Sara Kunda to Kombo: Traveling in The Gambia

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The journey from Sara Kunda to Kombo, as the area around The Gambia’s capital is known, allows us to experience nearly every challenge encountered in upcountry African travel. (Okay, perhaps that’s a naive statement, as we aren’t in a war or disaster zone, but for this African novice, it was a long day.) That we arrive safe and sound, and with most of our possessions is pure luck, perhaps with a little protection from Tay’s leather-sewn Mandinka travelers’ juju.

Even so, by the time we find accommodations (a cheap dorm at the Gambian Pastoral Institute on Kairaba Avenue), we are filthy, exhausted, frazzled, and as irritated with the road as we have ever been. To add insult to injury, our room has no fan and the shower only a trickle of water, and we fall dead asleep, each in our own sagging, soggy cot.

But back to the beginning of the day, to the traveler’s tree at dawn at the Sara Kunda crossroads, where, after an hour, a vehicle approaches and we fight for a ride to Farafenni. After lugging our bags to the car park, we are frustrated to learn that there will be no transport of any kind for another four hours! This is due to a decree by President Jammeh that, in observance of the monthly national “clean-up day,” all businesses will be closed and no public transport will operate, an edict enforced by roving bands of soldiers who are happy for a reason to hassle people, especially bearded white people with military surplus backpacks.

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“You are a soldier?” one asks, indicating my olive green Swedish army pack I purchased at a roadside stand in Redding, California a few years ago. His tone is bristling with antagonism, sounding more like “What kind of soldier are you, punk?” and I respond simply but firmly,

“No.”

“You are Peace Corps?” he guesses, since no other Toubob in their right mind would be this far upcountry without their own vehicle.

“Yes.”

“Passports,” he orders. So, for the 10th time since leaving Banjul a few days ago (there are police checkpoints all along the north and south bank roads), I hand over the documents and wait for the inspection to end, which it does, and the men go away to yell at some sleeping truck drivers to get up and sweep the dirt in the car park.

Tay and I buy breakfast at the only food stand (beans and onions spread on baguettes), washed down with Nescafe and condensed milk, and we sit down with our bags under a small shade tree, swarming in flies and the smell of urine and shit. And we wait.

At one p.m., the “clean-up” over, one of the gilly-gillies begins to board with no announcement and a violent scramble ensues. Tay saves a place next next to her on the overcrowded bench, yelling at me to hurry up, while I deal with our bags and then elbow my way through the people. Another wife is saving a seat for her husband though, and by forcing one cheek between her and Tay, a shouting match breaks out, with everyone in the vehicle either yelling at us or defending us (I’m not quite sure which, while we sit and play dumb). The husband returns and it all intensifies, and now our departure is held up by the commotion from our row. I follow Tay’s lead and stand our ground until someone else is kicked out and we are on our way. Sort of.

The vehicle must be pushed to start, which I take as a bad sign. Sure enough, an hour later, while on a muddy detour off the main road (which is under construction by the Taiwanese), we stall. All the men, myself included, are ordered outside to push. Brown goopy mud flies, everyone laughs when I splash ankle deep in a puddle, but it finally starts and we climb back in. And move on.

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In Barra, end of the line, we follow our car-mates through the disgusting trashy maze of market alleys, into the ferry terminal. We are caged and waiting with the crowd for the mad rush onto the boat, a long walk-run down the pier with all our bags, battling for the opportunity to stand between idling trucks and cars, in the hard sun. At the other end, across the wide mouth of the Gambia River, there is another crush to disembark, followed by over-aggressive taxi drivers, who yell insults at us when we refuse to be ripped off.

I could on with the series of rides that leads us to the cheap but hot room at GPI, but I’ll spare you. We’ve all had enough, and we are there, and that’s enough, so let’s rest and be happy, even when I realize that one of my cameras is gone.

I’m less upset by the equipment loss (as it was the oldest and smallest of my three cameras) than I am by the loss of the only photos of me together with Baba in Sara Kunda. As we set to pose, our faces serious, one of Baba’s wives put a baby in our arms, so that we both held it. I learned by reading Alex Haley’s Roots that this is the Mandinka way of saying we are all one, by physically touching across the generations.

“Beh keelin.”

Even just the memory of this scene (which is all I have) is enough to make the hardship of the journey worth every drop of sweat, every kilometer of mud.

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