Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Do We Know About Gambia?

Two things are immediately interesting, to me, about Gambia: 1) it is actually called "The Gambia," like the Hague or the Yukon. (Actually, it is really the Republic of the Gambia.) 2) It is a long, thin, noodle-shaped strip of land that surrounds the north and south banks of the River Gambia (or "the river" as it is colorfully known) for well over 200 miles. Usually you just build a city on a river for its riparian advantage: these guys shaped a nation around it. That's pretty handy.

On the other hand, it is entirely surrounded, let's say "engulfed," by Senegal except for 40 miles of shore on the North Atlantic Ocean. If I were a nation entirely enveloped by another nation, I would feel pretty insecure. What would stop Senegal from saying, "You're completely surrounded. We're going to absorb you, and if you have a problem with that, you appeal to any other neighboring nation." It would be useless at this point to have a small community of fish-elders who can speak to the sea-dwelling creatures because fish make a terrible land-based army.

The Gambia was owned by the United Kingdom up until 1965, and there was a brief stint (1982-89) during which it did actually form a union with Senegal, and it was known as Senegambia. I'm pretty sure no one ever mentioned this in high school, and I was in high school from 1985-88. It should have been very timely, if not exactly relevant to a small, racist, northern Wisconsin town.

The Gambia is currently home to about 6,000 refugees from Sierra Leone, which is about one-seventh of all refugees from Sierra Leone. These refugees either took a boat up the North Atlantic Ocean or somehow crossed through Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the southern limb of Senegal to find refuge in the Gambia. They fled Sierra Leone because of a civil war in which the so-called Revolutionary United Front attempted to overthrow Sierra Leone's government, and 50,000 civilians were killed in the process. The UN sent in 13,000 peacekeepers who attempted to disarm the RUF but were themselves taken hostage.

The Gambia is known for having traffickers for the European sex trade, dealing mainly in women and girls but sometimes in young boys. That is to say, they may be flown to Europe, or they are simply corralled at home for European tourists. The thought of a nation plundering its own helpless citizenry for questionable and fleeting gain is horrifying enough, but that they do so in order to continue being exploited by another nation is pathetic. The government itself declines to prove in any way that it's working to halt their sex trade; indeed, it couldn't provide any proof of convictions or arrests for this offense for all of 2007. One has to assume the government itself is benefiting from pimping out its defenseless citizens. Not so much of a leap, when President Al'Haji Yahya Jammeh claims to have created a herbs-and-banana cure for AIDS, independent of his plans to behead homosexuals. He is also instituting a hunt for practitioners of magic. ...Yes, seriously, he seriously believes wizards are conspiring against him.

But no one can say the Gambia doesn't have a sense of humor: on July 11 claims they commemorated World Population Day, the theme of which was "Investing in Women is a Smart Choice." Probably not the way UNFPA had in mind...

As for the decent, hard-working Gambians who work within the farming, fishing, and legitimate tourism industries, one-third of Gambian citizens fall below the international poverty line. Two-thirds live in rural villages. The media censors itself and lawyers are unwilling to take certain cases for fear of reprisal and brutality by the government. In the last month, ten journalists and media executives have been arrested for criticizing the president. See, they were upset about the president's insulting commentary over the mysterious disappearance of another journalist. Go figure.

How bad must things be in Sierra Leone, that anyone would think to take refuge in the Gambia?

CONCLUSION: I don't think I'll take a vacation in the Gambia.

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