The Time We Were Attacked by a Machete-Wielding Gang in The Gambia

I woke up to our last morning in The Gambia.

It had been a whirlwind trip. We had arrived on Wednesday evening for 3 nights. Tonight we would be departing from the west African nation on a flight back to the UK.

The trip hadn’t quite gone to plan.

On our first morning we took a taxi to Serrekunda, The Gambia’s largest town, to pick up our rental car. However, upon arrival I learnt that the rental company only took cash, something I didn’t have.

So the next day we had to drive to Brikama, the closest large town to where we were staying with withdraw cash.

After returning to our lodge, finally thinking I’d have a full 24 hours to relax and explore the country before leaving, I received a message to say I had left my debit card at the bank in Brikama.

Therefore, I would be spending my last morning returning to Brikama again to collect my card.

Every single day of our short trip had been faffing about with the rental car, all because I hadn’t checked if they took cash and so didn’t have enough with me. If only I hadn’t made an assumption.

Despite the inconvenience, I had still had a lovely time and hadn’t minded the hassle of travelling to Brikama all that much.

Our private round-house at Footsteps eco-lodge

I had a heavy heart as I packed my rucksack. After lunch we would be leaving our wonderful eco-lodge to pick up my card from Brikama and then hopefully have some time to finally explore more of The Gambia before heading to drop the car off in Serrekunda.

My movements were slow and my mood low. I just felt like it was way too soon to be leaving. I’d barely scratched the surface of what The Gambia had to offer.

So far The Gambia had exceeded expectations in every way.

Our accommodation had been spectacular with friendly staff and delicious food. We were also starting to make friends with other guests.

The people of The Gambia had blown my mind. They were so welcoming and friendly. I was amazed how all members of staff at the lodge knew my name, even if I’d spoken to them once. They put me at ease and were fun to talk to.

As well as the staff, every person I had encountered outside the lodge had also been so welcoming. Yesterday a man had helped us reverse out of a parking spot onto an incredibly busy road and hadn’t expected any tip. The staff at the bank had also been courteous.

It was just too soon to be leaving!

We were in ‘hippo’ house

We polished off our lunch and said our goodbyes to Footsteps Eco-Lodge. Everyone seemed sad to see us go and hoped we would visit again.

“Absolutely!” I beamed.

3 days had not been long enough at all. I wanted to explore the fishing villages, see The Gambia river and travel in-land to the very rural corners of the country where cars are a rarity. What an adventure that would all be!

The trouble is, my list of places to return to is getting mighty long. Plus there were so many more countries to visit. Sometimes I feel there’s just not enough time to live life, especially when you have a full-time job back home.

We bumped down the dirt road which left from Footsteps to the coastal road. I kept thinking that this was the last time I’d see these trees and the quaint houses we passed which had front gardens alive with livestock like chickens and goats.

We turned onto the tarred coastal road, the grey surface zigzagged with sand. Being a Saturday, the roads were quieter. The usual huge sand trucks which dominated this road where nowhere to be seen.

It will be a relaxing final day, I thought to myself as I allowed myself to sit down and feel the soothing air-conditioning on my face.

Just then I spotted something large and white from the corner of my eye, just approaching the road a fee metres away. the large cow took its first unwavering step into the road in front of us and in a flash, Lewis spun the wheel. With a screech, we skidded ungracefully to the opposite side of the road, the mighty horned head of the cow just inches away from us.

“Holy Sh…” I could barely get the words out, my heart thumping against my rib-cage.

We made it back to our side of the road, so fortunate that there had been no car on the opposite side of the road otherwise, no doubt, we would have hit it – either the car or the cow. We were both shaken and were particularly jumpy when we spotted a cow or goat loitering near the roadside, which was incredibly frequent.

The usual traffic in The Gambia – a mix of donkeys, cars and bicycles

We turned right into Sanyang village after encountering 2 police road-blocks along the coastal road. They both proved to be without hassle and we found ourselves driving through the busy streets of Sanyang.

Donkeys trotted down the road, joining the flow of traffic. They were joined by cyclists and goats.

As we headed further east, we left the busy streets behind us and were greeted by a more rural atmosphere. We passed schools and farms. At one point I saw a flurry of movement ahead, just by the opposite side of the road. As we approached, I realised it was a flock of goats, charging down the track beside the road. It was quite a spectacle!

Before long we had reached Brikama and pulled-up into a spare parking bay at the front of the bank. I felt a wave of relief as I was reunited with my debit card. I was also incredibly grateful to the kind gentleman who had kept it safe for the past 24 hours.

It would have been so easy and tempting for someone to have not informed me of my missing card and taken advantage of it. I hadn’t realised it was even missing! Thankfully, the card fell into the hands of someone with a kind heart – just like everyone I had encountered so far in The Gambia.

I couldn’t believe how wary and nervous I had been of people when I had arrived in The Gambia 3 days ago. It felt good to be letting my guard down.

A clothes shop in Sanyang

Our flight that evening wasn’t until 7pm so we had several hours to kill before heading to drop off our car in Serrekunda. It was only early afternoon, around 2.30pm.

I’d been longing to see one of The Gambia’s fishing villages since we arrived. Being a coastal country, fishing is a big deal for Gambians and several of the villages lining the coastline are lively fishing hubs where you can find numerous small boats bobbing in the water and fresh fish lining stalls beside the beach.

We’d passed Sanyang several times and knew it was on the route back to the airport. I’d also heard quite a big about it. Sanyang is one of the more well-known villages in The Gambia and reasonably popular with tourists.

The beach is actually located quite far outside of the village centre and is touted as one of the best beaches in the country. As well as witnessing fishing activities, you can find hotels and restaurants lining the beach-front, although they are said to be quaint and not too frequent.

We began our journey towards Sanyang, following the main road that led from Brikama, through several villages and finally to Sanyang. Sanyang village ends at a junction to the coastal road.

On the other side of the coastal road I saw a wide sandy track which presumably would head to Sanyang beach. Had I actually looked at my map on my phone, I would have seen that this was not in fact the direct way to Sanyang beach. I should have checked. But I didn’t so down we went.

Our sturdy 4×4 bumped as it fought against the solid cracks in the road, formed by vicious winds. Lining the path were an array of trees from tall koni palms to casuarina pines. Above them were power lines, running parallel to the road.

The track seemed to go on and on. Apart from a yellow and green taxi in front of us, the path was silent. We many passed houses nestled amongst the trees so they blended into the surroundings.

The road we were travelling down was actually called ‘How Ba’ road. Maybe it’s short for ‘how bad can it get?’ as we had an unwelcome surprise laying in store for us round the next bend. The settlements beside the road became less and less frequent. I kept wondering where the beach was. We seemed to be trekking deeper and deeper into the unknown.

Just then I noticed some people in the road up ahead. At first I didn’t think anything of it as it wasn’t unusual for people to be travelling in the road.

The taxi trundled down the dusty track, clouds of sand emerging behind it as it churned up the earth with its round tyres.

I screwed my face up, wondering why the group of six young men weren’t dispersing as the taxi approached. Instead they seemed to purposefully be walking towards the taxi, their strides large.

I watched, puzzled. Sensing something was amiss, Lewis began to brake slightly so that we kept a decent distance from the taxi in front.

The taxi was forced to come to a standstill as the men moved so they were standing in its path. Two of the men were dressed in strange, extravagant attire.

Before I knew it, the group had surrounded the taxi with the two strangely-dressed men in front of the bonnet. It looked like they were dressed in some kind of tribal clothes. It was a head-to-toe costume that consisted of numerous strands of cut-up rice sacks which were brightly coloured. One man was in pale pink and orange, the other a bright reddish-purple.

Lewis and I started to feel uneasy.

“What are they doing?” Lewis asked, panic edged in his voice.

“Maybe it’s some kind of tribal dance.” I honestly had no idea.

At this point we had slowed the car down till it was nearly at a standstill, staring in a mixture of awe and fear at the spectacle in front of us. It looked like the two tribal-dressed men were actually jumping on the bonnet of the taxi whilst the men surrounding the side of it were waving objects in their hands at the car.

“What have they got in their hands?” Lewis asked, squinting.

I couldn’t quite make it out.

The taxi had managed to disperse the group and started to drive away. My eyes widened as I noticed the men were now approaching us, all waving long, dark objects in the air.

“What have they got? Are they sticks?” Lewis asked.

I took in the shape. They were long objects with straight handles but then they curved upwards slightly and became wider. I knew that shape and could see the edge of the slightly-rusted blades.

“They’re not sticks.” I managed to murmur, though I’m not sure if it was loud enough to hear.

The men were suddenly only a few feet away, staring menacingly at our car. There was no denying they were waving machetes at us. I gulped.

They started shouting, their aggressive chanting drowning out the hum of our air-conditioning. My eyes turned to the two men dressed in rice-sacks who started beating their fists against our bonnet. I gasped as one swung their mighty machete and slashed at our silver bonnet. The other grabbed the front of our car, shaking it frenziedly.

Meanwhile the rest of the men had surrounded our car. One of them was tapping his fist against the driver-side window whilst another glared at me with cold eyes.

What was going on? What did they want? Why the hell did I consider winding down the window when one of them was tapping?

I was silent but eerily calm. Lewis started to laugh and I joined in. it must have been some kind of joke surely?

But they weren’t going away.

Slash.

Another blade smacked against the car.

“I don’t like this.” Lewis managed to say.

He started tapping the accelerator, trying to encourage the men to leave.

But they wouldn’t.

The tirade of shouting, slashing and knocking continued. Lewis pushed ever-harder but nothing.

“We have to get out of here.” He said through gritted teeth. Hit with a bout of adrenaline Lewis’ foot hit the floor as he pressed on the accelerator with all his might. The car roared threateningly before slamming the two men who refused to move out of our path out of the way with a thud. Our tyres spun out before the car charged out of the chaos, leaving a dark cloud in its wake.

What on earth had just happened?

The scenery passed in a surreal blur as we charged down the track towards the beach. When we finally saw the ocean, there was no bone in either of our bodies that wanted to explore it. We were shaken.

Ironically we had reached the corner of Sanyang beach where just one beach bar stood called ‘Happy Corner’.

I finally pulled out my phone out to look at Google maps. My goal was to find a way out of this place without passing the machete-wielding lunatics. Fortunately there was a narrower road which came off ‘How Ba’ just a couple of hundred metres away which actually led to the part of Sanyang beach which we’d initially been trying to get to.

Tensions were high as we drove down the narrow sandy road. We were trying to make sense of what we had just experienced and feeling unsafe, Lewis wanted nothing more than to drop the car off and go to the airport. He was ready to leave now.

I have a strange way of dealing with weird situations. I was uneasy but I didn’t feel like I was in danger. My guess at this point was that the men just wanted money. But who knew? It also felt like such a shame to have such an uncomfortable experience now after the rest of The Gambia had been nothing but pleasant.

I watched as Sanyang beach flew by to my right. I was able to catch a brief glimpse of the fish market and watched as men stood behind tables laden with fish. Behind them was the beach and in the distance I could see the breaking waves of the Atlantic ocean.

We managed to reach the main road from Sanyang beach back to Sanyang village. What looked like a salt marsh appeared on my right, a great cow sauntering beside it.

As we talked over the situation again and again tensions only got worse. Lewis’ driving had upped its pace till it felt we were charging down the bumpy dusty road. Up ahead the road had an abrupt drop of roughly half a metre. I noticed it too late to warn Lewis. The car raced towards the drop before flying over the edge. All four wheels were air-borne for a brief moment before the car crashed down again with a mighty smash. The front-end of the car scraped against the hard earth and we jolted in our seats.

The rest of the drive back to Serrekunda felt sombre. The elated feeling we had this morning had vanished and we were left feeling lost and uncomfortable.

At one point the road started to get congested. As we looked ahead to see what the issue was, we saw someone in the road dressed in rice-sacks with a machete. Not again!

Lewis took absolutely no chances and slammed his foot on the accelerator, leaving the road and driving parallel to it along the dusty path beside it, dodging the menacing rice-sack individual before returning to the road again where it was quieter.

Before long we had returned the car, finally paid cash for it, got a taxi to the airport and sat in the airport by our gate with hours to kill before our flight. I sipped a Julbrew, feeling a deep wave of sadness.

As our flight-time drew nearer we met a couple who had been staying at our lodge. They were returning home on the same flight as us. They told us how it had been a very odd day. No kidding? I thought.

Apparently that morning, a man from the local village of Gunjur (where we had been staying) had been murdered in a dispute over land. As a result, riots had taken to the streets of Gunjur. It was crazy to think we had only just missed this and even stranger to think that things like this didn’t happen often in The Gambia.

We told them about our strange encounter.

“It sounds like the Kankurang.” One of them remarked.

“What is the Kankurang?” I asked.

What is The Kankurang?

The Kankurang is a traditional character that appears in a Mandinka (a West African ethnic group) initiation ceremony. The story goes that the Kankurang would round up boys due for circumcision and protect them from even spirits by waving his machete. Traditionally, the Kankurang was a masquerade dressed in leaves, bark and tree fibre.

Today the authentic Kankurang is difficult to find. Instead, many people dress up like the Kankurang and act menacingly for money. I believe this is what we had witnessed.

Lessons Learnt from This Experience

Ironically, my first thoughts had been right – that it was some kind of tribal dance.

The key takeaway from our shocking experience was to always research local traditions before visiting a country. Had I known about the Kankurang, I would have known what was going on and wouldn’t have needed to feel so fearful. I still wouldn’t have given them money though. I don’t agree with terrorising people for money and taking a special tradition out of its rightful context.

Final Thoughts on The Gambia

I wasn’t prepared to let one intimidating situation taint my experience of The Gambia. Aside from this strange encounter, everyone we had met had made us feel safe and welcome

There’s a small minority of people everywhere you go who are ‘bad eggs’ as you like. Even in the safest countries on earth, you always get some who try and spoil things. But this tiny proportion is not representative of the country as a whole. I loved my time in The Gambia and still feel like there is so much more that this small west African country has to offer.