Delightful West Africa 15 – Taxis, Phones and Love on Gambian Highways
On December 23rd, I want to buy 15 Euros of credit for my Gambian Africell mobile phone number, to make Christmas calls the next day.
The vendor: "Would you like scratch cards [that's their word] with 0,8 or 1,6 Euros?"
Hans: "What? I need a scratch card with the amount of 15 Euros. I don't want to scratch many cards and type in all those numbers 20 times." I know already that they don't offer electronic top-up procedures, as in Malaysia, the Philippines or maybe Thailand.
Vendor: "We don't have that kind of scratch cards. The highest amount is three Euros."
So I buy five scratch cards worth three Euros each. Five times I'll have to type in long PIN numbers. I follow the instructions on the card, so I scratch, type *134*, then the PIN number, then #, then press Call. I get a service reply: "Service not available." This doesn't change for some hours. I ask locals; they nod knowingly and tell me to "keep trying".
I call Africell's free hotline. I have no hope that they will answer, not even in Thailand or the Philippines did I ever reach a human being on the service line.
Africell answers. I have to mention the scratch card's PIN number and the open serial number and the amount gets immediately booked into my account.
Hans: "Thanks. But – wait, I have four more scratch cards. Do you want me to spell all those PIN numbers and serial numbers to you now?"
Call agent: "Oh no, please. Send the numbers in an SMS to 134, that way it will work."
I send the secret numbers to 134 and immediately the credit rises. Why don't they explain that way right on the scratch card?
Once the credit is topped up, the battery is low. The battery indicator on my cheap Nokia from Bangkok's MBK mall doesn't help at all. When I connect the charger – alarm: the charger has a loose contact and doesn't connect reliably. The connector's inner plastic tube falls out (MBK hasn't given me the original charger). The phone hadn't even been charged last night, I understand now. The phone will be dead in a few minutes. And it's the 24th, my usual day for holiday calls from abroad. (Not to mention all the taxi drivers I have to call.)
I call Babucar "Babs", my trusted local taxi man for daytime trips. He is from the Bijilo neighborhood, where my hotel stands. I pray that the battery will survive this essential call.
Hans: "Babs, are you near? I need to buy a phone charger. Can you come and take me to a shop?"
Babucar is available (usually they are). Instead of jeans and shirt, he wears his finest silken Muslim pyjama. That's for Christmas, I think for a stupid moment; then I remember it is Friday and at noon many Muslims will pray openly in long rows on every pavement.
Babucar takes me to a shop where they have no charger.
Babucar: "No, this is a place to unlock your phone. All the tourists want that."
Hans: "But I told you I need to buy a charger."
Babucar: "Oh. Let's go somewhere else."
We arrive at another tiny shop. The man connects my old charger to the mains and puts the socket for the cell phone into his mouth.
He makes a dull face: "This one no good."
He offers me two different new chargers: the Nokia original for two Euros and a copy for 1,5 Euros.
Back in the car, I comment to Babucar: "That's funny. He tests the charger with his mouth."
Babucar: "Why, some have a tester, he licks it. That's Africa, man."
Compared to other taxi drivers, Babucar is well-behaved, dresses reasonably civilised and even smiles; a rarity. Once Babucar was driving his rented yellow taxi as a share taxi when a young girl entered for the stretch from Kairaba Avenue to the Brufut turntable. That's five Dalasi, 0,12 Euros, on a shared ride.
I will call her Fatima. Reaching Brufut turntable, Fatima asks for his phone number so that she can order him for other trips. They exchange numbers.
A day later Fatima calls Babucar: "Why don't you call me? We exchanged numbers, right?"
Fatima forces Babucar to visit her. "Marry me", she demands.
"Is she beautiful", I ask Babucar?
"Oh yes!" He opens the glove box with a smile. I see the picture of a feisty, ordinary girl with headscarf, in a disorderly room.
She is 18, he is 29. They will marry soon.
Shared taxis seem popular hunting grounds for lonely Gambians. I have the front seat in a shared taxi along Garba Jahumpa road towards Bakau. The driver talks in Mandinka with the passengers in the back row. The back passengers get out, so that I'm alone with the driver.
"Haha", laughs the driver, now in English, "that lady on the left told me she wanted to marry you."
Hans: "What? Marry me? And you didn't tell me? A Gambian wife! I could have checked her in the rear mirror."
"Oh! You're interested! Wait, I fetch her for you!" He slams on the brakes, opens his door and steps out.
I jump across the driver's seat, grab his right arm and drag him back into the car.
Hans: "Eh, slowly, huh?"
Driver: "Why, I fetch her. She walked into that lane."
"Don't rush it. Next time you tell me first, so that I can check her in the mirror."
"You sure you don't want me to follow her for you? It's still possible. Down that lane!"
Western men are also chased via mobile phone. I get a call from an unknown number and answer. Normally I don't even answer calls from unknown numbers (they keep coming); but I expect calls from hotels and record stores that are not in my phone directory.
Hans: "Hello." (In local style, I don't answer the phone with my name.)
On the phone, a lady says something I don't understand, but it might be English.
Hans: "Do we know each other? Do you want to call Hans the tourist?"
She murmurs something.
Hans: "I think you tried the wrong number. Byebye."
She murmurs something, refusing to end the call.
Hans: presses End Call.
Ten minutes later, an SMS from the same unknown number:
May I know
and more ok
Ten minutes later again:
I would like
to be friend
Also I get spam SMS from tourist restaurants announcing their Sunday specials. I assume that taxi drivers give tourists' numbers to restaurants and maybe even to marriage-minded Gambians.
I get a call from an unknown number. Out of curiosity, I answer.
"Hi, how are you?" A man.
"Thanks, I'm fine. And you?"
"I'm fine too."
"Great. But sorry, who are you?"
"Why, I am Dodou, your night-time taxi driver. I took you to Jokor Westfield yesterday."
"Oh, Dodou. But this is not your phone number. I have your other number in my phone directory."
"Yes, right now I use another, cheaper number."
"Oh, ok. So what's up, why do you call me?"
"Why, I just wanted to say hi. I'm your night-time taxi man, you know."
What a place you have chosen to visit!