Sex In The Gambia
"Where are you staying – in which hotel, how long are you here for, why are you here"? All of this comes rushing out from the mouth of what I assume to be a very tired immigration officer at Banjul (BJL) airport. It is 3,45 am, the 'arrivals hall' has no air conditioning and the humidity has already gotten to me on the brief walk from the Royal Air Maroc 737 that flew me to this god-forsaken place … no sophisticated airside land bridges here!
This was after a 28+ hour journey from Dubai. Fortunately the first, and longest flight, Dubai to Casablanca (CMN) was in the comfort of Emirates business class. Casablanca airport has to rate as one of the most confusing and badly signposted airports in the world, with extremely poor facilities. Allied to the lack of a business class on the 5+ hour CMN to BJL flight meant I was unable to enjoy the benefits of a decent lounge to pass the 13 hour layover in. So after having converted a small sultans fortune to pay for a few warm Casablanca beers – which co-incidentally are surprisingly good, but would have been better had they actually been cold!
13 hours later and more beers than I normally would consume, I board the 737-800 of RAM, which is surprisingly new looking. However it seems that this West African route is one of those bus stop type ones, with stops along the way to allow the numerous African frequent flyers with their huge cargo-sized carry-on's to disembark and board a new pack of passengers.
I arrive at this postage stamp sized airport in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, I saw no lights coming in, see even fewer lights in the building that laughably passes as a terminal. At this stage, after 5+ hours of flying in an African bus, I am suffering from a serious sense of humour failure. My expectations of a warm, "Hello, welcome to The Gambia" were somewhat dashed with the curt and aggressive greeting – more akin to a Nazi interrogation.
I was thus not immediately endeared to this obscure little non-country like state. Its birth came about when the colonial powers were carving up Africa late in the last century, leaving this part of West Africa a total mess. Check it out on a map and it will be noted that The Gambia (and please don't forget 'The' when speaking to a Gambian) is a tiny non-country enclave penetrating deep into Senegal, along both sides of The Gambia River. The colonial powers clearly had a sense of humour when creating this small 'country' as it has the appearance of a penis inserted into the somewhat larger vagina that is Senegal, that surrounds it on all 3 of its land sides.
"I really don't know which hotel I'm staying as my company has not told me" I replied. "Who do you work for" he snapped. On informing him of the name of my well known international company, his face broke into a huge smile, demanded a free sample (which sadly I do not carry), but it did earn me a 10 day entry stamp in my passport, and was accompanied by a "welcome to The Gambia – enjoy your stay" smile.
Collecting my suitcase from the single baggage carousel, I exit through the "green – nothing to declare channel". I am however commanded to put my bags through the X ray scanner and when they exit the tunnel, they are immediately marked with a chalk cross. Thinking this is merely to confirm that they have been suitably X rayed, I pick them up and make to leave for the arrivals and meet area, where I am hopeful that at 4 am on a Saturday night, there is a driver to meet me. But no, like many African airports and minor officials, I am asked what is in the cases, "just my personal clothes, shoes etc" my old farts voice replies. From here I am directed to a dimly lit side office where we go through the whole silly money extraction facade again. I am bombarded by the same questions that the immigration officer asked. And once again, when I admitted who I worked for, the smiles broke out, predictably accompanied by a request for free goods and once again wished a pleasant stay in The Gambia and waved on my way. Petty officialdom life in Africa is clearly all about knowing who you can mess with and who you can't, whilst extracting as much money and goods for your own use.
This then was my introduction to The Gambia … or so I thought, as the dawn approaches and I haven't slept for nearly two days now. The impression of forced-jovial Gambian authorities that will be repeated at the many police road checks during the course of my stay, particularly those at night. It seems that African military and police forces believe that smuggling, trouble and other such nefarious deeds are only committed at night. I was to learn that on the relatively short drive from the airport to the capital, I should expect at least 6 – 10 road blocks at night, but only one or two during the day. I now know that should I finally decide to become a bona-fide arms dealer, I will only attempt to smuggle my illicit wares during the hours of broad daylight!
Fortunately it seems that my travel details had been communicated correctly to our local people, who are on-hand to greet me as I finally exited the arrivals hall. It must be remembered that entire Banjul airport is approximately the size of a small to medium sized bar in Bangkok's Nana Plaza. It is however home to what appeared to be dozens of taxi and would-be porter touts. One particularly obnoxious member of the of the latter actually physically fought with me to get my wheeled suitcase out of my hand so he could claim some ransom money for its return. Our local Public and Government Affairs Manager swots these annoying and persistent fellows away, with a solid, but satisfying slap around the head … tough place this little corner of Africa! Colonialism has clearly left its mark in respect of the way the natives are dealt with!
And so begins our short, but eventful trip into Serrakunda, the area in which I will be staying for the next 10 days. My fatigue had allowed me to forget that we still had to run the gauntlet of the aforesaid night time police and military roadblocks that are frighteningly common in most of Africa. I shall not bore the reader with the stupid transgressions that we apparently committed, from a flat tyre (why hadn't we noticed this?) to the apparent lack of headlight /sidelight/stop light, speeding/failing to stop at a road block (so why are we now stopped at this same checkpoint?) – you name it, seemed that we had violated the entire Highway Code of all possible traffic offenses. However I had under-estimated our Public and Government Affairs Manager as after a mere 30 seconds of small talk a small sample of our product is thrust into the now smiling officers hand and we are ushered on our way. Not once were papers demanded, nor indeed my passport – a first for me in this part of Africa, and always a dangerous sign. As he evidently had an entire box of this wonderful free handout, our free passages are assured. We do however have to make a 'small' 30 kms. detour to drop off another driver/porter who had been accompanying us – although as far as I could see his only role was to load my single case into the back of the Land Cruiser. AWA … (Africa Wins Again!)
The hotel was finally reached just as the sun broke over the ocean and I crashed fully clothed onto a small single bed, who centre had collapsed and into whose deep valley I too thankfully collapsed. The whole journey had taken close to 36 hours with little or no sleep, so even the dreadful bed, which I resolved to exchange in the morning could no longer keep me from being claimed by the all enveloping arms of Morpheus.
Thankfully the next day was a Sunday, thus allowing me time to recover from my travel ordeal. I was beginning to have sympathy with the great colonial explorers of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries – mind you, they did have bearers and a Pith helmet!
The following day in my explorations of the local hotel which seems to be heavily and almost exclusively populated by Northern Europeans, I happen to notice a board at the gate of the hotel indicating that Taxi's in this town are all of a the fixed price variety. For some reason I file this way in a brain that is full of useless little facts such as this, little knowing that I would one day find this obscure piece of information extremely valuable.
'The' Gambia is a cheap winter sun destination for Europeans of various nationalities; all seeking to escape the dreadful Northern hemisphere winters. This resort hotel that I am staying in is more akin to an Africanised version of Benidorm in Spain. Obviously built several decades ago and with typical African lack of attention to such basics as maintenance – (witness my collapsed bed – something I had now fortunately resolved by a change of rooms) I can understand the allure of such cheap winter sun and apparent exotic destination for the many lily white skinned inhabitants of the suburban semi detached Acadia Avenues of the UK Midlands and their European equivalents. However breakfast was surprising good and as I was to find that the buffet style dinners were equally tasty, varied and plentiful.
So also being a person of lighter skin shade, it is no great surprise as I am approached by two grim looking Rasta men. These two I would see on a daily basis as I exited the hotel to go to work. These were evidently the 'front line salesmen' who were cajoling unknowing tourists into buying what seemed to me an expensive tour excursion to experience the delights of the local mangrove swamp. Having previously seen several mangrove swamps, I reasoned that I was not overly interested in seeing yet another, so declined their increasingly and frenetic sales pitch. Their sales skills sadly left a lot to be desired, with the final suicide close of ⅔ price discount. Sadly they had omitted to actually establish if mangrove swamps were high on my must-see bucket list.
The object of my brief excursion to the front desk of the hotel was as previously mentioned to change my room and to change some money into the local Gambian Dalasi, which is converted at US $1 to D40. Such a favourable exchange rates makes for amazing bargains for the purchase of that wonderful beverage – beer! Having completed my quests and having skilfully avoided the many other excursion selling Rasta men touts, I retired to the pool area. This was where I was to see what would later in the week become a true revelation to this innocent soul, namely many groups of middle aged Northern European women, all bizarrely minus a male companion in tow. Thinking I may have inadvertently stumbled into a Women's Institute package tour, I was curious to learn more – which I would indeed do later in the week on one of my evening excursions to the many local bars.
I spend the balance of the day relaxing around the pool and imbibing the awful local beer Julbrew. However on enquiry I am informed that a French brewer sells a somewhat more palatable beverage in the form of Castel – a much better option!
The next day I am predictably collected a mere one hour late to start my 10 days work in the uncapital capital of Banjul. On entering the 'city' we witness what is clearly some sort of banner waving demonstration. I am informed by my driver, this time a garrulous Muslim woman that these protests are becoming almost a daily occurrence, all apparently demanding regime change. This small impoverished nation of The Gambia has been rendered economically and politically unstable by the stereotypical African President-for-life dictator Yahya Jammeh. He is brazen, brutal and as is the way with many African despot dictators, slightly mad. Clearly he does not suffer opposition or enemies gladly. She tells me that this could potentially be the beginning of a Gambian spring, but whether the people have the power or the will to unseat this dictator, is doubtful. It is anticipated that he will fight back through the usual persecution, arrests, torture and executions that typify African politics. He is reported to have said that he could rule Gambia for a billion years if he wanted and that he had discovered a 3-day cure for AIDS/HIV using herbs and banana's. Remember that this is a country where the medicine man and witches still hold sway and influence much of the local populations daily lives. For most, little is done evidently without prior consultation with one of these charlatans.
Returning to Serrakunda later that morning, we see that the security forces are now out in force and although we drove swiftly past, we hear later that they assaulted the demonstrators, even using live ammunition, killing at least 55 and arresting more. The local newspaper the next day made no mention of this. Evidently by Gambian standards, this wasn’t a big protest. The reality however is that in this country's stifled political atmosphere any protest is significant – especially given that the no-nonsense security forces are legally immune from prosecution for any violence used to quell so-called demonstrations. Where this will end is anybody's guess, but is typical of African politics and its despot dictators. This is clearly the darker side of The Gambia and one that I am guessing that few tourists see or hear about.
But 'The Sunshine Coast', as it is evidently known, has other surprises in store as we hone in on the 'Sex' element of the title of this tale.
As will be well known to readers of this site, male sex tourism is usually associated with South East Asia. Some poor fellows have even been labelled as predators, preying on poor innocent ill-educated farm girls who have been forced into the oldest profession in the world through force of economic circumstance. However the flip side of this same coin, namely female-driven sex tourism is very much alive, albeit veiled, with little or nothing reported about it. Perhaps it's even seen as harmless and too small an issue to be reported? European women also embark on such expeditions – not to SE Asia – but rather Africa! Thus the reason for the many single and aging European women that I had seen around the hotel pool. Like their male Asian bound counterparts they hunt individually and in packs, populating the many bars that apparently survive on the patronage of both male and female sexual adventure seekers.
The women that I saw around the pool on Sunday were all similar clones of each other. They were middle-aged, mostly overweight, conventionally unattractive and therefore mostly past their sell-by date. I suspect that most were divorced, or had at least experienced failed relationships back in the suburbia's of Northern Europe. But as I was to learn later that week they were all here with one objective in mind – to be serviced, pampered and to get laid by a young black African. Given their age, looks and circumstances that was simply never going to happen 'back home'. I suspect that in all honesty, they were probably all lonely and just looking for companionship, but end up in consensual sexual relationships with the understanding that goods and money will be exchanged for services rendered. Is it then any different from a male going to South East Asia seeking the same thing … P4P – what's the difference?
It should be explained at this stage that I was also travelling with a female associate from one of our European offices. One evening during the week we went out to a few of the many bars that surround the Serrakunda resort hotels and this was where we witnessed this whole scene going down. Virtually all the bars that we visited were full of the usual 'night fighters' of local hookers, strangely mainly from Sierra Leone and Liberia. Seems that Gambians are good girls – it is after all a predominantly Muslim country! Having my female 'bodyguard', whom I passed off as my 'girlfriend', I was able to keep the unwanted advances of the local 'night fighters' at bay.
But the bar also was full of the aging European women of the type mentioned above … plus many local young male studs. Both parties are on the lookout for a conquest. At the one bar I see a middle aged Aunt Edith look-alike, probably mid/late 50's eying up one particular young local guy. Soon enough their eyes meet and then he's over there chatting to her. She buys him a drink and they start dancing. The heat and humidity, the music is a pulsing African rhythmic beat all add to the moment for this auntie. She is following his lead in what soon becomes a fairly explicit sexual series of moves, their mouths meet in what I assume to be a passionate kiss. My 'girlfriend' and I exchange glances and she shrugs, as if to say, "it takes all sorts"!
On further exploration of this bar and others we visited that night, this was a familiar scene. These aging cougars are obviously out chasing orgasms, a good time and who knows what else. To the local guys, they are obviously seen as wealthy foreigners. Mind you that's probably a relative statement, as anybody living outside of this tiny non-country would be perceived as wealthy. The realities however are probably that the cougars 'home' job is some lowly paid aging invoice clerk. This then once again begs the question who’s exploiting who?
With condoms not perhaps being part of these sort of women's packing list, allied to the high incidence of HIV/Aids in Africa, this potentially becomes a dangerous sport, particularly in the likes of casual sex.
That evening was to have an interesting sequel. The one afternoon I got back to the hotel early and went to the pool bar for a beer, where I saw the lady referred to above sunning her less-than-stunning body in a too small a bikini, her sagging and aging boobs leaking out in all directions. Even with my ever decreasing standards for women, it was a less than an enticing sight.
As I sat at a table near her to enjoy the first beer of the day, I struck up a conversation and what follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Let's call her Janet, she was 56, lived in the suburban Midlands of the UK and was on a two-week package tour to escape 'the dreadful UK winter weather'. When I suggested that she might perhaps have other motivations for being here in this obscure little corner of Africa, she was amazingly open and up-front about it all. Seems that she and a friend had gone to Mombasa – Kenya the year previously where they had 'enjoyed' the company of local lads and that she heard that The Gambia offered similar delights, but at a much reduced price. To use her words, "this place is just full of big young local boys who like us older girls." And as a bonus the whole scenario is set to what they would probably perceive as an exotic African backdrop. The long white sandy beaches, rum punch cocktails, heat, humidity and pulsating and heady music, with just the touch of the mystic of Africa.
I mentioned to her that I had seen her in the bar the other night and that she apparently had a 'date'. A fact to which she readily attested and even went as far as to say that she had noticed me and my 'girlfriend' there that same evening. Fearing that I would become embroiled in her sexual fantasies (I am after all, an accredited 'hansum man') I did nothing to correct her erroneous error. I then boldly asked her if she had seen him since. "Oh Yes, he came back to the hotel with me that same night and we had great sex". Wow, a little too much information lady … this was all from a supposedly gentile and conservative woman of Middle England, somebody who I assumed was somebody's Great Aunt Ethel or Granny! The visions that conjured up, did I have to admit, scare me considerably!
However, embarked as I was on this revealing and fascinating conversation I continued, asking her if like her male counterparts who she must have heard went to South East Asia in search of similar delights she had actually paid this young fellow. And if so, how much? Seems that no actual cash had passed hands, but she did evidently buy him a new shirt and an expensive pair of (knock-off?) sunglasses the next morning. Her explanation was simplistic and rational in the extreme and one that I could not argue with. "We both get something we want – where's the harm in that? After all, you guys do it all the time, I've heard about those sad old tossers going to Thailand to screw those poor little Asian women" she said as she sipped her golden cocktail and uncrossed her 50+ year old cellulite ridden legs.
"It's not love, obviously. I didn't come here looking for a husband," Janet said. "It's a social arrangement. I buy him a nice shirt or a pair of sunglasses and we go out for dinner. For as long as he stays with me he doesn't pay for anything, and I get what I want – a good servicing, company and a good time. What's the difference between the likes of you and me doing that, what makes it any better or worse, by me doing it, rather than you?"
Whilst perhaps in polite social circles of European society, none of what she said might have been acceptable. But being the broad minded fellow I am, and try as I might I really could not find fault in her argument.
Love, especially romantic love, does not happen between anyone and everyone. Its intricacies are unknown to us, we normally refer to this phenomena as chemistry. When it happens between two people, it naturally becomes the opportunity for both to self-express – in different ways. Such deep levels of intimacy do not happen with anyone else, at least while one is in the midst of an affair. At least, not unless you are serial butterfly! We know that with every other human relationship, there are limitations for personal intimacy. Even given what Janet had told me, I could not help think that at her age and circumstance in life she had perhaps opened a Pandora's box for herself.
From Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we are familiar with the 5 key driving needs, common to all human beings, and that only unsatisfied needs motivate us. The base need is of course Physiological, i.e. the need for air, food, water, sex etc. But then further up the hierarchy we have certain well recognized mental, or emotional drivers such as desire for receiving and giving love and affection, drivers of self-protection, self-glorification, attention seeking, appetite for life until finally we get to self-esteem and self-actualisation, i.e. need for self-fulfilment and self-expression – also it is important to recognise that these latter two needs can never be fully satisfied. Remember that these drivers are felt directly in the mind, hence are not observable, measurable or testable, except by their outputs as behaviour. So who is to judge Janet's behaviour?
The end result of all of this was that she invited 'my girlfriend' and I to join her and lets call him Benedict for dinner that evening at a nearby restaurant. Thinking that it could lead to an entertaining and insightful evening, I agreed.
So that evening we met with Janet and Benedict. To say that the evening was an real insight into human nature would be a serious understatement. It was indeed a sociologist's dream, providing insights into the real existential drivers and motivators of humanity.
Benedict turned to be surprisingly good company. Flashing a dazzling white smile from his ivories, tall and built like an American basketball star. He even had decent conversation, with insightful comments regarding the recent demonstration that we had witnessed earlier in the week, together with the general politics of the country. He was 23 and said he has slept with more than 100 white women, most of them 30 years his senior. My old farts voice asked "you can't be serious? whilst my 'girlfriend', looking across at Janet and appeared appropriately shocked – as a good Catholic girl should!
"When I go into the clubs, those are the only women I look for now," he told us. "I get to live like the rich white man who comes here from Europe for a week or so; stay in the best hotels, get some nice new clothes and generally just have fun – and I don't pay one Dalasi for it all."
As we looked around us at the restaurant, we saw several other 'couples' like Janet and Benedict. Clearly this reporter was sadly lacking in his education if he thought that the Pay for Play trade was totally male dominated and located exclusively in SE Asia. Here in this little backwater of Africa, something else was happening! I imagine the same was potentially being duplicated across all the standard African tourist routes. Surely there were potentially thousands of 'Autumn yeared' European Janet look alike women seeking what she had found for herself. Seems that she had bagged herself a serious prize in Benedict and one that judging by the admiring glances from the other 'cougars' in the restaurant, many were envious of.
When we got up to leave, Janet and Benedict were going on to dance somewhere … and then, well who knows – and we didn't ask!
I still had to run the gauntlet of Banjul airport for my return flight, as well as a couple of return trips to The Gambia – but that's another story …