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African migrants fear for Gambia as tourists stay relaxed

Banjul, Gambia | AFP |

The cocktails keep flowing by the pool on the tourist strip, but in The Gambia’s markets many African migrant traders are packing up their businesses and heading home.

The international community is piling pressure on President Yahya Jammeh to leave power after 22 years and hand over to opposition leader Adama Barrow, who won an election two weeks ago only for Jammeh to later reverse his original concession of defeat.

Of the economy’s two main sources of investment from abroad, tourism appears to be weathering the country’s political storm far better than the thousands of petty traders who move to The Gambia from the rest of west Africa.

President-elect Barrow told AFP on Monday claims that tourist numbers could be hit were “exaggerated”, and with hotels and restaurants full, for the moment he appears to be right.

Flights from Brussels and London are still arriving like clockwork for the peak winter sun season, with many holidaymakers telling AFP they return to the country year after year — and aren’t changing their minds.

“I did think there were more checkpoints,” said Elly Preston, a returning retired schoolteacher spending three and a half months in Kololi, the Gambian heartland of full English breakfasts and karaoke bars stuffed with crooning pensioners.

Preston had seen alarming posts on the Tripadvisor tourism website, but with hotel prices as low as £40 a night (48 euros) she stuck with her instinct and left behind the cold and rain of Cleckheaton in northern England.

“I feel safe here. I know everybody and we come together,” she said from her sunlounger, waving at a friend she met while on holiday here a few years ago.

Reading a thriller while taking in some rays in the late afternoon, Joseph Fowlis from Liverpool is well aware that Jammeh has refused to stand down, and supports Barrow’s fight for change.

“Taxi drivers told me they want a democracy,” he told AFP. “And why shouldn’t they have one?”

But that hasn’t affected his budget break. Apart from a higher than usual level of political conversation in the back of cabs, he said, little had changed from the previous years he has been here.

“If you didn’t know about it you wouldn’t think anything of it,” he said.

Hotel owners are slightly more nervous, but as long as the tour operators keep the flights up, business will boom, they told AFP.

Trader panic 

The tiny west African state relies on largely British and Scandinavian tourists for 20 percent of its GDP.

Meanwhile Guineans, Mauritanians and Senegalese are well known for importing goods and selling them to the local population.

In a recent speech, Jammeh said 100,000 foreigners were working in The Gambia’s markets, but did not specify a source for that figure.

Fifteen minutes down the road from Kololi, the hawkers and fruit sellers of Serekunda market have a very different interpretation of the events unfolding.

Amadou Wurri Jallow, a Guinean shopkeeper, spoke of his fear of soldiers being stationed on the streets of his neighbourhood.

“I do not understand why soldiers armed with machine guns would be deployed every night in built-up areas of Serekunda,” Jallow said.

“This is really frightening and disturbing. I am leaving for my country until this political stalemate is resolved peacefully.”

Fallou Diop, a Senegalese hawker who has lived and worked in The Gambia for the past few years, told AFP shortly before his departure to the city of Touba in central Senegal that the uncertainty was too much.

“Since no one can tell how this problem would come to an end, I am going back to Touba until the dust settles,” he said.

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