Sometimes, it’s tough to be a tourist. "Ha!" you say, "what’s so tough about travelling the world and seeing amazing sights?" I can tell you what’s tough: fighting off the creeping advance of cynicism.
My approach to travel is unusual, perhaps, as I don’t read up on the places I am about to visit before hand. Instead, I let the ship take me to countries and cities around the world without first checking on TripAdvisor (c) what other travelers think. That way, my impressions remain free of pre-conceived ideas and notions about the people I am going to meet and the places I am about to see. I want to form my own opinions.
Jufureh, Juffureh or Juffure is a town in the Gambia, located 30 kilometers inland on the north bank of the River Gambia in the North Bank Division near James Island. The town is home to a museum and Fort Jillifree.
To me, cynicism is bad. I can see why people turn cynical over time, but so far I have managed to avoid (for the most part) falling into this trap. Cynicism can ruin your experience, it invites a judgmental mindset and it taints any form of genuine interaction you might otherwise have with people of other cultures and traditions. I associate cynicism with a closed mind – the very last thing I want to have while exploring the world.
Sometimes however, I come across situations that make cynicism look like an inevitable outcome. Our visit to the small and remote village of Juffureh in The Gambia is a good example of such a situation.
It is said that the village of Juffureh was home to a man called Kunta Kinteh, who was captured by slave traders in 1767, taken from his Mandinka tribe and transported to America. In 1976, Pulitzer Prize winning author Alex Haley, a descendant of Kunta Kinteh, published the story of his family. His narrative formed the basis for the best-selling novel and TV miniseries “Roots”.
Our trip to Juffureh started in Gambia’s capital city of Banjul at the mouth of the Gambia River. We traveled upriver by boat for two hours until we reached the twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh, the former is a fishing village while the latter a farming community. Here you encounter the harsh reality of subsistence living in the African countryside: hot dusty dirt roads, chicken and goats everywhere, fishing boats by the river’s shoreline, curious children watching us from a distance and mud shacks with metal roofs for homes. We are in the middle of nowhere and these people are dirt-poor.
Just over eight weeks ago, before Kit and I left home on our journey from Hong Kong to Miami, I went shopping. Anticipating what we were going to encounter in the African hinterlands, I bought things that might be useful to eager students in places like Togo, Zanzibar and The Gambia. Laden with pencils, erasers and pencil sharpeners, I was prepared for places like Juffureh.
But something odd happened as we disembarked our boat and came upon the village: a man approached us and offered for sale packages of pencils and note books. It took me a moment to appreciate this odd reversal of roles as here, in the African hinterlands, he offers for sale to us the same school supplies we brought in our backpacks. We are to pay for them and then place the purchased supplies into the nearby donation box for the local school. I decline, and the thought occurs to me: what if he, instead of passing the supplies on to the school, takes them out of the donation box and re-sells them to subsequent groups of tourists?
Passing through the villages we are greeted by children who bang on pots and pans while chanting and begging for money. Elsewhere, we are invited to visit an activity center for children. There, too, we are asked to leave money. Then we are off to meet the chief of the village. In Juffureh, the chief (alkalo) is a 76-year old woman by the name of "Aja Tako Taal". She wants money for photocopied certificates which state that we have, in fact, visited the home village of Kunta Kinteh. Then there is more posing for pictures for money, a visit with descendants of Kunta Kinteh, more children begging for money and, of course, a crafts market which we ignored - thankfully.
I did feel conned by the man trying to sell me pencils and harassed by the constant pressure to give money. The negative experience distracts from the important lessons that can be learned in Juffureh. Whatever is going on in the community of Juffereh, it is neither healthy for its people nor beneficial for the village’s touristic appeal in the long term.
Back on the ship, I decide to do some research on chief Taal and the village. As it turns out, the village of Juffereh has been inundated with tourists ever since the Roots saga took off in the USA in the late 1970s. Local tours to Juffureh are promoted as homecoming pilgrimages to African-Americans, but many Caucasian tourists make their way to The Gambia, too. Most visitors buy “Roots Excursions” in order to learn about the horrors of slavery and re-trace the footsteps of Kunta Kinteh. Approximately 10,000 tourists visit this tiny village of 1,500 people, annually. I also read many travel blogs by past visitors to Juffureh, each with experiences identical to ours and pictures of a (then younger) chief Taal holding the photocopied certificates in her lap. Most writers express disappointment with the barrage of begging children and adults.
The naïve me thinks: How fortunate for this poor village to be able to welcome visitors from all over the world! Certainly, Juffureh is the envy of all neighboring villages. What a great way to support the community, improve the children’s education and offer an alternative to growing potatoes and catching fish for survival. In my research I learn that an activity center for children was built specifically to keep the kids from harassing tourists. Also, the local guides and the chief are being paid salaries which are funded by an admission fee that is included in the “Roots Excursion” tour price. But, given the large number of visitors who make the trip to Juffureh and knowing that anybody with half a heart will leave at least some money for these presumably poor people, I must ask: where does the money go?
The cynical me thinks: Is poor Juffureh a storefront façade (as we witnessed in the Amazon) with a modern village featuring computer terminals and air conditioning units just down the road, hidden from view? Is it possible that people in the village keep the salaries and donations for themselves while pretending to be poor? Why were the children not in school but begging on the road instead? Are the villagers raising a generation of beggars? I saw no evidence of actual farming or fishing. Has the community shifted to handouts for survival? Is there a sense of entitlement among the population, an angry attitude that all that fame should have resulted in better living conditions long ago?
In my opinion, Juffureh represents the worst in African tourism. Salaries or no salaries, donations or no donations – the disparity in income between visitor and host will always be large. But if the population of Juffureh is ever to reap the benefits of the village’s prominence and have an opportunity to improve its infrastructure and services, the villagers will have to move beyond selfishness and victimhood and accept a code of conduct that is acceptable to the multitudes of tourists walking through the village.
The Travel Foundation, a British organization dedicated to “caring for places we love to visit”, carried out a 3-year project in the twin villages between 2008 and 2011. The project’s objectives aimed to reduce the begging and help the population of Albreda and Juffureh maximize the benefits it receives from the influx of tourists. In its final project report the authors state: “Getting individuals to work for ‘the greater good’ (of the community) is perhaps the biggest challenge.” Until that happens, tourists will continue to feel harassed and violated when visiting Juffureh, be more reluctant to give … and leave just a bit more cynical than before they came.