In her week’s stay in Gambia, British journalist explores and tells the other, positive side of the Gambian story that British media consumers hardly come by. From the ‘infectious smiles’ that she was greeted with everywhere to the traditional culinary, there was ‘an infinite amount of things that inspired’ Denise Evans who promised to return with ‘plenty more crayons in hand’.
All I can look at is the open wound on his shin. All he wants to do is try on my sunglasses.
I am spending time at the Prospect School Project in Mariama Kunda Village in The Gambia and this one little boy, no older than seven, is following me around.
Wide smiles greet me and little hands slip into mine for a game of ring-a ring-a roses with the nursery school out in the yard who pause their spelling lesson to say hello.
The boys, in their cute brown knee-length shorts and white and brown checked shirts pass my shades around posing like mini Justin Biebers.
The girls giggle and clap, their smiles so infectious I cannot help but join them.
They have limited resources here with the teachers writing on chalkboards and the school relying on sponsorship and equipment donations from tourists.
I handed over colouring books, pencils and pens but I wished I had brought more, such as old clothes and sweets for the hundreds of children we saw on the streets.
Still, the pupils are engaged, happy and friendly. But there is also something moving about it, especially when my little friend hands back my sunglasses and waves me off on the truck.
The school visit was part of a Gambia Tours army truck day-trip.
The excursion was a perfect way to experience the ‘real’ Gambia, from the sandy off-the-beaten-track, the stop at a bustling fruit market or to meet ‘Uncle John’ at Yuna Village and taste his traditional palm tree wine – it’s not called ‘fire water’ for nothing.
Lunch was at Paradise Beach in Sanyang, with a snake charmer and African drummers as a nice little side order. It really is a stunning beach, with clean sand, palm trees and clear, blue water.
The afternoon takes in the Tanje Village Museum which is set up exactly like a traditional tribal village.
Interesting little anecdotes were revealed as we walked around, such as drums are used as a peace sound between tribes, there are over 50 types of snake in the country and fruit from Boabab trees are good to treat diarrhoea.
The final stop is the Tanje fishing port. This is an extraordinary place. The smell hits you first, then you are greeted with rows and rows of fish guts as you weave through dark, hazy shacks where fish is being smoked on open fires before stepping out onto a huge chaotic beach.
We arrived at trading time so hundreds of locals were haggling and selling their daily catch. Kids as young as five struggle past you with huge buckets full to the brim with fish. Beautiful rainbow-coloured Viking-style fishing boats are lined up on the beach. And then out of nowhere a young man in a Manchester United shirt circa 1998 stops in his tracks and asks you what football team you support. Then a cow walks past. It is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed.
Our second excursion was The Roots tour, which was a two-hour boat trip from Banjul to Juffureh Village which houses the Museum of Slavery – a sobering experience.
I visited Gambia with my friend Matthew and we were both first-timers to the continent.
Following a painless six-hour Thomas Cook flight and smooth transfer from Banjul airport, we arrived at the Kairaba Beach Hotel on Kololi Beach.
The hotel is set in beautiful gardens, with tropical plants and trees the perfect home for birds. The hotel is a tourist attraction in itself, with groups of bird watchers flocking there to see the tropical and rare species.
Our room was spacious, air-conditioned, had plenty of storage and had a lovely little seating area outside with a picture-postcard view of the gardens.
If you fancy a holiday sunbathing by the pool, soaking up the (fierce) sun, a spa treatment or two, eating at one of the hotel’s four restaurants and sipping cocktails then the Kairaba is a perfect choice.
The staff were some of the friendliest (and happiest) people I have ever met, embodying the west African country’s ‘smiling coast’ tag with gusto. The hotel’s non-human guests were a treat too. Monkeys were a common sight, especially around mealtimes, and don’t be shocked if a peacock comes and sits next to your sun lounger.
Matthew and I especially enjoyed the breakfast buffet, with practically every taste catered for, from continental to full cooked English.
I’ll let you into a secret too. At 4pm, English afternoon tea is served but get there early as the cakes and treats are very popular.
But if you don’t leave the hotel you are missing out.
I loved that the Kairaba was right on the beach, which was clean and quiet and had some stunning views out to sea.
Also, part of the fun was running the gauntlet of the fruit juice traders asking if you would like an apple or grapefruit juice.
I had been warned about this and was wary but there was no need to be. We found that just a firm ' no thanks' and a smile would suffice and you were left alone
The Kairaba is at the end of the Serrekunda resort strip, which houses a mouth-watering amount of bars, restaurants and clubs. A week isn’t long enough to try them all but you must eat at the traditional Gambian places as a priority.
We tried all of the Gambian dishes on offer, from the satay-tasting Domada, ginger prawns cooked in tin foil, beef Benachin, chicken Yassa and jollof rice. The food is tasty, cheap and packed with flavour.
African Queen was our pick of the restaurants with Club One and Ali Baba the places to be for atmosphere. There are Chinese, Italian and Indian restaurants for the less adventurous.
The resort comes alive from around 9pm, with vibrant live bands at practically every bar playing African music long into the night.
Gambia is ideal for anyone on a budget, too, as an evening meal with drinks can cost as little as £20 for two.
Serrekunda has a lovely little market selling wood carvings, African dresses and headscarves and handmade jewellery.
At 11.30am in the Senegambia Beach Hotel next door it is vulture feeding time. Well worth a look.
I also squeezed in a visit to a crocodile pool with two new friends, Ash and Lisa – I hadn’t been within 10-feet of a crocodile let alone touched one before.
We ate at Solomon’s fish bar for lunch, washed down with a bottle of local beer Julbrew, which costs as little as 70p per bottle.
This trip was an eye-opener for me as in an hour I went from handing out sweets to hungry children with no shoes, to sipping a cocktail during happy hour at the hotel. A real juxtaposition.
There was an infinite amount of things that inspired me about The Gambia but there is one phrase spray-painted onto an abandoned advertising board that stands out – ‘take what you have, and make it better.’
So, having mottos as positive as this, in a country where some would be excused for giving up, makes it the kind of place I will return to, with plenty more crayons in hand.
Denise Evans is a prominent journalist on the Manchester News Evening. She was recently in The Gambia to experience Gambian tourism.