Note: this was written last week in Soma, The Gambia, but we’ve only just been able to post it (from Casamance, Senegal). A fair bit has changed since then – including, possibly, our planned route mentioned here. Another update coming soon.
First off, sorry for the long silence. To make up for it, here’s an extra long soundscape so you can listen to what we’ve been waking up to on a good morning in The Gambia. This one was recorded at dawn in a derelict encampment in Bessi, off The Gambia’s southern road, where nature was busily reclaiming the gardens:
The border crossing out of Senegal and into The Gambia was, thankfully, much less exciting than our last border. The town, Karang, consisted of a big market, a handful of money changers and a few dozen chickens pecking at the dirt on the roadside. At customs, three bored-looking men looked up from a newspaper. Their eyes lit up when they saw us. “Now, why don’t you tell us everything that is in your bags before we get up to open them all ourselves? I want to know everything. I don’t want to find one thing in there that you didn’t tell me about.”
This – the first threat to search our bags of the trip – unnerved us a little. We’re carrying a lot of equipment that might make us look like journalists, and journalism is the last thing you want to be suspected of in The Gambia. Apart from human rights activism. Or witchcraft. (The increasingly brutal President Jammeh apparently believes that all journalists should be killed, recently adding that he plans to kill all human rights workers in The Gambia too. Unfortunately, he’s gone some way to achieving his aims – Amnesty International’s Fear Rules (pdf) has details.)
Clearly, our best bet was to bore them into defeat by stringing out our equipment list for as long as possible before we had to mention the microphones and cameras. This turned out to be quite fun, in a memory game sort of a way. “Fourteen passport photos,” I said. “Eight tent pegs,” Huw said. “A zippy bag thing.” “Three knives.” “Pot grips.” “A tea spoon.” “Half a chopping board.” “A sachet of washing up liquid…”
I think it was the argument over the number of socks that finished them in the end. We were waved on to get our entry stamps and, after a painless procedure involving only two officials, two ledgers, two stamps and one easily evaded request for “something for the station”, we were welcomed to The Gambia, panniers untouched.
There, we immediately met Michael, a schoolboy. “Nice bike,” we said as he cycled past on a nice bike. “No it is not,” he answered. “It is last year’s model.” We pedalled through the village together, Michael pointing out this and that as we went. A man called out unintelligibly from under a tree. “Don’t answer that man,” said Michael. “He drinks alcohol.” Michael left us at the turn off to his compound and we pedalled on into The Gambia.The Gambia is a little sliver of land – basically a river basin – that was carved out of what is now Senegal in a moment of true colonial idiocy; the British apparently took a frigate up The Gambia River (a major artery for carrying people from Africa’s interior to its coast for the trans-Atlantic slave trade), blasted canons from it, and the cannon balls demarcated The Gambia’s borders.
Nowadays, it’s mainland Africa’s smallest country and one of its poorest. According to Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, 97 per cent of Gambian government budget comes from aid. Aside from aid, it’s pretty much totally dependent on peanut farming and tourism.
We stopped at the first shop we saw to celebrate our arrival in a new country with a soft drink and joined a group of young men sitting outside the shop. “How are things in The Gambia?” I asked. One man snorted; the others answered guardedly that things were fine. The conversation moved onto football.
(This kind of exchange was to recur throughout the Gambia; National Intelligence spies are thought to be everywhere. We never explicitly asked about President Jammeh’s regime and the only criticism of it that was usually volunteered to us was a muttered “Things were better before 1994″ – the year of Jammeh’s military coup. Only once, in the hundreds of conversations we had, did we hear anything more explicit: “There is no freedom here – but I have to be careful who I say that to. People who say that sort of thing have a habit of disappearing. So nobody talks about it. There is no political discussion, even on a low level. So there is no real opposition.”)
At the next village, we were joined by Sekou, a teenager, who wanted to help us find the way to Barra’s only “hotel”: a plastic-sheeted, scantily-clad-ladied place that had stream of single male visitors. It also had a lively bar, and we spent an excellent evening with Sekou, his policeman brother and, later, an exiled former government minister of Sierra Leone, all shouting to be heard over the blaring reggae.
We mentioned that we were enjoying speaking English after seven months of French. Sekou replied that he and his brother spoke seven languages fluently, six of them African. He wanted to learn German and Spanish next. And he wanted to be a doctor. Doctors could live wherever they liked. “I will study in The Gambia,” he told us, “then move to Europe”, unwittingly summing up in a sentence one of Africa’s more insidious problems: a crippling brain drain.
The next morning we reached Banjul, and pedalled straight through it – under the archway we didn’t realise only the President is allowed to drive through, past thousands of signs (posted on every lamp post by one of The Gambia’s mobile phone companies) of the President’s smiling face with “Thank You Mr President” written beneath, past more signs congratulating the President on the anniversary of his military coup, and past others announcing that President Jammeh was turning The Gambia into “an economic powerhouse of the twenty-first century”, finally pulling into a beautiful campsite in Sukuta.There, we spent a week route planning and venturing into nearby Banjul, Bakau and Serrakunda to get visas for Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea respectively. We’re about to head into the most unstable part of West Africa; strangely, Sierra Leone and Liberia are the two most stable of the next few countries on our route. Southern Senegal’s Casamance region suffers from on-off fighting (separatist rebels vs Senegal military). Guinea-Bissau has had both its President and its military leader murdered in the past seven months, possibly over a spat about revenues from the enormous cocaine trade that Colombian drug barons have set up there to supply Europe. And, most worryingly, Guinea had a military coup last year and is now teetering uncertainly after the authorities killed over 150 people peacefully protesting about the leader’s intention to stand in the coming election. “Good luck,” smiled the man at the Guinean consulate as he handed us our stamped passports.
The Gambia on the other hand is stable. (Some might argue it’s too stable; it’s only had two leaders since getting independence from Britain in 1965, and the present leader seems to be the worst kind of autocrat.) It has grinding poverty, but it has peace – a prerequisite for any hope of prosperity and a valuable commodity in this part of the world. All along the river Gambia, we met refugees from elsewhere in West Africa, mostly Guinea.
“Sierra Leone, Guinea.. Those countries are unlucky,” said one man we met in Banjul. “They have diamonds and gold. We only have peanuts, so we have peace.”Because it has peace, the tourists come, including a lot of package tourists. Around Banjul, the collision between tourism and poverty can be messy; sex tourism (middle-aged European women coupled with young Gambian men are a common sight) and “bumsters” (tourist hustlers) are both rife. In between trying to rip us off, the bumsters – and others – recited over and over again: “The Gambia is the Smiling Coast of Africa”. But they barely managed to muster a smile when they said it. Our lasting impression of the Banjul area was, sadly, of jaded, tired people.
Finally, we set off upriver with our visas in hand, following the dirt track on the south of the river instead of facing Banjul and the presidential posters again to reach the immaculate northern road. We cycled a series of half days, stopping first at Brikama, where we spent an excellent evening with a Gambian musician who’d lived in Europe for ten years before returning to live in The Gambia: “Africa loves the major keys,” he concluded, “and Europe loves the minor keys”. He adored Europe and hated Africa and, not for the first time, we found ourselves in a discussion in which an African defended Europe’s colonial (and neo-colonial) behaviour while we criticised it, and we defended African people while he criticised them. It’s a funny old world.East of Brikama, rural Gambia began. While there were more villages here than in Senegal, there was less in them – less food in the shops, less mains water (but plenty of village pumps) and less electricity (usually none). In other ways, the villages and landscapes were similar to Senegal’s: millet and peanut fields; silk cotton trees and termite mounds; trees alive with weaver birds; children’s bellies and adult’s arms adorned with amulets; village shops forming the centre of village life; and the still confusing alternation between aggressive shouts of “Toubab! Give me money!” and warm welcomes and kindness.
For a long stretch, the dirt road was good – flattened and ready for a new road to be laid on top – and relatively quiet, so we pedalled between peanut farms and rice fields and palms and creeks quite happily, steadily getting covered in a thick red dust. At night times, we found usually-derelict camps to sleep in and, at Tendaba, a wonderfully underelict camp where we spent a few days wandering through the bush and mangrove swamps, relaxing at the bar, meeting a couple of Dutch cyclists and generally recording everything we could hear (still to be edited and uploaded).
We’re now in Soma, halfway along the Gambia River, less than an hour away from southern Senegal’s Casamance region. From there, we’ll be cycling onwards into Guinea-Bissau and Guinea. More soon.