Delightful West Africa 18 – Gambia Upcountry by Rental Car
On short trips away from Gambia's tourist coast I've seen that rural Gambians are rough around the edges, but otherwise genuinely friendly and funny – and they speak good English. I'd love to conduct pothole research upcountry.
At Gambia's best known rental car agency, AB, I reserve a small Feroza jeep for 35 Euros per day including tax and third party insurance. When I want to pick up the car, they give me the much bigger Mitsubishi Pajero, that normally rents for 48 Euro. Why not: The Pajero has air-con and the ground clearance of an adult giraffe; it could ford Gambia river.
But: the extra insurance for damages to your own rental car is much higher, and they won't discount the insurance because i had booked a smaller car. For the tiny Feroza, the extra insurance would have been seven Euros per day. The Pajero's extra insurance costs 14 Euros per day. I had been told by taxi drivers that AB charges European prices for any damage to their cars. You have to leave 1000 Euros deposit or your credit card details with the rental company.
Meet the Police
The suitcase in the car cannot be hidden. The first police checkpost in Brufut tells me to pull to the road side: "I want to check that luggage in your car."
Oh no, not another luggage check by thievish Gambian police, that's just what I wanted to avoid (on the land border, they had kept my headache tablets; see West Africa 12). I park and open the car's back. Now another police man joins me. Black shades. Huge machine gun.
Policeman: "What's your problem, man? Driving without safety belt, huh?"
Hans: "No, I have no problem. Your colleague demanded that I pull along."
Policeman: "So what's in that suitcase?"
Hans (picking my shirt): "Clothing, toothbrush, and such. Travel stuff."
Policeman (picking his shirt): "Clothing, toothbrush, and such?"
Hans (picking my shirt): "Clothing, toothbrush, and such."
Policeman: "That's fine. You can go. Have a nice day."
At the next checkpost a policeman asks me for a ride. I don't like him, but don't see how to refuse him. When I invite him in, three more men jump out of the police hut and joyfully into my car. They go 500 meters on a cool late afternoon.
Later my taxi driver Aliou comments: "Yes, policemen ask for rides all the time. But I never accept uniformed men in my car."
Yet another checkpost. Policeman: "Hey, my colleague needs a lift to Serakunda. I hope you can take him."
Hans: "Sorry, I only go as far as Brikama. That won't help him much."
It's a lie, but I am left alone.
Checkpost. Policeman: "How are you?"
Hans: "Thanks, I am fine, and you?"
Policeman: "Just managing."
Hans: "Why's that?"
Policeman: "I have no attaya."
Hans: "What's that?"
Policeman: "That's green tea for our beloved cups of tea at home and at work. And I don't have it right now."
Hans: " – "
Policeman (angry): "You can go."
Checkpost. Hans: "Hi, how's the morning?"
Two police ladies under the mango tree: "Not good."
Hans: "Why's that?"
Two police ladies: (pointing to their stomachs)
Hans: "Why, you have that nice shady mango tree with good fruit."
Two police ladies: (sour face)
Hans: (rolls on)
(A week later, as a taxi passenger, I pass the same checkpost with the same ladies. They demand tea money again and my driver is Babucar who usually complies with all demands, to avoid trouble in the future, see West Africa 14. But he has no small change. So Babucar steps out and buys a small pack of green tea for 0,3 Euros for the police. I wait ten minutes in the hot car.)
Meet the People
Everywhere people hitch rides. I transport lots of school kids and ladies. I might take couples and single men, if they look nice. I ignore groups of men. On the village sand road to Tinikunda I accept a fatherly old man with rosary and muslim robe; he doesn't look dangerous. Two kilometers on, another man wants to join us; he's a farmer holding a huge machete.
"Do you know this farmer, is he ok", I ask my fatherly mussulman?
"Of course I know him, we can take him".
I accept the machete swinging farmer who takes the back seat right behind me. Nothing happens and he leaves the car with a smile and an "Abaracka" (Mandinka for thank you).
I ask a man on the roadside: "Where is the turn-off for Kanilai?"
"I and my friend just want to go there. We will join you."
I press the accelerator.
On the paved side road towards Kanilai a man excitedly waves at me. He looks young and strong, so normally I shouldn't stop for him. But he has a nice face and I just can't ignore him. When I stop, he says: "I don't need the ride, but my mother goes to Kanilai. She's just down the road." I assure him that I will stop for her. 500 meters on, I pick up his mother and three other dignified African ladies. As usual, I have to show them how to use the safety belt and how to open the door.
Meet the Foreigner
Next morning, the car mirror dangles loosely in the mirror housing. It might fall down, and I don't see how to fix it. I don't want to bring the car back with this defect. At a military check-post near Kanilai, I ask for the next car service. He points me towards a huge garage where many trucks are parked. The security guy at the gate here is the young man who had asked the ride for his mother yesterday. "Thanks for taking my mother yesterday", he smiles. He walks into the lot and returns: "Leave your car here and explain your problem to the supervisor inside."
The supervisor asks me to bring the car to a service post. He wonders why I even care to repair a mirror on the right side of the car (in Gambia, you drive on the right side, as in mainland Europe or the US, so the left mirror is more crucial). Two young Gambians dismantle the mirror and break open a new pack of two-components glue.
Another supervisor invites me into his air-conditioned booth and offers Lipton tea. I learn that the garage belongs to Kharafi, the Egyptian construction company that's currently paving the south bank highway. My supervisor is an Egyptian engineer and working in Gambia for three years now. Progress could be much faster, he sighs, if only the Banjul government would pay in time. He loves the green, quiet Gambian environment – "we have no nature in Egypt, and it is so much more crowded".
"You have a wife, and kids", I ask?
His face lights up three f-stops.
He has a wife and two young children in Alexandria. They chat online every night, over a fast connection in his corporate bungalow. Once or twice a year he flies home for a few weeks, the travel time via Morocco is 24 hours.
Finally, the mirror is fixed eternally with super-glue and cannot be adjusted anymore. I ask the Egyptian engineer if I could leave a banknote for the boys or for the general tea money box. "That's not at all necessary", he assures me. The workers themselves have disappeared by now, hammering on other pickups, caterpillars or trucks.
I believe that this was one of only two or three people I met in Gambia who were only interested in a peaceful chat and nothing else.
Meet More People – and More Police
Khafari hasn't yet paved the road stretch between Bwian and Soma, so it's red laterite. Still rather smooth, the ride fascinates with tiny mud brick huts ducking under huge Baobab and Cassava trees, strings of colorfully dressed people walking on both sides of the roads, occasionally you watch out for goats, dogs or cows.
In the midday heat, I see three young ladies in beautiful glittering dresses on the dusty left road side waiting for a ride. I stop on the right road side, but they motion me to come over to the left side. They are on their way to a wedding ceremony. Just 200 meters on, they ask me to stop again and suddenly I have eight ladies in my car. That's not a problem with the benches in the back part (on that day my suitcase is in the lodge).
As I just close the back door behind the ladies, a tall young hip-hopper in shades and muscle-shirt steps out of the compound. He squeezes my hand ferociously.
"Yeah man", he barks, "now you've got me moddar in yer car, you know. She's on de front seat." He looks very concerned.
"Don't worry, brodder", I bark back, "I'll take yer mommy to her destination safe and sound. And with air-condition at that."
"Yeah man, dat's great man."
At the next police check-post, I have to show my national driving licence and the insurance certificate as usual. But then I am asked into the police building. I turn off the car and learn that I broke two laws: The hip-hopper mommy on the front passenger seat hadn't used the safety-belt, and the car was insured only for seven, not for eight passengers. I admit that I had been too careless in both aspects.
Now a long, polite talk ensues. There are no severe threats and there is no arrogance, no false accusations. Just with a slightly blaming voice they tell me that I, as the responsible driver, risked the valuable life of a Gambian citizen by allowing her to drive without safety belt and uninsured. I as the far-travelled European was responsible for the less educated locals.
"I am sorry", I say, "I just wanted to bring them to their wedding ceremony. Now of course one lady has to get out here."
"If you drop one lady here, we would have to take you to the main police station. You would lose a lot of your precious holiday time and you would have to pay up to 80 Euros fine."
They ask me if I would like that procedure. Through many complicated, polite, but slightly blaming words I learn that the case could be closed more informally and all eight ladies could, no should continue with me.
They give no hint whatsover for the practicalities. I myself have to suggest a bribe – and thus commit yet another crime.
I have no experience. I want to get out. I also feel a bizarre desire to bribe authorities in a banana republic (I've done it in Thailand and Cambodia before, but never inside a police station). I have heard that I should remain silent until the Gambian police men tire of me. I have also heard that I could get away with a 0,5 or 1 Euro bribe.
But I know that I have no such small note in my wallet at the moment, and I want to get out smoothly. Hidden from the policemen, I take a 100 Dalasi note (2,7 Euros) out of my wallet. I flash just a small piece of the 100 Dalasi note so that the amount is recognizable.
"Would that settle the case", I ask?
They say nothing. Nothing. Four uniformed Gambian police men just watch me.
I move the 100 Dalasi note under a file on the desk. Just a small strip remains visible.
A switch has been turned. Insurance certificate and driving licence fly my way. I leave the building as if in slow-motion, but without any interference.
The eight well-dressed ladies in the closed, turned-off car sweat profusely. So do I.
Their destination is 300 meters away.
Meet the Agency Again
More upcountry Gambian encounters will follow in West Africa 19 to 21. As I return the car to the rental agency, they check it superficially. They don't notice the glued right mirror.
"I liked the car", I say. "I just wish it had a CD player and not a cassette player."
"We had CD players before", replies the rental car agent: "But when tourists took the car to Senegal, locals would break into the cars and steal the CD players. Our customers had to pay huge compensations and got angry. So we changed all CD players to cassette players. It was expensive for us, but the problem was solved."
You're a brave man, Hans, sticking it out in Africa so long!