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The Gambia - Health and safety
Cape Point beach, a known place where muggers occasionally prey on tourists © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com
With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
The Gambia, like most parts of Africa, is home to several tropical diseases unfamiliar to people living in more temperate and sanitary climates. However, with adequate preparation, and a sensible attitude to malaria prevention, the chances of serious mishap are small. To put this in perspective, your greatest concern after malaria should not be the combined exotica of venomous snakes, stampeding wildlife, gun-happy soldiers or the Ebola virus, but something altogether more mundane: a road accident.
The Gambia is generally a very safe travel destination; the biggest concerns for most travellers should be malaria and road accidents associated with public transport.
Within The Gambia, a range of adequate (but well short of world-class) clinics, hospitals and pharmacies can be found around Banjul, Serekunda and the main resort areas. Most of the larger beach hotels also have their own clinic or a doctor on call. Facilities are far more limited and basic upriver. Wherever you go, however, doctors and pharmacists will generally speak fluent English, and consultation and laboratory fees (in particular malaria tests) are inexpensive by international standards – so if in doubt, seek medical help.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel/index.shtml. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
The Gambia is generally a very safe travel destination, certainly in terms of crime and associated issues. Indeed, the biggest concerns for most travellers should be malaria and road accidents associated with public transport. It should be pointed out that, as is the case almost anywhere in the world, breaking the law, in particular the usage of illegal drugs (which includes marijuana), could land you in trouble.
Theft is not a major concern for tourists, but it is worth following a few common-sense rules, as detailed below:
• Most casual thieves operate in busy markets, particularly those in Serekunda and Banjul, as well as in bus stations. Keep a close watch on your pockets and possessions in such places, and avoid having valuables or large amounts of money loose in your daypack or pockets.
• Keep all your valuables and the bulk of your money in a hidden money-belt. Never show this money-belt in public. Keep any spare cash you need elsewhere on your person.
• Where the choice exists between carrying valuables on your person or leaving them in a locked room, we would tend to favour the latter option, particularly after dark, but obviously you should use your judgement and be sure the room is absolutely secure. If you do decide to carry large sums of money, or other valuables, with you after dark, then use taxis; don’t walk around.
•Leave any jewellery of financial or sentimental value at home.
• Avoid quiet or deserted places, such as unlit alleys by night, or deserted beaches by daylight, particularly if they lie close to or within a major urban area. When in doubt, take a guide, though preferably one who has been recommended to you by your hotel or by other travellers. Known places where muggers occasionally prey on tourists are the beach going south from Bijilo, the beach going north from Calypso Restaurant at Cape Point, and the beach going towards Banjul from Denton Bridge.
• Car break-ins are an occasional problem in built-up areas. A favourite trick is to slash the rubbers holding the windows in place and to remove the glass to get access. Never leave money or valuables in a car unless someone you trust is guarding it.
• If you are carrying expensive gear such as camcorders, cameras, binoculars or telescopes, then keep them out of sight in a rucksack unless you are actually using them. Be extra careful when using them in out-of-the-way and lonely places.
• When swimming, be very careful about leaving your valuables on the beach, as people often get their things stolen while they are splashing about, having fun in the sea. Leave them in a prominent place and keep a sharp eye on them while you are in the water, or better still leave at least one person with them at all times.
If all of this talk of crime is putting you off, bear in mind that violent crime is very rare indeed. You have far more chance of being mugged in New York, London, Berlin, Johannesburg or Sydney than you ever have in Banjul or Bakau. And you are also extremely unlikely to be threatened with a gun of any sort in The Gambia. If, by some unlucky happenstance, you are robbed in The Gambia, please report it to the police. If you don’t report a crime, how are the police to know about it and to do something to stop it happening again? Remember, too, that if you want to claim off your insurance you will need a police crime number. It may take a little time to write a statement, etc, but it’s worth the effort.
As The Gambia is mainly Muslim, it is appropriate that women travellers, particularly, should dress so as not to cause offence. This is a good idea, not only out of courtesy, but also to avoid the attention of men, which at the coastal resorts can be a big problem. Upcountry you will very rarely have a problem with Gambian men.
Getting hold of tampons or sanitary towels upcountry can be impossible, though it is easy to buy them from any supermarket in the coastal resorts. If you are travelling upcountry it’s best to plan ahead and take a supply with you, remembering that when travelling in the tropics it is common for women to have heavier and more irregular periods than they would normally have at home.
Any act of homosexuality is criminal in The Gambia. Male offenders currently risk a prison term of up to 14 years, female offenders a term of up to five years, and several recent presidential pronouncements suggest the laws governing homosexuality are likely to become more extreme in the future. None of which means that homosexuality doesn’t exist in The Gambia; only that of necessity it is somewhat clandestine. Also that, setting aside the rights and wrongs of the matter, and at risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this clearly isn’t a destination suited to single travellers in search of anything approximating a gay scene, while homosexual couples who do visit the country should exercise maximum discretion.