On The Road

Tuesday: Today I went to Banjul with a friend to register my new car, but in order to do so I first had to obtain my Tax Identification Number (TIN) from the Gambia Revenue Authority (GRA). This number was obtained for me by VSO when they opened a bank account for me shortly after I arrived in the Gambia so I assumed a quick visit to the country office would give me the necessary information. Unfortunately this was not the case! It seems that their data filing leaves a little to be desired as after a desultory flip through a few random folders which were lying about in an office piled high with papers I was told that the number could not be found (perhaps I had been given it already?) and was instead given some telephone numbers so that I could ring the Revenue offices and ask them to look it up for me. That was last Thursday, but when I telephoned I was told this information could not be supplied over the phone – I would have to go to their offices (and pay a small fee). By then it was nearly office closing time so I left it until today and took a half day off work planning to get everything done at once.

On arrival at the GRA headquarters in Banjul we were accosted as we walked in the main gate by several enterprising young men who asked if I wanted a TIN number and were acting as agents to fill in the forms and obtain it for me. However when it transpired that I already had a number and just needed it to be looked up rather than a new one obtained, they lost interest. Ten yards further on, and before entering the building we were asked the same question by a Customs official who was just coming out, and on finding what I wanted he asked my telephone number and mother’s maiden name, found us a seat outside under a shade, and reappeared a couple of minutes later with a neatly printed certificate. Thanks Yusupha.

I had taken a friend with me to help translate and she then asked him directions to the licensing office. Rather than direct us however, Yusupha chose instead to take us personally, so within the space of about 30 minutes we had been walked round the block to another office where we obtained and completed a form with brief details of the vehicle, and then to a police licensing office to obtain number plates. So far so good, as in each office our guide marched us straight to the relevant official and explained our errand. Here however we came across the first obstacle as it appeared that we needed to go to a customs clearance agent to obtain another document before we could be issued with a registration. I had his name and telephone number on my receipt for import duty, and so in a couple of phone calls Yusupha traced him, we met him back at the GRA office and were driven across town to the agents office to get the necessary papers. It was probably about 3.30 by then and for about 15 minutes there was a lot of talking in Mandinka and shuffling of paper while not much seemed to be done. My friend told me afterwards that Yusupha was trying to get some action while the other man seemed to be telling him “don’t interfere, but let me do my job” without actually doing anything except very slowly writing down my TIN number and my telephone number. At one stage he switched his computer on as if to print something, but did nothing further until 3.50 at which point he announced that there was no chance of completing the process the same day as Customs would close at 4.30, and suggested I should have been there at 8am and must return tomorrow. Although I told him this was impossible due to work commitments and asked if there was any way he could speed up the process of getting the papers from the relevant Customs office, it seemed he had no intention of trying.

Fortunately by that stage my friend had gathered from the discussions that I did not need to be present in person to complete the registration, – the customs agent perhaps expected that he would be asked to act on my behalf, or that I would return myself, and that in either case he would have the chance to benefit from Yusupha’s absence, but instead I asked Yusupha if he was willing and able to be my agent as he had thus far been so very helpful. This he agreed to do and then telephone my colleague to say the documents and number plates are ready for collection, so I hope that at some point tomorrow I will hear the news I’m waiting for!

Wednesday: By 3pm I received my brand new number plates and various documents including customs declarations and a roadworthiness certificate, so BJL7112J will soon be on the road. Before that can happen however I have to obtain motor insurance and a licence/tax disc. Unfortunately it seems that the licence runs from January to December so I will have to pay a year’s fee to cover the next 27 days, and then the same again in January. However as I’m told it is only the equivalent of about £16 sterling per annum, it sounds a bargain and I have arranged to go to Banjul again on Friday morning and collect the final instalment of paperwork from Yusupha.

Friday: An early start and by 8am we were in the scrum as the passengers waiting to get onto the van for Banjul try to fight their way on before the passengers alighting have been able to get off. The van is already full but nobody waits for an empty seat – it’s survival of the fittest as there are only four or five getting off and about a dozen of us wanting to be on. I hang back as there looks to be only room for one more but my companion pulls me on and makes room by pushing a schoolchild onto her knee and off we go. First stop is GRA to find Yusupha then it’s round to the Licensing Office where he disappears with a fistful of dalasi and after a short time emerges triumphantly brandishing my licence disc. One final call to get insurance – a snip at D600 and I’m finally legal and can take to the road. The whole process has taken three days and cost rather more than the face value of the documents obtained. I am more than happy to show my appreciation when someone does me a service, but here some people seem unable to do their job without a little sweetener. This is something we discussed on one of the VSO training courses before I left the UK, and I remember some of my fellow students saying they would not give a gift under any circumstances. I think however that while I disapprove of the practice in theory, it is more realistic to accept that in a poverty stricken country such as this, people have to supplement their meagre wages as best they can and if you are not prepared to give a little help, you will probably receive a poor service and have to wait.

The same afternoon when I set off for a trip down the coast the car died on me before I left Kombo. The battery was completely dead and as a result everything stopped. What a contrast to officialdom when I walked up the road to a little welding workshop to ask for help. Somebody rang somebody else, who soon arrived, took the battery off his own vehicle and put it on mine so that we could drive a couple of miles to buy a new battery. Perhaps he would get a little commission from the shop when he next went in but good luck to him – I was delighted to thank him and I don’t think he expected anything from me.

The new battery apparently solved the problem and the vehicle ran perfectly all the way down the coast. On Sunday however the new battery was flat too and although the car started with a push it died again within a very short distance, and no human habitation in sight. Yet again the locals came to my aid – a passer by went off to the next village and reappeared with a couple more in a car. By now I had guessed there was a short circuit in the lighting system and had disconnected various circuits to try and prevent any further leakage. My new friends exchanged their charged battery for mine which allowed me to get back home, and then called later to swap back when they too returned to their home in the Kombos. They had told me they would be back by about 5pm but of course that was Gambian time and it was after 9pm when they appeared by which time I had begun to suspect I had lost my new battery. However it appears I must apologise for my unfounded suspicions as my new friends made sure my car would start before they left me and told me if ever I needed help in their area I should not hesitate to ring.

My faith in human nature is restored!

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