The Gambia, West Africa: Exploring the Smiley Coast

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A market in Banjul, The Gambia.
A market in Banjul, The Gambia.

The Gambia is a friendly nation with many English Speakers and Arab Traditions

By Marta Sobczak

In winter one year, my boyfriend I decided to hitchhike through Western Africa.

We’ve been using the old good auto-stop many times before but had no idea how it was going to work in Africa. We’ve traveled all the way through Morocco and Mauretania to Senegal. It took us 1.5 months before we’ve reached The Gambia — the Smiley Coast.

Crossing the border in West Africa into Gambia.
Crossing the border in West Africa into the Gambia.

Crossing the border with Senegal went pretty smoothly. I had to purchase a visa which cost around 15 euros.

It is important to note that paying for your visa with Gambian currency lets you save over 10 euros. Remember to exchange your money before entering the customs office.

Ferry Across the River

After a few kilometers walk we took a ferry transporting us on the other side of the river Gambia, that the country was named after.

The tickets were fairly cheap. Already on the deck, we found a driver who agreed to take us to the city. We’ve reached Banjul, the capital, just before sunset to find it quite modern and surprisingly clean.

It is very easy to travel in The Gambia. Most of the time we simply walked from one town to another. Hitchhiking in this country also works well, people are helpful and we didn’t have any difficulties catching a ride.

Buying fruits in the market in The Gambia.
Buying fruits in the market in the Gambia.

What to eat

Being in the Gambia you have to taste all the delicious and exotic fruits. Our absolute favorite was green and spiky soursop. It tastes like a mix of pear and melon and is absolutely fantastic.

You can also have juice made out of the sweet detar. Don’t be fooled by the name, though — it is very sour!

There is also a madd fruit and a famous baobab to try. You can find them dried in every market.

If you are lucky to visit the Gambia at the right time, there is a high chance that you will eat mangoes straight from the tree.   These fruits come in tons in the Gambia as well as peanuts served in every possible way: raw, roasted and even boiled.

The Most Famous Dish of The Gambia

There is no chance you leave The Smiley Coast without tasting thiebu djen — the most famous dish in the Gambia and the whole of Western Africa. It’s basically rice with palm oil served with fried fish and vegetables: manioc, carrots, chili peppers, onions, and bitter tomatoes.

Nothing compares though with mafe — a meat stew served with vegetables and rice but enriched with one crucial ingredient, peanut butter! You can’t miss this one!

Like in many Arab countries, also in Western Africa, people eat together from one big plate and drink a lot of very strong and extremely sweet tea.

What to do

On our first morning, we’ve visited Bakau with the handicraft market and the zoo.

A specialty of Gambia: Soursop.
A specialty of Gambia: Soursop.

We could touch the animals and were very surprised by their indifference. The pool is located within a walking distance from Banjul.

You can leave the main road, walk on the shore and discover a very impressive fish market on the way.

The Gambia is famous for its long, white beaches and amazing birds. The best beaches you can find in the Senegambia strip just next to Monkey Park.

You can meet these bold animals even without entering the park, they will wait for you on the way to the sandy shore.

Not far from there you can find a market with colorful clothes covered with African patterns as well as tribal handmade jewelry and musical instruments.

Don’t be afraid to bargain!

The monkey park in The Gambia
The monkey park in the Gambia

While taking a walk in the Banjul’s harbor, you can take a look at the National Museum of the Gambia. It’s not big but will surely give you an idea of local rites and traditions as well as the art and wildlife in the region.

If you have a chance, don’t hesitate to take a bike ride through The Gambia. One day we caught the opportunity to borrow two old bicycles and took a trip through the rural parts of the country.

We’ve passed manioc and cornfield, raced with local children, saw the biggest baobabs and most wonderful and isolated villages. Thanks to this little adventure we’ve discovered the remote part of the country with its calm beaches overgrown with amazing mangroves.

Ask about Wrestling in The Gambia

The biggest town in the country, located on the West Coast is Serrekunda — a real must-see if you want to know the daily life of the real The Gambia. The loud, dusty, and crowded market is a place to purchase your souvenirs the cheapest.

As most of the Gambian colorful fabrics are produced right there, there is a high chance of getting a good price. After shopping, ask the locals about wrestling. It’s a very popular sport in there and with a bit of luck, you might be able to see a fight.

Although on our trip we focused more on the western part of the country, I can recommend a few places located farther from the coast. Staying in the Kombo Central Region, or simply taking a one-day excursion to this part of the country if you wish, you should visit the Makasutu Central Forest.

It’s a great opportunity to see Gambian forests at their best.

If you have a chance, don’t hesitate to set off for an excursion on the river Gambia. It is, after all a source of life for the country and without a doubt its most important feature. It is a perfect location to contemplate nature and take a glance at the most wonderful birds.

The Central River Region is a great place for fans of ancient history and primeval religions. In Wassu, a town located a little bit over two hundred kilometers from Banjul, you will find the stone circles believed to be the burial sites of kings. Beware and don’t touch anything, though. The locals will probably warn you about the curse cast on the stones. Anyone who disturbs the kings will surely be hexed.

Most Gambians speak English, some of them on a very decent level. Thanks to this undeniable advantage we could learn more about their culture and beliefs. Sadly we’ve discovered that most Gambians still put memorizing the holy Quran before school education. Many parents deny schooling to their daughters concerning it an unnecessary waste of time.

The inhabitants of Gambia represent different African ethnic groups. Almost half of the people come from the Mandinka tribe. There are also  Fula, Jola, and Wolof people. All of them speak their own languages and have their own traditions. It’s worth spending time with all of them to know all the different customs and rites.

The best advice I can give to anyone visiting The Gambia is to forget about hotels and try to get to know local people, visit their houses, cook with them, play with their children. Couchsurfing there works pretty well — as a matter of fact, if that makes you feel safer, you can find there also female hosts.

Don’t be afraid to explore, get lost in markets, ask about new spices, natural cosmetics, and foods. Meet people, be curious, learn, and have fun!