I arrived in the Gambian capital, Banjul one week ago today in one piece and in perfect peace. The tranquillity and serenity I felt on the Arik airbus which is an absolute state of the art, was what visited me at the country’s airport. Not the usual rushing and pulling and shoving that are the hallmarks at the Lungi airport in Freetown where even a trolley given to you by people who should have no business at the airport is in anticipation of money. Not just anticipation, but outright demand for it! Harassment galore! Giving the country a bad name all in the name of making ends meet.
And there can be nothing more different that the disorder and travail that characterise travel through our Lungi airport. That penchant for self at the expense cannot be better illustrated that was contained in an email I received just hours after arriving at my hotel here in Banjul. The email was a letter written by a visitor to Sierra Leone who recounted her experience… sorry her ordeal, at the Lungi airport during a recent visit to the country a week prior.
At a time when there is so much effort aimed at attracting tourists into our country – which does not come just by word of mouth or through the touch of King Midas – despicable behaviour at our gateway can only make nonsense of Tony Blair’s articles, strident strive to bring in badly-needed European tourists to our country. And at a time when the Airports Authority should be busy cleaning their act which they know is so dirty, they are preoccupied with “restructuring” by sacking people perceived to be political nonconformists.
Rosemary Obazi’s complainant is that she got to the Lungi airport in the evening hours and she was chased, may be hounded, by a lot of people both as she waited for her luggage and as she was finding her way out of the airport to return from what she clearly said had been a visit that had fascinated her to Freetown. That has been overturned by the actions of unscrupulous haters of the reputation of a country that is in dire need of image-building.
Certain people working at the airport dragged Rosemary’s bag under the pretext that they wanted to help her out. An offer she refused but later accepted following persistence and circumstances. She later entered one of the passenger lounges just to find out that the queue was too long so she decided to visit the loo before joining in. She was apparently aided by a lady who called her colleague to look after her luggage while she checked herself out. As is typical, people were asking for money here-in here-out, minute-in minute-out.
In any case she turned down requests for her to part with money and lo and behold, according to her, by the time she went through the system made unnecessarily complex – not for security reasons rather for reasons of extortion – she had lost her valuables in her bag including a digital video camera, perfumes, two gold necklaces, 3 rings, £438 cash, gold leg bangle and a mobile phone.
The apparently angry first time visitor to Sierra Leone said she and a whole lot of other visitors left with a bitter taste in their mouth threatening to never visit the country again largely owing to the rigours people are treated to especially at the airport and also at the hotel where crime rate is not being addressed in the way it should. She was full of praise for the beauty of the country especially those areas she saw in Freetown. I agree, not because I am a Sierra Leonean but because it is true that Freetown and the countryside are among some of the most beautiful places in the world. But selling that beauty and attracting tourists to the country does not only lie in the looks of our natural beauty. It also lies in the attitude of those Sierra Leoneans who make life unbearable for visitors. Where is that reputation we used to have as a hospitable people and lovers of foreigners?
Here in The Gambia, not for the first time as the same was evident when I last visited two years ago, foreigners walk around at night with their handbags and don’t even bother to hire a taxi on standby waiting for them. They just board any taxi however late. They are greeted by ordinary Gambians who as a result are benefiting so tremendously from the largesse tourism has brought to this country. The local economy is getting more and more buoyant as more and more foreigners keep streaming in. The beauty in Freetown is far more than Gambia’s, at least in my view, and it no thanks to any of us. It is God that made it so. It behoves us as a nation to imbibe that spirit of nationalism and save Mr Blair’s uvula from swelling unnecessarily.
But what have we added to that natural beauty to bring in foreigners. I arrived at the Banjul airport and did not see anyone that had no business there. Once I had gone through immigration, I simply just grabbed my suitcase and went away. Not a single person hounded me. A lady who seemed to be genuinely in need of help got one. And all I saw on the face of the helper was smile and smile. And I did not see any exchange between them. I went out of the airport and realised that the colleague who was supposed to pick me up was not there. It was easy for me to make a call to tell him I had arrived. I stood there for over 30 minutes not no-one did anything untoward. Taxi drivers came to ask if I wanted a drop-off and I answered in the negative and they immediately went away. And all this, just forget about the airport whose architecture is a known beauty.
Hotels in The Gambia are extremely cheap. And many of them are basic but with modern convenience. I am putting up in one, Sunset, as cheap as around $ 30. And it is fantastic! The relationship between the tourists and the locals is phenomenal. My hotel is currently housing dozens of European and American tourists with whom I have spent hours selling my country to. They all say they have heard it is a lovely place but poor in reasonable-but-comfortable facilities. They have also spoken about the armed robbery situation which they say some tourists and other foreigners have gone through.
So the thing I hate talking about because it is casually talked about and hardly meant – attitudinal change – is what we need in Salone. Love of country, nationalism if you will, can solve our backward situation in this area. And the earlier, the better. Otherwise even a visit by Michelle Obama whose ancestry some have linked to Salone, will not bring back the tourists. And our tourism industry, which gets virtually no funds at all, will remain yoyo. By Umaru Fofana