...touts, fixers, chancers, gigolos, wheeler-dealers, informal guides and guardian angels...
- The Rough Guide to The Gambia, by Emma Gregg and Richard Trillo.
Bumster is a Gambian term that applies to just about any of the above 'professionals' that a visitor might meet in the small West African state. Most can be found hanging around the hotels and beaches of the country, with plenty of interesting ways to part you with your money. Tourists tend to give them the big brush-off, either ignoring them or becoming extremely exasperated with their presence, but some provide useful services. Like it or not, you're going to meet a few if you visit, so you might as well be prepared.
The Gambia is a very poor country, where most people earn the equivalent of a few dollars a day. Tourism is a big money-spinner, providing over half the country's Gross Domestic Product, but most of the earnings leave the country again very quickly as the bigger hotels are owned by foreign companies. Undoubtedly, the locals still benefit; despite low pay, they make relatively good tips and by Gambian standards working in a hotel or driving a taxi provides a decent income. When the dry season ends in April, the hotels close and the tourism workers return to their villages until the rains end in October.
Of course, as in all well-paid industries, there aren't enough jobs to go around. Those that are not able to secure work are still drawn to the resorts, providing alternative services whether the tourists want them or not. Invariably male, these are the bumsters. They can be quite persistent and persuasive, and most believe they are providing a genuine and important service, whether it be helping tourists find the best restaurant, arranging trips and tours or selling cheap cigarettes on the beach. Some bumsters could be described as small-time businessmen, with portfolios of work, business cards and mobile phones. A tourist will pay for a week's holiday about as much as a Gambian earns in a year, so it's little wonder that everyone wants to get business from the holidaymakers.
In fact, scams are quite rare, especially when one considers the extent to which tourists can be ripped off by timeshare salesmen in Europe. At worst, you might be severely irritated by their presence; at best, you'll make a friend for life. Many tourists, wary of being 'taken for a ride', avoid talking to anyone outside their hotel, but do this and you'll be shutting yourself off from having some great experiences.
Note that the word 'bumster' is rarely heard in the resorts these days. In 2003, many bumsters were arrested in a big crackdown, fuelled by a fear that their presence was giving the country a bad name. Some were beaten in the streets, many were detained, and a few were sent off to work in the fields for a few months. The army maintain a low profile on the beaches, and you'll notice many Gambians leaving the resorts at around 5pm, just before the evening patrols start. It's wise to avoid calling anyone a bumster in the presence of Gambians, as it's easy to cause offence.
A result of the 2003 crackdown was that a line was drawn between those that could provide a genuine service and those that couldn't. For example, juice and fruit sellers on the beach must all take a basic food hygiene course and produce a price list, so as long as you ask to see these you can be confident of avoiding problems. There are also 'Official Tourist Guides' (OTGs) and card-carrying bird guides, who can often offer a better, more personalised experience than those you'd find on hotel coach tours. Green tourist taxis also produce a price list - though there is always a little room for negotiation, especially on long trips - and their cars must take regular safety tests1.
The officially sanctioned bumsters aren't really true bumsters; they have fairly strict rules on how they're allowed to approach people and must be able to prove that they can deliver what they offer. All have buildings, shacks or desks on the street that they trade from, and although they are allowed to talk to passers-by, they are not allowed to stray too far or be aggressive. This means that they frequently lose trade to the less scrupulous 'real' bumsters, who will come up to you anywhere. The concern is that if they do not get enough business, they'll simply go back onto the street, increasing the bumster problem, so go to these guys first.
The worst official bumsters are often uniformed; the police. It's not uncommon for them to stop tourist taxis in order to try to get a little pay. They'll search the car, check the driver's documents, check your identification - always carry your passport or identity card - and might even search you. If you find yourself in this situation, don't be intimidated - keep calm and insist that they write down the charge for you to check with your embassy. Tell them that if it's confirmed as genuine, you'll pay it, but if not, you will ask the embassy to take it further. If you keep talking and don't back down, they will let you go without you having to pay an unofficial 'fine'.
Chat Up Lines
If you want to get out and see more of The Gambia than your hotel pool and the beach, you'll probably want to meet Gambians at some point. It's not always easy to tell who's a bumster and who's an interested local, because Gambians are very chatty people. Conversation between Gambians, or between Gambians and tourists, initially always consists of the same pattern:
- Greeting. Just a hello, or, if you're feeling clever, a Mandinka salaam maaleekum or Wolof nakam.
- The Present. How are you? How's the holiday? How is your family?
- Wider World. Where are you from? What do you do? Is this your first time here2? Have you been to Africa before?
- Down To Business. Now let's talk about how much you're going to pay for these sandals, what you want to drink or where we're going in this taxi.
In the resorts, you might get a truncated version of this, as people who regularly deal with tourists know they're less likely to be chatty. The point is, unless you really don't want to talk, don't automatically presume that if someone asks where you're from that they're a bumster. People who really do just want a chat will approach you in exactly the same way as a bumster would.
Fortunately, word has got around the bumsters that there are a few select lines that are guaranteed to raise at least a smile. You'll begin to recognise them within a day or two, but here are a few you'll hear from the start:
- It's nice to be nice!
- The more you smile, the browner you get!
- Welcome to the Smiling Coast!
- I saw you in the hotel last night... (and sometimes) I was with the band.
If you hear one of these lines, it must be stressed that you're not about to be ripped off. It just means you are likely to be offered a chance to part with your cash very soon!
Unfortunately, there are a few scams around to be aware of. Some are obvious, some less so, and they change all the time. Be careful of being sucked into one of the following situations:
'My wife has just had a baby' or 'I've just got married'. You'll be asked for money for transport home, or asked to donate to a made-up celebration.
A Gambian follows you along the beach or through town, pointing things out because 'I want to practise my English' or just 'wants to show you around'. It's very easy to allow them to do this, and receive a demand for a 'tip' for guiding services at the end. You may also be told that it's 'good to have a friend' in a particular part of town, and that it would be better if he accompanied you; don't be tempted to take up the offer, as The Gambia is a very safe country for tourists, and the demand for money at the end could be more threatening than anything else you come across.
'I'm collecting for the slave descendants in my village'. Yes, the bumster and his family.
You get 'given' a piece of generic jewellery or a necklace, which the bumster claims will stop you from getting hassled by touts and/or symbolises the union of your countries/races. You'll be expected to contribute to a collection at the end, even if they catch you an hour or two later! You may even be told that it is an insult to refuse, but it isn't.
'I was in the band in your hotel last night and we broke a drum skin'...of course, he needs money to replace it - even though the guy wasn't in your hotel or isn't even in a band.
As you approach a supermarket, a bumster warns you about how expensive it is in there. The bitiko (a sort of tiny corner shop) is much cheaper, so he takes you there, you get overcharged and he splits the excess with the owner. A similar scam involves the tourist buying baby food or grain as a gift and paying an over-inflated price for it.
Use your common sense, and don't part with any money unless you're happy to pay for what you're getting.
The boys are waiting outside, and they know it's your first night in town...
- Slightly paranoid hotel literature.
It must be stressed that it is unlikely that you'll get ripped off for any significant amount, but highly likely that you'll meet some great people. The hotels tend to overstate the extent of the bumster problem, as the more you stay in your hotel, the more you spend there - particularly on lucrative tours - and the ubiquitous 'welcome meeting' will emphasise how wary you should be. Don't let this stop you from the genuinely friendly and accommodating Gambians; make your own decision about the bumsters. You might find the attention off-putting, and some tourists do find it unbearable, swearing never to return, but many find a genuine affinity with at least some of the locals.
The hotel advice is usually to claim you're going to meet someone, but this rarely works as most touts know who else is around - and if it's your first night, it will show anyway. Getting angry doesn't work, either - stay calm but be firm. If you feel harassed, the best thing to do is simply to play on Gambian social etiquette. It is considered very rude in Gambian society to barge into conversations unannounced, so reminding the bumster that you didn't 'invite' him to join you at least puts him on the back foot or gets rid of him completely. Likewise, you won't get harassed if you're eating a meal, as dinner is a private, family occasion, and Gambians feel uncomfortable pestering at mealtimes. If you feel you're being strung along and start to feel uncomfortable, head for a bar and order a drink or go into a shop (making it clear that you're not with the Gambian that followed you in) - he'll soon be asked to leave.
Finally, remember that bumsters are very defensive of 'their' customers. If you use a taxi driver, juice-seller or bar tout's services regularly, don't be afraid to drop their name into conversation if you're getting unsolicited attention, and you'll probably be left alone. Get to know them really well, and you might get escorted back to your hotel, too. You might be asked for an old T-shirt or a few dalasis at the end of your stay, but it'll probably be the best deal you do on holiday.