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Hanging Out With British Tourists Sticking Around in the Gambia's Political Turmoil

Why let a state of emergency get in the way of your holiday?

Lorraine Mallinder

Sandra Jallow (Photo by Misha Somerville)

There was a war in the offing, but the Thomas Cook flight to the Gambia on 14th January was around 80 percent full. Some knew that Senegalese and Nigerian troops might be steaming in to depose dictator Yahya Jammeh. A few didn't care.

These Banjul Brits drink Julbrew and smoke – a lot. Holiday cigs cost a quid a pack. Piccadilly. Monte Carlo. Benson. It's the fag end of the British Empire, a haven for small-town adventurists who are damned if they're going to be left behind watching the TiVo box, while Melanie Sykes flaunts her abs in Mallorca and Philip Green flabs out in Monaco.

So they head to the Gambia, a holiday destination long ruled by Yahya. Yahya came to power in a 1994 coup, lost elections in December, but refused to budge. Some of his regime's worst human rights abuses were committed a short drive from the tourist beaches, in an underground cell without light known as bamba dinka, or crocodile hole, at the National Intelligence Agency. Until Saturday, the tourists had been deliberately, and blissfully ignorant. 

But then – after leading regional diplomats in a merry dance, Yahya eventually agreed to leave the country on 21st January. Before that happened, around 45,000 Gambians fled the country, terrified of the conflict between soldiers loyal to Yahya and UN-backed West African troops. Yahya declared a state of emergency. 

The tourists ran scared, too, and since then the country's tourist industry has all but collapsed. Before that happened, I was there to interview the Brits who'd travelled there despite the country's ongoing political turmoil.  

Bill from Birmingham told me he'd seen this kind of unrest before. Seventy-eight years of age, he started coming shortly after Yahya arrived on the scene and now escaped here every winter. He was wiry, watchful and spoke a smattering of Wolof – one of Gambia's five national languages. Bill said he knows people. Top military people who could get him out of crocodile hole, if needed.

So, in the middle of a national state of emergency, I joined him for a Julbrew, the local lager, at the scruffy café near the Palma Rima hotel to get a stream of sergeant major-ish punditry on why he thought Yahya was fucked. "Don't enter into a fight you cannot win," he said. 

Bill was unfazed and planned to stay put until May. Back in UK, he told me, he's married. Here in the dustbowl, he has a Gambian girlfriend of 34. And while he thought all locals are kind of untrustworthy, he respects their tribal cultures. "They seem childish to us but they're real to them," he said.

He let rip at what he calls the "rent-a-cocks" – ladies of pensionable age who have holiday romances with young Gambian men. But, deep down, he said he understands that they too have their needs. "Then I say: What the hell. As long as she's enjoying it. She's paying for it."

Steve and Sonia

In the Sea Breeze café, I met Steve and Sonia, who were about to get married after a two-week holiday romance. A long-distance lorry driver from Northampton, Steve spoke at breakneck speed, like he was trying to outrun a stutter. He said he'd been coming here for 23 years and knew exactly what he thought of Yahya's regime. "Who cares?" he said. "I'm a holidaymaker."

Sonia was dressed in a sparkly mini-dress, was Nigerian and gorgeous. "I was a model. I sell cloths. I love fashion," she said confidently.

Steve said that he met her on his first day back, a week-and-a-half ago. "I just came down here and there she was. I gave her the English chat and it worked," he said, shaking his head slowly, still unable to believe his good fortune.

He told me he's 58. When he met Sonia he was in the middle of a divorce. "I thought she looked the same age as my daughter," he said. "Then she said 33 and I said: 'You're not!'"

"On the first day, she invited me to her room. And I didn't even want to kiss. But, three days later we slept together," he announced, with that same wide-eyed look of disbelief.

He'd given her a gold and diamond engagement ring the week prior to our meeting. In two days, he had a flight booked for the UK – just before Yahya declared a state of emergency, but Sonia was due to wait for his return in six weeks, when they had planned to be wed.

Matthew Reeves

Troops were already on the border when I bumped into Matthew Reeves, an electrical contractor from Barrow-in-Furness, who'd followed the cash in places like Kosovo, where he wired Nato bases. "I've seen a few bombs go off," he said. "It might sound crazy, but if there's no shooting, I'll be disappointed.

"As long as the bullets aren't coming for me."

He said he's 62, but in his crisp white t-shirt and combat shorts, he could pass for a decade younger. "Rambo Reeves," he quipped as he posed for the camera. He told me he enjoyed freaking out his mates back home. "I've gotta admit, I glammed it up a bit. I told them there were machine guns everywhere." 

Matthew didn't get to see the troops marching in. His flight home was booked for 20th January, right in the middle of the evacuation that played out like Dunkirk on television screens back home. Many tourists like Matthew returned reluctantly, doomed to an in-flight meal of soggy sausage and beans, when they would much rather have been knocking back the Julbrew on the Sennegambia tourist strip, which is now devoid of life, bar the bolshiest Brits. 

Yahya left for Equatorial Guinea, a country a bit like the Gambia but with oil, on 21st January. Mai Ahmad Fatty, a member of the incoming government, accused him of stealing around £9 million from the state coffers. Another adviser to the new President, Halifa Sallah, later cast doubt on this claim. Senegalese troops marched into Banjul the next day, paving the way for Adama Barrow, the new president, to enter State House.

The Senegalese troops were greeted like heroes by locals. It's all gonna be okay. Maybe. A potent brew of glee, anger and frustration is bubbling away. Because, bar the odd Brit and the odd groundnut, they have nothing left now. 

"We're not scared 'cos we're English," says Sandra Jallow, a 61-year-old carer from Gillingham, who ignored the Foreign Office warnings and is staying put until her flight leaves on 2nd February. She has a Gambian husband here, a 26-year-old Ragga singer with the stage name of Paper Chaser. It's some age difference, but Sandra dgaf what people think any more, especially not the sex tourists she's been surrounded by here. 

"The English men are far more disgusting", she says. "With their fat bellies and their bad teeth and no hair. And they go with these young girls. It's awful."

As the crisis continues to play out, she watches local broadcaster GRTS, France 24, Al Jazeera and the BBC. "They should have just shot him," she says bluntly. "It was all blown out of proportion. It was the media." 

To illustrate her point, she waves her hand around the Sennegambia strip, which is now unusually peaceful, devoid of beery Brits. Its bars and restaurants are still open, but business probably won't be coming back for another month or two. "We're in a warzone. Look at it!" she says.

She is joined by her friends, Tracey and Jackie. Tracey, a former hairdresser from Newcastle, says she fell in love with the Gambian people. "They haven't got much, but they'll share what little they have with you," she says.

Tracey remembers a pensioner friend who summed up the kamikaze logic of holidaying in a country on the brink of catastrophe: "If I was at home, I'd be sitting watching Eastenders. I'd much rather be sitting here in Sennegambia, waiting to die."

@lormallinder / @mishasomerville

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