So tonight we sat at one of our favorite restaurants, Mama’s. The restaurant is owned by a sweet elderly Swiss woman who gives her customers off-season deals and threw a large party for Swiss National Day last week. She is well known in the higher-class, restaurant-going Gambian community because of her sweet disposition and delicious food. She is not the best conversationalist, but is clearly devoted to making sure each customer is left satisfied and impressed with her large portions and smart use of garlic. But tonight, it was made clear that I will remember Mama’s for something entirely different.
When we were done with dinner tonight, Marquis and I saw a men we recognized from the YMCA, a man whom we had talked to multiple times. He had often been spotted wearing a security shirt identical to that of our guards, and we had thus assumed that he was another substitute or alternate for our usual guards. The man was easily recognizable because he only had one eye and addressed us as his “YMCA Brothers.” Easy enough. He asked us if we wanted to see his newborn baby and we said no, in attempt to make it back to the YMCA quickly. But he was persistent, and insisted that his wife and child were on the walk back to the YMCA, so as we began our walk back, he joined us. However after leading us on a “shortcut,” that was much longer than it was short, we ended up in an area we didn’t recognize, but knew we couldn’t be far from our hostel. At this point, the man started talking about “the orphans.” This was a red flag. Generally, if something isn’t a legitimate organization or charity, we try to avoid it, at the risk of donating to the wrong people or being fooled. So many people ask us for money or favors on a daily basis that it is hard to deduce the frauds and those organized and in real need, so my monetary contribution to the Gambia will have to be well thought out and a bit delayed after some research. So when confronted with this idea of the orphans, we tried to continue walking. At this point, the man used the best tool in his arsenal. He told us that by refusing to meet his uncle, the imam, or Muslim leader, of the area, we would be disrespecting his religion and culture. This disrespect and cultural ignorance was something that we are constantly conscious of and worried about. We stopped walking and waited for the man to go get the imam, incredibly nervous about creating a bad image for the YMCA and causing any problems. Once the imam came out with a Coca Cola and offered it to us, we became increasingly nervous. He expected us to drink it, and we were unsure of what he would expect in return. The “orphans” then came out, with couples who looked suspiciously like their parents. There was no newborn baby or wife. At this point, after declining the Coke, we had clearly made the security impersonator angry or frustrated. He had asked us for a significant amount of money in order to buy a large bag of rice for the orphans. He started spitting on my face, yelling “I AM A BIG MAN” and repeatedly asking if I was “fucking with him.” He got close enough to make me uncomfortable and physically aware of the camera in my bag. He told us that by accepting a meeting with the imam, we had committed to buying this $60 bag of rice for the “orphans.” Yelling ensued. Feeling very duped, Marquis and I stared incredulously at this grown man as he began crying, in truth it was closer to bawling, and screaming repeatedly, “I AM A BIG MAN” at the top of his lungs. I have never been more confused. He was barring our exit, intending to make it impossible for us to leave until we bought the rice. At this point in time, we were still convinced he was a security guard who worked part time for the YMCA, due to the multiple conversations we had had with him in the past. As I could feel the camera weighing more and more heavily against my leg, and as the man’s tears made me more and more uncomfortable, I decided the best option would be to give him what I had left on my person- 200 Dalasis, or about $7, and get the hell out of there. We ran from the crying man and the supposed imam, back to the YMCA, where we asked our guards about this one-eyed man who had just performed what can best be called a peaceful mugging. Nobody had ever heard of him, and nobody recognized his description. It is safe to say he did not work for the security company employed by the YMCA, and our night manager even said to me, “you fell for the newborn baby trick?” I was not informed that this existed as a scheme… I guess the good sign is that I can already laugh about it and nobody was hurt. Plus it’s a pretty amazing story. Not every day you get suckered into giving away $7 to a livid, shaking and crying 40-year-old man.