By Landing Ceesay
Juffureh is situated on the coast of the River Gambia in the Upper Nuimi District, and the ancient little village has become famous as the birthplace of Kunta Kinteh! Juffureh also houses the Slave Museum. It is about 500 metres away from neighbouring village Albreda while James Island lies less than two miles away in the river.
Due to the historical features and strategic location of the settlements, thousands of tourists visit the two communities every year, which creates job opportunities for both the elderly and youths living in the communities.
Globally, tourism has been seriously affected by the coronavirus, as many countries introduced travel restrictions to contain the spread of the virus.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated that global international tourist arrivals might decrease by 58% to 78% in 2020, leading to a potential loss of US$0.9–1.2 trillion in international tourism receipts. For this reason, our reporter crosses the ferry to Juffureh and Albreda, to gauge the opinions of different players in their tourism sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the tourism sector in Juffureh-Albreda villages, Upper Niumi District due to the travel restrictions thanks to the pandemic.
Covid-19 Impact on Juffureh-Albreda Tour Guides
In an exclusive interview with Kerr Fatou, the people working in Juffureh-Albreda tourism sector shared their experience with the covid-19 Pandemic on their businesses.
Lamin Njie, the chief tour guide of Juffureh-Albreda explained how the pandemic affected them and what they are planning to do as responsible family men, since tourists are not coming as usual.
“For two years now since the pandemic started some of my colleagues have stopped coming to work because tourists are not coming and they have to look for other options to feed their families. Because since the pandemic started, it affected our destination a lot, if you look at covid-19 very well, it affected the tourism sector more than any other sector in the Gambia. For us we survive through tourists because tourism is our only source of income. We don’t have any other thing to rely on for survival apart from tourism, that’s why we are badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic,” Mr. Njie stated.
The chief tour guide said since tourists are not coming as usual, they (tour guides) are looking for assistance everywhere to engage themselves for survival. He said they cannot continue sitting without engaging themselves into something productive that would help sustain their families.
“We now put our hopes on the Juffureh-Albreda Youth Association [JAYS] to liaise with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help us engage in something that would help us. Since tourism is not working for us due to the pandemic, we want JAYS and UNDP to help us with either a poultry farm, tree planting or mangrove planting project so that we can sustain ourselves,” Njie stated.
Asked whether they receive the covid-19 relief funds that was disbursed to people working in the tourism sector by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture; Mr. Njie responded in the positive, but said it was not enough because some of them spent it all within a short period.
“Yes! We received the money but if you look at it very well, it did not benefit us much because some of us spent that money upon receiving it. Each of us were given $50, and they later gave us each D6, 000. However, if they use that money on something like poultry, that would be an earning for us. But giving us that money did not help us because almost we all finished it the first day or the second day we received it,” Lamin stated.
He said they are now knocking on the doors of every organisation in the country for help; saying they have now registered as a tourist guide association so that their donors can find them a strong body.
“A place where 12 responsible family men are working and entirely depending on, if that place collapses you know that will really affect us. We do not know any other thing for survival apart from tourism. Therefore, the collapse of tourism in the country is a big blow for us. That is why we want UNDP to help us with either a poultry farm or any other thing that would help us sustain ourselves. For two years now, we have not been paid our salaries because tourists are not coming and the payment of salaries is entirely dependent on the coming of tourists here [Juffureh and Albreda villages].
“For the past two years some of my colleague tour guides have engaged in gardening, and some travelled to other places to look for greener pastures all because of the coronavirus. That is why we are separated but thanks to Allah [Almighty God] now coronavirus is reducing and we are receiving some tourists from the USA,” Lamin Njie, the chief tour guide of Juffureh-Albreda stated.
Ordeal of Craft Market Vendors
The pandemic, covid-19 brought a pessimistic scene for all industries; especially the tourism industry since the virus hit The Gambia in March 2020.
Aside from the tour guides, another component of the sector hard hit by the pandemic is the Juffureh craft market.
Speaking on behalf of the vendors at the craft market, Saikou Konateh, a woodcarver who has been working at the said market for more than two decades told Kerr Fatou about the difficulties they have been facing since the coronavirus pandemic hit the sector.
Saikou and his colleagues make a living from the sales of drums, kora, masks, fruit bowls, bangles, etc. Like the tour guides, tourism is the only means of income for Saikou and fellows at the craft market for survival.
“The collapse of the tourism sector in the country is really affecting us badly. We are 45 in number in this craft market- both males and females. However, since the pandemic hit the country, Juffureh craft market has been crawling because tourists are not coming and, as you know. We depend entirely on tourism for our survival that is why the coming of covid-19 is badly hitting us. Right now, our only hope is Allah [Almighty God]. We are doing all that we can, but still we are not gaining anything in return. Personally, every day I am working [carving wood] but I’m not getting anything from the work because tourists are not coming. Sometimes we will be sitting here for the whole week without seeing even a single tourist saying ‘hey’ to us,” Mr. Konateh stated.
Responding to the question on whether or not the Juffureh craft market received the covid relief funds from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture as their colleagues- Juffureh-Albreda tour guides; Konateh responded in the negative.
“We have not received even a single butut from the Ministry of Tourism since the pandemic started. The only help we had during the pandemic was the money given to us by one man called Bambo Jatta, a native of Albreda based in Norway who sent us money to share. We shared that money- male vendors received D1, 000, while female vendors received D500. Apart from that we haven’t received any help from anybody or the Ministry of Tourism,” he narrative.
The veteran woodcarver said the pandemic has really affected them and their living as they entirely depend on it as their only source of income; saying they have no other profession or job apart from tourism related works that is why the emergence of covid-19 pandemic impacted on them negatively.
“Our only hope right now is on Allah the Almighty because he is our creator and he knows what is best for us as his creatures,” he expressed.
Female vendors at the craft market – Aminata Jammeh and Mariama Taal also explained to Kerr Fatou their ordeal.
“All our hopes are on this craft market. The money we get here is what we use to pay our children’s school fees. It is what we use to take them to the hospital when they are sick. It is what we use to feed them when they are hungry and it is what we use to buy clothes for them, especially during Muslim feasts like Koriteh and Tobaski. Basically, we depend entirely on tourism, so if that place where we get money to solve all these problems is closed, then you should know it is big for us. That’s why right now we are all struggling to help our families and that’s why we are struggling to sustain ourselves,” Aminata stated.
She said the closure of their market due to the coronavirus restrictions has not only affected them [vendors] but their families as well tourism being their only source of income.
While talking about the issue of the covid-19 relief funds extended to the tourism sector across the country, Jammeh said they did not receive a butut from the Ministry of Tourism. But she blamed it on the fact that they do not register their market at the Gambia Tourism Board contrary to the advice given to them by the Minister of Tourism during his visit at the market.
“We did not have even a single butut from the Ministry of Tourism since the coronavirus started. The Minister [Hamat Bah] came here last year, we informed him that we did not have the money that his ministry is distributing to the tourism sectors across the country [at the time]. He asked us whether our market is registered under GT Board; we told him it is not registered. He then asked us to register so that we can have the money, but since last year up to date, we do not have anyone to help us register our market. We think that’s the reason why we still don’t have the covid-19 relief funds,” Aminata told our reporter.
The craft market vendor expressed her disappointment for them not to be able to register their market, as it is the only way they can qualify for the funds to solve their problems especially internally. She added that if they had registered, the Juffureh craft market by now, would have received their covid-19 money.
“Apart from the help we always receive from Allah, it is from this market that we feed our families, from our children’s school fees, our living conditions, our health condition, our children’s health expenses, our clothing and our children’s clothing. We get all of these from this craft market. That is why we are all struggling to sustain ourselves now that tourists are not coming due to the coronavirus restriction,” Aminata told Kerr Fatou.
Mariama Taal, also a vendor at Juffureh craft market said coronavirus has affected all sectors in the country but it has affected the tourism sector most especially those of them living in their own communities feeding their families through tourism; as a result, they are all struggling to sustain themselves.
“Since Coronavirus started, tourists stopped coming. Our market stopped functioning, and our materials are wasting with us. The time the coronavirus was coming, [it] found us preparing for the ‘Roots Homecoming Festival’ but that did not happen due to the restrictions. We spent a lot of money to buy materials in preparation for the festival but before the day of the festival, tourists stopped coming and our market was closed due to the coronavirus restrictions. It is like the money that we used to buy materials for the preparations is a waste now because tourists are not coming. We could have used that money to buy bags of rice for our families but what Allah decides no one can stop,” she lamented.
Amplifying the voices of her colleagues, Taal admitted that they have done their utmost best to get the relief funds but they could not get it due to the regulation.
“We tried our utmost best to give the money given to the people working in the tourism sector but we could not get it, because the Minister of Tourism and Culture said only tourism sectors that registered under the GT Board are qualified for the money, but for us, we didn’t register our market. That is why we did not get the money. We have been pushing hard to register it since last year but still our market is not registered. So, we are calling on everyone to help us register our market,” Mariama told Kerr Fatou.
Cry of Boat Owners
The other people affected by the covid-19 in Juffureh-Albreda are the boat owners whose job is to transport visiting tourists to the Kunta Kinteh Island. They are natives of the settlements and are all living with their families within the two communities.
Yankuba Jatta, is one of them who shared with this reporter the challenges has been grappling with since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. He compared their earnings before and during the pandemic. That, Jatta added, affects the livelihood of their families.
“During the tourism season sometimes, we have 3 to 4 tourist trips that we will take to the Island (Kunta Kinteh Island) on a daily basis. Sometimes we will save D5, 000 in a month during the tourism season before the coming of the coronavirus. Sometimes we will save D10, 000 in a month during the tourism season. However, since corona came up to date, we have been struggling even to sustain ourselves [is difficult] because sometimes we will go up to a month without seeing even a single tourist within Juffureh and Albreda. This is really affecting us because we are all family men working here to help our families,” Yankuba stated.
Instead of plying the irregular migration route ‘backway’ to Europe, Yankuba and colleagues decided to stay home to transport visiting tourists to the Kunta Kinteh Island to help sustain our families and assist their friends but so badly for even feeding is now a problem for.
“We are all Gambians and natives of Juffureh-Albreda working here. We do not want to go to backway. We want here to be the ‘backway’- our own community. That is why we are working here to help our people, so that we can help our friends,…our mothers,…our fathers,…our sisters,…our brothers,…our wives and children. That is why we decided to buy boats and work here to sustain ourselves. That is what we have been doing until coronavirus came and started affecting us so badly that even feeding is now a problem for us.
“Since the Corona started, it is almost two years now; we are struggling to sustain ourselves. We are struggling to feed our families. Sometimes we will go up to two weeks or three weeks without seeing a single tourist here [to transport to generate income]. Sometimes more than a month before a tourist will come here, which is making life very difficult for us and our families because tourism is our only source of income here as you may be aware. For some of us it is almost two years since we last went to the Island [Kunta Kinteh] to transport tourists because of the pandemic,” he narrated.
Jatta therefore called on all the stakeholders including the government of the Gambia to help them as the pandemic continues to affect them.
“All our feedings and other expenses we get from the services of our boats in tourism. Coronavirus stopped all our earnings here because tourists are not coming. Therefore, we are calling on the government to help us anyhow; they can, so that our feedings and that of our families can be easy. Covid-19 is really affecting us and that of our families because they rely on us and we also rely on tourism,” told Kerr Fatou.
Gambia Tourism Board’s Response
Abubacarr Camara, Director General of the Gambia Tourism Board in an interview reacted to the reason Juffureh craft market vendors did not receive the covid-19 relief funds for the tourism sectors across the country by the ministry of tourism and culture.
He said the government asked them to give priority to people and institutions registered under the Tourism Board when disbursing the funds.
“The relief support was for the people that were registered with us and they were paying their licence fees. So, the government thought it was important we give them first priority. However, we also gave D100, 000 to the Juffureh-Albreda Youth Association (JAYS) for the two communities [Juffureh and Albreda villages]. But the craft market was not part of the money we gave JAYS because they are not registered under us. The Juffureh-Albreda tour guides received the money because they are registered under us and they are paying their licence yearly. That is why they have the relief support and the craft market did not have [it].
“When we visited there [Juffureh] last year with the Minister of Tourism and Culture Hamat Bah, the craft market vendors mentioned the issue to the Minister and we went to visit the market. The Minister instructed us to renovate their market, instead of giving money to each person so that it can be of standard for the tourism season. Unfortunately, before you know it, the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic came and there was no tourism season last year. That was exactly what happened,” the GT Board DG stated.
Camara said they are looking for every possible way and means to renovate the market instead of giving the craft market vendors. He emphasised the importance of people working in the tourism sectors to register with them.
“We always encourage people to come and register with us so that when support is needed, we can help them anyhow we can,” Director General GT Board said.
Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant changes in the global economy, which will inevitably negatively impact the tourism industry worldwide.
Immediate COVID control measures such as necessary national and international travel restrictions led to the decline in the number of tourist arrivals, which The Gambia is not an exception. Thus, drastically reduced tourist visits to the communities Juffureh and Albreda.