Senegal and Gambia should be very similar. As I was told several times, “we are the same people“, and it makes sense. The only differences would come from what the different colonial styles have brought, between the French and the British. And for breakfast, Keba’s wife is not serving coffee, but tea! Café Touba is not popular in Gambia, but it’s starting to get introduced with the Senegalese living here.
After a bucket shower in the house backyard, barely hidden from the other houses, I am ready for a day of exploration. To reach the capital Banjul where Anna is hosting me, I just need to cycle 30 km on the main road. Gambia is the smallest country of Africa and I could easily cycle across it within a day. That’s why I decided to make a long way around today and see a bit more than if I was passing through.
It was a good choice not getting those international roaming SIM cards for the trip. They might be useful in Europe but have crazy expensive rates for African countries, like 15€/Mo of data. In Gambia the Orange SIM card is 10 dalasi (0.20 €). The only drawbacks are that my phone number changes as I change country, and especially that I have to guess the APN address to configure my phone to connect to internet. It can be anything from “internet” to “internet.provider.extension”
The landscape is the same, the laterite and red sand pistes are the same as in Senegal. I would say it also applies to the people, except that I hear “give me the money” instead of “donne moi l’argent“.
The people are really friendly and deserve their nickame of the smiling coast of Africa. All the villages I pass through are introduced by a funding program and I have a quick chat with everyone, in English for a change. Kids are noticeably less compulsive beggars than in Senegal. I even stop in a talibe village, the ultimate experience for kids assault, without any problem.
I reach Juffureh, a historical site because of the slave trade, that became popular with Haley’s book Roots. It is where his ancestor Kunta Kinteh is supposed to come from. The story is a story, but the truth about the slave trade organised here by the British mainly, the French and the Portuguese, all along the XVIIIth and XIXth century, can’t be denied. Juffureh, Albreda and James island were one important departure point for African slaves to the Americas.
Upon my arrival in Juffureh by the “back road”, I am stopped by an immigration and police control. The first one checks my passport, to say “It’s OK with me, but now you will have to deal with those guys“. Those guys are two young men without uniforms. Like at the border post in Amdalai, they are part of the national intelligence and security service. I had heard about Gambian officials always seeking for pocket money on the roads and I expect a lengthy discussion. However a few question later and a description of “what’s your mission here?“, and I am freed. They even offer me food.
The manager at the slave trade museum is not as friendly. He insists on charging me 100 dalasi for the museum entrance, right in front of the sign saying 50. The museum in Albreda is small but informative, mainly describing the poor transit conditions of the slaves, and how the French and British have fought each other and swapped settlements on the strategic coast of the Gambia river. Even a Duke of Latvia wanted to establish an empire here.
As I head back to Barra, from where the ferry runs to Banjul, I expect to have a nice road for the last 30 km on the direct Juffureh-Barra road. This is not even the case. Unlike pistes in secluded villages, the pistes that are frequently used have a very bad surface of corrugated iron and my bike hates it. Actually, most of the tourists going to Albreda/Juffureh do it by boat from Banjul, thus avoiding the bad roads and the unreliable ferry crossing.
On the positive side, I don’t have to wait until Casamance to find the mango fields. It seems most of the plantations around are of cashew trees, but I find ripe mangoes to provide me with sugar until Barra.
Barra is a small and dark town facing Banjul, on the north bank of the river Gambia. It is too late for me to take the ferry and to cycle another 20 km on the other side, so I spend the night here. There is a wrestling game, the other popular sport with football in the region, and lots of noise. Even if the town is dark and most of the streets made of sand, it’s pleasant to walk outside and chit-chat with the people. Everyone is talkative and friendly and it feels very safe.
The next morning at 7 am, the first ferry is departing to Banjul. I must catch this one to be early enough, then cycle to Serrekunda/Kololi, then visit the embassies. I need two more visas, for Guinea-Bissau and Guinea Conakry, and they are available in the Gambian capital. But since it’s Friday, the embassies probably close at 12.
Banjul is a non-town: I exit it within 5 minutes. The Gambian capital is located on an island separated by mangroves, and is very small in comparison to Serrekunda, the biggest city, just 15 km away.
Visits the embassies is a fun game, or an ordeal, depending on how I approach it. First, the Guinean one is closed, as Friday is called weekend in Gambia. A general 3-day weekend that allow everyone not happy at work to close the shops. We head then to the one of Guinea-Bissau. I knew the easiest and cheapest place to get this visa is in Ziguinchor, Casamance, just before the border, but if I can get it here for the same price, it will be a good thing done.
The embassy of Guinea-Bissau is a desk in a kitchen of a house and the signs there read that they are also closed until Monday. However, there is some activity inside, and I am offered to process my application anyway. The price is 750 dalasi for a 8-day wait and 1250 dalasi if you want it within 3 days. It’s is roughly the same price as in Ziguinchor, but with extra waiting time. When I’m about to leave, the guy finally says he would process it for Monday, so I leave him my passport. Those embassies are a nonsense, just full of rules that no one respects.
Before heading to the beach, I try unsuccessfully several ATMs. The last try with a local bank finally works, but I am allowed to withdraw only 30 notes at once. And the biggest bank note in Gambia is 100 dalasi (2 €) … a very unpractical currency explaining why people always carry hugs wads with them.
I stay with Anna a couple of days in Banjul, going to the beach, wandering in the Serrekunda market, collecting my visas, catching up with internet, and joining the Hash House Harriers I had already experienced in Delhi.
Right after collecting my passport, it’s the turn of the embassy of Guinea. This one is more standard, i.e. a small dark office in a commercial building. It goes smoothly and I can collect my visa the same day at 3pm. When I return there, I have to wake up the man sleeping on his desk (the city is deprived of electricity, which means the fan can’t run, so it’s naturally too hot to work) and my visa run is finished: I have them all until Ghana.
The Gambia is an interesting country. It is tiny but welcomes many tourists from Europe along its beaches. During the low season, the beaches are empty and many tourist places close. But I get a feel of what it could be during the high season. The coast line looks very westernized, as it only gathers clubs, restaurants, a casino, and supermarkets selling imported products. I see funny couples, mostly a young rastaman with an old British lady. Besides drug trafficking, the other way to get a good life being born in Gambia is to catch a Toubab, and old European man and woman, and get presents, money, and ultimately the right documents to emigrate.
On the other side of the highway, the economic center looks more like an usual (relatively) big African city, with its dust, mess, and sellers of anything everywhere.
The “president”, which can be seen on all the roads on too many intellectual posters, such as “Do your duty, vote for me“, seems to have slightly more power than a democratic president. To convey what I was told, it’s a shame how obvious a country can be badly run and the citizens maintained at a low level of education, while the rulers enjoy both the benefits of international help and of massive drug trafficking. At least I learnt that in such cases, it’s always better enroll in the military rather than in the police or in other civil services. If the salaries of the military are not paid, what happens to a president is easily predictable.
As I don’t move upstream along the river Gambia, I will exit the country very soon. Anna gives me the contact of her friend living at the border in Kartong. It is not the official border, with a road and customs, but it is possible to cross the river there with a pirogue. So I head to Kartong.
The road is good but offers nothing special, apart from a crew of vultures watching me from the dirty road sides. People are much less begging than in Senegal, but have always a word to say about marrying a European to move their family out of the country. About that, I was convinced by a Guinean that it’s not a good idea to marry an old European lady and hide one’s African family ; it’s better instead to tell the truth from the beginning. That is the kind of conversations we can have here …
I am welcome by Fred in his house hidden in the jungle and will cross the border the next day. I mustn’t take too long to reach Guinea, as the roads in the Fouta Djalon are reputed to be bad and difficult during the rainy season. In Serrekunda I had the first rain in 3 months, it is inevitably starting, and will inevitably give me hard times from now on …