On The Beach

On Easter Monday I visited Banjul for the first time together with four of my fellow volunteers as we had heard there was to be a kite festival on the beach with barbecues and “food and drink at reasonable prices” starting at noon. The cheapest way to get there is by “gelli-gelli” which is another kind of taxi, basically a battered minibus, usually of Japanese origin (although I have seen a few Ford Transits among the ubiquitous Nissans) and of indeterminate age, sometimes with a name stencilled on it, and with a sliding side door which usually looks as though it comes from another vehicle. I suspect this is often the case as these vans have a hard life driving round the urban area constantly stopping and starting on request, loading and unloading every few minutes, and that side door must take a lot of wear, so will have probably been replaced several times. In the UK most of these vans would be classed as 12-seaters, but here they are fitted with another seat by the side door which folds up to give access to the rear and then down again to accommodate another passenger.  Usually there are about 15 passengers together with whatever luggage each person is carrying.

Leaning out of the side window as this vehicle approaches is a young man shouting the destination or route of travel, although sometimes this takes a little understanding as the cry is abbreviated rather like the newspaper sellers on the streets at home, but I now know that “Wessfeelah” is the major junction at Westfields where the taxis and vans congregate and where you can change to another route. Serekunda and Bakau are rather easier cries to understand. The young man also acts as conductor and needs a good memory as passengers pay at varying times during the trip, so he has to remember who has paid and who has not, who still wants change, and at the same time (unless the van is fully occupied) drum up trade by shouting for more passengers.

On Monday we met up at Westfields about 11am and joined the throng of travellers jostling for space on the vans. It was rather akin to entering a rugby scrum but our little group was immediately grabbed by one of the touts who make it their purpose to find you a seat and get you on a van, and after lots of banging on van doors and shouting, (mostly “Come, come” or Wait, wait”), and several near misses when we were beaten to spaces by other passengers, he managed to install us all on the same van by the simple expedient of ejecting a rival. Even so the conductor was all for removing one of our group too, as rather surprisingly he said there were too many on the seat (only five of us in space for three!), but someone sat a child on their knee and one of us moved into the space, honour was satisfied and our Bank Holiday jaunt to the seaside began.

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The first sight as you enter the capital is Arch 22 which was erected to commemorate the Revolution of 22nd July 1994 when the young army Captain Yahya Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup. (The young captain later resigned from the army and became President, an office he still holds). There we disembarked and walked across the road to the long sandy beaches – deserted except for a small flock of sheep and a solitary fruit juice seller. We turned north and walked along the water’s edge until we came to the old market area where a couple of fishing boats were unloading against a backdrop of small boats loaded with passengers crossing the mouth of the River Gambia from Banjul to Barra, and a large cargo ship steaming slowly upstream to the port. The water looked very choppy, the river estuary is very wide, the boats rather small, and few of the passengers had life jackets. I was grateful to have my feet on terra firma and thought “rather them than me”.

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We had seen no sign of any kites so we spent some time wandering through the fruit and vegetable stalls (a rather more peaceful pastime than in the frenetic atmosphere of Serekunda market) and being invited to inspect the contents of each craft stall by the owner who seemed baffled by the idea that I might not actually want to buy any bracelets, wooden carvings, bags, or sand paintings.

We made various enquiries about the kite festival and at last found someone who had heard about it and said it would be behind the cemetery, back near our starting point at Arch 22 so we cut back to the beach and walked south again, Atlantic breakers on one side and empty sand stretching into the distance in front. It was now 2pm and I had given up hope of any festival, or anything to eat, until all at once a single solitary blue kite appeared in the sky ahead and we came across a handful of people setting up stall around a cluster of tent canopies. We were saved!

The barbecued chicken was good, and as we sipped our soft drinks (about 40p a bottle from a well known global CCompany), the locals began to arrive. By 5pm it reminded me of photos of post war Britain – whole families sitting on the beach in their Sunday best. Meanwhile “DJ Mose” played non-stop music, and a procession of dignitaries made speeches from the stage. I don’t know what was said but there were a lot of names mentioned, and much applause.

We had splashed out £2.40 for two home made kites from a stall so teamed up with some of the local children and set off down the beach where Helen ran a Play School for the little girls – drawing in the sand and finding out the Wolof names for various animals while the boys flew kites.

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The winds were perfect for flying but after a while my team’s kite crashed beyond repair although the volunteers were still in with a chance of a prize for highest kite (thanks to Joe’s unfair advantage of an extra long ball of string!) until at it’s full extent the string came off the handle (Joe said that Munya accidentally let go) and our hopes floated off towards Banjul.

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By now the beach was alive, the girls were parading in groups – dressed to kill and swaying their hips to the music while the boys affected a marked lack of interest, extended family groups were catching up with news from friends and relations, and a colleague of Helen had produced some bottles of palm wine. It took about an hour to extricate her (and Joe) from the party but unfortunately two of our group are vegetarian and had found nothing to eat all day, so it was time to leave before we had to carry them! It was only 7pm, the place was hopping and as we walked back up the road to Banjul to find a van ride home it seemed as if the entire population was walking in the opposite direction heading for the beach.

I bet it was a hell of a party.

Back To School

Well it feels as if the holidays have ended and I’m back at school again! The past week has been occupied with form filling, briefings about the country and cultural context, VSO policies, health and safety, and language lessons. We even went to the British High Commission for an introductory briefing by the Deputy High Commissioner! I’m now the proud holder of a photo ID from the Department of Immigration showing my residential status in the Gambia, which reminds me whenever I produce my card of that song by Sting – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien” although I believe that was about Quentin Crisp – “An Englishman in New York”. I expect to receive my VSO identity card shortly, and then soon after that, my tax office number, as although being an impecunious volunteer I have no tax to pay, without that vital number I’m unable to open a bank account. So that means more form filling, and another photograph for identification. Which one should I use from the many pictures I was advised to bring with me? My “happy” face or the one that looks like a “Wanted” poster? and how should I choose which one of about 14 banks I should entrust with my few dalasi while I am here? After some thought I decided to use a large international bank rather than its smaller Gambian cousin as although I’m told the bank charges (yes, there is no free banking here, unlike the UK!) are slightly higher, it has a larger network from which I can access cash when necessary.

Public transport is taking a bit of getting used to. The main means of getting around the Kombos is by taxi and there are two types, distinguishable only by colour. They come in various shapes and sizes but are typically a battered diesel Mercedes saloon, either green for the tourists (i.e. higher price), or yellow for the locals. The yellow ones will either charge you for a “town trip” at a (higher) price negotiated before you get in, and take you wherever you want, or drive fixed routes and are known as “Seven Sevens” as the fare is 7 dalasi (14p) from wherever on that route you get in, to wherever you get out. There are large numbers of these taxis (– sometimes it seems every car in the Kombos is a taxi) driving slowly around the area blowing their horns, shouting and waving at those on the street, particularly “toubabs” (white people) such as myself in an effort to gain a fare, but before getting in (if you are wise) you will shout at the driver “Seven Seven” and your destination, otherwise if the taxi is empty, you may be charged for a town trip instead of the 7 dalasi per head fixed fare! The other option is to take a “gelli” which is a kind of minibus operating on the same principal, but with an attendant taking the fare as well as the driver. It’s all very noisy and looks chaotic at times, but it seems to work, as around half the population of the Gambia live in this urban area, and at rush hour it seems as if they all cram into the taxis and vans to get to work. I’m sure that in time I’ll get used to the system and to the boom box which blasts out West African music from behind my head in most of these vehicles!

Meanwhile, being from Yorkshire, I’ve quickly adapted to the volunteer mentality – “If I can walk, even if it takes 45 minutes,  it will save 14p” so only take a Seven Seven for the longer distances and travel much of the time on foot.