The Gambia

 

          When we arrived at the Banjul International Airport, it was easy to see that things in The Gambia were at an elevated state of development when compared to other places where we had traveled up to that point. The airport itself has lots of natural light, is spacious, constructed with attractive materials, and functions smoothly. That’s always a good sign, isn’t it?

          The road from the airport to the Serekunda beaches on the Atlantic Ocean was wide, paved, and lined with houses that look like could come out of European or American suburbia. Everything appears clean and well put-together.

          I understand from The Gambia PCVs who have visited Mauritania that the higher level of expansion of goods and services in this country is limited to the highly touristed beach areas near the capital. That being said, it is still impressive to see what has been accomplished so that the country can be opened up to tourism and the support needed to sustain it. (I have been surprised when PCVs from The Gambia have openly marvelled at the infrastructure of Mauritania. Things in upcountry Gambia must be dire when Mauritania is portrayed as being more advanced!)   

          We went directly to the Leybato, a beach hotel recommended by some PCVs. We got an air-conditioned room. There was only one bed, a double, so Donna offered to make herself comfortable by sleeping on the floor, using chair cushions.

          I was happy to be in a decent and clean place. Since I hadn’t slept well on Friday night, I wasn’t feeling my peppy best, so I just wanted to hang around the hotel all day. We were planning to stay put for six days, so there would be plenty of time to see the sights. The electricity at the hotel went out shortly after noon. We didn’t know if this was the typical procedure or not, as it had been turned off during the day as a cost-saving measure in Sierra Leone.

          Once the heat of the day was behind us, we took a walk toward a branch of the only bank in The Gambia that operates ATMs. We found that the machine worked but allowed for a maximum withdrawal of only 2,000 dalasis (2,000D), which is roughly equal to $71.

          Back at the hotel, as darkness approached, we thought that we would be getting the lights back on any minute. In fact, the hotel employees told us that we would. It finally came back at 10:30. (The lack of electricity that afternoon and evening turned out to be an anomaly, as we had full service all day every day for the rest of our stay.)

          The Leybato has several taximen hanging around the premises, ready to drive tourists to the destinations of their choice. On Sunday we hired Ibrahima to take us to the Kachikally Crocodile Pool and the Abuko Nature Reserve.

          The Kachikally crocodiles are famous for being docile. Folks came up to pet them, shake their hands, and have pictures taken. I was happy enough to take photos of Donna and Ross – no need for me to make skin-to-skin contact.

          At Abuko Donna was, of course, looking for birds. We made the forty-minute trip out there to find that the display area was small, badly kept, and, in a word, pathetic. There was one cage that contained hyenas and vultures, as well as another with a few hyenas and monkeys. There weren’t many birds in evidence, as they must be more numerous earlier and later in the day, so it was not a very successful visit on that score.

          I had never seen a hyena close-up before. They are disgusting creatures, looking like large dogs that have just gone through a washing machine’s spin cycle.

          We had business to transact on Monday morning, since we did not have any confirmed transport out of Banjul. Several months ago, I had identified a flight to Dakar on Gambia International Airlines for Friday, giving us a seven-hour layover before catching the flight to Nouakchott. But the travel agent in the USA who booked our flights couldn’t issue a ticket on Gambia International.

          We headed to the Peace Corps office. My strategy was to meet the Volunteer Support Officer (VSO). The person who holds this position in Mauritania, our much beloved Cheikh Gueye, knows everyone who is anyone in Nouakchott. Mentioning his name is like saying, “Ouvres-toi Sesame!” I was hopeful that we would have a similarly well-connected person on this end.

          As it turned out Fatou the VSO was warm, welcoming, helpful, and had a good grasp of who to see and what to do. She informed us that the noon Gambia International flight to Dakar had been suspended. An option that she did not recommend was the Air Senegal flight; she called it undependable. This left us with an 8:00 AM departure on the heretofore-unheard-of Slok Air International, a Nigerian company operating out of the Banjul airport. This flight was earlier than we had wanted, but it is better to be sure that we can make our connection to NKC in the evening. At least we now had a way out of town.

          After we took care of business, it was off to Beautiful Downtown Banjul. It is one of the cleanest and most pleasant African capitals I have seen. There is not much there in the way of sights, but at least there are sidewalks, which makes it easy to negotiate the traffic.

          In Banjul I saw several Mauritanians in the downtown business district. They are unmistakable in their distinctive boubous and howlies. I greeted them and found that they were as surprised to see a white guy speaking Hassaniya as I was to see them in the first place. I also noted that I had a sense that I was running into “my people.”

          Ibrahima was on time to pick us up on Tuesday morning. Our first stop was to the Bijilo Forest Nature Trail, known for its birds and monkeys. While walking along the trail together, Donna pointed out a red-beaked hornbill, enthusing, “Isn’t he beautiful?” Ibrahima’s reply was something that Donna didn’t want to hear: “We eat them.”

          I said that they probably tasted a lot like chicken, and Ibrahima agreed. He did add, though, that they are hard to catch. Good for the red-beaked hornbill!

          There are two species of monkeys in Bijilo: the Western red colobus, which keeps itself pretty much up in the canopy, so we had to be content seeing them from afar, and the callithrix, which has a yellow tinge to its fur and which appears to be equally comfortable on the ground as well as in the trees. The callithrix monkeys are fairly habituated to humans here, and are bold enough to come up fairly close.

          On our way from Bijilo to Lamin Lodge, we stopped at an ATM so that Ross and I could withdraw money. Ibrahima had never heard of these before. He saw us go up and get the cash, but didn’t know how it was done. He thought that there was somebody behind the machine feeding us the money. We explained that no, it was coming from a machine and that this machine was communicating with our banks at home. He was amazed.

          From Bijilo, we were off to the Lamin Lodge, on the outskirts of town, beyond the paved road. Yes, I could see what the Gambia PCVs mean if the unpaved roads were this bad all over the country! The Lamin Lodge is the site of the “birds and breakfast” tours that are reasonably popular with tourists, and there are many bird-watchers who visit. As Donna, Ross, and I ate our breakfast, a young man came up and asked me if I were a “bad watcher.” Considering the context, I was able to figure out what he meant. (A little later on in this post, I will explain some of the pronunciation differences.)

          I replied that I was not a bird-watcher, but that Donna is. He proposed taking us out in a boat along the Gambia River, something that Donna and Ross were interested in, so off they went for an hour’s tour. When I wasn’t bargaining with one of the local souvenir vendors – his sign read “Mr. Cheap,” but I found that his prices were anything but cheap – I was content to sit on the upper level of the lodge, enjoying the pleasant breeze, gazing at the bends in the Gambia River (or is it the The Gambia River?).

*****

          In San Francisco, a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf is inevitable for the first-time visitor, just as seeing the Lincoln Memorial is in Washington, DC or the Statue of Liberty in New York. On Wednesday we made The Gambia tour that is probably the most inevitable: the Roots tour. Alex Haley, author of Roots, who traced his ancestors to a village on the Gambia River, catapulted The Gambia into the consciousness of people worldwide. His story has become so well known that even I, who have never read the book or seen the television show, recognize the name of Kunta Kinte.

          Until recently, there was an annual Roots Festival that attracted hundreds of visitors. The popularity has been waning over the last few years, which has caused the festival to be held every other year.

          Donna, Ross, and I decided that since the village of Jufureh was a considerable distance from the area where we were staying in Fajara, at least fifty kilometers from Banjul, that we would hire a guide to make all the arrangements for us. We had met Youssef briefly the day before when he was with a tour group at the Lamin Lodge, so we arranged to speak with him that evening and set up the tour.

          Youssef arrived at our hotel before 8:00 AM, our arranged time. We were getting an early start because the trip involved a crossing of the eight-mile width of the mouth of the Gambia River. We got there just in time to have missed a previous crossing, which necessitated a long wait to get the next ferry.

          It seems that there is a truism here in Africa that wherever people gather, there is going to be a sideshow atmosphere, a moving carnival of travellers with the ambulatory vendors and predatory hustlers who swarm around them. As Ross stood still for just a few moments, he became the object of a means for these guys to earn money. He felt that his feet were damp, so he looked down to see if he was standing in water and saw that there were two teenagers squatting at his feet, having put small brushes in water so that they could clean his shoes. The kids had not asked if he wanted his shoes cleaned. After all, he might say no! This way, they got the tourist in the position of feeling obligated to pay for services rendered, an approach that worked.

          Eventually we were able to board the ferry as foot passengers, but the taxi that Youssef had hired for the day had to wait in the queue for a subsequent crossing. While we waited for Ablaye, our taximan, to come to Barra on the other side, we took a tour of Fort Bullen, where the British established a post for the purpose of putting a stop to the slave trade in the area.

          With the arrival of the next ferry and our taximan Ablaye, we were off to Albreda, where we were to have lunch. Youssef had made a good arrangement for us there: go to the restaurant to have a cool drink, order our lunches, and then take a motorboat to the tiny James Island in the middle of the Gambia River, a place where many slaves were imprisoned, including Kunta Kinte himself.

          The area between the restaurant and the dock had several sellers of carved wooden objects: masks, animals, and small figures. The salesmen have had slim pickings these days, as they were on us in an instant.

          By the time we got back to Albreda the lunches we had ordered were ready. Once we finished eating, Donna and Ross wanted to get a good look at the masks, as they had each decided to buy one. I didn’t want to purchase anything, which caused the salesmen some consternation, since my friends were buying.

          The village of Jufureh is less than a kilometer away, so it didn’t take much time to get there. We were the only visitors at the Kinte household. As soon as the residents were made aware of our presence, Karafa Kinte, the family matriarch, was led to a chair just a few feet away from us, where she sat serenely during the guide’s spiel, as newspaper and magazine articles about the family and Alex Haley hung in their dusty, cracked, and lopsided frames above her.

          No commercial opportunity was omitted, as we were offered the options to buy Certificates of Visitation (50D each) or a book about the family (225D) before we left the compound. Once we left, we were harangued by street salespeople and children to buy their carvings, maracas, gourds, and assorted other paraphernalia.

          When we got back to Barra for the return ferry, there was a long queue. Once again, we had just missed a ferry. Donna and I took advantage of the layover by going to the Internet café. It was another three hours by the time the ferry came for us, and luckily it was the one referred to as the “fast ferry” – which meant that it was in better condition than the other one. In the end, though, it turned out to be just as slow as the “slow” one.

          Our wait in Barra turned out to be particularly opportune for the locals who came along to greet us, introduce themselves to us as their friends, and see what we had to offer them in the way of amusement or financial gain. We exchanged e-mail addresses with some people, including Modou Lamine, who said that he would come by to see me the next morning. By the time we boarded the ferry and it was ready to leave, we had spent four hours waiting.

          We declared Thursday to be free of alarms, schedules, and each other. We were each on our own to walk around the town or the beach. I took a tour of the area when I decided that I wanted to visit one of the ATMs in order to be sure that I would have enough cash for the remainder of my stay. There is a machine at the Shell station located next to the only traffic light in the country: an easy place to find because of that distinction. That ATM was not working, so I went to one of the bank branches, where that machine was also not working. An employee told me that the other branch – the one where we had gone upon our arrival – was working.     

          I arrived to see a small line of people at the ATM. Because of the pitifully small maximum withdrawal, the woman standing at the ATM continued to insert her card multiple times – at least five that I witnessed myself. At one point I jokingly called out, “Leave some money for the rest of us,” which got me her cold stare in return.

          The man in line after her took three withdrawals. When we got to the woman ahead of me, she was on her second withdrawal when the machine shut down, out of cash. It took a while to get it back up and running, at which point I was able to take out my maximum – just one shot – and then it stopped again.

*****

          I was just getting used to the Gambian way of speaking English when it was time for us to leave. Some of the phrasing and pronunciation took a bit of work to comprehend. I am sure that the locals have the same problems with native English speakers who use the language differently than they do. For example, on the way from the airport, I asked our taximan if we passed an ATM en route to the hotel. His reply surprised me. He asked me, “When?” I was looking for a yes or a no.

         

          One Gambian asked me, “What is your major visit here?”

          Many people asked, “How do you see The Gambia?” The answer to that question is not, “With my eyes.”

          Somebody wanted to know of me, “Do you have a long Johnny?” This took me a while to puzzle out. First I ruled out any reference to long johns, a garment that would not be very useful in this part of the world. Then I thought he might be making a reference to my height, since the French use the word “long” to mean “tall.” Eventually, I realized that he was asking if I were on a long journey.

          Written English had its own amusing permutations as well. Here are just a few of the signs that I saw:

          PLUMBERING AND GENERAL MERCHANDISE

          Your satisfaction is highly garanted

          UNIVERSAL TRUST SECURITY

          Motto: “Reality is our trust”

          The service we offer are departments

          YOUNG WOMEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION

          Motto: “By love serve one another”

          NIGERIA INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL

          A modern school with computer-aided teaching           where discipline can be inculcated into your child

          Motto: “Education Empowers”

          UNCLE SAM INTERNATIONAL SECURITY

          SERVICES

          We may be less expensive but more

          TASTY SENSATION

          Food that suites ure taste

          GAMBIA INTERNATIONAL AIRLINES

          Your satisfaction is our pride

          Barber shops are “barbing saloons”

          Calafonia Store

          SAFARI GARDEN

          The hotel that gives more than it takes.

          Restaurant with rooms

          This last one takes a bit of explanation that does not meet the eye upon first glance at the sign. On Thursday, our last day in The Gambia, I had wanted to eat lunch at the Indian restaurant, but when I got there I found that it was closed so that the kitchen could be cleaned. I headed to Safari Garden, enticed by one of their advertisements offering “a dazzling array for vegetarians.” Personally, I don’t need a “dazzling array.” In fact, I find it easier when there is not a huge variety because then it can be difficult for me to make up my mind. Just give me a menu that has one guaranteed critter-free choice and I will be satisfied.

          While I was at Safari Garden, I struck up a conversation with a woman currently working in The Gambia in a health program for an American non-profit. When I mentioned how intrigued I was about “the hotel that gives more than it takes,” she told me that the British owners of the hotel use their profits to support a wide variety of education and health care projects in the country. Now that’s different!

          If only it were that easy to understand what Uncle Sam International Security Services means by, “We may be less expensive but more.”

*****

          We found people to be usually very friendly, calling out to us as we walked down the street. Upwards of thirty people a day came over to introduce themselves to us, asking for our names, where we are staying, and where we are from. They watched our moves carefully. On two different occasions, I left our hotel and turned left when I got to the beach, so that I could walk toward the more populated area. When I was on my way back to the hotel, I encountered somebody who had been to my hotel to visit me, asked where I was, and then had some member of the staff tell him that he had seen me go thataway. One of these guys was Modou Lamine, whom we had met the day before at the ferry terminal in Barra.

          People we had met a few days before were a bit surprised that we did not remember who they were, where we had met, or what their names were. But at the rate of meeting new people who throw themselves at us to engage in a conversation, how could we possibly remember all of them?

*****

          We were up at 5:00 the morning of our departure. We had arranged for Ibrahima to pick us up at 6:00, and he was early. The flight to Dakar lasted only about twenty-five minutes.

          We arrived in Dakar ten hours before our scheduled departure that evening, so we decided to make good use of the day by hiring a taxi to take us to Lac Rose (Rose Lake), about an hour’s ride north of Dakar, in the direction opposite the main part of town. I had seen postcards of the lake (formally known as Lake Retba) and wanted to see it in person, since the water was depicted as being pink, hence its nickname.

          On the way to the lake, the driver took many back roads because he said that the traffic was heavy, though it didn’t appear to be anywhere near as congested as it is in downtown Dakar. At one point, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and a woman got in. He introduced her to us as his wife and he didn’t so much ask if it was all right for her to get in – he just told us that she was coming with us.

          When the wife joined Donna and me in the back seat, it gave us considerably less room and it was also a bit uncomfortable because of the sagging nature of the back seat. With Donna in the middle, wifey and I were not too supported by our own seat springs, which meant that we were constantly sliding into Donna. It was nigh on impossible to get myself closer to the back door, as Mr. Gravity continually pushed me back to the middle of the seat. We didn’t know if he was taking his wife for just a few kilometers or exactly how far she was going.

          Along the way, it was evident that our driver either hadn’t been to Lac Rose or just didn’t remember how to get there, as he had to stop several times to ask for directions. When we finally got there, salespeople besieged us as soon as we piled out of the taxi. The Senegalese are about the most aggressive salespeople I have ever encountered. They do not take “no” for an answer. I asked one of them why they don’t stop trying to sell, even after people tell them no. He told me, “Because after saying “no” many times, French people change their minds and then buy something.” So it’s the French who got us into this!

          The driver’s wife stayed with us all the way to the lake. It was evident that she was with us for the outing. Our guidebook described an appealing restaurant on the other side of the lake and we decided to have lunch over there. It would have been shorter to go by boat (fifteen minutes) rather than drive around the lake on the unpaved road. We arranged for the pirogue to take us to the restaurant, but when we saw the rickety condition of the boats, we decided that we didn’t want to chance the trip.

          While we were having lunch, we pondered the situation with the driver’s wife. We couldn’t figure out how it happened that he just stopped and picked her up; we had never seen him call her on a phone.

          After eating lunch, Donna went for a dip in the lake, lured by its reputed high salinity, ten times that of an ocean. She enjoyed floating.

          We went back to the taxi for the return to the airport area. On the way, I asked the driver how it had happened that his wife was on the road waiting for us. He said that while we were negotiating the price at the airport, she had called on the phone and asked where he was. He told her where he was going, and she decided to come along for the ride, so she met us along the way, which probably accounted for the back roads that we took to get to the lake.

          When he dropped us off and we paid the agreed-upon price, the driver had the nerve to ask for a tip. Donna told him, “Your wife came with us. That was your tip.”

          At the Dakar airport, I did something shameful and then immediately paid the price for it. I had noticed on previous visits that there are young men walking around with euro coins, trying to trade them for their local FCFA currency. It is fairly common worldwide that banks and other exchange services will deal only with bills, so these kids have handfuls of euro-cent, €1, and €2 coins that they are trying to get rid of in order to have money that they can spend.

          Since Donna was planning to go to France for a few days before heading back home, I thought that we could trade some FCFA for euro coins. My mistake was in thinking that these kids would be desperate enough for any kind of legal tender that they would be willing to take less than the going exchange rate. Whereas the US dollar rate fluctuates in value against the FCFA, the euro is fixed at 656 FCFA. I wanted to get a good deal, so offered the kids 500, telling them that I would take €20 off their hands for 10,000 FCFA. At first one of them balked, but then he agreed. He had a fistful of coins that he laboriously counted out in front of me to show me that he had the €20. I handed him the 10,000 FCFA and then, through some slight of hand, when the transaction was completed, I walked away with less than half of what we agreed to.

          It serves me right for trying to take advantage of somebody who most certainly needs the money more than I do.

          The Air Mauritanie flight from Dakar was only a little late in its return to Nouakchott.  Mamouni was waiting for us at the airport. When he drove us back to my place, we had a bit of a surprise waiting for us when we got upstairs: there was no electricity! The bill had arrived during my absence. Even though the guardian told SOMELEC that I was on vacation and would pay the bill when I got back, they didn’t wait for my return and they shut off the service. This especially surprised me because I have paid my bills on time ever since I have been living here. There I was, with two houseguests and no electricity or water, and it was the weekend so there were no prospects of a quick resolution to the situation.

          When I tried to get to the bottom of the matter, I got conflicting reports from Abdullahi, the guardian, and Mamouni, who had been by the house a few times while I was away. Abdullahi told me that he had told Mamouni that the electricity would be turned off for non-payment and that Mamouni said it was my responsibility to pay, not his. Mamouni tells the tale differently. In any event, I was a bit miffed that between them they couldn’t find a way to deal with this, especially since Mamouni knows many PCVs whom he could have contacted to ask for payment and then have me reimburse them when I got back.

          Donna and Ross were good sports about the situation. We had to truck water upstairs for bathing. I did dishes at the spigot in the courtyard next to the guardian’s post. This was a tricky situation, however, as in typical Mauritanian fashion, the handle does not function properly and needs a repair that will probably never be made: once the water is turned on, it is hard to turn off, which leads to the danger of buckets overflowing and getting the entire area muddy. Abdullahi has put a cloth tourniquet in place to keep the handle on the faucet, but it is tricky to turn off the water. I am guessing that a plumber could take care of the problem in fifteen minutes with a total cost of less than $2 in labor and under $1 in materials.  

          First thing Sunday morning I went to SOMELEC to pay the bill. They sent me to see the person who would be in charge of turning on the power. He filled out a form and said that the power would be turned on that day.

          By 5:00, when there was still no electricity, Abdullahi asked me if I wanted an electrician to turn it on, for the price of 1,500 ouguiya. I said yes. I don’t know if it was Abdullahi’s electrician friend or SOMELEC who did the deed, but the power came on at about 6:30 PM.

*****

          I have some concluding remarks, not just about this trip, but concerning travel in general in Africa, now that I have visited ten countries on this continent:

          When commenting on a new locale, people commonly say, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.” I have a twist on that perspective with regard to Africa: It’s a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit here.

          In saying this, I recognize that it has been significantly easier to fulfill daily needs as a resident than as a traveler. Why? The dynamics of living in a place are, of course, much different than those when one is visiting. The reality of this disparity has surfaced for me whenever I have travelled in Africa. During this last trip I have given this some additional consideration to determine why this is true for me.

          The best way to explain myself is to express this in terms of Nouakchott, where I have been living since September 2003. To a visitor, there’s certainly not much appealing to engender the desire to stay longer. A first-timer immediately encounters everything that is on the surface of this city: the unattractive architecture, the garbage in the street, the traffic, the sand, and the heat.

          As a resident, though, I have learned how to go beneath these superficial qualities in order to find elements that are hard for short-term visitors to uncover in their brief stays. For example, a visitor would never be able to find the whole grain sourdough bread that I buy from Hans and Sylvie, the tofu I get from the Chinese restaurant; or know how to locate a decent tailor who charges a fair price and does a good job. As a resident of this city, I have discovered where to find what I need to buy and I know the prices well enough so that I will not be cheated. In addition, since I know people who live here, I have established a network of friends and acquaintances, both Mauritanians and Americans, on whom I can depend.

          If I have a bureaucratic job that needs to be done, such as getting a visa to visit another country, this is a job that I can do much more easily within the context of the city where I am living, as I generally have plenty of time to drop off my passport, let it sit at the embassy for any number of days, and then pick it up when it is most convenient for me. By contrast, a tourist has fewer options available to him while he is visiting a city such as Nouakchott.

          Shopping is one of the most difficult aspects of travelling, especially in a country where prices are not fixed. The situation is ripe for being taken advantage of, in that one never knows if he is paying the right prices. Additionally, a visitor doesn’t know where things are.

          Maybe what people are talking about when they compare living in a place to visiting there has to do with familiarity. After all, when you visit, so much is new, too little is familiar and comforting. When you live in a place, you make peace with what is unavailable and you find alternatives or substitutes. A visitor doesn’t have the means to do that. Furthermore, there are always linguistic and cultural adjustments that have to be made. When are the lunch breaks? opening hours of stores? local holidays? 

          Africa is not blessed with an abundance of the kinds of things I enjoy seeing: attractive architecture, public art and parks, museums, and efficient public transport systems. There is little to do when travelling, unless one has friends at the various destinations.

          The hit-and-run tourist is usually in a hurry: have a bite, see a sight, say good night, take your flight. Since time is of the essence, when things don’t go smoothly, it leads to frustration. Things do not typically go smoothly in Africa, which, of course, leads to one frustration after the other. 

          In short, I have found that Nouakchott is a more stable, relaxed, and settled existence for me as a resident than anywhere else I have been in Africa as a traveler: a nice place in which to live, but not as easy going for me as a visitor.