BANJUL, THE GAMBIA|
The coastline of Africa appeared this morning out of a haze, wrapped in a warm sea breeze and the green, rolling surf of the east Atlantic Ocean washed us up onto the sandy beaches of THE GAMBIA. An infinitesimally tiny country, its coastline is just fifty miles long. First colonized by the Brits it exists completely within the borders of Senegal, which was settled by the Portuguese then French.
Known as the Smiling Coast of Africa, not because as I initially assumed its coastline is shaped like an upturned smile, but rather because its people claim to be the happiest in Africa. The smallest country on the continent, home to just 1.5 million people, it's neither the poorest (though its average earnings of $456 per means it is definitely impoverished) nor its wealthiest. The average life expectancy is just 50 years old. If I'd been born Gambian, I'd most likely be dead by now, a sobering thought on an otherwise blissful spring morning. MALARIA is still the biggest killer of the young, a far bigger problem than H.I.V.
On a Saturday morning downtown BANJUL, The Gambia's capital city built on an island where the Gambia River flows into the Atlantic, is crowded with shoppers and gawkers. Most carry shopping bags filled with fruit and fish (cashews and peanuts account for nearly 50 percent of its export earnings). Others ponder buying a "new" second-hand television from a pile on the sidewalk (shipped directly from the Netherlands), maybe a set of second hand tires (from the U.K.), or maybe a used refrigerator (from Belgium). The U.S.'s contribution? Bundles of t-shirts sent from Salvation Armies and church organizations, boasting the proud monikers of our capitalist nation: Timberland, Nike and every professional sports team in North America.
A Muslim country (85 percent) despite a few mosques rising above the metal-roofs of homes and businesses and the occasional sounding of THE MUEZZIN signaling prayer time, the only sign of real worship I see is a very black man kneeling on a mat at the edge of a service station at five p.m., bowing in prayer. The small towns I visit have an only-in-Africa feel of poverty and rhythm, hope and despondence. Politically stable at the moment, the former British colony has only been an official country for 100 years; its last coup was 14 years ago.
I hitch a ride out of town to gain a first-hand look at the heart of The Gambia (yes, the country's name is The Gambia - the explanation given me by locals is that it was done to distinguish it from Zambia). People have lived on these shores for the past 150,000 years and today modern billboards encourage "Stopping Small Arms Traffic in West Africa" and advertise a bank "Where the Customer is Always Right." Piles of garbage line the roads and vultures devour a dead dog in the dusty median strip. The flag of The Gambia - like so many African nations - should probably be changed to feature the blue plastic bag, since they seem to hang in every bush and tree, blow along the highways and gather in the tide line along its beaches.
In BRUFUT I go for a walk off the main road and wander into a backyard, motioned by members of a family of 21 who all live within the same mud-brick compound. Abby, wrapped in a bright pink and blue cloth not quite covering her eight month pregnant belly, stands in the back yard knocking miniature oranges out of a tree with a long bamboo pole. Her second baby will bump the family's number to 22 and she asks if I won't give her 200 dalasi, about 12USD, so she can buy a second dress. "The father, he cannot afford anything for me. It's not like in your country. Here, when a child is born there is no celebration, no gifts. Just another mouth to feed. This," she looks around at the adobe house, the fencing made out of baobab branches, the simple cement rooms, "is quite different from your home, isn't it?"
I suggest every country is different. I've been to parts of China and India, I explain, where her life would look pretty good, even though The Gambia is one of the most crowded countries in Africa. She nods, slowly and goes back to peeling small oranges with a sharp knife, offering me one.
The climate and weather are changing here, like elsewhere around the world. The rainy season, June and July, is coming later and later to the west coast of Africa each year and is much shorter. "It can rain here heavily during those days," says a young man I fall into step with, who introduces himself only as Mr. President, "and within an hour after it stops it is as if it hasn't rained at all because the ground is so thirsty."
Persistent drought has pounded Africa since the 1990s, wiping out crops and contributing to famine and disease among millions of Africans. Climate change has already caused arid areas to become drier and may be intensifying droughts in Africa and other parts of the globe. African countries are among the most at risk, since they remain heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture and often can't afford technology that would help them adapt.
Climate change, deforestation and drought are turning areas once covered with lakes not too long ago to desert. A recent UN study warned that desertification could displace 50 million people in the next decade, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
The result is that the growing season is shortened, there are fewer fields used for crops and people are building homes where farms used to be. Desertification is one result, thanks to there being fewer crops and trees to hold the sands back. Mr. President says he hasn't been to this area on the outskirts of Banjul for two years and when he visited last week he was amazed by the rapid growth of new-if-simple houses, even a mosque with a Muslim school.
"It's a bad thing," he says, "since they try and grow more and more crops, build more and more fences, and the land becomes more and more worthless."