I mentioned last week that I was having problems with my new car – the battery was flat very quickly and so I bought a new one which seemed to solve the problem for a couple of days but then was also exhausted. I haven’t yet found out whether the alternator is charging properly, or whether there is a problem elsewhere as I have yet to find a Gambian who can trace the fault and rectify it. Being a Volvo, the side lights are always on, even in daylight, which is fine as a safety measure but drains the battery more quickly, so I have disconnected them for the time being and make sure that I have my spare battery charged daily at work so that I can swop it over when necessary to keep the car going.
This has worked fine as a temporary measure and Bobby who drives one of the pickups at work and who lives not far from me tells me he knows a mechanic near my home who will repair it so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he will know what he is doing. So many skills that we take for granted at home are simply not available in the Gambia, although on the other hand I have seen some novel repair methods here – but as they say “necessity is the mother of invention”.
Last night however I was a little later than usual leaving work and as it was getting dark I had to stop and reconnect the lights before I reached home so that I could see and be seen. Although the distance left was not far, the extra drain on the battery was soon evident and by the time I got to my street in Bakau it was about 7.30pm, nearly dark (the power was off in our area again) and I couldn’t see well enough to safely continue the last 200 yards or so to my compound gate, so I pulled off the road, locked the car, and left it until morning. My housemate said we should go back with lights and remove the car but I thought it would be safe overnight and left it where it was. How wrong I was!
When I went back at 8am the following day someone had broken into it through the back door and stolen my good battery and a box of assorted spares that were in the back, but left the spare wheels, car radio, and two good tow ropes. A man who lives in the compound next to where the car was parked, came out and made a big song and dance about it saying he had wondered whose it was, and why it was there etc, and how wicked the thieves were, but I was only reminded of Queen Gertrude’s remark in Hamlet – “The lady doth protest too much, methinks!” and have my suspicions he knows who took them! Whatever the truth of the matter there was nothing else for me to do but get some cash as soon as the banks opened and go back to Westfields to buy another brand new battery (£45). Half an hour later I was back on the road, eventually arriving at work about 10am.
My friends and colleagues were all duly sympathetic – I have seldom heard so many expressions of sadness except at a funeral – and keen to tell me what a bad area I live in. According to them my district of Bakau is nothing but a nest of thieves who don’t want work but sit about all day drinking attaya and then go out after dark looking for things to steal! I suppose this is true of some, but I also have to say that it is a very poor neighbourhood. I certainly don’t condone theft, but the average Gambian is finding it harder to make ends meet as the price of goods and services continues to rise, and the temptation to help yourself must be very strong, particularly when some careless toubab who apparently has a lot more than you leaves something of value unwatched.
I should also report an incident which took place about 10pm on Sunday evening when I was a passenger on a van and one of my fellow travellers tried to pick my pocket. Just before reaching my destination the passenger immediately next to me got off and the vacant place between me and the door was immediately taken by a middle aged man who moved forward from the seat behind me with a large parcel on his knee. When I got up a little further on to alight, my passage was effectively blocked by his parcel and by two more men who got up to exit in front of me. I don’t know whether the other two were his accomplices and were also there to delay me – they had all been sitting together on the back row before he changed seats, but as I stood waiting for them to move past I felt a touch on my trouser pocket. Unfortunately the thief was a little clumsy in his attempt and I promptly grabbed his throat with both hands and told him what I thought of him. (This rather surprised both of us but I did it instinctively!). There seemed no point in holding everyone up and calling the police, so having frightened him I left him on the van to the mercy of the other passengers. I have heard of instances where a thief has been badly beaten by the honest Gambians who make up the bulk of the population, but have no idea of this man’s fate. If he had any sense he will have got off the van at the first opportunity to avoid the other passengers who would mostly be going to Serrekunda.
So now all of a sudden I’m wondering whether my closing remarks last week about human nature were justified, or whether my natural cynicism and suspicion should prevail?
On a lighter note I am pleased to say that Bobby from work took me to see the mechanic here in Bakau on Friday. I was dubious whether he would have the necessary skills to trace the fault on my car, but his friend Omar set straight to work under the shade of a tree and soon decided the alternator was not charging properly. I expected he would tell me it needed replacing but instead he promptly removed, cleaned, repaired and refitted it, renewed a faulty lighting connection and announced everything was now working, so hopefully I will have no more problems. The whole process with a very limited toolkit took about two hours. His boss meanwhile made a fuss about it being my first visit and hopefully not my last as I was now a valued customer, and afterwards charged me the equivalent of about £8! I guess at home it would have been ten times that amount and the garage would probably have wanted to sell me a new alternator.