River Gambia remains one of nature’s most precious gifts to The Gambia and her people. Running 1,120 kilometers (700 mi) from the Fouta Djallon highlands in north Guinea, westward through Senegal to the Atlantic Ocean at the city of Banjul, the Gambia River is not only reputed to be one of the most strategic water ways in the sub region but its navigability is equally a well-documented reality.
Despite the avalanche of opportunities this meandering river and its many tributaries offer to a people, it appears a natural endowment as beautiful as this remains largely underutilized. Apart from domestic purposes and its enormous fishing potential which is coming under intense scrutiny these days mainly due to reports of over exploitation by certain foreign outfits, the aesthetic value of the Gambia River seems unrecognized or under appreciated.
On a typical summer morning when the elements were somehow unpredictable in our part of the world, a handful of employees working with a Kanifing-based NGO decided to take time off the rigours of their work for a river cruise. Initially, thoughts of having to wander in the riveras opposed to our quarterly traditional get-together in the beach didn’t look appealing.
We were wrong! Upon our arrival at the sea side, it dawned us -the party people- that we were bound for something special. Forget about that graveyard of old trucks that made the fringes of Banjul even messier. Just a few yards away lies something spellbinding: there was this vast water body, perfectly dovetailing with the overlooking blue sky and with the lush mangrove swamps sandwiched in between them.
“It’s fun being here with colleagues, playing games and enjoying the blessings of River Gambia. But actually, what strikes me the most is the beautiful view that comes with the river- the mangroves, oysters and how they grow on the mangroves, the hardworking women looking for oysters. I never noticed how hard it is for these women before they get their catch,” says an enthused Mam Ndegen Jobe, a student of the University of The Gambia currently on her internship.
Having cruised in the company of her colleagues up to the area around the Lamen Lodge, Mam Ndegen suggests “it will do us a world of good if entrepreneurs can take advantage of these endowments and see that build lodges. This is good for our tourism sector. Our country needs more exposure. This is beautiful. I think the tourism sector needs to invest more on the River Gambia. Not everyone has what we got here.”
For Catherine Gomez, inner joy is a term that best fits the charm of River Gambia. “Seeing how beautiful my country is makes me thrilled,” she remarks as with a smile. Catherine joins Mam Ndegen in encouraging the Tourism Ministry and other players in the travel hospitality industry to help with more boats as a means of getting more locals employed in river transport.
And amidst the question of harnessing the riches abound the Gambia River, it came as a shocker to learn from a member of our crew that aside from theirs, not a single boat that ferries tourists from Banjul to attraction sites like Kunta Kinteh Island and Janjanbureh is Gambian owned.
Momodou Lamin Gaye, a man who has spent the last nineteen years in Gambian waters transporting tourists echoes the observation of his clients on the day when he says “government should promote avenues through which we can have boats owned by Gambians so that other youth like me can be put to employment.”
With river trips almost entirely dependent on tourist arrivals and no end in sight to the monopoly being enjoyed by tour operators in river transport, and with the local populace seemingly oblivious of River Gambia’s entertainment side, movers and shakers in the local travel and hospitality industry still have their work cut out in selling a commodity that was home to vessels like LADY CHILEL in the halcyon days of sea voyages.