It feels like it was so long ago. But in fact, it was about this time last year that I was planning my trip to Gambia. I wanted to go somewhere hot and nice and relax for a week, just to escape the cold winter.
Following a flight deal, I didn’t blink twice and booked my flight from London to Banjul for 27 Nov – 5 Dec. Then I started doing my research. I soon found out there were elections while I was there. I didn’t worry too much. Not even when a fellow traveler, who lived in Gambia for months, ended her advice with “Hope you’ll be safe!”. The buzzing noise didn’t reach out to me. I imagined I will be sitting on a terrace with my drink while watching the news… kind of elections.
I landed at Banjul Airport, where Keba, a friend of the host, was waiting for us. The Airbnb house we rented, which had no reviews, was impressive. A huge house, nicely decorated, with its own “security boy”. I soon noticed there were lots of candles around, thought it was romantic.
After the first (of many) blackouts I understood that it was not romantic, just practical. There was a mechanism for water pressure which broke soon after we arrived. Which means, no showers. We did get buckets of water, to make sure we won’t stink the whole house.
But this kind of details remained in the background when I got to the beach. The bright sun, the beautiful beach washed by foaming waves. The breeze. While my senses were delighted with this beauty, I slowly open my eyes and see… a large grind in my face: “Something to drink, my friend?”
The beach was very nice and with very little tourists. There were quite a few locals though. Fishing, trying to sell something or just passing by.
I bought a local sim card to use, like any respectable internet addict. I also had my international sim as a backup. On 30 Nov, one day before the elections, I went on an organized trip to visit a few places close to Senegambia strip. Around midday, while on a bumpy ride of Gambia’s side roads (“back massage” as locals like to say), I noticed my local sim internet stopped working.
I thought maybe is the bad signal. I put my phone on a side and enjoyed the colorful local culture, the big smiles and the wide and wild beaches. Late evening, when both my energy battery and my phone’s were almost empty, we came back to the accommodation.
Highly frustrated, after realizing I can’t connect with my family and friends home, I decided I need to sleep.
The elections day arrived, which I should have paid more attention to, before it happened. My only concern was how do I get the internet connection. Or at least signal to my international sim card, which was completely dead.
I went to a restaurant with wifi, in Senegambia’s touristy area. Only after the second time I was told their connection was not working I finally connected the dots: It’s because of the elections! They’ve cut all internet and foreign network.
And now that one mystery was solved, another issue pops up: we were running out of cash. As all foreign networks were cut, our international cards were not working either. I did notice some people taking out big amounts of cash the previous days, but again, those bells were too late in ringing.
So what to do in this case? The only productive thing I could do was to keep working on my tan. It was my beach holiday after all. I stayed on the beach most of the time. It was hard to know what was happening, as we didn’t have any tv or radio. Locals had different thoughts, but refraining from being too opinionated. Some seemed not happy with the current regime but didn’t believe a change would happen.
Wait for it
The elections were closed now, it was after 6 PM, and the internet was still not working. Some locals were telling me not to worry, it would be up by next week. What it really meant – my flight could get canceled (who knows until when). My tan was looking good by now, but my mood was far from relaxing.
I couldn’t stay still, and I came with the idea to go to Senegal, which was about a 2h ride. After talking to Keba, he confirmed the borders were closed. And he advised it was best to avoid travels for now, as the situation was a bit unclear and some may take advantage of it. What it really meant – it was dangerous and chaotic and even locals didn’t know what to expect.
I was not sure what was going on, but I had no option but to wait. My “favorite” activity.
The spring comes
After a long night, where I was observing mosquitos from behind the net and thinking of how many diseases they can carry, morning came.
It spent the morning eating a huge papaya with a spoon, while helplessly looking at my phone and sighing. Around midday, I noticed a weak signal of the internet coming back. Now it sounds ridiculous how happy I was about getting signal. In a matter of seconds, my mood changed completely. And to switch completely to holiday mood again, the ATMs were working again. It was all coming back to normal, I thought.
I was at a small restaurant in Senegambia, with my cold drink. The afternoon was quiet and both me and the restaurant staff were happy to be able to catch up with our dear ones. Holiday plans resumed now, I was getting excited about exploring the country, as I had a few more days left.
Then my friend interrupted my daydreaming: Daniela… check the results.
What kind of news is that?
Most of the times, when you get news, you know if they are good or bad. Not in my case. Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, ruled the country for 23 years. Mr president cut off all external communications during elections, but everything will come back to normal after the results are published. Locals were expecting him to win again. So were we.
But then, he didn’t. His opponent, Adama Barrow, won the elections, as he was heavily supported by the youth. So while we were trying to find out if the elections results were good news or bad news, each car that was passing, was honking.
We put off our phones and started looking around. People were shaking hands and congratulate each other. Some were screaming: “Gambia has a new president!” Everybody seemed very happy about it, the joy in their eyes, thinking about the opportunities and the bright future.
It was good news. It was a long-awaited change.
In the evening, there was a big party on the streets, there were so many happy people smiling and dancing. I joined the crowd to celebrate, I was hearing “Gambian people are happy!”, “We have a new president!”, “Better future for Gambian people”, it was so amazing and energizing. You couldn’t be sad in a crowd like that. I was thinking, I was so lucky to live together with the locals such an emotional moment in Gambia’s history.
I had such a great feeling celebrating, that all the frustration that came before suddenly became insignificant. It takes one good moment to forget about all the bad ones before.