The Guinean Embassy in The Gambia is not where my guidebook says it is. Readers Google searching for an address may now end up here, or here, which is where I found its new location. Attempts at asking shopkeepers and traffic police directly outside its former address met with limited success. One person told me one thing and the other another. I think a lot of useless information can be gathered this way in Africa. Thank progress for the Internet.

I arrived at the correct address just as the Consular was opening his office. It was 9.30am. My search to find the place had begun at 7am, so at least I’d killed time in one way. I’d cycled up to Banjul early to wave Jon off on the ferry. That is where my guidebook, published eight months ago, located it to be. Instead it was 15km away in Serrekunda, which is really the economic hub of the country.

Embassies consisting of a single room and just one member of staff seem to have a habit of changing addresses on a frequent basis. At least in a number of countries I’ve cycled through. It was only a matter of time on this trip before I found one. It was in fact not an embassy, but a consulate – the latter dealing with all matters pertaining to granting visas.

On a wall above the only desk in the room hung a map of the country, alongside a picture of ‘Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’, the country’s former military leader who was shot in the head by one of his presidential guards last December. At least I assumed this was a picture of him. For the past several months some other general has been running the show. The country is planning to undergo elections this June. Perhaps not the wisest of times to be applying for a visa.

I filled out the application form and handed over a wad of cash, opting to pay extra for a double-entry visa that will allow me to travel back into the country from either Sierra Leone or Liberia. Given the usual bureaucratic delays that define such matters I expected to be told to return in a few days.“Come back at eleven”, said the voice behind the scattered pile of paperwork. I clarified that he meant eleven the same day, although in reality he could have done it there and then. We were two in the office and I doubted many more people would be coming to apply for a visa.

It was all too easy, and got easier the following day when I cycled to the Guinea Bissau embassy. Guinea Bissau, which borders Guinea (or Guinea Conakry for clarity) to the north, points to Portugal for its colonial history, whereas Guinea Conakry was French controlled. Confusing I know.

The Guinea Bissau embassy was far easier to locate, and its visa, at a mere $10, far cheaper. My passport disappeared for little more than 10 minutes before coming back with the correct stamp. Only the Sierra Leonean embassy requested I return after the weekend and provide the address of the hotel I will be staying at in Freetown, the answer to which I have no idea. I was about to make one up on the application, but decided it wiser to ask the Consular for a recommendation. This seemed more important than knowing the particulars of my yellow fever vaccination, which I think is mandatory for entering the country.

Of far greater interest than applying for visas was an evening in the country’s national stadium. “Rediscovering the Mystical Roots Of Our African Heritage” read the billboards advertising the World’s first ever Michael Jackson tribute concert. It seemed like an event not to miss. For $4 Gambia showcased some big local artists, before everyone’s attention turned to the procession of black Hummers entering the stadium. The President appeared from one of the two limousine-sized behemoths and stood through the skylight as several army generals flung packets of his own Presidential branded biscuits to the crowd. I’d been told this was common during public appearances.

The biscuit throwing spectacle was possibly the highlight of the evening. That and when his Excellency stood up later on to dance. Jermaine Jackson was finally on stage at this time and the doors to the stadium had been open for free. Bare-footed children scavenged for empty plastic bottles to be re-used whilst women balancing cashew nuts on their heads wandered gracefully through the crowds. How the babies tied to their backs were sleeping when the music blasted away I don’t know. It was after 1am.

This was also after a Gambian group had sung a thank-you tribute to his Excellency’s work in the country’s health-care programme. The words caught the attention of the  audience and we all listened. “Thank you Mr President for curing HIV and Aids. Don’t listen to the west and their ways”. This was repeated several more times before the next act came on. The word is that natural herbs of some kind are used in this special medicine.

Why and how Jermaine Jackson came to be performing in The Gambia I have no idea. A personal Presidential invite perhaps. It was his Excellency’s birthday last week and The Gambia is currently celebrating some ‘Roots’ festival, which is a word I hear often here. In the words of another popular billboard in this small African nation, ‘Thank you Mr President’.

Back To Our Roots