Welcome to The Gambia


It seems like such a long time ago that we boarded ship and crossed from Tarifa to Tanger, Spain to northern Africa. Perhaps it was not so long ago, but the cultural gulf that we have crossed makes the days of remembering the Rafaelo seem like ages ago. First northern Africa, then enterning the third world via Mauritania and finaly and most colorfuly, into black Africa.


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Our welcome to Morrocco was, well, interesting. Somewhere between the continents of Europe and Africa we talked to the young, well dressed, Moroccan customs officer. The waves slightly rocking the Ferry in this meeting place of the Atlantic and Mediteranean. I suppose you could say that this, our first contact with Morocco, set the tone for what would soon become our “contact” with the Moroccan police.


As we crossed the Rif and Middle Atlas mountains and the plains west of Marakech, somehow, the police always seemed to know where we were. Asking at a cafe east of Marakech, “can we pitch our tent in your lawn?” We were welcome. But not before we were interviewed by the local police information officer and an accompanying security officer. There is also the time some days later as we woke in a field, with an undercover officer at the door of our tent, coming to tell us that last night we really should have registered at the local police bureau a mere seven long draining kilometers further up the road. Much safer than here in a field of course.


As we crossed the Sahara, we heard the stories. Border police asking for “un cadeau” to magically make the crossing simple and quick. My first experience with this actually happened as we arrived in TanTan, our first city in the Sahara. Out of character for the Moroccan police, I was asked for my Gortex rain jacket by an abrasive gendarme. As if giving it to him would make our arrival into TanTan easier? We have decided beforehand that we simply can and will not participate in the bakshish buying of passage. Perhaps some of the Europeans with rolling satelite-dish-topped “Chateaus” are more than willing to grease the system with their “vacation” cash. We are simple bikers, and simply not willing.


In the blistering heat, in the middle of the Sahara, on the edges of a hellish and mined no-mans land, we were greeted by the Mauritanian police in a way which really surprised me. With respect and dignity. The red and white barrier, holding back Morocco and Algeria somewhere out there in the heat and haze, has brought us to a truly new country.


A thin officer, dressed in Army green atire, a beret on his head, glasses from the 1940s… A miniscule, old, run down, creaking wooden shack with hundreds of rusted nails sticking out here and there… The heat… The ever present, ever-draining heat… We are welcome inside. Old wallpaper on the walls, curling at the edges. An image and a moment engraved in my memory and being. “Welcome.” “You are welcome to our country”. The big, ancient, dark brown, wooden desk, taking most of the room in this small building on a hillside in the middle of the desert, hundreds of marks and scratches telling of its age. It creaks left and right as the officer writes our passport information slowly and meticulously in the big black book laying in front of him. He occasionaly looks up at us, asking a question. Surely it is hot in here, out of the sun for a moment, but such an incredible relief compared to the direct blazing midday sun outside. “You are very courageous for coming to our country by bicycle”.


A service which I believe for the Mauritanian customs must be rather rare, we are offered bottles of water before we continue our way to discover their country.


Heading back out into the dunes, into the suffocating heat, I am absolutely amazed at the reception we have received to Mauritania. Somehow our first contact has set the tone for our time in Mauritania. We have been welcome here in a most respectful way. We set off from the border, in spite of there being mostly desert to discover, full of expectation for the discovery of a new country.


We have seen the first trees, encountered the crocodiles, seen the Pelicans, made it acrosss the desert and crossed our way through Senegal. Only once, from a national parc officer in Mauritania were we asked for a little extra cash. “All the other travelers accept these charges,” he said. We did not accept and moved on, paying only with time and hassle.


And then there is Dakar. A big, overcrowded, busy, bustling, crazy city. It gives us the opportunity to stop by embassies and get some visas.


In Nouakchott Mauritania, we went to the Malian embassy and got our visas for Mali. Here, in Dakar, we find the Guinee-Conackry Consulate. We called ahead to make sure we could come. Making the hour bike ride, we arrive just in the nick of time. The Consul is busy with an inspection however and cannot receive us. Tommorow is Saturday, everything will be closed until Monday. We are frustrated. The consul himself, apologizing, offers to meet us Saturday morning. How incredibly nice to be offered such service. The next morning, after a long hour walk crossing Dakar to get here, with no request or demand for extra fees, with only respect and service, we receive an extended visa for the price of a normal one. We are looking forward to traveling in Guinee-Conackry.


And then, off a busy side street of Central Dakar, tucked away between other tall buildings, is the Gambian High Comission.


This, from the start, is another story.


Passing the guard, up a flight of stairs, behind glass is the office of, well, someone who works here but seems none too interested in talking with strangers coming into her office. “Hello” seems like an insult, and asking questions, one gets the feeling of being in the way. We really must be bothering this seemingly too-busy person who is actually sitting around doing what seems like absolutely nothing. No smile. No kind word. Only harsh instructions and lies. “Now you pay me.” “Now you go sit over there.” Of course we would be bothering her were we to ask for how long.


The Gambian Visa is not cheap. We are lucky that only I need the Visa, as Dutch nationals do not need a Visa for visiting The Gambia. Madam informs us however, that Chantal will need to buy a Visa. She comes up with some un-necessary reason for this as she cooly tries to steal 20,000 CFA from us. Not a nice thing really. We hold our position however, knowing that what she is saying is not true.


To make a short story shorter, after sittting for some time, I decide I would really like to know if we should perhaps better come back later in the afternoon to pick up my passport. “Madam” is having lunch, chatting with a colleague, with my passport ready in her hands. She seems to have forgotten that it would be respectful and even perhaps normal to let me know that my visa is ready. Of course she has better things to do today than be bothered with communicating with people who want to visit her country. My only thought is, “Welcome to the Gambia”.


Although crossing the border from Senegal to The Gambia is colorful to say the least, it is also relatively uneventful. That is, as uneventful as an African border crossing can be, putting aside the literally hundreds if not thousands of people selling everything from oranges to bananas to black market money, to… Well… No one bothers asking for Chantal’s visa, for as we already knew, she does not need one.


Although the trees do not change color, the dirt remains red and the skies blue, everything else around us seems to have changed. The cries in french from children of Senegal have become more insistent, louder and more aggressive, and are now in English. Whereas we used to only occassionaly have to keep children from chasing us and trying to push our bikes… Now we are chased by crowds of very unpleasant children, pushing, shoving yelling in disrespect and unfriendliness. I almost wonder if it was better in Morocco, where children only stupidly threw rocks at us. Here they are disrespectful and pushy. This combined with 20 kilometers of horrible dusty washboard dirt road, makes for rather a challenge.


I suppose that I should have expected it or perhaps seen it coming. After all, the stories are around. It was easy getting on the Ferry, crossing from Barra Gambia to Banjul. Perhaps too easy. The forty five minute crossing costs us together, with the overpriced bicycle surcharge, something less than a total of fifty Euro cents. And that was more expensive than what the locals pay.


There was simply so much craziness in Barra. So many many people, so many voices, so much activity, so many salesmen wanting our attention. One ticket salesman showed me where to get a ticket. He even reached over the gate and handed the money to the other ticket salesperson for me.


I must get away from all the madness, stand still on the deck and watch the shoreline slowly get further away as the large overcrowded boat makes it’s way into the headwaters of the Gambia River.


Two friendly security boys from the ferry, both wearing bright yellow official looking safety vests approach me. A few kind words and then they say to me, “our brother wants to talk with you.” He is the one whom I paid for the ticket. They don’t quite understand, but I’m not going to go anywhere or talk to anyone. Around here, hundreds of people always want to talk with you. I need my peace and quiet and in the darkening night here on board of this crowded ship, it would take nothing less than three seconds to swipe something from the bikes while my back is turned. They can’t see and don’t know that these bikes are our lives.


So they leave me alone for a while. But soon enough they pick up the conversation again, two security boys and I. Chantal is getting some fresh air, sitting at the top of the metal steps, watching river and sea, trying of course not to feel sick with the rocking of the boat. She seems happy and smiles.


“We love Holland,” they tell me. “We love the dutch people.” All friendliness. All kindness. There is not so much to talk with them about, these boys I’ve only met some moments ago. They explain to me that the ship is broken and that it cannot properly dock. “We will help you lift the bikes.”


I must say that at first I was quite taken by how much they “love” Europeans and the dutch. Within a few moments though, they start telling me a story about how the military men outside the ship need to be paid. “It is not for us, it is for the military. We used our power to help you and they need to be paid before you can get off the boat. Just pay us and we will take care of it for you.”


I must honestly say, that for a couple of boys whom I’ve only met moments ago, I’m really not at all clear what power they think they have used to help us. But the thing is, we have not paid anything to get anywhere to anybody on this contienent. And we are not starting now. For many travelers it is common fare to hand out a few bills here and there to make things go a little more smoothly.


We don’t do that, and I’m quite sure the military won’t mind us getting off the boat.


I explain clearly to these two boys, that we will pay nothing. We have no Gambian money anyway.


“Don’t worry”, they say. “We’ll take care of everything for you. Let me have your tickets so that we can take care of it for you when we get off. It is only after that they have had the tickets for several minutes and insisted several more times that they have used their power to help us that we start smelling the unfriendliness of this situation.


I have told them kindly and clearly several times by now, that I am perfectly capable without them and don’t need to pay anybody and will not pay anybody. I ask to see my own ticket, pretending to need to verify them. Naively he hands them back. I look at them for a moment and shove them deep into my pocket. They ask several more times for our tickets back and I just ignore them, keeping my own tickets tucked away.


Again and again they demand to be paid for their services. Each time I respond that as much as they think that someone needs to be paid, I will not pay.


The sun has set, it is now pitch black out. They seem to want to stick with us, and in the darkness and craziness, help us lift the bikes off the boat (of which we are perfectly capable ourselves).


Passing the military men, we come to those gathering tickets, I reach into my pockets, quietly realizing that had I not had the tickets myself, they would have “conveniently” dissapeared and we would have been stuck in an ugly situation. Handing them the tickets, we walk past without a problem. It is at this point that the two “European loving boys” begin to become threatening. “‘If you do not pay, we will call security service.”


Banjul is dark, the streets feel unsafe. We are past the gates. I tell these two boys in very clear terms that it is time to leave us alone now. I tell Chantal “GO”‘. We pedal hard and sprint clear of the port into the streets of Banjul. Dark road only getting darker as we go. To our great surprise, the boys sprint on foot after us down the dark streets of Banjul.


“You pay us now!”
“We used our power and you must pay us.”


My only response to them is: “You must leave us alone.”


Somehow though, the crowd of those with the boys gathers. And we sprint off on our bikes again back to the port, followed closely by them chasing after us on foot again. To make un unpleasant situation clear, it seems to grow like a snowball.


In our next sprint, we pass a modern looking, well lit hotel, an oasis in the darkenss of this unknown African city. Again we are chased through the city. We stop and the situation grows. There are now severeal bystanders, bringing a certain amount of at least temporary safety. But those with the boys also seem to be growing, almost as if this were a network of people working together. Sensing the momentary relative safety, I step into the hotel. One of the boys’s men jumps in ahead and quickly negotiates with the hotel manager before I can say a word. It seems clear that even the hotel is somehow taking part in this.


I ask for a telephone to call the police. Somehow conveniently (or not) this particular phone can only receive incoming calls. Or at least it just started working that way in these last moments.


I am getting angry and agitated. I ask a bar next door for a phone to call the police. The barman walks over to the hotel, in spite of my insisting he not do this, to ask the hotel manager.


“While I am inside, one of the two original Dutch loving “boys” has been outside making sexualy demeaning comments to Chantal. She has closed her ears. In passing they have told her, just give us what you have “50 Euros, 200 Euros”. Chantal laughs at them. The craziest thing is that they still feel that they have done something (who knows what really) to deserve to be paid this ransom of 1600 times our ticket price.


The snowball explodes! The hotel manager, who seems to be part of this whole scam, realizing that this situation will end up badly for himself and his hotel quickly sais two words to the boys. In a moment they leave and dissapear down the dark streets of Banjul.


Chosing the safety of light and known over the seemingly unsafe and dark streets out there, we move into a room. Somehow the price of our room is half of what it was only moments ago.


I am pissed off and angry. We are both, well, rather concerned. We don’t know how far this will go. We barricade our room door with chairs and wood and keep an eye on the activity outside through our window. The situation has been diffused.


My only thought is: “Welcome to The Gambia!”


Somehow, the three days we spent in The Gambia never felt good. The overly agressive children, chasing us, pushing our bikes. The locals who silently look away and don’t respond or say anything when we ask them a question.


We stayed at a campement run by Europeans for a couple nights. Nice, refreshing.


When we later discover through a friend that the salary locals receive from the Europeans here is not much more than 20 Euros per month for full time work (with two days off per month), my stomach turns. This may be the “going price” here. And perhaps the social structure, in its own way upholds this (barely). Is there not though, in this, some smell of modern day slavery?


How poor is poor?


Is latching on to a white man (a name we have been called surely a hundred thousand times already in Africa) and ripping him off, the only way to make a living in this country?


We later discovered through stories told to us by those who have been here longer, that our little story is but a laugh. Real danger exists.


We call him The Captain. He is a retired aircraft carrier sea captain of the British Royal Navy. Captain has been in these parts for years. We are guests in his home, a campement that he is building. We have time for stories and he tells us of a time some years ago when he came down with Malaria. Ending up in the city hospital, he was told that he had a Gall Bladder infection and would need to be operated immediately. Knowing something was wrong with this, he asked a friend to take him out of the hospital as quickly as possible. He ended up back in Britain, where his serious case of Malaria was treated and ended up back on his feet.


A few weeks after he had become sick, a friend of his ended up with Malaria as well, in the same hospital. Intruigingly, he was also diagnosed with Gall Blader infection and was told he needed surgery for it. The man was not able to be as assertive and he died during the surgery. The hospital contacted the family, back in the west, and was told that they would need to come with the equivalent of 11,000 thousand euros to recuperate the body. The family made the trip. Upon arrival they were told the price had changed, and they would need 25,000 euros to recuperate the body. They simply were not able to pay this. The body of this unfortunate man still lies in the hospital morgue, close to a decade later.


It seems that to some, you are worth more dead than alive.


Two boys trying to take some money from some white bikers is nothing compared to what really happens here in Africa.


We have to be careful.


A smile remains with me as I remember The Gambia. One young boy who rode his bicycle with me over at least ten kilometers over the dust covered pistes during our arrival into the country. I can only hope that he stays pure and does not become like those we have met these days.

2 Reactions to: “Welcome to The Gambia”

  1. 1 sabine macwaters

    Well, That story is a close brush with the reality we fear for you, and which you are always so very adept at avoiding! Hurray for you, and the success of your odessey, that you have such a smart way of staying clear, even when the going gets tough…
    You are so smart, and this plus your love of the world, gets you through!
    Love you!!!

  2. 2 Marian Febvre

    There is little that I can add to what Sabine has said. Your are brave, courageous, kind-hearted, smart at how to survive in situations where fellow humans become predators, be it out of need or anger or desperation…it makes little difference. You intend no harm, and you ask for nothing but to bike through their part of our planet. Yet, in doing so you do become prey. But you two are “prey with heart”. But to make of it all….
    We love you and are glad you keep safe and well.
    I can fully understand that you are tired and need to rest your hearts a bit before going on.
    I love you!!!