Bed-sharing and bed-nets

I slept with a fireman at the end of my first day’s walk in The Gambia. That is to say we shared the same bed – his bed. I assumed that finding a hotel in a capital city would be easy. Not so in Banjul. This city has a population of less then 35,000. I walked most of its main streets within an hour, after having walked 15km along a deserted beach, and soon realised that beyond a few colonial buildings there was little else to detain a visitor.  Not a hotel in sight. I later thought it might be the World’s smallest capital, but have just checked and found that honour goes to Adamstown, if that counts.

I’ve never slept in a fire-station before. I made the suggestion, half-jokingly, as I greeted several bored-looking officers sitting in front of a faded red truck that had clearly been there since the days of British rule. They offered me a glass of attaya. In return I shared out some cashew nuts I’d just bought from a market stall, relieved that my quest to find somewhere to sleep for the night had been solved.

Or at least I thought so. It was dark by the time I was shown my room. This  wasn’t within the fire-station. Instead I had to walk several kilometres to a large compound. It  resembled an army barracks – high concrete walls, barbed wire,  rows of concrete bungalow blocks. “Many government employees live here”, explained my host, Mr Bakari Fatty, who seemed very happy to be welcoming a toubab into his house.

Bakari spent most of the evening talking about football. As well as being a fire-man and a credit-control officer for some financial institution he was a referee for the country’s football league. His house consisted of two airless rooms, the bare concrete walls of which were covered with newspaper cuttings showing his favourite footballers – Ronaldo, Roony, Beckham. “Which team do you support”? he wanted to know. I told him the underdogs.  “Not Manchester United then”, he asked as his referee shirts were unfolded and proudly displayed for my attention.

I went to sleep early, but woke during the night thinking a rat was crawling across my feet. Instead it was Bakari playing footsie. He was sound asleep next to me in the double bed and even managed to sleep right through the deafening call-to-prayer at 5am.

Fireman Fatty and his football boots

The following morning Bakari joined me in Banjul’s main market. I’d gone to buy a mosquito net. For someone raising funds to prevent the disease I thought it would be wise to arm myself with one for the walk upcountry.  I was also interested to see what kind of nets were being sold and for how much. My tent, which is currently in Dakar, has acted as a great barrier to insects at night.

I wanted to explain to both Bakari and the market seller that I was supporting a charity helping to prevent Malaria, but Bakari was more interested in bargaining for a live Guinea Fowl in a nearby stall and the market seller was half-blind and deaf. I did discover that the nets were hand-made and at £4 were probably too expensive for most families, at least in rural areas, to afford.

The market seller was able to make several nets a day. I wondered whether the distribution of free nets by foreign charities would put someone like this out of business, but also realised that if malaria is going to be stamped out in African countries, it is distribution by mass (ie thousands of nets) that will make the difference. The other reality is that market forces mean insecticide treated bednets can also be sourced for cheaper elsewhere. I bought my net and thanked my aged market seller before walking to the ferry port to cross the Gambia River.

Mosquito net man

Cashewing in

I walked little more than a kilometre on my second day. Rather than sweating under the sun and walking eastwards up-country I sat under the shade of a Mahogany tree and read several chapters of one of the books I’d brought with me. Surrounding me were more mature trees and tropical flowers in a garden belonging to a Spanish family who’d made The Gambia their home for the past 5 years. The father had found me soon after walking off the ferry then offered me a lift when I said I was walking to the village where he lived, 10km away.  “You want to walk? In this heat”. It was already late morning so I jumped into his car.

Ahmed had created a guest-house and farm, building it up from scratch with the idea to involve local people in agricultural practices. He was also in the process of constructing an Islamic school. Both he and his wife had stories to tell.  “What  this country has is peace. I can say that’s a lot in Africa”, explained his wife. They had already talked about the work ethic of most people, the difficulty of making friends and knowing who to trust. It didn’t seem an easy life. They were ready to leave, as was I, but by the time we had told our stories it was siesta time and I had a bed to myself this time.

The tarmac stopped abruptly when I turned off the main road the next morning and began walking on a sandy track. A man wielding a machete caught my attention up ahead.  He was at the roadside talking to a group of women making baskets from palm leaves. The mango season is beginning here and these baskets are used to transport mangoes from villages to the markets.

End of the tarmac

Meeting with a machete part II

I called out “Sumandabede”,  a morning greeting in Mandinka, and received  a beaming smile in return. Thirty minutes later I was sat within the shade of a cashew tree plantation and surrounded by hundreds of red and yellow cashew fruits.  The green seeds, which contain the nut as most people  know, were being sorted into a separate container to be  roasted, whilst the fruit was  collected before being pounded in a wooden trough. “We are Christian here”, explained Machete-wielding Musa, who walked me around the plantation and showed me the distillation apparatus used to make cashew wine. The last distillation apparatus I’d seen was during a tour of  the Remy Martin house in Cognac. This was a little more primitive, consisting of a metal drum, supported over a wood fire and a few canes and tubes  held together with duct tape. The finished product – ‘Firewater’, was an acquired taste.

I told Musa I preferred the fruit and fresh juice. I’d read somewhere that it has 10 times  greater concentration of vitamin C  in it than orange juice. Pity it starts to ferment quickly and there is no power for refrigeration out here. I sat, watched and helped for several more hours as cashew fruit continued to drop every so often with a dull thud onto the soft bed of leaves around me.

Later on I watched as the mother roasted the seeds above a wood-fuelled fire. First there was smoke, then a ball of flames as the oil within the seeds caught fire.  At this point the iron pan was kicked off the stones and the now black seeds cooled in the sand. We then collected them and  began a time-consuming process of carefully cracking each one open to release the roasted nut within. I could now see why cashews aren’t cheap.

Cashew fruit

Cashew fruits

Sorting nuts from fruit

Cashew fruit crushing

Roasting cashew seeds

Musa later showed me his banana plantation and voiced his plans to build  a guest house. It was ambitious. He wanted a sponsor. Did I know anyone? I steered the conversation towards the other toubab living in his compound. He was a Peace Corps volunteer. I didn’t meet him until later that evening. He’d been away for the day. I feared I might be encroaching on his territory.

The compound was small and basic – no electricity, water across the road from a well,  open-fire kitchen, pit latrine. He was out here for two years. Not an easy task. He had various projects on the go, one of which was honey production. There were dozens of hives and believed hundreds of litres of honey could be harvested. It  merely required effort and planning amongst members of the community he was living within. I wished him luck. I didn’t expect to see him again when I set off early the next morning, but was back again the same night.

Banana man Musa

Lost and Found

“Have another look. Maybe you’ll find it”. The contents of my back-pack lay scattered on the stone floor beneath my feet. I checked for the third time and repeated to the proprietor of the small restaurant, Julfereh’s only one, that no, my passport was clearly not there. It must have been stolen. I hadn’t checked since setting off on my walk four days previously whether it was in  the backpack. How could this be possible? The backpack had barely been out of my sight, other then when I slept. I sat thinking that Africa was conspiring against me again.

Several hours of walking had brought me from Musa’s compound to this small village, which sits on the banks of the River Gambia and is famed on the tourist trail for appearing in Alex Haley’s novel Roots. There was not another toubab in sight on this day. But now I had to return. Retrace my steps. All the way to the British embassy perhaps.

Road to Julfereh

I jumped in the first mini-bus heading back. There was no sign of my passport 15km back up the dirt track at Musa’s.  The Peace Core volunteer was out harvesting honey. He returned just before sunset with bee bites covering his forehead and shouting at a procession of children who had followed him like the bees, back to the compound. 

I slept there again that night  and the next morning took the first mini-bus back to the main road. The Spaniard’s house was a short walk out into the bush.  It was Friday and I was envisioning the rush and stress that would follow later in the day, racing to get to the British embassy before it’s midday closure.

Ahmed was waiting for me when I arrived, stamping his foot when he saw me at the gates and throwing his hands in the air. “It’s here. You left it in the middle of the floor of your room”. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, then began apologising for my idiocy.  Part of me still wanted to think that it had been taken out of my bag when I left it there for a few hours following my siesta several days before. Whoever could have taken it (one of their employees?) and later placed it back I don’t know. I’ve had to leave hundreds of rooms over the years and do a spot check of my belongings. Perhaps at 6.30am on this particular morning with a lack of light I’d been more careless.

Immigration Idiocy

My month long stamp to stay in the Gambia was almost up. Returning with a new 28 days should have been a simple process. In theory I merely needed to cross out of The Gambia into Senegal and then re-enter with a new stamp.

I walked and later hitched a lift with a community development officer (one of the few Gambians I met who wasn’t looking for a way to leave The Gambia) to the junction town of Farafenni.  The Senegalese border lay 2 km up the road.

“Where are you going”, asked the young officer lifting himself up from the couch and taking my passport. “Senegal. But I’m coming back”. My passport was then stamped with another entry stamp. “But I’m leaving the country, not entering. This is the wrong stamp”.

The process of events that took place over the next several hours could fill many pages. It involved returning to the immigration office in Farafenni and having my passport taken off me, before another incompetent, but far more senior officer came up with the conclusion that I was evading state rules by not extending my original stamp in Banjul, something that I would have had to pay for. I later returned to the border, left the country with an exit stamp, calmed my nerves with a cigarette and a coke in Senegal for 10 minutes before re-crossing into The Gambia.

The problem then was that having already been given an entry stamp (the wrong kind) I couldn’t receive another entry stamp into the country on the same day. I needed I tourist stamp, not a transit entry stamp. I returned to Farafenni’s immigration office. Apparently they had the stamp I needed, but by this stage so many people had become involved and no-one was willing to accept the blame for giving me the wrong stamp in the first place.

At one stage I thought a fight would break out as various immigration officers from the border argued with their colleagues in the office in Farafenni. People I hadn’t even seen earlier in the day decided it would be fun to get involved by raising their voices and pointing fingers at me, shouting “This is because of you”. I had to stop myself from laughing at the school-yard antics and remind myself that my passport still needed the correct stamp.

It eventually came, but not before another mistake had been made. They hadn’t changed the date. It was May 1st, not April 29th. I might have asked for an apology, but knew that would have been asking for more trouble.

A cold beer was badly needed. I was directed to a bar called ‘Peace and Love’. It looked like a bomb-shelter from the outside – half of these local bars in Africa do. The beer was cold but it was far from a relaxing drink. Three bare-chested and blood-shot eyed locals decided to pull a chair up. “Buy me a beer?” asked one who inserted “innit” at the end of everything he said. “Why?” I asked. “Because you’re white and my friend”. I soon finished the beer and left.

Ferry Guide

I had company leaving Farafenni the next morning. Abdullah was 16 and said he was going to be my guide. I found him helping out at a bike-work shop the previous day. He’d shown me where the bar was and a cheap guest-house. I bought him a coke and now he had it in his head that he was returning to Banjul with me. “I’ve travelled to Casamance by myself before. I can teach you Wolof”. I told him I was learning Mandinka. “I can speak that as well”.

Wheel-builder

Farafenni lies on the trans-Gambia highway, a busy thoroughfare for traffic coming from Senegal and Casamance (the latter is part of Senegal but lies south of The Gambia).  All traffic must cross the river, over which a single ferry operates. Trucks and buses sat in a queue for more than a mile back from the river on either side.

Queue for the river crossing

Abdullah joined me for the 6km dust-filled walk to wait for the boat. I told him I was leaving at 7am. There was a knock at my door at 6.30am. “Can I come with you to Banjul”? By now I realised he was serious. I said no. He was too young. He should be at school. He said his family couldn’t afford it. “Aren’t government schools free”? I said surprised. “Only for girls”. That was equally surprising, but true apparently.

Fishing boats on the River Gambia

By the river

I paid for his ticket across the river. When we walked off onto the south bank there was a change in his appearance. Several people recognised him and asked what he was doing. He looked nervous. His mobile started ringing. It was his Mum asking where he was. “I have to go now. My breakfast is ready”. I gave him his fair for the journey back and continued alone.

Farewell Abdullah

Dust Road

I’d now reached the conclusion that walking in The Gambia was a dull affair. The landscape is almost entirely flat and there are very few features, other than the river. Sure there is a variety of trees – Mahogany, Baobab, Mango, Cashew, and a varied array of wild birds to admire, but there is nothing striking in the monotony of savana and occasionally mangrove that extend either side of it’s flowing artery.

It was the people that was keeping me motivated. That and the fact that every day was different, spontaneous and unpredictable. Whilst one village might be predominantly Mandinka speaking and Muslim, the next could be Christian and full of Jolas and Pulas. There are more than half a dozen ethnic groups in The Gambia and it was the learning of new phrases as I passed from one village to the next, and the encounters  and conversations I was having with their inhabitants, that made the walk special.

Young pula-speaking couple

Jola kids

Mangoes to the market

A toubab walking alone in the heat with a back-pack obviously draws a lot of attention from people. Much like a toubab cycling in this part of the World. The difference when you walk is that everything is more intense. You can cycle through a village and wave at the people watching you, whereas walking you will have to speak to them. I might have several conversations of varying lengths with people and not cover more than a km in the space of a few hours.

Most Gambians I met were curious, hospitable and greeted me with wide smiles. At the same time many asked, directly or indirectly, how I might help them to get to England or Europe. Men sat under the shade of mango trees with nothing to do. Said they had no job. One asked why I could enter The Gambia so easily but he couldn’t to the same in my country. I said something about the weather being too cold for him and the world being an unfair place.

In another village I sat alongside an elderly man who gave me a bagful of cashew seeds, which we later roasted together on another open fire.  He tuned in to listen to the BBC World service afterwards whilst I lay in a daze listening to the reporter cover a story about poverty in the Welsh valleys. He was interviewing an Indian who had taken over managing one of the steel works there. When asked about the future of the valleys and the people there the Indian philosophically remarked “Everyone has a boarding pass in this World, but we just don’t know what the seat number is or the boarding time”.  Watching the mother carrying firewood and later collecting water from a stand-pump across the road I thought how far from the truth that was for most people here.

The road began to take a toll on my feet on the south bank. I was walking in sandles with very little cushioning. Blisters were developing between the layer of red dust that soon settled on my feet. The road was being re-paved. It badly needed it.

African feet

I continued to walk and hitch my way back towards the coast, staying with two Peace Corp volunteers for one more evening. They were coming to the end of their service and both seemed pretty proficient in Mandinka. Something to put on the resume, although perhaps not all that useful back home.

For me such ethnic languages hold more importance. Mankinka, Wolof and Pula in particular are spoken in many west African countries. Small phrases  and the whole host of greetings break the ice and go a long way.

I’m now back in urban Gambia and planning my return to Dakar next week. My wrist, albeit still stiff, continues to make a gradual improvement. Tomorrow will be eight weeks since the attack. Several weeks ago a Canadian cyclist I met in Laos said he wanted to join me on the road for a few weeks. He’s flying into Dakar on the 16th May. It’s a bit premature, but I’m well ready to move on south.