A Travellerspoint blog

Gambia

Sex Tourism and The Gambia

Sex tourism is an unavoidable fact on the Gambian coast. While it might be more comfortable to ignore it, the conscientious traveller should try to understand it.

30 °C
View Kurdistan Summer & West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

This blog contains no pictures as I'm not really willing to photographer people participating in sex tourism.

When most people think of sex tourism, they think of elderly white men (typically Germans, for some reason) who go to Southeast Asia to spend their time with younger women or even children. This is however not the typical picture on the West African coast. The Senegambia Coast – and in particularly the Gambia’s Coast – is home to middle-aged and older Western women, who are out looking for beach boys or bumsters, as they are known down here.

The sight is not particularly pleasant, but along the resort strip, it’s impossible not to notice the dozens of couples lounging on the beach chairs. And mind you, I’m here in the off-season when business is slow. Rasta-looking and very fit local men in their twenties lying underneath a notably less fit European woman 30 to 40 years his senior. While I might find it troubling to look at (at the same time the socio-economic experiment this is, is highly fascinating), the fact that I find this icky, shouldn’t, in itself, be enough for me to condemn this. To be honest, I don’t really know how I feel about.

Sure, media back home would see this in black and white. Rich Europeans are exploiting poor Africans for sex. Horrendous! However, there are counter notions to this view. This should not be seen as a full-out defence of sex tourism, but I’m not expecting to make any new friends based on this blog either. It’s easy to take a position against sex tourism, but I would like to offer some nuances to the debate.

Firstly, this is not solely a matter of wealthy Europeans exploiting poor Africans. The bumsters are exploiting the European women immensely. They are the ones initiating the contact, often sweet-talking the women into the relationships. Most of these women are middle-aged, middle-class, and have a past of troubled relationships back home. Not being able to find healthy relationships in Europe, they are swept away by handsome Africans. Many of these women do not recognise the trade aspect but see the encounters as romances. Thus, the bumsters live off these women. Not only during their visits, which are often repeated once or twice every year, but stories about bumsters who receive money due to made up stories about medical costs, family financial troubles, etc. are not unheard off.

So it’s a matter of mutual exploitation. Rich European, unable to secure successful relationships at home, seek comfort with poor Africans, who will put in sexual labour for improving their livelihoods as an alternative to backbreaking work in the fields or pulling carts by hand in the markets. This is a basic trade. Even though it’s sexual. And I’ve never been one to tell people that something isn’t good for them. The guiding principle here has to be consent. If there is consent, who am I to say these people differently? Some of the bumsters even claim that their jobs (as they call it) reaffirm their masculinity.

Second, the notion that romance and love should be the guiding principles behind relationships (and sex) is more or less absent in large parts of the developing world. Marriage is still a matter of securing the family’s survival. Both in the long and the short term. In the long run as a means of the family name's survival and the short run because children are often necessary for the elderlies’ survival. Simply because there are few social services. Marriage is thus still a traditional matter outside the major cities. Many are arranged by the families, though things are changing for the better. Many I’ve spoken with in the villages say that marriages are now a negotiation between the couple on the one side and their families on the other. That is, if the family accept the couple, they can get married. If not, they have to find someone else. However, even within this arrangement, marriage is still more of a practical matter than a romantic one. Just as the bumsters, who survive on the money of wealthy Westerners, see the sex trade as a practice of survival.

It’s not only the bumsters, who are looking for Westerners to “escape Africa” for the promised land of Europe and North America. I’ve met a Moroccan barber in Mauritania who – despite being happily married with children – was roaming dating sites, looking for lonely women in the US and Canada, who could be his ticket out of Africa. Likewise, I have lost count of how many people (many that I’ve had less than half a conversation with), who asks me if I can take them with me back to Denmark. While most bumsters in the sex industry only find additional income through the trade, a lucky few find a ticket to the north. For many, that lottery ticket is worth everything.

As mentioned, if this trade is at all defensible, consent is everything. The age of consent in Europe is between 14 and 16 years old. In the Gambia, it’s 18 and in Senegal 16. Where ever there is a “legal” – if undesirable trade – the illegal trade follows. This is probably the biggest argument against the sex industry here – and a better argument than that I find it icky. A recent UNICEF reports show huge a number of cases with under-age children participating, or are being forced to participate, in the sex industry. If this forced industry can be quelled by shutting down the legal one, it should, of course, be done.

If you’ve liked what you’ve read, why not give a ‘like’ this blog on Facebook?

Posted by askgudmundsen 16:27 Archived in Gambia Tagged travel africa travelling sex west_africa gambia sex_tourism sex_industry Comments (0)

Mishaps on the Gambian River

As a local warned me before I took off, “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” That turned out to be very, very true.

sunny 35 °C
View Kurdistan Summer & West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

The Gambian River

The Gambian River

Ever since I began contemplating travelling in Africa, I’ve been dreaming of taking on the continent’s major rivers. Drifting downriver, passing crocodiles and hippos, like a late nineteenth-century explorer. The ultimate price would be the Congo River, but being far from the Congo and having just arrived in The Gambia, the Gambian River would certainly do.

Finding myself in the eastern-most part of The Gambia, what in my mind seemed an easy, leisurely five-day float between the towns of Basse Santa Su and Janjanbureh quickly turned out to cause me plenty of troubles.

River crossing

River crossing

I knew there weren’t any public transportation on the river itself. Except a handful of ferry crossings, which really isn’t much of river exploration. Instead, I hoped that there would be some commercial movements on the river. There were, but the only ships trawling the waters from Basse were the ships transporting groundnuts (peanuts) to the coast. Symptomatically for my luck on the Gambia the ships had just departed. The day before I arrived in town.

The boats I wanted

The boats I wanted

So I began looking for alternatives. The bulky metal cans that were ferrying people across the river alongside the ferries would not do. They were too heavy. There were, however, a few smaller wooden boats tied down alongside the riverbank. So, as the hopeless optimist, I am, I started to inquire the boatmen on the riverside about those. Between the few friendly guys on the shore, one quickly mentioned that his “fat uncle had a canoe that he is too fat to sail.” That sounded promising, simply because the uncle apparently was so big that he wouldn’t be using the boat anytime soon. Before he had lost a couple of kilos, that is. I just had to come back the next day.

Glass-bottled Guinness

Glass-bottled Guinness

While I waited for the day to pass, I spend the day constructively drinking Guinness at a riverside bar. Glass-bottled Guinness, in what is the coolest colonial left-over ever. Here, the locals were very interested in my plan, though not very optimistic on my behalf. They warned me that there would be both hippos and crocodiles in the river. One old guy even told me – in a drunken whisper as legendary as the words themselves – “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” Not as a treat, through his rusty voice made it sound like that, but as a concerned warning. I was, however, much determined to take on the river, while the promise of both hippos and crocs did give me butterflies.

When I returned to the riverside the following morning, I didn’t find exactly what I’d expected. Instead of one of the small boats, the boatman had gotten me a narrow, tradition canoe. I quickly found out just how difficult these things are to balance. The very first thing I did, getting into the canoe, was to capsize it, soaking myself from the waist down. These things sit just five centimetres above the water’s edge, and I barely had to shift my body weight at all to make it wobbles dangerously.

My canoe on the river

My canoe on the river

I should probably have given up there and then. Instead, I stubbornly decided to spend an hour paddling around in circles on the river to get familiar with the canoe. To great amusement to the local spectators. Managing this without getting myself wet again, I could happily proceed back into town to buy food for the five days. Water, bread, cheese, canned tuna and sardines, crackers, bananas and mango juice. Not very exciting, but it would get me through.

With the canoe loaded with the provision and my baggage, I happily sat out, down the Gambian River.

I managed about four hours on that first half day. The river was calm and conditions were more or less perfect. My shoulders were sore from the paddling and my bump numb from sitting on the hard would. But that wasn’t too bad. However, the amount of energy I had to use to keep the canoe steady in the water was incredible. My entire body, and especially my legs ached from tightening throughout the journey. There would simply be no way I could complete this trip in five days. I’ve just been going half a day, and I was completely used out because of this balancing issue. So I decided to paddle back to Basse the next morning.

Croc in the river

Croc in the river

It wasn’t without a certain notion of failure that I put up my tent. But bedding down on the shore of the Gambian river, with monkey hauls, lizards’ sprinting through the grass and a hundred birds being the only noises around me made it hard to stay blue. Everything was less bliss the following morning. The weather had decided to take a turn for the worse. Rain clouds threatened above and winds created waves on the river.

These waves gave me more troubles that anything else. Keeping my balance in the canoe was just impossible. I managed less than 50 metres back up the river before I had to give up and come ashore again. I was simply not going to loose all my belongs to the river due to another capsizing. To make matters worse a quick shower, lasting just ten minutes, soaked me to the bone. I tied up the canoe, got my backpack and prepared myself for spending the rest of the morning walking back to Basse. Adding insult to injury, my camera slipped out of my pocket as I tied the canoe down. Disappearing into the muddy water, I simply had to abandon it.

Beyond saving

Beyond saving

A good four hours later, back in Basse, I found the boatman and set out to retrieve the lost canoe in hit boat. It still took three hours to reach the canoe (and three hours to get it back to Basse). The only positive thing was that the low tide had arrived and relieved the location of my camera. I spend most of the next day trying to fix it. In vain. I’ll just have to get a new one once I reach the capital of Banjul...

If you’ve liked what you’ve read, why not give a ‘like’ this blog on Facebook?

Posted by askgudmundsen 16:25 Archived in Gambia Tagged traditional travel river sailing africa travelling crocodiles canoe west_africa hippos gambia gambia_river Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]