By Guilhem de Roquefeuil
Stories of dishonest border guards and double counting money changers abound in travel forums and hostel conversations. And yet, my first exchange with Gambians proved to be a powerful counterexample. Most importantly, it was a wonderful introduction to the Gambian philosophy of kindness.
Upon reaching the Gambian border with Senegal after a six-hour ride at the back of an old Peugeot 504, I told myself: “mission accomplished, my destination is just a few kilometers away”.
Perhaps I was a bit optimistic; I still had to complete two taxi rides and a ferry trip across the mouth of the Gambia River. However, this did not seem much compared to my introduction to off-road rallying in southern Senegal.
This would have been true had my last 20 Euros not disappeared from my pocket. Whether I had lost them or a pickpocket had snatched them did not matter: Here I was, standing at the Gambian border, with no money, on a Sunday (all banks are closed), and clueless as to how I would pay the remaining taxis and ferry to Banjul.
I was already thinking of pawning some of my luggage’s content when I met Alieu and Ernest. Alieu was sitting behind the counter of the foreign exchange parlor, and told me he could lend me a few Dalasis. Seeing my hesitation, and sensing a bit of precautionary distrust, he called in Ernest, a young border patrol, to clarify. Ernest introduced himself and explained how I could find Alieu again to pay him back. I suggested to Alieu that I could give him back more than what he had lent me, but he kindly refused, explaining to me that his assistance was free, and commanded by Allah.
After exchanging phone numbers with Alieu, Ernest showed me to a taxi, told the young cab drivers not to overcharge me and to drive me safely to the ferry. He then paid for my cab fare and gave me his number, instructing me to call if anything should happen.
“But don’t worry, here in The Gambia, we are all one”, he explained standing by the cab window. And I was on my way.
Gambians practice what they preach. After a few days, I realized that such kindness is norm in The Gambia. Every day, newly met friends and perfect strangers provide me with precious help, advice, and good humour. Tips are never asked in return. To the contrary, they are very often refused (a refresher from Montreal’s waiters, dare I remark).
Of course, The Gambia is not a perfect place. I expect that most tourists would find my assessment naïve, as annoyances and rip-offs do occur on the beaches. Furthermore, tensions underlie the country’s peace, and frustrations with the status quo are tangible as the country stagnates at bottom of the Human Development Index list.
Yet, The Gambia’s low human development is no proxy for the moral and spiritual quality of its people. This is why I became a student of the Gambian philosophy of kindness, and hope to spread the word upon my return.