Under a clear and promising sky, I headed to Senegambia on Thursday night to take in Reggae Night at WOW nightclub, to dance and enjoy some music. I haven’t been to WOW, and had only been told by my roommate that it was the busiest bar she’d been to. The more time I spend in this country, the less I like the Senegambia area. It’s truly a bland, bumster-filled tourist strip that makes me long for Vegas. Arriving shortly before 10pm and finding WOW empty, I strolled to a casino across the street, which unfortunately was merely a small room with slots and a European electronic roulette table. I returned to the bar and relaxed on a couch, a guy came over and we chatted. Within 5 minutes, he pointed out a waitress I could buy. She was lovely, but I respectfully declined. I reminded him to go vote the next day, because he didn’t know when the election was. Slowly, the bar started to get busier. “Reggae night” was a bit of a misnomer and mainly consisted of a DJ with horrible mixing skills imitating Shaggy over 50 Cent tracks. But the reggae-ish R&B music was still a lot of fun to let loose to, the packed dance floor pulsated as the sweltering heat increased and the night wore on. The bar itself has concrete walls with African art, three areas separated by pillars and arches, and opens up to a long patio that overlooks the street below. At around 2am, I was approached by a girl and we danced a bit, and then she wanted to go to the street, where she introduced me to her brother. I hung out for a bit, but felt a growing unease that I was going to get latched onto and scammed, so I bought her a drink and went home. I suppose it’s to be expected. Gambia has a fair share of sex tourism, although it’s largely middle aged white women and young Gambian men.
Gambia was a ghost town on Friday. The 22nd had been declared a public holiday in honor of the presidential election. Streets were deserted and shops were closed, even tourist restaurants. And apparently I was mistaken, in that Gambia does have secret ballots. I started reading “Things Fall Apart” and did my fourth run in a row. They are still challenging, but I might have to start increasing my distances pretty soon. Although it rained a bit and winds were huge, the weather has definitely been improving and the rainy season seems to be nearing its end. One thing I will miss about it, aside from its cooling and refreshing effect, is the atmosphere at the office: working at my desk with the rain pouring outside my window, enjoying a cup of tea and relaxing kora music. Nevertheless, I hoped for a bit of luck in capturing a window of good weather between the rainy season and the tourist invasion, and booked a “Roots” tour for the following day.
Whoever talked about life being a journey and not a destination might have been a Gambian. Saturday morning ushered in a clear sky and a day of merciless heat. My tour guide picked me up in a taxi at 9am, and we headed north to the Banjul harbor. The local taxis in this country are fantastic and make me glad that I got a tetanus shot before I left: beat up seats, missing handles or entire side panels, doors that open with a rope, and so on. This taxi was fine, except it fishtailed mysteriously for the entire trip. We arrived at the harbor, walked through the local market, and waited for the ferry. There are usually three ferries alternating, with trips taking about half an hour and leaving every hour. One of the ferries was out of commission and, because there weren’t many people traveling the day after the election, only one of the ferries was operating. We could see it making its away across the river, and wouldn’t board it for another two hours. Gambia is on GMT (“Gambian Maybe Time”), and I normally wouldn’t be stressed about waiting around and relaxing except I worried about rain in the afternoon and having time to do everything. Nevertheless, we waited. I visited the bathroom, the most putrid toilet I’ve ever seen. I saw a couple of men urinating into the river from the bank. And I watched as men listened to ongoing election results over portable radios.
The ferry finally docked, unloaded throngs of people and cars returning from voting the previous day in their districts, and we boarded. I was told that this ferry was purchased last year from Ukraine. I wasn’t sure if this made me feel more or less comfortable. We kept waiting as more and more last-minute stragglers came running forward, and finally left for Barra, a small town on the north bank of the River Gambia, 5km north-east of Banjul. Banjul is on the tip of the southern bank, and the two towns are right at the mouth of the Gambia River where it flows into the Atlantic. I enjoyed being on the water and feeling the warm breeze. We could see the fins of dolphins, a species protected from hunting, cutting through the waves. The water is salty, but I’ve either gotten used to the smell or there wasn’t much of one. We motored past Fort Bullen on Barra Point, which was built by the British to supplement the cannons of Banjul by covering the northern part of the river against boats engaged in illicit slave trading, and to harass the French.
We landed in Barra and I looked around for a couple of minutes as my guide went to arrange further transportation. Like the Serrekundha market, Barra was impoversished, muddy, bustling with ferry traffic, and filled with street vendors in corrugated metal huts. We got in a taxi that would take us for the rest of the trip. The poverty of the houses in Barra was matched by the quality of the dirt road. While parts of Gambia have undergone development, clearly not all areas have benefited. Lunch was a cob of maize. Ladies on the side of roads or in markets heat and scorch the maize under the sun in what look like large, black woks. It was alright but somewhat flavourless, and not as good as sweet corn. We hit a paved highway after leaving Barra and headed east, settling in for a lovely and deserted drive through a gorgeous countryside of palm trees, mango trees, baobab trees, rice paddies, couscous, broad savannah, and all sorts of other greenery. After a while, we turned onto the dirt road that would take us to our final destination of Albreda. This was one of the worst roads I’ve been on, a slow crawl around giant, water-filled potholes. A land rover would have been useful. Barra to Albreda is about 30km south-east, but the drive took about 2 hours. However, the drive allowed for a good appreciation of the countryside. We drove through three small, isolated villages. Every time we were spotted, little kids and tiny toddlers would start screaming and smiling in pure, unadulterated joy, and run as fast as they could by the car.
By the time we arrived in Albreda, it was about 3pm. Albreda is a small, coastal village, and the launching site for James Island. I saw the remains of a French trading post built sometime between 200 and 400 years ago. There was the stump of the Freedom Pole which, legend has it, would grant freedom to any slave who managed to touch it. There was an old British cannon, and a statue commissioned for a previous Roots Festival. My guide and I, along with a couple of South American Dutch tourists, set out to the distant island in the middle of the river in a long, motorized wooden boat. We cut across the calm waters to the sounds of a drummer providing entertainment. The water was warm to the touch. As I gazed at the unspoiled wilderness along the banks of the river, I noted that very little had likely changed from the time colonial forces walked those shores.
James Island is a small, eroded, tree-covered island south of Albreda in the middle of the Gambia River. From the banks, it looks like a growth of trees surrounded by endless water. It was discovered by the Portuguese, and battled over for centuries by the British and French who used it as a trading site, a slave fort and later, the location from which the abolitionist British policed the river. The French ultimately booted the British off the island and destroyed the fort. The British policing efforts shifted to Banjul and Barra, and the island was abandoned in 1829. Because the ruins are not very well protected, there is a natural and raw feel to the crumbling stone walls, pathways, and abandoned cannons that pointed in all four directions from the island. It’s actually quite a nice island, with a rocky shore and a large, shady trees. However, you also see the underground room where troublesome slaves were kept, along with the grated window through which food was delivered. You see the tiny room where a hundred slaves would be kept, the governor’s room, the room where prices were arranged, and so on. Slaves would be taken from James Island to Goree Island by Dakar, thence to Europe or America. We returned to Albreda and drove to the bordering town of Juffureh where I met the 7th generation descendant of Kunta Kinte. The villages of Albreda and Juffureh were small, quiet and unassuming, and we left to head back to Barra.
We passed through the three villages once again. Life is very difficult in these poor, simple and isolated places. They had clean drinking water because of large water tanks brought in through European initiative. We drove into one of the villages and stopped because it was the childhood home of my guide and he wanted to say hello to his mother. The village children screamed in joy and surrounded the car, ecstatic and enthralled at the site of me, the “toubab”. I got out of the car and said hello to them and took a picture with the crowd. Although our time was brief, I loved the experience of seeing the upcountry villages and the children’s pure happiness was infectious.
We returned to Barra. While waiting for the ferry, we popped into a local eatery. This was a small room lit by two bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, a wall with African artwork, and plastic chairs and tables. We ate bread and a bowl of goat’s leg, which was one of the greasiest things I’ve ever had. There must be better cuts of goat’s meat. A television showed readings of the Qu’ran and the crowds at Mecca for the start of Ramadan.
We boarded the ferry, overloaded with people, cars, and a wooden casket, for the ride back to Banjul. By now, it was dark. I stood at the top of the ship by the control room (a perk of being a tourist), admired the modest lights of Banjul in the distance and the stars in the sky, and listened to a large group lower down singing songs in celebration of the President’s re-election. Banjul at night was a lively place. We took a taxi back home. The President had apparently held a party for his supporters at his place earlier in the evening and, as we drove down the highway, hundreds of people, mostly young, were walking the long way back to Serrekundha, some hanging off speeding cars, yelling and celebrating.
I was supposed to be home by about 5pm. When I arrived, it was 9pm, which included skipping a stop at the slavery museum in Juffureh. Regardless, it was a good day. Compared to what I had seen in Barra and the various villages, my house seemed like a suburban palace in a thriving metropolis, and I felt very lucky. My mind kept returning to the happy children’s faces I had seen earlier in the day, and the sad thought that some of them may very well die of malaria or another disease at a young age. There is so much beauty and promise here. Things could be much different.
Sunday was another scorcher. The waves were particularly strong and crashing at Leybado. Taking them on after rugby was a lot of fun, but the undertow started to get rather strong, tugging me away from the shore. With a bit of effort, I made my way out of the water, and watched the sun disappear over the ocean’s horizon. The other players were discussing two friends with whom I’m not familiar. They were out sailing on Friday, got caught in the sudden rainstorm, capsized, and were in the water holding on to the boat for 18 hours until they were rescued by Senegalese fisherman the next day. Scary.
Today marks the second day of Ramadan in my part of the world. Half the street vendors near my office aren’t around. I’m looking forward to seeing what Gambia will be like in this month of fasting.