Gambia to Guinea-Bissau

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Africa » Guinea-Bissau » North » Bissau
November 7th 2007
Published: November 7th 2007
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I’d lost my Rastafarian wristband, one night at Gatwick Airport and it had gone! My son, Sam had tied it in place the previous day, I’d told him that it would stay on until I returned and he could untie it for me. I looked at my wristwatch on my left arm, at least that was still there and it told me I had ten minutes before boarding began. The watch was a present from my father, some thirty-four years earlier and had been all around the world with me. It had survived my electrocution, during a monsoon downpour in Lucknow, which had seen me hurled into the sewer fed, flooded streets, the watch had taken about five weeks to dry out properly but it never stopped working. I had been “given” the Rasta bracelet in Jamaica, some years earlier by Bongoman, a beach bum in Negril, who bore an uncanny resemblance to my Gambian friend, Lucas, who I was flying off to meet. I’d thought at the time that Lucas could easily end up like this Jamaican if he could no longer keep up his arduous job as a palm wine tapper. I hated the thought of my friend having to hassle tourists for small change, so together we’d dreamed up the plan that he could become a tour guide to his homeland, Guinea-Bissau.
There is no backpacking culture in the Gambia, as it’s one of the easiest and cheapest gateways into West Africa, it should be an obvious starting point for eager gap year students on their way to Timbuktu and many other equally fascinating destinations. The plan was that Lucas could take me by local transport down to his home village, Cassalol, to meet his brothers and see how they lived their isolated rural lives. We needed to do the trip in about four days, as that would be the maximum time your average tourist would want to spend away from their pre-paid beach resort hotel. I volunteered myself to be a Guinea(-Bissau) pig and to road test the trip.
I’d written to Lucas, to tell him not to meet me at Yundum airport as I’d arranged with Lamin Badjie at his Kadjendo guesthouse to pick me up, take me to his place via the ATM machine on Westfield Junction, Serekunda. On arrival I was met by a security policeman, with my name on a sheet of A4, who escorted me through Customs and Immigration, with the promise that my friend was waiting. Lucas is a personal friend of the head of airport security, so he couldn’t resist showing off his important contact. I asked him if he’d had my message about Lamin Badjie, “Yes, I have just been talking to him. He knows you are here!” “I’ll take you to him.” he continued. Okay, I thought but this is a bit of a complicated way to do things, how had Lucas got here? I soon found out, when I was introduced to Moudu, our driver to the Kadjendo but what about Mr. Badjie, I could see his minibus in the airport car park? Lucas assured me that I shouldn’t worry about him, as Mr. Badjie wasn’t a very nice man. What’s more, Moudu would charge me the same amount of money to take me to the Kadjendo and that I should just sit back and start enjoying my holiday. Needless to say I was in a rather tense mood on arrival at the Kadjendo, particularly after having to pay Moudu 400 Dalasi for the ride down; the ATM machine was only paying out hundred Dalasi notes and of course Moudu had no change. I made my apologies to Lamin Badjie, assuring him that I’d pay the 350 Dalasi agreed for the airport pickup. The transfer had cost me 750 Dalasi, the official tourist taxi only charges a 400 fixed rate fee for the same trip; not a good start.
After a welcome shower I walked down to Lucas Jatta’s “office”, the palm grove opposite Kotu police station and met up with Akoli, Lucas’ nephew and demonstrated the use of the IBM Thinkpad, I brought with me to give to George, Lucas’ nineteen year old son. As Akoli didn’t know what a floppy disc was I thought I might be wasting the new battery I’d bought for the laptop and shut it down. I thought I’d have the chance to meet up with George on my return from Guinea-Bissau and iron out any problems he might be having with the machine; this was not to be. Lucas had finished his afternoon shift, up his trees, and after bucket showering, outlined his plan for our trip. This was to get me to pay Moudu 3000 Dalasi a day for use of his four-wheel drive, plus his hotel expenses. I’d agreed to pay Lucas 1000 Dalasi a day for four days, as a compensation for taking time of his work; though in reality Lucas would be very lucky if he made 1000 Dalasi, about £25, for a whole seven days of palm wine selling. The plan was to show him the possibility of an alternate way to make some money, some wealthy package tourist may well be able to pay £100 a day for guide and driver but this tourist was going to travel African style.
If we were to take bush taxi to Bissau, Lucas suggested we set off next morning, as soon as I’d picked up a Guinean visa. Lucas particularly wanted me to see the capital city of his homeland, before visiting his ancestral village, which seemed a good plan to me; a chance to find out more about the country’s culture. No one I’d spoken to had heard of Guinea-Bissau and even the Foreign Office website said, “Few British tourists visit here”.
As Britain doesn’t even have a Guinea-Bissau consulate, I was prepared for some delay in just getting a visa sorted; so leaving a day early seemed a wise plan. As it turned out it only took about three-quarters of an hour to hand in my completed form, along with one passport photo and a 250 Dalasi fee. The wait seemed even shorter as Lucas had brought a fresh litre of palm wine for breakfast, which he insisted we finish before taking a taxi from the consulate building, in Fajara, to the bush taxi stand in Serrakunda, the first of many bus stops that we’d visit in the next few days.
Leg one was easy, there are a continuous stream of mini-buses plying the route between Serrakunda and Brikama, a crossroads town on the north-south Senegal route. At Brikama we had a longer wait to fill a car to Ziguinchor, the main city of the Casamance region of Senegal and our first border crossing. I was a little apprehensive about border crossings, the Lonely Planet had talked about extra visa fees, though EU nationals don’t need a visa to visit Senegal but most worryingly was someone asking to see a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, which would scupper any plans of a casual Gambian based tourist crossing West African borders. Having heard some horror stories of tourists receiving forced vaccinations and ten days incubation in a local clinic, I had shelled out £40 for the injection and paperwork but decided to keep it hidden. I think we had about eight immigration and customs checks on the way there and back but no official asked to see any vaccination certificate. I’m not sure why it’s so important to have one, it’s not as if it was a contagious disease but The Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau all lie in designated Yellow Fever risk areas.
We decided to spend the night in Ziguinchor as I was keen to sample Senegalese night life and asked Lucas if he knew a cheap hotel. He didn’t but he was keen to find one, so he could change into his finery and hit the town. Fortunately I had a Lonely Planet, Senegal and the Gambia guide book with me; there isn’t one for Guinea-Bissau, you’d have to rely on the very thin section of the very fat West African guide. LP recommended the Hotel Touriste, a double room with mosquito nets, towels, a fan, shower and western style toilet for under £12. Lucas donned his fetching Che Guevara matching ensemble, a very incongruous choice for someone as pro-American as he; Lucas had drunk four litres of palm wine when he heard the news of the invasion of Iraq. I don’t share his opinions on this subject but as he is a Christian in a Moslem dominated country, he would have a different outlook on life to me. I dressed in a Hawaiian shirt to try and compliment my friend’s attire and we set off to look at the Casamance River that we’d just crossed to get here. “Where to then, Lucas?” I asked, “Wait!” was his reply and he went looking for someone who could speak Jola. He returned with a small boy who could show us a local bar for a few coins, with 940 West African Francs to the pound, you can end up with a lot of small coins. We found the rather smart, if quiet bar, just as the sky opened, tipping the last of the summer’s monsoon onto the tin roof and flooding the mud street outside. We ordered two Gazelle beers and I consulted the Lonely Planet, hoping that Lucas would be a more informed guide when we got to Bissau. He asked me to read out the LP guide to Ziguanchor night life, this bar seemed too quiet and only served bread rolls. Lucas liked the sound of Le Kassa, to quote the LP, “Most inviting of local-style places - a spacious restaurant-cum-bar, with a fairly wide menu and frequent live shows”. Looking at it’s location on the town map and being a bit better at negotiating urban streets than Lucas, I told him to wait a moment, ducked out the front door, into the rain and was back in seconds, to announce that we were already at Le Kassa. We decided to try Le Palmier, down by the river, very cheap and even though we were the only diners, we had what turned out to be the best meal of the journey; a plate of the freshest Langoustines, for just over a pound. We never did find any of the famed Senegalese night life, so turned in early to make a good start on the next leg.
At 6am we opened up Le Palmier; Lonely Planet did say it was a twenty-four hour establishment and had the dish of the previous day, cold rice and pork, along with a personal escort to the bus stand by the owner. I only had 10,000 Franc notes, dispensed from the last ATM machine in Senegal; there are none in Guinea-Bissau, be warned. Le Palmier’s owner had no money of any sort in his till or his pocket, so he waited until I got some change from the bush taxi to Sao Domingos, the Guinea-Bissau border crossing town, which I was soon to know very well.
We passed through Guinean customs and immigration with no problem, other than Lucas had neglected to tell me that he would have to pay entry and exit fees on his ECWOS identity card at every checkpoint in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. No matter, the bush taxi we took from Sao Domigos had a very large hole in the floor, through which I could admire the surprisingly well metalled road, as good as those in Senegal. The roads in the Gambia mostly comprise of small rings of tarmac, surrounding large craters. I’d been jostled so much on the road out of Brikama that my torch had slipped out of my pocket and spiritually joined itself with my Jamaican wristband. The road ended at a ferry crossing the Rio Cacheu, where I was greeted by the remarkable sight of buses with roof racks crammed with live pigs and goats, making an almighty din. In fact, one of the tell tale signs that you are indeed in Guinea-Bissau are the number of domestic pigs crossing the well maintained roads, you know you are now in a Christian country. Lucas had started taking delight in pointing out the number of Catholic and Evangelical churches to be seen and just the occasional mosque. He’d really like to move back here!
A piggy bus took us to the outskirts of Bissau, here we took a local taxi to the hotel Lucas had been recommended by an official from the consulate office in Fajara. I thought this could be expensive but the taxi ride cost me dearly; the driver insisted that I needn’t put my rucksack in the boot but sit it next to me, despite him picking up other passengers. While wrestling the bag out of the narrow back door I caught my left wrist on the door trim, slicing my watch in half, sending the winder into the gutter. I was speechless and a tear came to my eye as my long term travelling companion and a very direct link to my dad, who had died in 2000AD, went into terminal decline. I managed later to tape it back together, it still worked but with no means to wind it, I just had to wait for it to slowly die.
The Hotel Ta-Mar did indeed turn out to be quite expensive; we were the only guests and had the choice of the four rooms. The prices ranged from CFA25,000 to 30,000 to 35,000, all with air-conditioning, fridge and TV which only worked intermittently due to power cuts and power cables too short to reach working sockets. Lucas had the nerve to ask me which room shall we get; to which I had to point out that we were on a tight budget and that he shouldn’t have to ask. I was more than a little touchy at this point, still mourning my ruined watch. The only difference between the rooms was that the cheapest room had its own toilet but it was in the corridor, with its own key. This was hardly much of an inconvenience, more so was the fact that the ensuite shower was electrically powered, so due to the power cut we had to use buckets in the very small space. A room like this in the Gambia would be quarter the price; things were not looking too great for the Gambia to Guinea-Bissau excursion business.
Having changed into yet another evening ensemble, Lucas was ready to hit the town but first he wanted to find out the times of the boat over to Bubaque, the main island of the Arquipelegos dos Bijagos. Having read that it took four to six hors to get there, I didn’t think we had enough time for the trip and visit Cassalol village but Lucas said we shouldn’t miss it. It turned out that the only ship leaving for the islands, that weekend, was about to embark in an hour. Lucas rushed back to the hotel to try and get a refund on the night’s accommodation, like a Jonah I repeated that there was no chance. I was right, as the only guests in the hotel there was no way we could have our money back and I wasn’t prepared to lose CFA25,000. I helpfully suggested they keep the money and we re-occupy the room on the Sunday night, when the boat was due to return, the management’s reply was, “No chance!” but in Portuguese. Lucas had to watch the boat go; it was his turn to be tearful. I found out, from some soldiers that evening, that the island girls were supposed to be the hottest women in West Africa and that Lucas had been hoping to sample their delights. Lucas wasn’t deterred and assured me that we find a canoe to take us over in the morning. If it took four to six hours on the steamer, I didn’t want to imagine the trip by paddle power and a strong libido.
Bissau is very, very expensive, we found the main hotel charged from CFA100,000 per night and the cities tourist restaurants match those prices. We settled for fish and rice in the local market, some imported Sagres dark beer washed down with a lot of the very cheap local drink, kana, distilled from cashew nuts and very strong. After lots more to drink I helped guide Lucas back to our hotel, his knowledge of the city was a bit rusty, as he hadn’t been back there since he was ten; he’s now forty-six. It’s hard to know what brings tourists to Bissau, it seems like most Europeans are there on some business, probably something to do with the vast forests to the east of the country. There must be some good business to be had to claim the hotel bills in their expenses.
Saturday morning found no boats leaving for the islands; much to my relief. Despite bring a Christian country everyone was celebrating the Eide holiday at the end of Ramadan. I suggested we go to visit Lucas’s family as we planned to do and forget the island girls. He took one last, wistful look across the sea, blocked his ears to the sirens’ cry and got us a good taxi price to the Cacheau ferry.
11am found us back in Sao Domingos where we were to get some transport to Susana, then a four kilometre walk to Cassalol and then onto the beach resort of Varela; from here I was assured we get transport back to Senegal. Dear reader, you know that this is not going to be as easy as that, I have Lucas Jatta as a guide and optimism doesn’t power vehicles. My priority was to get something to eat, we’d had nothing but the very small fish with rice of the night before, Africans don’t have the same five-a-day fruit and vegetable needs as us Brits. Lucas’ priority was MORE KANA! Guinea-Bissau has the best kana in the world and he wanted to find some more!
Sao Domingos has two very good bars, the one near the Varela road provided us with some very fine kana, it also had a brown liquid sold in jam jars. I asked Lucas what was in the jars, “You want to try?” he asked, as there was nowhere to go just yet, I agreed to try cashew wine. This is the product of cashew nuts that have fermented in a dark place for about two weeks and has a very distinct cashew nut aftertaste, quite a pleasant first impression, very different to the stronger distilled cashew kana. After several glasses we went to find out if the lorry to Susana was filling up. We’d already left our bags in the driver’s cab, he was waiting for twenty people to climb aboard before he’d drive the 50 kilometre mud road, at this moment we had seven. Lucas spotted a young Rasta man, who could prove a likely source of ganja, he’d not had a hit for two days, so he badly needed a blow, to keep him in the holiday mood. I was more interested in buying some fruit and vegetables, Sao Domingos’ main street had only onion sellers and a French bread baker. We followed our Rasta guide to the edge of town and into a small grove, where a circle of Rasta men were puffing away, Lucas’ idea of paradise. After about an hour I thought it time to check on the lorry passengers, as our bags were still in the cabin and I foolishly thought it might leave with out us. Three more people had joined the queue, including a rather odd old man named Pappa Jigga, who only seemed to speak in English. He was complaining of the price of medicine to heal his heart disease, Lucas told him that he knew a herb that could cure his condition in one application. Naturally Pappa Jigga wanted the herb and he wanted it right now, I thought Lucas might have been exaggerating his bush medical qualifications somewhat. To pacify the very excited Mr. Jigga Lucas led me into the bush to find the herb; well it was actually someone’s garden. That someone got very agitated when he discovered a tall Rasta and a very ale white man digging at the root of one of his trees. Lucas warned the landowner and myself not to touch the rather evil looking fungus he’d dug up with a stick, which he rolled into a plastic bag, before asking the astonished landowner for some clean water to wash his hands, in case he may have inadvertently touched the thing. He then told me that he was going to put it into a fire and grind the ashen powder into an infusion for Pappa Jigga to put on his tongue. The old man was still game to try the potion, even though he told us that his brother had died from a wrongly administered dose of bush medicine. Lucas told him it would be fine but not to take until the chest pain was really bad and, as I thought, when we were miles away from here. I spotted that someone was cooking in a shack near the bus stand, so suggested we go eat. There was only one choice on the menu, fish and rice, with no sign of a vegetable, other than a small onion.
By 6pm nine people were waiting for the lorry to leave, so the driver announced that he wouldn’t be leaving today and to try again in the morning. Someone suggested we might like to spend the night at the hotel, which was a surprise to us, we’d walked around the town seven or eight times that day and not seen one. There was indeed a four room hotel that had so little custom; it had no need to put a “Hotel” sign outside it. The rooms were very spacious and had a mosquito mesh on the windows, he owner even managed to find some clean sheets. Lucas changed into some fresh stepping out clothes and I went for a shower. The one bathroom which was shared by the owner’s family left a lot to be desired, two very large water butts which never got fully emptied, just continually topped up and one toilet bowl which had never been connected to a water supply. Bottled water was rather expensive in Sao Domingos, so I didn’t want to waste it on brushing my teeth and I certainly wasn’t going to put the contents of the water butts into my mouth, one night without brushing my teeth wouldn’t hurt. As I finished my bucket shower, the sound of disco blasted from outside the bathroom window, it seemed that our hotel was next to the town nightclub and it was Saturday night, Lucas would be ready for action. Sure enough, he was ready for the off, having covered himself in some perfume he’d asked me to by him in Ziguanchor and sprayed his bonnet with my anti-bacteria solution; he was feeling irresistible. After a few more kanas from the town’s other bar and a few beers to long lost relatives that had shown up, we hit the nightclub. As soon as I went through the door, I just wanted to turn around and leave, it was a pre-teen disco! With West Africa having a reputation for men of a certain age coming to look for intimate, juvenile companionship, I did not want to stay here. Lucas couldn’t see the problem and was happy to stay, I said I’d be happier back at the bar watching a West African version of MTV. Joy of joy, I found a woman selling deep fried cassava, a vegetable at last, washed down with some 500ml cans of Portuguese beer, they were actually cheaper than the bottled water. I later awoke wishing I had paid the extra for the water as I was getting pretty dehydrated. As soon as the shops opened the next morning I bought some water, I was beyond caring how expensive it was. We found someone selling coffee and French bread, with a choice of butter or mayonnaise and the use of his bedroom for Lucas to roll up a joint. We got to the bus stand to find that we did now have twenty people and could take the rugged road down to Susana.
I volunteered to sit in the back of the lorry while Lucas sat up front with the driver and a woman with tender bottom syndrome. My plan was to take some photos of the colourful women sat on the padded bench behind the cabin. As soon as I took out my camera all the women threw scarves over their heads and the guy who was the volunteer bus conductor threaten to throw me off unless I put my soul stealing equipment away. I was punished by a hellish five hour mud track drive, with potholes and craters better than anything the Gambia could offer. After being thrown a foot off the plank seat about twenty times, I sat on a cement sack which I moulded into the shape of my bottom. The road finally stopped on the outskirts of Susana village, it should have run a few kilometres more but the bridge had collapsed leaving an upturned lorry in the stream. As this was the also the road to Varela, Guinea-Bissau’s premier beach destination, all did not bode well for finding transport back to Senegal.
We crossed the broken bridge on foot, the dirt road stretched in a straight line to the horizon. “Cassalol is down there, by those tall trees, about four kilometres,” Lucas gestured. The road was very exposed, just some short bushes and rice fields making it feel like a scene from a war movie, just before the enemy planes come. I remember reading that the people’s army, the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independence da Guine e Cabo Verde) had planted landmines in this area to keep out the MFDC ( Mouvement des Forces Democratique de la Casamance) who had backed General Mane’s coup of 1998. About two kilometres down the road I couldn’t fail to see a huge crucifix behind a fence, in the fields, I asked Lucas if it was a war memorial. He told me that it was a holy place where people gather once a year, I thought of the Cenotaph in most British towns where people gather on Remembrance Sunday. It was early afternoon, the sun very hot and I was out of water, so that concentrated my mind on getting to the village. There was a T-junction at the end of the road, one branch leading into Cassalol and the other going on to Varela. A mud hut was built near this stopping point, which remarkably turned out to be the village shop and even more remarkably sold bottled water. Apparently the odd 4x4 stopped here on the way to the beach. Just a short way down the village road we came to Lucas’ brother, Quamiso Ebeleie’s house, he was stunned to see his younger sibling in the company of a pale white man with a big bag. Quamiso greeted Lucas as, Ahuben, six years I’d known this guy but only now had I found out his given name. Quamiso’s wife dragged out a sponge mattress from their hut, Ahuben and I were asked to sit down and a bucket of cashew wine was brought for us to drink. Quamiso was a cashew tapper, I hadn’t noticed that the whole area was surrounded by a forest of cashew trees.
I took some family photographs and we were served our first meal since our French bread and coffee breakfast, fish and rice with no vegetables. The rice was home grown and very tasty but the vegetables, which seemed to be growing everywhere, were a means of local trade. Quamiso and the other villagers paid rent to a Jola society, which provided rudimentary schooling and limited health care. It wasn’t easy to get hold of hard cash as the villagers all grew more or less the same produce, which was usually just bartered for something similar. After lunch we crossed the village to see Kopasio, Ahuben’s oldest brother, who didn’t seem that delighted to see that the prodigal had returned unannounced. Nevertheless, Kopasio brought us another bucket of cashew wine, this time we were to use a traditional cup, a hollowed out shell, looking like a small coconut, with a hole bored right through it into which a stick was poked. I was curious that Lucas told everyone that he met in Cassalol that he was now living in Banjul, which obviously had more cache than admitting he was from Serekunda.
At about 4pm the whole village got very excited, a minibus had stopped at the T-junction, it must have driven across that broken bridge in Susana! Lucas said some hasty goodbyes, I left Quamiso enough money to pay three months rent, about £10, he was amazed by my generosity. The small bus was going down to Varela about another four kilometres in the direction of the sea. On the outskirts of Varela the bus driver pointed out a hotel, owned by a Portuguese man but Lucas insisted that there was a nicer, locally owned complex down on the beach. Varela centre, where the bus stopped, had two small shops and that was about it. The bus driver said that once the vehicle filled up, he wouldn’t be back for at least two days. This was worrying as I needed to fly back in three days time and I noticed that there were no vehicles, apart from a tyreless van, to be seen anywhere in the village. Lucas told me not to worry, after all I was on holiday and we should concentrate on finding the beach hotel. The roundavel style complex was closed up and only opened for four weeks every Christmas, when the German owners came down with their friends. The rest of the time it was just occupied by four caretakers, who were not prepared to let us have a room. We decided to go down to the magnificent beach for a bathe and to watch the sunset. It was rather cloudy, so nature didn’t put on much of a show and Lucas didn’t want get sea salt in his dreads; we settled for cleaning our feet with the pumice stones which littered the sand. The huge stretch of beach only had three other people to watch the dying light, a young local couple and one of the German complex’s caretakers. The caretaker suggested we go back to the Portuguese hotel, which had a fine restaurant that served every kind of food with cold beer and fresh water. I pictured a bowl of vegetables and a plate of fresh fruit. When we got back there the rather grumpy Portuguese landlord told us that his restaurant had been closed since his Italian chef had disappeared and that anyway the hotel was closed to visitors, it was just too much work to keep it open for the occasional blow in. What a pity, it looked a really nice place but that’s what seems to happen to many people’s dreams when they invest in Africa.
The caretaker was still with us and said that he thought he knew of a woman who took in lodgers, so we trudged back into the centre of the little town. The lady eyed the pair of us suspiciously, not sure she wanted such an odd pair in her house and sent us off with a live chicken as some kind of compensation. Ahuben then remembered that he had a little sister living up near the Portuguese hotel, honestly I can’t keep track of African family relations and it seemed that even Lucas wasn’t sure how many siblings he had. His late father and mother obviously had a very hectic social calendar.
Before finding his sister’s house he had to find someone selling kana, this done we set off, still with the caretaker, who turned out to be Akoli, Lucas’ nephew’s brother by a different mother. Their father was Lucas’ late brother, who died just after Akoli was born about twenty-seven years earlier. I was more than confused as the caretaker, who was never introduced to me by name, must have been as old as me. We found Little Sister’s mud brick house but no one was in, being Sunday evening I thought the family might be at church. Lucas and the caretaker went off, with the very patient chicken to find them and I sat by the tin door admiring the stars. There are some advantages to a town with no electricity, unless you’re a hotel property developer. Within minutes Little Sister, her husband, their three children and a very drunk man I assumed to be a relative, were herded into the compound by Lucas and Mr. Caretaker. Little Sister opened the padlocked door to bring out some cups, which seemed to be prize possessions in an almost empty hut. Her husband stepped on the chicken’s head and took three attempts to pull it off, the chicken made up for its earlier silence by naturally squawking it’s protest about being decapitated. The small fowl was soon boiling in a pot, I didn’t think it was really big enough to feed everyone there, particularly as another young woman had turned up to help with the cooking and get a bed ready for Lucas and myself. One thing was certain, the kana wouldn’t last much longer as everyone, including the women were passing around the cups. I gave the drunkard a CFA1000 note to go and buy some more, pandemonium broke out when the family knew what I had done. Why I had given the town inebriate so much money, I told them that I assumed from the way he was bouncing their little son on his knee, that he was an uncle. They all said he was nothing to do with them and a hunting party went out in all directions to look for him. He was dragged back about fifteen minutes later, with the kana bottle in his jacket, he had obviously been returning from my errand when he had been waylaid and his reputation for honesty besmirched. The new supply of kana soon went down; no one wanted to give the drunk, who turned out to be from Senegal, anything to drink. I pointed out that he had gone to fetch it, so I shared my cup with him; Lucas looked at me in disgust, telling me that I knew nothing of African ways. When the food was served, bizarrely with French bread, the poor drunk was elbowed out and started crying pitifully, I gave him some bread dipped in rice; everyone else pretended not to notice my foolish white ways.
After supper I asked Lucas how far it was to the Senegal border, could we walk there along the beach? If we followed the coast it would be thirty to forty kilometres but much less if we walked in land. I didn’t see that we had any other option, if I was to get back to the Gambia in time for my flight. I was feeling very positive about the trek, tomorrow was going to be my 56th birthday and a day I wasn’t likely to forget. As it was nearly midnight and we planned to start the walk at 4am, I thought it time we turned in. Lucas was having none of it, if we were to have a long march we needed ganja to fortify us for the day and help us sleep well that night. It was 2am by the time we got onto our straw mat, having walked all around the town, knocked on many, many doors and woken up a lot of people before we found the local drug dealer. Exhausted and dehydrated I wondered where I could buy water at 4am; it was going to have to be well water laced with purification tablets. Monday October 15th was going to be a hell of a birthday!
I’d never slept in a mud brick house before and did not expect to awake to such a damp atmosphere. The floor and walls were wet to the touch, the air was thick with perspiration and exhaled breath, my sweat soaked shirt that I’d naively hung up to dry, was even wetter than the day before. I silently packed up my mosquito net and inflatable pillow and pulled on my wet clothes, hoping we wouldn’t disturb the rest of the family, still asleep behind a curtain. I wanted to leave some money with Little Sister, we had to wake her as Lucas didn’t know the way to the beach, he really wasn’t proving much of a guide. Little Sister walked us to the right track, the stars were just about bright enough to see our way but I still had to use the LED torch I’d bought in Ziguanchor. I’d woken up with a stiff ankle and was very conscious of not starting the long march by turning it in a pothole, especially as I was carrying at least ten kilos of rucksack. We diverted to the German owned beach complex where Mr. Caretaker and his son joined our expedition. It turned out that Lucas and I were to take the boy back to the Gambia with us and Mr. Caretaker would be coming as far as Kabrousse in Senegal, where he had some business. We stopped at the fresh water well where I filled an empty two litre bottle and added two water purification tablets just in case; Mr. Caretaker offered to carry it for me as he had no luggage. His boy had a small black suitcase, Lucas his small designer duffle bag and my ex-army holdall, which he’d taken a shine two, leaving me with my heavy rucksack which carried all the usual travellers essentials, Lucas hadn’t even brought a towel for himself and was happy to share mine. The towel was now in need of washing out, as I hadn’t counted on this double usage. I was also very conscious of the fact that I hadn’t brushed my teeth for three days. It was about 5am by the time we reached the beach and started the walk north, the stars were still quite spectacular and they picked out the ruin of a very ambitious luxury hotel complex. Its concrete beach bar had tilted forty-five degrees into the sand; it was like the scene from the original Planet of the Apes movie, where Charlton Heston discovers the half buried Statue of Liberty. By the time we reached the first headland dawn was breaking behind us and I was getting aware of a tightness in my chest. I knew what was happening; my sensitive western stomach was over producing acid, as a result of too much alcohol, not enough water and a diet of almost nothing but rice. I hoped the sensation would pass but as I had had no breakfast and only half a cup of water, combined with the weight of my bag on my shoulders, I knew I was in for a rough day. It was now time to move into the bush, after Lucas had paused to light up a joint and I had some more water, which I realised I would have to share with everyone else; I rationed out what we had left in my mind and thought if we were careful, we should just have enough. I should have enjoyed the walk through the African bush but my chest was killing me though my feet were working fine. After about an hour and a half I was thinking that ones birthday was good day to die, kind of rounding things off nicely, if I stepped on a landmine at least I’d be at rest; Africans can walk at a good lick. Lucas must have read my mind, he asked me if it was really my birthday; he didn’t know when he was born, his date of birth on his ID card, just said 1962. He offered to carry my rucksack, I said I could manage; male pride is a terrible vanity. Lucas then pointed to a four foot wide stream we had to jump across; I wouldn’t be able to manage it with the extra weight, so I handed it to him and made the jump. He flew across with the rucksack on one shoulder, as he’s about six foot, four and ten years younger than me I let him carry my bag the rest of the way and I took his far lighter, Naf-Naf, duffle.
My progress picked up, I was still annoyed with myself for drinking so much alcohol over the last few days. I recalled reading Colin Thuberon’s AMONG THE RUSSIANS where the worse aspect of driving the length of the former USSR had been the amount of vodka he’d had to drink, I was feeling the same about kana. Lucas ordered us to stop, take our shoes off and role our trousers up to the knees, while he went to empty his bowels in the bush. For the first time in travelling in a developing country, I was constipated; rice, kana and a piece of chicken smaller than my little finger, just don’t get me moving. Ahead of us was a swamp, it was probably a reasonable sized river for part of the year but now it was just black mud. At least it was warm but didn’t smell too fresh, I expected to wade out with leaches on my calves but everything looked okay; if anything it soothed the heat rash on my right ankle, where I’d kept my emergency purse. Lucas told me not to bother putting my shoes back on, as there’d be several more swamps to cross over the next few kilometres; I wished I’d packed my trekking sandals. The bush track was a bit hard on bare feet, particularly when I was ordered to stop and then to run very, very quickly over the next stretch, through an army of black ants who were busy stripping a snake down to the bone. If they bit my foot it would be painful, my mind turned again to Charlton Heston, this time to the film THE NAKED JUNGLE, where he has to protect his farm from being stripped bare by such creatures. I skipped lightly over the backs of the insects; I swear they were big enough to bear my weight. When we cleared the last swamp, I had a welcome break to slip my feet back into my shoes; I gave up on the idea of socks until I could get the mud off. Mr. Caretaker was very pleased with his cleaned toes; he’d used the remains of my purified water to wash his feet. Even Lucas exploded at this act of stupidity and we walked in silence for the next hour. It wasn’t long before Mr. Caretaker and Lucas were back to exchanging jokes, I was just longing for a drink and something to eat.
By around 10.30am, my watch had finally stopped running, so I was relying on my travel alarm, we reached the estuary that marks the Senegalese border. People were gathering at a makeshift landing to wait for a canoe, powered by an outboard motor, to take everyone across the river to some tin shed buildings, civilisation? I couldn’t help thinking how strange it was that my watch had finally stopped working on my birthday, as it had originally been a birthday present. I packed the watch away in my leather, zipped, knick-knack purse, inside my army bag. A jola woman had recognised Lucas as Ahuben from Cassalol and was obviously bad-mouthing him and pointing at me. I thought she must have been saying, “How could you drag that poor old man across all that bush, under the burning African sun?” He told me later, in a rather embarrassed tone, that she had assume that we were an item and that he was just another beach bum who had sold himself to a foreigner. At that moment I was drooling over a raw cassava a young mother was eating, she recognised my need and gave it to me, in return for CFA100, a bargain! The powered canoe finally arrived and we all piled aboard, it was lying very low in the water but there were plenty of eager hands to help bail it out. A customs official was waiting at a table on the other side, to check out our papers, and I spotted a shop. The proprietor had a bowl of water with a block of ice floating in it, for the locals to drink and bottled water for the odd foreigner who passed this way. Unfortunately he sold nothing to eat other than some biscuits, I decided that wouldn’t do much for my dietary needs and found a timber pile in the shade, to catch up on my sleep and wait for some transport to arrive. Around noon, Mr. Caretaker woke me up, not to tell me that a bus had arrived but that there was no shade left outside and I’d better go back and sit in the shop with the others. Once again I wondered if I’d ever get back to the Gambia to catch my flight home. About an hour later, a builder’s estate car pulled up next to the shop, I told Lucas to offer him anything to get the four of us back onto a metalled road. Fortunately he was able to take us all to the Senegalese beach resort of Cap Skiring, from there even I knew we could get a bush taxi to Ziguanchor and on to Brikama. We had dropped Mr. C at Kabrousse, so the three surviving companions set about finding some food. Cap Skiring had a lot of upmarket restaurants that would probably not welcome three mud covered travellers and my pocket wouldn’t welcome their bill. We found a reasonably tidy local restaurant which only served one dish, fish and rice, at least it did give us the option of a pickled pepper; I welcomed it as a vegetable!
5.30pm found us back in Brikama after several checkpoints where we had to turn out our bags on dusty tables. We were congratulating ourselves on not loosing anything else when Lucas noticed his house keys had slipped out of his pocket, while bouncing along the same stretch of Gambian road that had cost me my first torch. I was already imagining a shower and brushing my teeth at the Suma Motel, Serekunda, as buses leave Brikama about every fifteen minutes for the Gambia’s largest town. The last hours of my birthday were not going to be that smooth, we had to find a bus for Mr. Caretaker’s son to take him to his relatives’ house in some isolated suburb of Serekunda. I had to watch a stream of buses leaving for Westfield Junction, before Lucas came to the conclusion that we’d better find a taxi to take us all to our various destinations, another extra expense. I’d have paid anything to get to my hotel, get cleaned up and have a plate of vegetables. It was around eight o’clock by the time I got my single room at the Suma, a bargain at 300 Dalasi. Lucas wanted to see what I was getting for my money and pronounced the room, “Very nice!” and could he use the shower first before changing and hitting the town. There is no stopping this man when he’s in holiday mood.
We settled on a Guinness at Lana’s Bar, owned by a guy from Brighton and just a few yards from the Suma. As it was a Monday night it was very quiet, they don’t serve food but let you bring food in. Lucas went to a takeaway restaurant just across the road and came back with his favourite dish, a kilo of pork, with no vegetables except for a solitary onion, which he rolled in my direction, when I expressed my disappointment. We talked about our trip, Lucas was eager for us to do it again but next time I should bring my wife, Pauline, with me as she was a very sensual woman and he would very much like to have sex with her. I told him I was very flattered and Pauline would be equally touched but I wasn’t very keen on the idea. He said that he understood my sentiments and that he had the perfect solution, tomorrow night I could have sex with his wife, Marianna, as a special send off. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve never met his lady, we’ve always gone to Elizabeth, his sister by the same mother and father’s compound. He assured me that Marianna was a very nice lady, not like the bar girls who hang around the Suma and she would give me a very good send off. I asked him if he had discussed this carnal plan with his wife, he said there wasn’t any need to, as I was still a very good-looking man and she would be very happy to oblige. I didn’t think this mythical lady would be at all that happy with Lucas’ wife swapping plans and looked forward to my last day and special send off with some trepidation.
I was much relieved to have the next day to myself; I put my film into the Susu photo shop and ordered two sets of prints. I strolled around Serekunda looking for Pauline’s favourite Gambian mixed fruit jam, which I found impossible to get, due to an invasion by Hartleys and some Egyptian brand. I finally found two pots of local Mango and Melon jam in St. Mary’s Supermarket on Kariba Avenue along with a pot of farmer’s honey that looked as if it might withstand travelling in the hold. After treating myself to fish and chips, with salad at Pappy’s sandwich shop, followed by a slice of watermelon, I walked back to Susu’s to see if the photos were ready. To give the film processors a little more time I went into Marie’s Pub, just across the road, this is on Sayer Jobe Avenue. I’d called in there briefly, on the way from the airport, to give her a framed blow-up of a photo I’d taken of her, outside the pub, the previous year. Marie had been delighted that I had remembered, she’d picked me up and swung me around, presenting me with a cold, complimentary Julbrew and extracting a promise that I’d call in before going home. I noticed that the photo had pride of place above the bar, it was a pity I was the only customer. I ordered two bottles of kana to take home for Pauline; it’s going to be a long time before I’ll want any more.
I got my photos and went back to the Suma for a shower, just in case this was really going to be a special night. Cleaned up and changed, I took the Gelleh-Gelleh, a one price minibus, from the BB stand to Kotu police station. I was really hoping to meet up with all the family, particularly with George and his brother Charles, their mother, Maria, Lucas’s one true love had died not long after Charles was born. Now George was living with Lucas and Marianna and Charles was living in Elizabeth’s compound. One thing was troubling me, Lucas had admitted that as his English was poor, he hadn’t understood everything I’d said to him, during the course of our trip and could I write down why Pauline and I liked him. This I had done, that morning, while having a coffee and omelette sandwich from a street vendor just off London Corner. It turned out that he wanted a friend to read it all to him in Jola, this could be embarrassing.
When I got to “Nature” a lot of regulars had gathered to say goodbye to me and the palm wine flowed. Then Lucas said, “Let’s go!” and we were off for my big send off but first he wanted my, “Why we like Lucas” letter read to him. We stopped at a bungalow, behind Kotu police station; this was the home of Mr. Tallo, head of airport security at Yundum. He and his wife were asleep on their veranda, despite it only being 7.30pm, Lucas woke him up and the three of us went into his lounge. This room was designed around a widescreen TV, two, throne sized armchairs to the left and two more to the right, with an immense three-seater sofa to the front of the screen. Mr. Tallo read out my letter in Jola, like a primary school essay on “Who is your best friend?” the kind of thing you dread, as you don’t want to chose one friend, in case you alienate your other friends and end up alone. I picked up a few of my English phrases, such as, “Boys’ Own Adventure Book!” Lucas nodded gravely while Mr. T put on the TV for me to watch some Californian soap, with Wolof subtitles, it’s no wonder Wolof is becoming the main language of West Africa. My few small pages must have had the required effect, as Lucas was in tears. He took my hand and led me off to my promised big send off. Mr. Tallo said he would see me again, at the airport, tomorrow.
The special send off amounted to the two of us ending up in Lucas’ local, Marie’s Bar, not to be confused with Marie’s Pub or Marie’s Bar by Kotu power station. There’s not a lot of imagination in Gambian pub names, a bit like the profusion of Red Lions and White Horses in the UK. We had two Guinness’s while Lucas ordered a kilo of fried pork and we settled down to talk of future plans while watching a Gambian soap about a local woman who had modelled herself on Oprah Winfrey. Lucas asked when I would be back; I said I couldn’t be sure as it depended on getting a last minute cheap flight. He suggested that if I were too busy I could send Pauline over for a holiday and he could “sex” her a lot for me. I tried to point out that our relationship really didn’t function that way and I should be very jealous. Lucas said that he could see that he had upset me and assured me that he didn’t want to steal my wife; it was just sex that he was interested in. He admitted that he found the concept of being faithful to one woman impossible, since Maria had died. There were just too many women in the world and he would like to have sex with all of them, as all women were very nice in their way. On the other hand if we invited him over to stay with us, he could find a girl in our town to marry him, then after three weeks he would run away to find a better job and even better wife. I was beginning to wonder why I called this man a friend but he did live the fantasy of most men, to be the glamorous gigolo, who could manipulate any woman to his will. Well I still hadn’t met the glamorous Marianna and it seemed that I wasn’t going to. Our kilo of pork arrived, along with yet another relative, this one belonged to the Tourist police, and from my experience he’d be the same as the bumsters, he was paid to keep off the beach, and would be only interested in emptying my pockets. He seemed rather hostile towards tourists and tried catching me out on Jola culture, I had never expressed I was an expert; in fact one of my reasons for being here was to learn a lot more of my friend’s way of life. When the pork was finished and I had bought him another Julbrew, he lost interest in cultural matters and went back to concentrating on the TV soap. The rest of the evening disappeared in more Guinness and Julbrew “Crocodile” export beer.
I got up early the next morning and left my bag packed in the Suma room, I’d arranged with Moudu to take me back to the airport and to meet me at “Nature”. When I arrived at “Nature” there was no one around, I’d spotted a fruit seller at the Police Station crossroads, so went to get some breakfast. The very nice lady had a spare chair and she cut open a mango for me, which I had to eat from her lap, very sensual. I got to “Nature” in time to see Lucas arrive; he had given himself the morning off and asked if I’d like couscous. The couscous turned out to be sweet corn, roasted on the open fire, very nice and quite a crowd had gathered to share this free breakfast, palm wine and ganja were passed around as I said my goodbyes.
I put my travel alarm on the table and when I thought it was time to head back to the Suma and the airport, I asked Moudu to get his car. I was a little concerned as he’d drunk a lot of palm wine and had smoked a lot of ganja. When he returned with his 4x4 he was still smoking the stuff at the wheel. After picking up my bag from the Suma, we stopped at Pappy’s to buy some pre-packed rolls, meat ones for my lunch and prawn for my evening meal. When we got to the airport, we parked in the security police car park, joked around with some of the security who were regulars at “Nature” and went in through those doors marked, “For authorised personnel only,” with the big, “NO ENTRY” symbol. We went into Mr. Tallo’s office, I swear he was rolling a joint, whatever it was went into the draw and he welcomed us to stay in his air-conditioned office until my plane left. I thanked him very much but pointed out that I should really check in first. “Ah, yes! Come with me,” he said and lead me to the shortest check-in desk queue, which clearly said, “FOR BOARDING PASS HOLDERS ONLY”. I pointed this out but Mr.T said there would be no problem. When we reached the desk the check-in clerk asked for my boarding pass, Mr. Tallo said that I was a personal friend of his and didn’t need such formalities. The clerk told him that everyone needs a boarding pass and Mr.T told me to give him mine! I just about kept my cool and pointed out that I had to check in first to get one. Mr. Tallo suggested that I should get into the queue he’d originally pulled me out of and I had to wait like everyone else. When my bag had gone through and I had my boarding pass he led me back to his office where Lucas was still waiting. I was more than a bit tense by now; I really didn’t want this priority treatment and said I’d be happier to go through security and wait on the sun terrace, eating my lunch. Mr. T said I could eat my lunch in his office; I had brought two bottles of Guinness with me, in case there was a delay. As the flight was only running ten minutes late, I thought we could drink them now, I apologised that I had only two bottles as I handed one to Lucas. I said to Mr. Tallo that he probably couldn’t drink on duty, Lucas said that was correct but I should give Mr.T 100 Dalasi to have a drink later, in recognition for my priority treatment. He thanked me very much and said that he should now go and supervise the arriving passengers, as they had already picked up their luggage from the plane that was to fly me back.
According to my estimate, I now only had fifteen minutes before my flight with its new crew, started boarding and I’d remembered that I hadn’t filled in an embarkation card. I told Lucas that I really should go through security now, as we’d said all that there was to say. I was the last passenger to go through the security check and there were three officials there to help me through. They pulled out all the contents of my army bag and threw them in different directions, for each of them to inspect in detail. They looked at my 35mm camera and decided that I must be a photo journalist! At the bottom of my bag they found prohibited material, three kernels of sweet corn, which they picked out as if they contained the Ebola virus. One asked me why I was carrying so much food, two prawn rolls in a cool bag and one meat roll left from lunch, and he then decided that the three rolls would be better if they were all in the cool bag. I said that I had a six hour flight, followed by a four drive before I got home and couldn’t afford the overpriced airline meals. The guy who had checked my passport then said that I’d probably be buying lots of the airline’s beer to wash down my rolls. I joked that they were also too expensive for me and longed for the days when you could take some bottles of Julbrew aboard. He then began lecturing me on taking bottles on board, apparently this was nothing to do about mixing liquid explosives; no people like me could smash Julbrew bottles and hold them to the throat of the pilot. I’d had enough, so much for priority treatment; the security officials repacked my bag and wished me a good flight. When I finally got on board, I pulled out my lunch bag and was about to put the army bag into the overhead locker when I spotted the black leather knick-knack bag was missing! I played a flashback in my mind and saw the black bag flying through the air to the guy sitting behind the monitor to check in detail. Some pens, my new LED torch, an unused film, some ear plugs, a key and my father’s watch were staying in Africa forever!


Here are some sad words to end a frivolous article and emphasize the harshness of everyday life in Africa. My walk between Susana and the Senegal border was tough for me but the villages here do this regularly as part of life. I made light of my walk past what I thought was a war memorial but in 2005 the Guinea-Bissau government destroyed a stockpile of 10,654 landmines. In March 2006, 13 women were killed by these dreadful things when a lorry, similar to the one I travelled in from Sao Domingos, was blown up on the same route. Here’s the link to the Oxfam article on the incident, complete with a photo of the destruction…


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