The 26-year Old Gambian Student With European Dreams

December 2, 2019

If you’ve been reading #NairaLife long enough, then you probably know I’m currently on the #JollofRoad, our West Africa road trip. Along the way, I’ve found all kinds of people. And what good is it if I don’t run into people and ask them about their finances?

The guy in this #NairaLife #DalasiLife is 26. He lives in Gambia, one of West Africa’s top tourist destinations. He also happened to be our host in Gambia – he rented out his apartment to us for the weekend.


First thing you did for money? 

It was nine years ago when I was like 17. I sold my bicycle for 1,500 dalasis. 

Must have been a big deal for you. 

Ah yes. My father told me then, “What are you doing with 1,500 dalasi? I pay your school fees, I do everything for you, I give you lunch money, what do you need money for?”

Before we get back to your bicycle, what’s your favourite thing about the Gambia?

Everyone is chilled out. No trouble.

Okay, back to your bicycle. What did you need money for? 

Nothing at the time, I just wanted to have my own money.

Interesting. Did you make any more money at the time? 

That time, my lunch money was about 25 dalasis, but I saved most of it. I’d spend 5 and save 20. 

What can 25 dalasis buy you? 

Back then, two bottles of water, but today, only one bottle. A coke was 8 dalasi, now it’s 18 dalasis. 

When my mum noticed how much I was saving, she said, “Hmmm, this boy wants to do something.” When I’d saved enough, I opened a small shop opposite the house. I started frying omelettes and making coffee, and it was going good. From the shop, I was saving between 2000 and 3000 dalasis every week, depending on how much the business was moving. 

But, when I entered Grade 12 and was about to start preparing for my certificate exams, I gave the shop to my mum.

To run for you? 

Yes, but she took the shop and ate all my money, hahaha. When I was running the shop, I could save up to 6,000 dalasis. I wrote my WAEC certificate exam in 2014, grade 12. I was about 20. 

That was also the year I travelled – the end of that year. 

Ah, interesting. So after your exams – which I believe you wrote in the middle of the year – what were you doing till you travelled? 

I got a job working at a hotel as a masseur. My aunt was a masseuse, so when I finished school, she told me to come work for her at the hotel and trained me.

How much did people pay for massages back then? 

It depends, back massages could go for 500 dalasis. Full body massages: 1500. Reflexology could be 600 to 700 dalasis. I have no idea what they’re paying now, but I’m sure it has increased. My pay was by commission. So every three weeks, she’d give me 25%. My best pay was about 20,000 dalasis. 

That’s a lot of massages. 

Sometimes, I used to give up to three or four massages in a day. A full body massage takes one hour, fifteen minutes. Reflexology takes 45 minutes. Head massage takes 30 minutes. The best thing about that job was that I got to meet a lot of people from all kinds of countries. 

Was that where the hunger to travel came from? 

Nah. I have family in Europe. My grandma is in the US. My mum, brothers, and everyone has travelled. My brother that I live with for example – cousin actually – he’s Norwegian. He wasn’t born there, but he lived there as a kid. 

Interesting. 

But now, he’s back in the Gambia earning good money here. He’s into transportation, and he has a lot of big trucks. He even has a small boat at the beach now to carry people. I have plans to build my own things here. 

We’ll get to that. So, you travelled at the end of 2014?

Yeah, I went to Russia. I was taking part-time jobs in Russia while schooling, most of it was working as a security guard. You know, I’m big. But I wasn’t paying my school fees. My grandma paid for that. Russian universities are cheaper than American universities. My grandma was paying about $2500. I’m studying computer engineering. 

I’m currently in my final year. 

Nice nice. How long have you been back for? 

Beginning of the year – February. I took a few months out of school. Also, I missed my family. From February till May, I was just enjoying, going to the beach, hanging out with some of my friends here. 

But in May, I had to stop. 

Hahaha, your flexing money finished. 

Haha, you knowww. 

How much did you bring back?

A lot. 

Tell me.

A lot. 

Okay, how much did you spend? 

A lot. 

Hahaha, Okay. 

I started thinking of how to finish my own projects – house building projects. I live in my aunty’s house, the one she built. Whenever she comes to the Gambia, she just goes straight to her compound. She has her own business, drives her own car, has a heavy bank account. 

A lot of people abroad are building houses back home. That’s where I saw my opportunity. Sometimes, my friends in Europe will tell me to help them inspect their building projects. I help them inspect, but for a fee. No time. 

I feel you. 

Meanwhile, I have time. But I tell them I have no time, hahaha. I get up to 1,000 dalasis from them on some days. One of my friends is coming soon, and he bought his land for 1.5 million dalasis. He’s building something really massive. 

Land is expensive here? 

Yes, because of the tourists. 

I bought a piece of land too. I sent the money to my friend here when I was in Russia. I even started building. But right now, I’ve paused, because I have to go back to get more money. I have just enough money for my flight ticket now. 

I totally get that. I’m curious. How much is enough for you to live a very very good life in the Gambia per month? 

Probably 100,000 dalasis. Food is cheap here. If you like partying, just go out with 200 dalasis, and you’re good. Rent a small two-bedroom here for like 4500 to 5000 dalasis per month. 

You pay rent here per month? 

Yeah. Most people pay per month, but some people pay per year. 

In Nigeria, it’s the other way round. 

Only per year? Per year is a lot of money. Many people don’t have that much here. 

Many people don’t have that much in Nigeria too. 

Crazy. The only thing some landlords ask for here is a six-month advance when you first move in.

How much do you think you’d be earning after school in the Gambia?

For computer engineers, it’s a lot of money. I really don’t know how much, but once they work for three months, you start seeing them building houses and buying cars. Where is the money coming from? 

Hahaha, what are the next few years looking like for you? 

Well, I know that being in the Gambia is not going to be easy for me. So I need to work hard and make good money in Russia. There, as long as you have all your documents, you can get work easily. I already speak Russian – you have to study the language for one year when you get there. I make good money working part-time as a student. Imagine how much better it will be when I work full time with a degree. 

So, I’ll work, finish my building project. Maybe get married, and come to the Gambia for holidays. 

When I’m away, I can even rent it to tourists. 

The Gambia seems to be getting a lot of tourists every year. 

Yes. Many of them are from Scandinavian countries. The tourism started in Bakau, that crocodile place. That’s why in many places here, apartments are rented out to tourists on a short-let. Lots of them even marry Gambians. 

A quick segue, but do you have any recent financial regrets? 

Ah yes. I sent my uncle money from Russia to invest in a small business here, about $2000 in total. He said he had some business he felt I should invest in. But now, my money is gone, no business too.

Now, I just need him to pay me my money, because I worked hard for it. I really want to go and scatter his house – he’s not even around. He travelled. 

So, imagine him lying to me over the phone, and me thinking sending money back home was going to help my family and even my country. 

My mum said, “Oh leave him, he’s your uncle.”

Nonsense. I want my money. If I’m trying to build my future and you’re stealing from it, you’re not a good person. 

Let’s talk about financial happiness, on a scale of 1-10. 

I don’t know about here in the Gambia, because when I’m here, I worry too much about money. My life is easier when I’m in Russia. So, here, my happiness is lower. But sometimes, I realise how lucky I am. 

By early 2020, I’ll return to school, and I can get back to planning for my future, so I can get money, live better, develop my country.


Fu'ad Lawal

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