On transportation in The Gambia. (This is long, but less boring than that long post I wrote about vegetables or whatever.)
I live in two places here in The Gambia, the primary one being Basse, which is a largely electricity-less town with more donkey carts than cars. The other is Kombo, which inshallah, has electricity most hours of the day, but it is the rainy season so all that is up in the air, but you can usually escape to a generator-powered tourist establishment (littering the streets here) and get some work done.
It is not easy to get between these two places. (“It’s not easy” is a common Gambian phrase, as in, “Nyima [my Gambian name], life here, it’s not easy. Give me 50 dalasis.” No.)
Transportation option number one: I will recount my most recent experience.You leave your house to walk along your street in the dark of five AM until a police pickup pulls up alongside you and tells you to hop in the back because some scary “big boys” are closely following you, so you climb in along with the dozen or so drunks they’ve rounded up at this hour and spend the ride deflecting aggressive, but fumbling requests for your number. Get dropped off at the gele-gele stop (vans that hold about 20 passengers, but certainly not to Western safety regulations) and take that to a place at which you are lost in the still-dark of the national capital of Banjul (population of about 30,000—a quarter of the entire country) and then take a shared taxi to the ferry to catch the first crossing at 7 AM, which can take anywhere from 45 to 190 minutes, depending on factors which are unknown to me. From there you take a sept-place (a station wagon in which seats replace the trunk so that seven passengers and a driver can be accommodated, hence the name descended from French for “seven seats”). This is a many-houred journey, largely traversed on the shoulder of the road because it is smoother riding through the half-bush than the neglected Gambian highway. Every 20 kilometers or so you will be stopped so that everyone’s identity and baggage can be checked—for what, I’m not sure, but I’d guess in search of opportunities for bribes. There are also two ferry crossings on this route, spilt by an island in the middle of a river. The first boat has room for three cars, the second for only two, so you find yourself engaged in a fifteen minute drag race across the island to occupy these spots. You are rewarded with the imperative to get out of the car and pitch in with pulling the second ferry across the water by dragging it along a metal cable that spans the width of the water. Eventually, you arrive in Basse. I once made this trip in a record low of nine hours.
Transportation option number two: Get driven in a business car (because you are a Business Lady) in as few as six hours. Sounds so great, right? Using private transportation such as this, you can go along the South Bank the entire distance, thus bypassing any ferry issues (albeit with a rougher road) and traveling in a white SUV on which “Government of the Gambia” and “UNICEF” is painted, allowing you to breeze through any check points. But.
We have one car that is a pickup. The one time I made this journey in that vehicle, we rode with eight (EIGHT!) passengers in the cab, a couple of whom were children, but not small children and that really doesn’t even matter. Along the way we voluntarily stopped for long periods of time to pick up coal, fresh milk, gossip, bed frames, more people, a live cow, whatever. The man drove so fast over broken roads that at one point all eight of us were forced to wait for two hours in the sun as a tire was patched.
I thought riding with my boss was better. He is less likely to pack the car with humans and his social visits en route are more infrequent. Until I received an email that set off some alarm bells: “Katie, could you go over this proposal with Bacary? You know how his English is and his eyesight isn’t too good either.” It began to come together then—the glazed look on his face as he was driving, the easily avoidable potholes we’d screamed through, throwing me to the roof of the car.
When I climbed into the backseat of our SUV for the ride from Basse to Kombo I immediately felt nauseated and lightheaded from the fumes filing the vehicle—a turn of my head revealed gallons and gallons of gasoline stuffed in the back. I didn’t ask why, I just rolled down my window. My French is shaky at best, but as we began on our journey, I heard the Senegalese in the front of the car calling out obvious obstacles (pedestrians, stalled trucks, restaurants!) to my boss.
All car accidents happen in slow motion, that is kind of the nature of them, and this one began while I was asleep. Maybe it was the screeching of brakes that woke me (it’s impossible to ever pinpoint that moment), but I saw the face of a cow rearing up and screaming in front of our windshield before it flew down the broken pavement and skipped like a flat rock across a lake. We stopped right there, in the middle of the road and I leapt out of the car immediately as I saw a semi-truck coming our way, thinking not only of the potentially fatal impact, but the horrifying burns when all that gasoline was lit on fire. (I saw a family at the farmers’ market once that left a distinct impression on me, in their way. A strikingly handsome husband, two beautiful blond children, all with subtle burn scars across their necks and arms. Then, a mother, who was without a face. Melted off in what I’d always assumed was a fiery car accident. I think of them not infrequently.) But the semi veered around us. Unlike the driver of my own vehicle, apparently this man was sighted.
The cow still lay there, moaning and wild-eyed. I begged its herder to kill it, pointing to the machete around his waist and pantomiming my own ritual suicide. I was wrong about that, though. After a few moments it leapt to its feet and walked off with barely a limp.
We carried on as well. In Kombo I checked out our grill—cracked in half, a headlight dangling to the left side, tufts of white hair sticking out everywhere.