Friday, 22 March 2013

Keep On Keeping Me

Click here to see the album of photos for this post

The huge bustle of people surrounded me at the edge of the water which looked over to the capital city Banjul. A man bent down in front of me shouting "On my shoulders!" I stepped over him, worried about whether he could take the weight of both me and my backpack. Without any problems he waded through the water, along with twenty others who had made this their job, and dropped me on the huge wooden boat where I sat exposed to the sun for thirty minutes until the engine started taking around a hundred people across the river which separates north and south Gambia.

Alighting on the other side, however, wasn't as successful. The hundred people all pushed to escape the boat at the same time; I tried to hold back but was grabbed by a man and fell not so gracefully onto his shoulders, then he dived to save my hat as it flew into the crowded water, causing a slight heart attack on my part.

A brother of my Gambian family, Ebou, lived in the nearby city of Serrekunda, so upon arrival in Banjul he came to pick me up. I stayed with him for two nights whilst he introduced me to all his friends and family. We walked the length and breadth of the city, visiting a beautiful section of the river which is close to his house, as well as passing "Big Tree" which was along the way to the long beach situated at the mouth of the river. Just like the Jonga family in Fass [link] who wanted me to stay for the entire length of my visa, Ebou also wanted me to stay longer. I had to refuse; I couldn't stay everywhere forever.

I hitched 140km, exiting Gambia and entering the south of Senegal, arriving in Ziguinchor after just two rides. The second was in a bus; they took me for free. After just ten minutes driving, a tyre punctured so we had to take refuge from the sun in somebody's back yard until the driver had managed to negotiate a ride to a tyre shop and come back to fit it. It was almost dark when he finished and we restarted the trip.

I hopped off the bus upon arrival in Ziguinchor and a small group of people surrounded me;
"The white woman needs something, how can we make some money" I assumed they were thinking.
The man with the clearest English and loudest voice won my attention. We jumped in a taxi together and headed to his place. He was a 50-something year old, unmarried man called Ibrihim. Of course, I was suspicious at first; what did he want from me? There must be a reason he is doing this? I stayed switched on whilst with him, always expecting a negative outcome of some sort, but I gradually relaxed as I got to know him more.

We walked through his neighbourhood, stopping for Palma wine and crab meat for breakfast, where we then passed people living their everyday lives; be it women washing clothes, boys playing football, and even men weaving thread using thirty metre looms. We strolled a long distance outside of the city limits, seeing the unspoiled nature along the road, reaching a crocodile sanctuary where we joked about the probability of them being plastic. A small stick thrown at the right angle caused a snap loud and quick enough to put our suspicions to the grave. In the early evenings we met up with his friends, sat down on plastic chairs in a line against a compounds wall, and faced the street and passers-by, drinking Senegalese tea and talking mainly about perspective, unrealistic businesses for their future.

After my positive time with Ibrihim, I now feel slightly ashamed of the judgements I first made about him. He turned out to be just the same as anybody else I have befriended so far on my trip through Africa; kind, friendly, and no reason for being so. Being a 50-something year old single man had nothing to do with anything. My judgement of that was only a reflection on myself. He shook my right hand and then my left hand as we parted; meaning that we shall meet again one day, then told me that I am family and can call him if I ever return to Ziguinchor.

He escorted me to a police checkpoint on the morning I left, suggesting it was a perfect place to catch traffic heading in my direction. The officers took me under their wing; they sat me under the shade of their hut, gave me a glass of tea, and asked every vehicle if it's direction was also mine. After some time, a woman officer had given up on her duties and was now re-plaiting the parts of my hair which had become loose, and the chief officer was flirting with me to the point of proposing marriage.
"Why don't you just come home with me today, then us three can go party tonight, then we will find you a ride tomorrow?" the woman suggested with enthusiasm.
I politely declined; "This is just getting ridiculous... everybody wants to keep me here in Africa!" I thought to myself.

They found a ride for me with two agricultural scientists heading to conference. One of them studied at university in London thirty years ago and had also hitchhiked around Europe at the time so had some hilarious stories so share with me. He also told me about an oil seed which grew naturally and abundantly all over Senegal which, using a machine already invented for this purpose, would produce fuel for electricity. He and his team had worked tirelessly for years, corresponding with research universities in London, but had repeatedly come up against opposition from Senegal's politicians. He said it was impossible that the country could not benefit from this, that there is too much corruption in government and too much influence from the worlds petroleum industry preventing any alternative to arise. Of course, I agreed with him entirely; now I've not only read hundreds of alternative energy conundrums, I've also conversed with a scientist for two hours about the corruption and the self-interest initiatives of government and big industry officials! As he dropped me off at a crossroads, he pointed out the window at a mud-brick thatched-roof house, shook his head and said;
"Look. And people are still living like this."

A man called Kama picked me up at the crossroads. He was an agricultural businessman, but didn't have so much to say about his work, he just wanted to party. He convinced me to stay with him for two nights, paying for a nice hotel room all for myself. He worked during the daytime, so I busied myself making most of the room which felt luxury in comparison to anywhere I had stayed for the past two months. When he returned from work, we would go out for drinks in bars which were almost empty, because of the practice of Islam in Senegal, except for a few young lost men and women. I innocently asked Kama about the presence of women; it was very strange for me to see an African woman smoking and drinking beer. The answer was that they were prostitutes. They apparently earn around ten euros a time here.
"Stay another day then the next day we can go to see my family together" he said when I told him I was leaving the following morning.
Again, another person who wanted to keep me!

As planned, I hitched to the border of Guinea the next day. I arrived just after the border closed at 6pm, so I had to spend the night in the border town. A man from the bus on my last ride that day helped me find a place to stay; inside a cafe on a make-shift straw bed. He wanted to help me get transport through Guinea in the morning, but I found it myself: on top of a loaded truck accompanied by twenty other people. Wait for this next post for more information... it was one of the best experiences of my life!

Click here to see the album of photos for the post.