Some Worrying Changes in the Gambia during My 42 Years’ Experience
By: Kirsten Ovregaard
I visited Gambia the very first in 1978 as a student, it was a pleasure. I loved the kindness, politeness and dignity that people met me with.
I returned to the Gambia in 1983 to do my field studies for my thesis, it was a pleasure academically and socially.
I returned after completing my final degree and worked at St. Joseph’s High School for girls, it was a pleasure. I did some consultancies for an NGO and a few other things before I started working at Marina International School.
During these years I had Gambian family and children and was well integrated in the society. I appreciated my job and my life in the country, but I was saddened by the growing beach business between young Gambian boys and girls and elderly European men and women.
Filching was increasing, so were regular thefts from people’s homes.
Walls around compounds became higher, broken bottles became more common on the top of the walls.
We went to Norway in 1992, returned in 1994 for holiday experiencing the coup d’etat led by Mr. Jammeh who ended up to leave the country after 22 years of despotic rule, killings of civilians, enormous scale of looting (how can any president become a billionaire?) and corruption trickled from the very top in the political system right through the civil service and has continued to be an embarrassing part of the Gambian governance.
Gambia was still my country though, walls were built, property had to be secured even more and more young people were spending or perhaps wasting their time doing nothing but hoping for a ticket to Europe via a tourist friend.
I came back in 2012, Gambia had changed, the brutal regime had made devastating political footprints, media and people were gagged, crimes had toughened, the number of young Gambians with minimal education and no or limited work experience hanging with tourist seemed to have increased a great deal, many tourists were old retirees on a certain mission, it all seemed alarming.
Big areas had developed from empty land to tourist resorts, shops, markets, banks and businesses – and residential areas.
The walls around the compounds were high- higher than before.
But I still loved my Gambia.
Two years after I was back again, it was the same status quo.
And then I came in March this year- 6- years later, and there are so many changes, people can discuss again, media has its freedom, big areas have become new residential areas, roads have been built, more tourist resorts, more banks, telecommunication companies, building shops- and more young people hanging around hunting for an easy escape to go to Europe with retirees looking for a young partner. More thefts, more improper behavior, higher walls, more security, more serious robberies.
Now I am angry! I am angry because my friends and family and all their friends and colleagues too in my beloved Gambia have to build their own prisons to keep the burglars out of their homes.
Burglars are supposed to be kept in prison, but in Gambia they are free, free to scare. Break in and rob people.
People are imprisoned in their own homes. The walls cannot be high enough and on top there is barbed wire.
But the criminals have tools, they get over the walls and break in.
People buy cameras, alarm systems or they buy security services from flourishing companies selling security staff and equipment that costs 5000 to D10, 000, Dalasis monthly and this is for people with money or those who have “access” to money.
I have observed hundreds of police officers stopping people for no reasons in the traffic, but I have never ever seen one single officer patrolling by foot or by car in residential areas. It is not their fault, they are placed there by their bosses.
It is well known that the appearance of police patrolling streets in areas where burglary is rampant, reduces crime rate, and equally important, makes people feel safe. They don’t need guns, but batons and pepper sprays.
So why is nothing done in the residential areas where children and parents alike are afraid to leave the house because they know the burglars are never far away, and they are even more scared to go to bed in fear of merciless criminals breaking into the most private in everybody’s life.
Few days ago, we came back home from shopping only to realize that somebody had curled off one of the prison bars protecting the windows. The burglar(s) had been all over the house pulling out everything probably in search of money, and had stolen items valued at 150, 000 Dalasis.
In the case, the right authority was called, they visited the crime scene (the house) looked around, sympathized with us, but no fingerprints or footprints were secured. No statement taken. It is stated by police authorities and it is commonly known that the first few hours are crucial to catch the perpetrator. In this care the police had no car, no fingerprint identification equipment or any other system connected to smart phones etc.
5 days gone, new attempt to break in daytime again, but the burglar was discovered by a worker and ran away.
The police have done nothing, we have bought more lights, new barbed wire and other things for a fortune. My family visited the police headquarters again, they had nothing to offer but advised to get a dog or buy expensive security services that cost monthly as much as the salary of a director in the civil service.
How can the Gambian Government tolerate that people (and the politicians themselves) have to make their homes a prison with walls that have to be made higher and higher – how high should these walls become- 3, 4, 5 or perhaps 6 meters plus barbwire before they react and equip the police with absolutely necessary cars and forensic equipment. Additionally, the police have to be trained to use modern forensic equipment and follow the rule of law.
AS it is now, civilians suffer every day in this country because the most basic human rights are not secured and in place. Living a life free from fear and harassment cannot be enjoyed by the far majority of Gambians.
And if not all politicians in general and the government in particular address this serious breach of the most basic human rights – the situation may go totally out of hand and people will in despair and fear take their own measures- these may not be the best for society.
The discussions rages on all over on this issue, while the police sit helpless around in the traffic jam directing cars in self-directing roundabouts.
I still love my Gambia but I am horrified about a development that degrades everybody’s life and downgrading the authorities incapable of doing nothing.
And an ill equipped and poorly trained police force being posted in the streets stopping cars for no reasons, is not the best way of moving the country towards not only a crime free society but towards achieving a free and developed Gambia.
Kirsten Ovregaard is a Social Scientist and former high school teacher.