, this is free country, I can walk anywhere, it's nice to be nice."
I walk on. Another bumster redirects his dynamic steps to walk straight towards me. "Yeeeh, man", he shouts, "what's wrong with you, why you lonely, you and me, we can have a very nice walk together, no need to be lonely, this is Gambia, this is the smiling coast."
I walk up a small, red beach access road. "Hello my friend", shouts a dark voice from behind, "what's your name, where you come from, how's the afternoon, how are you doing, where are you going".
Another walking spam. I make a gesture to be left alone.
"Hahaha", he laughs maliciously, "that means you want to talk".
Hans: "No, I want to be alone, I don't need anything."
Man: "You know, I have a small shop up this road. You get cheap drinks and biscuits there."
I've reached a tourist road. I steer towards an open moneychanger booth to inquire today's exchange rate. "Yeah man", a bumster screams from behind, "that's the best shop, great rates there." I turn around; he's dirty and has a beer bottle in hand. I walk away from the moneychanger booth. "My friend", shouts the frustrated moneychanger who obviously doesn't know this bumster and wanted my business. "Yeah man", belches the bumster, "great rates, why walk away, man."
I don't complain. I am lucky in even two regards:
1) If I were a lady black or white, the bumsters' approach would be even more unbearable.
2) If this was Senegal's Saly beach, they would pester me even harder (see West Africa part 6).
On the rather empty Bijilo beach, I drop my plastic bag with towel, t-shirt and loose three Euros. When I reach the water line, I notice a black jogger rummaging in my plastic bag. He is 2,2*2,2 meters in size.
"Stop that at once", I shout, "what are you doing."
He holds out the three Euros and grins: "This for me?"
"Get lost at once", I shout, "put the money back or I'll call police". I'm absolutely scared that he'll whack me to python fodder. There is no police anywhere.
"Oh sorry", he says, puts the money back and jogs away.
Around 20.30 o'clock I walk down a dark part of Palma Rima road that leads to tourist restaurants. A self-declared "Jimmy the fixer" joins me and with a dark, husky voice raps about how he could help me discover the real Gambia. It would not at all be for his profit, but just help coming from his heart – "if you're happy, I'm happy too".
He also wants to introduce me to a nice and clean 17 year old girl right now. "You can spend the night with her."
To get rid of him, I say that my wife is waiting down the road.
"That's no reason", he replies, "you want to experience a black lady, right, how could she stop you? Let's go see the young girl."
It is difficult to bear this talk. I do something I never did before on my travels. I could bite my tongue right after I say it, but it slips out before I can stop myself. I talk non-deferential about the dominant local religion. So while "Jimmy the fixer" praises his teenage item, I interrupt: "I don't know much about Muslim culture. But is it tradition in Islam to sell 17 year old girls to married men?"
I hold my breath. I really shouldn't have said that. Who knows what will happen next on this dark dusty part of road?
"Jimmy the fixer" dematerializes immediately.
Around the Royal Albert Market in the small town of Banjul (Gambia's capital), a man approaches and starts to explain Gambia to me, while I want to take a picture.
"Sorry, my taxi driver and my tour guide are waiting for me over there, I know all these stories."
He continues to explain Gambia to me.
Another black man with gangster shades approaches. That's a first: Two bumsters at a time.
The second man asks me with stern voice: "Do you know this man, do you want to talk to him?"
"Go away", says the second man to the first. #1 dematerializes immediately.
I am still not sure if #2 is an uber bumster.
"I am market security", he says, "we have to protect the tourists from the bumsters". Even though he himself looks like a bumster, he doesn't talk more, but walks away.
Every Gambian knows that president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh banned bumsters completely from the beach. He personally posted soldiers in the sands to protect the tourists.
But so far, the pest control works mostly on the market (see previous paragraph), supposedly organised by another authority. On the beach, there should be a soldier within eyesight everywhere. In theory you could call a soldier when a bumster doesn't leave you alone.
But the soldiers are rarely seen on the sands. They prefer to drink tea in the shady beach access roads. Should you pass them at their tea drinking post, they'll ask your Gambian friends to see their IDs and maybe other things that don't get translated.
Occasionally I see bumster police actually patrolling the beach. They wear army dress so that tourists might think a coup d'état is imminent. If the beach is not too crowded, the bumster police like to chat up tourists and favourably describe their task. There's one bumster police called Ibu who talks to me for half an hour in the hot sun and gives me no chance to walk away. He has seen my phone and demands that I call him from my phone, so that he has my Gambian number. He makes me promise that I call him from Germany. He is a bumster himself.
If the bumster fighters actually patrol the beach, they get everything wrong:
– They walk the beach along the 2 kilometres long Bijilo Forest Park – but there are no bumsters at all, because there are no hotels. It is the only peaceful stretch of beach. They walk there with three men next to each other, ensuring a nice quiet stroll for themselves.
– They don't supervise the fruit juice sellers who are a pest too.
– They go home around five in the evening, even though sunset is around seven and bumsters work until then.
The phrase "bumster" appears frequently in Gambia's colloquial English, even as verb. You can say "he is bumstering me", if somebody is just slightly obtrusive or offers tea one too many times. Some immigrant workers from francophone countries like Senegal or Guinea-Conakry have their problems with the vocabulary; within their newly acquired English, they use shortcuts:
Cleaners, waiters or police men earn 30 to 60 Euros per month and often get their money late or not at all. Taxi drivers stand around for days without any business, while they have to pay rent for the car, for the room, school fees and food.
Almost any talk in Gambia ends with a suggestion to help. It is not begging, just a suggestion. School kids, waiters, receptionists, taxi drivers, boat men, cleaning maids, friends, they'll all hint at their woes at some point. They'll mention that other tourists help and sponsor Gambian people too.
One taxi driver asked me after three minutes to invite him to Europe. He was indignant at my refusal. Other drivers ask to put up a web site for them or to invite them to the concerts or restaurants you're headed for (best not to mention your plans). Police openly beg for money (see different submissions).
At the Voodoo beach bar, I have a nice little chat with waitress Jessy every day.
"It's my last day in Gambia today", I say honestly.
"Oh really? And you know what, I have birthday after tomorrow." She produces a distorted friendly grin.
She brings my food. When I have almost finished, Jessy lands a tiny cup of sauce next to me: "Special sauce I myself just made for you!" Another distorted friendly grin.
At a less pushy fruit juice stall with a Rasta man operator I order a grapefruit juice. The vendor's friend, another Rasta man, sits next to me and strokes my arm tenderly: "We're all one, black and white, one family", he purrs. I pay the usual 1,5 Euros. The vendor leads me to the juice press and shows me a crack in the machine: "You see, it is broken. If you can somehow from your heart, please do support us to get a new machine." He caresses my bare arm.
Regular driver Dodou Fall takes me to town and back for an agreed 5,5 Euros. We are done, I want to pay and get out. He gives me a puppyish look: "If you can somehow, please give a little more." He loses a customer.
(There is less of these open requests for support in Senegal. They are too proud. But they try to *sell* much fiercer.)
If you're with a Gambian, the Gambian will be pestered, not you. I enter an open beach bar with a local friend and the mobile fruit juice vendors accost her, not me. When she refuses to talk, they say she discriminates blacks.
Late at night I stand at a bar in Banjul town with my local taxi driver, Aliou. Another punter asks Aliou to buy him a beer – actually, the other punter says he's a beachside fruit juice vendor and hasn't sold one cup that day. "Man, these fruit juicers even follow you to downtown bars", I complain to Aliou. When we walk to the car and get inside, the fruit juice vendor follows us and asks for beer through the closed car windows.
Two minutes later we stop at a red traffic light. A man gets up from the roadside and talks to my driver through the closed window: "Ey man, gimme coffee." That's because he saw a white on the front passenger seat, but he'd never talk directly to me.
Flying out of The Gambia, Last Impressions
Late check-out had been no problem with the Garden Hill Hotel's friendly afternoon receptionists. So it's one last sunset on The Gambia's Smiling Coast. Then, pack-up and a taxi to the airport. Most planes to Europe fly through the night. My last Gambian impressions:
1) Out of the airport taxi around 9 p.m., on a very dark parking lot, three self-declared ragged porters with supposedly free airport luggage-carts circle in on me and rudely demand my suitcase.
2) From the airport taxi park to the departure building, I drag my trolley through an aisle of ragged banana vendors sitting on the asphalt ground.
3) At the gate, a very friendly airport cleaner joins me and enquires my wellbeing. Then, if I gave him my left-over money.
4) Into the plane, an African lady breastfeeds her baby in row 1, aisle seat.
I'll be giving Gambia a miss…