One more night

An enormous mosquito with blonde hair helped delay my departure from The Gambia. It circled the air, flying past a red dragon on wheels, a carriage carrying Cinderella and Elvis being pushed in a pram. These were just some of the contenders in the soap-box race at the International School. Students were pedalling laps of the school in a creative array of home-made vehicles.  Funds had been raised for the Against Malaria Foundation, so it was fitting that one of the students had come dressed for the part in wings, head and a nasty looking  antenna and proboscis. The event also provided a good excuse to stay a little longer.

For those students, teachers and parents reading this, many thanks for your support. I don’t have any photos from the day so please send them to me.

When I did finally get going I only made it 30km. Peter and Muna, who’d kindly let me doss in their enormous compound for the previous 10 days, suggested having lunch on the beach. Their English friends, visiting Africa for the first time, thought they had read about me back home. “There are quite a few of us. You probably read about that bloke on TVI suggested.

Pale-faced and green-eyed our lives couldn’t have been more different. Rob worked as a tax-advisor in London and commuted daily from Cambridge at some god-forsaken hour. “You get used to it”, he remarked before I proposed packing it all in for a year and taking off.

The five of us waited most of the afternoon for a shack within an undergrowth of casuarina trees to serve up grilled fish. When it finally came I decided to ask the proprietor if he minded me sleeping on the beach. “You’re very welcome. There is a night watchman and two dogs”. I trusted the dogs more. All afternoon they’d patrolled the beach, barking at the nearest whiff of an intruder approaching the palm-leaved shack. I noticed they never barked at white people. “You people are good to them” said the owner. I’d already told Peter and Muna, who I waved off shortly afterwards, that if I ever lived in Africa the first thing I’d do would be to get myself a few guard dogs. Less chance of them sleeping on the job.

Sleeping on the beach

Feeding Africa

Bob Marley and Bribes

“Come stop and have some Bob Marley”, came a drug-induced drawl from under a mango tree. I was half a kilometre from the border with Senegal. Smoking pot with several dread-locked bumpsters was not what I was thinking, although I did need to use up the remaining Gambian Dalasi I still had. Cashew nuts were what I had in mind. I was surrounded by the trees, but there was no sign of the nuts.

It would have been easy to wave off 100 Dalasi (£2.50) to the immigration officer. She demanded it for a stamp in my passport. “I’ve been to The Gambia before. I don’t pay for stamps”, I calmly protested. “Yes, but you haven’t crossed this border before”. I briefly contemplated paying a compliment to the observational skills of this fat young woman, when another cut in “What is good for me”? I looked her up and down, wanted to say a good spanking for being so rude, before turning my attention back to the other woman who had  been flicking through my passport for the past five minutes, finally embossing a departure stamp before looking up and asking. “What country are you from?”

Guns and girls

Proceedings on the Senegalese side in the village of Seleti were a little more serious. A young soldier in tight green fatigues and a blue beret pointed his gun in the direction of the immigration office. He was sat in the back of a pick-up with half a dozen other soldiers.

For the past few decades the Casamance has been dealing with a separatist movement never far from de-stabilising the region. Heading south I weaved between military road blocks consisting of palm trees and oil drums painted red and white. Vehicles were made to stop, but a call of Bonjour, Nagadef or Kasumai seemed adequate approval for a toubab on a bicycle.

Other than the beautiful women and military presence, the first thing I noticed about the Casamance was how much greener it is than the Senegal further north. Huge cotton and mahogany trees flanked the roadside, dwarfing the palms, mangoes and cashews that also grow in abundance in the lush surroundings.

Into the Casamance

Between the dense thickets of greenery lay open rice fields, awaiting the rain before the planting season.

Rain fell on my first night in the Casamance. I was camping under a thatched roof and unable to sleep due to  the sound of mangoes thudding as they fell out of  nearby trees and hit the ground. Breakfast for next few months is taken care of.

Casamance camp

The principal town in the Casamance is Ziguinchor, where I am now. It derives its name from when the Portuguese founded it in 1645. They called it ‘Cheguei e Charam’ (I come and they cry) to refer to the local people who cried at the sight of European slave masters coming to capture them.

Nowadays its a sleepy back-water, dotted with colonial relics badly in need of attention. Locals no longer cry at the sight of toubabs. Any reaction is more likely to involve an interest in selling a pirogue trip or a carving. Neither have much appeal. I’m off to Guinea Bissau.

Ziguinchor water-front

Pirogues at sunset