I’ve been in the Gambia for over three months now and don’t think I have yet mentioned the bumsters which are a feature of everyday life here.
A “bumster” is the local name for the (mostly young) Gambian males who act as unofficial guides, touts, fixers, companions or whatever and who are found all over the Kombos, but particularly in the tourist areas. They are looking to make a living by providing you with services like arranging taxis, foreign exchange, fishing trips, or in some cases by befriending you and then giving you a hard luck story about a sick child and not being able to afford the medicine, or telling you that they have just got married, or have a new baby, and asking you for cash. When you bear in mind that the average wage here is around £200 per annum, the truth is that there is more money to be made out of tourists than by any other means, and a bumster doesn’t have to work very hard on them to earn a comparatively good living. A white face marks you out as a possible source of income, so even though I’ve been here long enough now to be recognized by many of the locals, I’m still occasionally a target.
As I’ve said in previous posts, greetings are very important in the Gambia, so typically as a bumster approaches he will come out with some stock greeting, and shake your hand (usually holding on to prevent your escape), often following this up with another standard line ”You remember me, it’s me – Omar – I’m the security guard at the hotel!” (or something similar). This tactic relies on the toubab not wishing to give offence by failing to recognise the bumster, and usually works, even if the two have never met before! I hadn’t been here long (although long enough that I should have known better) before I was caught like this on my way home from work one evening. It was while I still worked only ten minutes walk from home that I was first approached by Omar, a tall gangly young man with a wide grin who treated me to the usual chat up line, and I fell for it and “recognised” him thinking he must have worked at Safari Garden Hotel where we stayed for our first few days in country.
Unfortunately for Omar however, as he walked along beside me telling me he had just got married (obviously expecting me to congratulate him and fork out for a wedding gift), he carried his tale too far, talking about supposed mutual friends of ours and at that point I realised I had never met him before in my life. Since then I have come across Omar many times and he insists on greeting me with “You’re a Gambian now” and trying to attach himself to me, and he is the only bumster to whom I have so far been sufficiently rude to just ignore and walk away, or on one occasion tell him he was out of his usual territory and should go back to Atlantic Road! Normally I exchange greetings with bumsters, we pass the time of day, shake hands and I move on, but somehow poor Omar manages to annoy me everytime we meet and I actively avoid contact.
At this time of year, as most of the tourists have gone home there are slimmer pickings to be had and consequently less bumsters active, but while the tourists are here it is impossible to walk along the beach without being hassled by someone trying to sell you fruit, juice, belts, bags, nuts, crafts or excursions. In tourist season on the beach you also pass numbers of very fit young Gambian men, working out, doing press-ups, playing football, or just sitting staring at the ocean and hoping to catch the eye of an unattached white female whom they can chaperone for a week or two…..or who may possibly be their ticket to a better life. It seems that the Gambia has become a popular destination for lonely middle aged Europeans who are looking for love and/or sex, and as a result it is quite common to see what at home would be quite incongruous couples, usually a middle aged white woman with a young Gambian man, but occasionally a middle aged white man with a young Gambian woman. It is so easy to be cynical and say that for the Gambian partner it is simply a meal ticket for a while, or possibly even at some point a route to Europe, but not all these relationships are purely commercial ones and there are undoubtedly genuine success stories too among the tales of disappointed love.
To the European tourist just off the plane, bumsters can be annoying, or possibly even intimidating, and as a result the main tourist area of Senegambia is approached through a security check point manned by tourist police to prevent bumsters hassling the tourists, and on the beach the hotels have security guards and the occasional policeman ready to chase away anyone who becomes too much of a nuisance. Outside this enclave though you’re on your own, but you soon learn how to deal with them – a few words of Wolof help so that you can say “I have no money”, “Another day perhaps”, or something similar, but if not a smile and greeting in English, polite “No thank you” and keep walking will deter all but the most persistent huckster.
Of course there are variations on the bumster theme and I was amused one Sunday as I walked through Fajara by a security guard sitting outside one of the office buildings, asking me point blank “Why don’t you employ me?” The young men hanging around near my house greet me with “Hey! My neighbour!” as I pass and occasionally ask me for money to buy attaya, and the children ask boldly in the street “You buy me a football?” or simply “Minty?” and view me as a provider of sweets or pens simply because of my white face.
It’s difficult to know how to treat the children because as they have so little it’s very tempting to give small gifts, but I can’t help feeling that this only perpetuates a dependence culture which makes the situation here worse in the long run. These mini bumsters are growing up from birth to view Europeans as cash cows to be milked, rather than being encouraged to try to make some income by other means.
And the youth form the bulk of the population………