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When Europeans went to Berlin with their scissors in 1884 to
cut up the map of Africa, they played a sick joke which is still felt today.

The British wanted palm oil from the Gambia River so they
took that out of French West Africa and today the place is called a country: 60
kilometres wide at the Atlantic it snakes 338 kilometres up river where it is
just a dozen kilometres wide. French diplomats like to refer to it as the
finger in the ass of Senegal.


The metaphor is à propos this year as the country
obsesses over all things anal.
In early April there was a private party at a major luxury
hotel in which the dress code for men was transvestite. Someone took photos.
Somehow the photos ended up with the police and 18 men and two women were
arrested and charged with homosexuality, a crime in the Gambia.

The owner of the hotel was not arrested. Less than two weeks
later he was beat to a pulp and flown to Germany to be hospitalised. Two of his
employees were arrested for the assault but no motive has been given.

The arrests were widely condemned by western diplomatic
missions prompting President Yahya Jammeh, to express his anger during a
marathon three hour speech (48 pages local reporters tell me) at the opening
session of the new parliament on April 20. The president, who calls himself His
Excellency Doctor Professor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, practices
witchcraft and says he can cure Aids, told the west they can keep their money
if they are going to condition it to gay rights.

“Sometimes you hear of a lot of noise about the laws of
this country or my pronouncements,” he told members of parliament.
“Let me make it very clear that, if you want me to offend God for you to
give me aid, you are making a great mistake; you will not bribe me to do what
is evil and ungodly.”

Jammeh said he would not bow down to homosexuality in the
name of human rights. But that was never his programme. He campaigned in last
year’s elections on a platform of “Progress, Stability and Peace.”
Democracy and human rights are not in his vocabulary.

Jammeh is not the only one up in arms over homosexuals
having a private party. Ba Kawsu Fofana, a leading Muslim cleric, called for
the twenty suspects to be killed. “Islamic Sharia law,” he said,
“decrees that homosexuals should be killed to spend the afterlife in
eternal damnation and torment in the deepest depths of hell fire.”

Fofana told The Standard newspaper
“homosexuality constitutes a threat for the future of humanity.”
His statements came the day after an opinion piece by the
head of the Gambia Secular Assembly called for “tolerance of homosexuality
and homosexual persons.” The 19-page open letter to Jammeh claimed science
has proven “homosexuality is biological and therefore, natural and does
not harm religion and culture.”
Jammeh said “Gambia is a country of believers,” in
which, “sinful and immoral practices such as homosexuality will not be
tolerated.”

But just a couple of kilometres down the road from the Coco
Ocean Hotel is the tourist resort Senegambia, a place where not only elder
European women, but also European men, can be seen walking with young black
bucks.

Tourism makes up 20% of Gambia’s GDP and sex tourism is a
high-end business, which some local newspapers did not hesitate to point out
when the 20 were arrested.


Ismaila Sisay, who runs the Sinchu community radio, Taranga
FM, believes the noise around homosexuality 
is a diversion from the country’s
real problems. Sisay hesitated to say what those problems were. Perhaps the
reason is his radio was shut down for two months in 2011 because Taranga was
giving press reviews of articles critical to the president. The Gambia, a
country with some 60% illiteracy is facing severe food insecurity and abject
poverty.

In a country where people cannot read, and those who can
often “have to decide between buying a newspaper and eating,” as
Sisay put it, radio is a threat. The papers can print it, but beware the radio
that reads it.

Nevertheless, those who would like to see democracy and a
greater distribution of wealth in the Gambia are quick to point out that Jammeh
has done a lot in the line of  education, infrastructure and health. As a
matter of fact, the Gambia is one of the few nations which is on track to
achieving at least six of the millennium goals including that “all boys
and girls complete a full course of primary education” and “reducing
by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.”  He has
also made great strides in providing safe drinking water to remote parts of the
country.

One western diplomat said she believes “it is Jammeh’s
Moroccan wife who has pushed him to ensure girls get primary education.”

Yet, the United Nations Development Program points out that
the country is lagging behind in the goals of poverty reduction and gender
equality. The WHO says an astounding 80% of the girls and women in the country
have suffered female genital mutilation!

But as one local journalist points out “there are
schools in all the regions up-river” which was not the case ten years ago.
Over 63% of the 1.7 million people lives in these rural areas.

The Gambia remains a deeply indebted country (nearly US$700
million for annual budget revenues of US$185) and it is not peanuts, fish,
cotton and palm kernels which will bring it out of the red. President Jammeh’s
threat to refuse aid to have a free hand to punish homosexuals could cost the
Gambians who need it most very deeply.

Article by GeorgeKazolias  who is an American Paris based reporter and TV news producer and
a Professor of Global Communication at the American University of Paris.

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