There and Back Again

Hello again

After all the preparations and excitement, the road trip was a lot shorter than planned as we got back on Saturday night and not Monday. It was still very successful in that we did all the things we had hoped to, though I have to admit there was a dearth of hippos and baboons. We did see the occasional monkey bounding across the road and we often had to stop or swerve to avoid cattle, donkeys and goats that had little road sense and I think I heard the bellowing of a hippo up-river at one point. I’ll try to give a flavour of the trip without going into meaningless detail, but I do tend to waffle on a bit.

We travelled east up the south bank as there is some problem with the Banjul-Barra ferry. It’s hard to get concrete information here, but it’s not likely that it’ll be fixed by the time the group goes to Kerewan so the option is either a four hour wait at Banjul, or to go east as far as Farafenni and cross there.

The road to Basse was mostly tarmac, but there are a few lengthy sections where it’s still dirt track. In these places, other vehicles are mostly hidden by the dust clouds they raise. On the way east, we stopped in a number of small villages where I met Saikou’s family and also that of Sainey Drammeh, the CE. When we reached Soma, we stopped for breakfast. Or at least the driver – another Alasana – and Saikou did. I had had breakfast at 7:00 before leaving, but even if I hadn’t I think I’d have wanted to avoid the “meat” and bread they bought. The “meat” was nearer offal than anything else, simmering in a big metal bowl from which a rather unpleasant smell emanated. We drove on, with Alasana alternately gripping the wheel and picking up greasy morsels to chew on.

Soon after Soma, we had a puncture. The road stretched straight and undulating, apparently completely devoid of habitation for miles. We had a spare wheel and it was efficiently swapped over and we continued. I hoped we didn’t have another puncture. A few miles further on, as we passed a tumbledown cluster of grass-thatched huts we stopped and lo and behold there was a tyre repair man who got to working patching the inner tube, whilst we sat round, drank attaya – the local tea – and chatted. My few words of the local languages are totally inadequate for anything other than greetings and thank yous, but with good will and Saikou’s translations we got on well enough. We set off from there with a repaired tyre and a second spare wheel, so we were more or less ready for anything.

The American Ambassador’s convoy swept past, going the other way. He must have been dozing or something, because he didn’t stop to greet me as a long-lost friend.

Late morning the road was thronged with kids returning from school: it was hard to see where the school or their homes might actually be: all I could see was miles of flat, parched grassland, peppered with wizened looking bushes and trees. Amongst these wandered cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and people, whilst vultures flew overhead.

From time to time we stopped to meet various Youth Co-ordinators. If you wonder why there is such emphasis on Youth in the country, you need look no further than the birth rate, which is about three times as high as the UK. I’m guessing at the reasons for this, but here are my thoughts: many men – poor chaps – have more than one wife; the child mortality rate is falling, but the culture hasn’t caught up with this; there is a desire to have boys who can help on the farm; there may be less use of contraception – condoms are readily available, but often linked with AIDS prevention, rather than family planning.

We had started from Bakau by 8:00am, but the heat rose mercilessly throughout the day. While we were driving, open windows kept us coolish, but any stop immediately led to profuse perspiration and even thinking about walking a few yards reduced me to little more than a greasy spot. I have been in various other hot places, but I think it’s fair to say that nowhere I’ve visited before was as hot as Basse. Both the driver and Saikou were also sweating heavily and commenting on the heat, so it wasn’t just my toubab lack of acclimatisation. Drinking water we had bought cold in Bakau soon became rather too hot to be pleasant, necessary as it was.

In Basse, we first tried to get accommodation in a guest house run by the Medical Research Council – apparently it’s the place presidents and other dignitaries stay in – but it was full. Just as well as it was going to cost £15 (sic) a night each! We ended up in another place at £5 a night for accommodation and I suppose it was OK. My suggestion that we have a room each was greeted with gratitude at my largesse. The first thing I did was have a shower: the loo was dingy and frequented by earwigs, but the pressure was good and the “cold” water was just about as hot as I could bear. The local MP was staying in the guest house, so I seized the opportunity of meeting him and we told him about our tentative plans for next year. He offered his support should we need it.

We went back into town to find something to eat and eventually located a concrete blockhouse with a tin roof: it was scorching inside. The only food available was domoda – spicy peanut and meat sauce with rice, which would certainly have helped clear the sweat glands had they needed it. The owner was a young lady, heavily pregnant, from Guinea-Conakry so I was able to converse with her in French. We went back to base and I decided on a second shower, but the water was now off.

About 8:00pm we went back into town and sat outside in Mike’s Bar, a dusty dirty bad smelling place with very loud music and “Panorama Action” channel on the TV. I had a couple of cold Julbrews, Saikou had Coke and the driver picked up a girl: judging by comments he had made during the day his taste in women veers towards the large and heavy. The girl he picked up certainly fitted that description: thighs like tree trunks, a posterior to match and skirt that must have been made of some expensive stretchy material as it fitted tightly and she couldn’t afford a lot of it.

Saikou said to me that the driver is married and that he (Saikou) didn’t approve of this “hanky panky”, especially with “the diseases we have around now” and I remembered the brief stop the driver had made at a pharmacy. About 9:30 Saikou rang the driver, who had disappeared with the girl, to take us back to our lodgings. Both of them turned up. “I hope you have had a good evening” he said. “Yes, I hope you have too,” I replied innocently. “Oh yes, indeed!” he answered with a grin.

This led to a moral dilemma: I was paying for the rooms, so did I have any say in whether the girl stayed? Was it any of my business? While I was mulling this over, the two of them headed back into town, so the problem disappeared.

I didn’t sleep too well, due to heat and earwigs, but got enough to partially recharge my batteries.

Saturday breakfast was a banana washed down with my anti-malarial pill and some warm water and then the three of us set off back, still hot, to Janjanburreh which is something of a tourist milking station. It is an island in the river, accessible from the south by bridge and by ferry from the north. In colonial days, it was called Georgetown and was first a slaving post and then a slave refuge. We did the tour and saw various reminders of man’s inhumanity to man before taking the ferry to the north bank. We also met a German chap – Hakkim by name – who was working for the Gambian Government as a building contractor. My first sight of him was when he was shouting at some folk delivering sand and calling them thieves and liars, but in fact he seemed a good guy on longer acquaintance and I was struck by his practical passion to develop the area and to bring in tourist money for the town. He said he brings an idea for a design and a knowledge of the necessary standards to attract tourists and the Gambian workforce bring building skills  to suit the available materials. The Gambia needs that sort of entrepreneurship if it is to develop: I left impressed by his motives and vision.

We zipped west along the north bank past Wassu with its famous stone circles to Farafenni where, it being about 3:00pm and the banana long having ceased to sustain me, we had “lunch”. This was meat and bread. The meat was fried with onions in a wok sort of dish and served with various spicy things. I left the kidney – something I’ve never liked – which the driver wolfed down. He probably needed to restore his energy, because he perked up and started pointing out girls he fancied: I soon got to recognise the type.

After the meal, and a bottle of wonjo juice which I drank in Janjanburreh, I expected to have a dose of Banjul Belly, but happily I did not suffer any ill effects. Wonjo juice is a lovely red drink made from the dried flowers of the wonjo tree and lashings of sugar etc. I had no idea where the water for it came from – I hoped it wasn’t the river – and the bottle which came from a local stall had to be returned for refilling and resale.

We re-crossed the river to the south bank at Farafenni and I watched in quiet amusement as the ferry staff encouraged a driver to come so far forward that he smashed his headlights and radiator grille against the truck in front. This led to a lot of shouting and dozens of onlookers, but calmed down to a fatalistic resignation on the part of the car driver.

Back on the south side, we had a long stretch of dirt track which helped to keep me awake and eventually we arrived back on home territory. As soon as we dropped Saikou off near his house, the driver started telling me about his children and their school fees. I had been expecting something along these lines, so I was prepared: I asked innocently if he missed his wife while he was away in Basse and he fell into the trap. “Oh yes,” he said. I asked whether she liked him having other girls and that ended the conversation pretty effectively. He didn’t even look surprised at not getting a tip as I’d already managed to point out that he was the only one of the three of us being paid for the excursion! I imagine he’d return the pick-up immediately and possibly gain from any rebate due to the shorter hire period, so my conscience is clear.

Today is going to be a quiet day: it seems cool compared to Basse. Rohey appeared briefly as she has been buying supplies for next week’s wedding and delivered them to the Centre where the preparation will be done.

Anyway, you’ve got off lightly with just under three pages in Word: the next thing is to decide how to post this. If the gods are willing, I’ll also post some photos.

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