Groundnut Harvesting and Cattle Management
Life with a Mandinka Family in The Gambia - West Africa


Neither of us wanted to leave, but Mohammed had to return to his business and I had promised to celebrate New Years Eve and see the New Year in with my ex-pat friends back in the Kombos.

Saying what were quite emotional good-byes to so many people took some time .. and were repeated with those who waited with us by the roadside, until a passing minibus gave us a ride into Basse.

A further wait for our taxi to fill up with passengers, then with fuel and then an annoying delay at the police stop on the outskirts of the town .. used up another hour or two. Our locally based young driver, well known to the police whom he passed daily on his journeys, must have upset them. So unfortunately for us, they took the chance to hold us up for half an hour whilst they pointed out at length that his papers did not permit him to drive with passengers outside the local area.

Assuming the normal sequence of such events .. an outwardly stern talking to, followed by a discrete 'present' from the driver and the journey resumes .. we passengers chatted amongst ourselves and waited for the driver to return from the shed, which he and the officers had disappeared into. Out they all came, more arguing and pleading from the driver .. more pseudo officialdom .. but no result. An impasse had obviously been reached, which no amount of interference from us or our "semi-VIP passenger" ( a Civil Servant working within the Customs and Immigration Department in Banjul ) had any effect. Obviously, Civil Servants do not command as much respect as Army Officers !!

Eventually an agreement was reached and we set off amidst a lot of grumbling from the driver, who in truth didn't receive much sympathy from the rest of us. As with most similar occasions, it formed a common bond between a new group of strangers and .. after telling the driver he was an idiot not to have the correct papers .. we chatted together happily on a smooth ride, all the way to the first of the Janjanbureh ferries, which would take us over to McCarthy Island.

Boarding and crossing over to the island didn't take very long, but when we arrived at the second ferry to cross to the North Bank, we had to take our place at the back of a long queue of cars, minibuses and a large truck with 'Janjanbureh Prison' emblazoned on its sides.
In the back of the truck, around 20 guys were lounging in the sunshine, no handcuffs, no prison uniforms and evidently under no supervision !

Walking up to the driver who was sitting in his cab .. I asked if it was wise for him to be transporting his passengers like that and could he trust them to stay in the back. Not a problem, said he .. they were all going to have a game of football against a neighbouring village. "Well, lucky them, I hope you will make sure they are all back in their cells before dark", I replied with a grin. Laughing .. he said that if he did, they would not be very happy, as they weren't prisoners, but were in fact the island's football team who had hired the truck from the prison for the day !!

Knowing it would be some time before we reached the head of the queue, we went in search of a cooling drink. We found a riverside bar in a small guest-house, 200 metres from the ferry terminal next to the ruins of an early building .. enthusiastically described to tourists by a host of local guides, as originally a "slave house", but much more likely to have been a warehouse for perishable goods.

The tourist information sign outside Janjanbureh's most famous building.The tourist information sign outside Janjanbureh's most famous building.

Strolling back to the ferry, it was our turn to get onboard .. but suddenly everything stopped for the ferry crew to pray and have a leisurely meal break. Half an hour later, we eventually landed on the opposite shore to have our first and only disappointment of the whole trip. There was no sign of our little friend who wanted the football .. albeit that we were a day later than we had told him to expect us .. neither he nor his mother were there that day. The only thing to do was to make a big show of giving the football to the lady running the stall next door to his mother's, in the hope that she would keep her promise .. made in front of the twenty or so witnesses on the market .. to give it to him the following day. We will be sure to check up on whether he received it when next we return.

The rest of our journey back to Barra was uneventful, but notable for seeing many gloriously

The Abyssinian Roller - Coracias abyssinica

coloured Abyssinian Rollers .. sitting singularly on power lines, equidistantly between the pylons, monitoring their territories for signs of large insects to eat.

Because of delays en route, we had to drive a long way in the dark, not the safest way to travel .. arriving very late at Barra. The last ferry had just arrived and was supposed to be leaving at 10.00 pm .. so, after a quick coffee in the taxi garage, we made haste in getting aboard. We need not have hurried. The ferry filled up with cars, trucks and passengers .. 10 o'clock came and went and no one else had boarded since 10.15. Another twenty minutes passed and all around people were getting noticeably anxious, wondering what was causing the delay. I climbed up to the bridge on the top deck to find out what was happening and was told the captain was below aft, waiting for the 11.30 departure time ! "You must be joking", I said and went to find the captain. Not that my wishes would carry any weight, but I was certainly going to give him my views on the matter !!! Informing him, in case he had forgotten, that it was New Years Eve and that I and most of his passengers wanted to see the New Year in with our friends, not sitting on his ferry in Barra harbour or bouncing about in the middle of the River Gambia ! He didn't seem overly concerned, but I was not the only one to voice their opinion, some expressing theirs very much more forcibly .. and whether it was coincidence or not .. within 10 minutes we were underway.

The normal crossing time is around an hour .. so it was 11.40 pm by the time we had berthed, rushed off the ferry and into the mayhem which is the taxi pickup point just outside the ferry terminal gate. Grabbing the first of many drivers waiting there, I gave him the choice of a normal fare or extra bonus dalasis on top, if he made it to Francisco's bar and restaurant in Fajara before midnight . . where I knew my friends would be celebrating. By pure chance, we had picked Michael Schumaker's African brother .. and .. despite Mohammed turning a pale shade of khaki in fear for his life, we made it safely with 7 minutes to spare before the turn of the year !!

Paying the driver his bonus and enough to take Mohammed home .. he also made it before midnight .. I wished them both a Happy New Year, grabbed my bags and dived inside Francisco's. Covered in dust from the journey, glowing like a ripe tomato from exposure to the previous days of bright sunshine .. I looked a happy and healthy, but dishevelled mess, compared to the celebrating crowds of smartly dressed ex-pat Toubabs and Africans !! "Not a problem", said the manager, taking my bags for safe keeping and guiding me to the bathroom, so that I could quickly tidy up.

Midnight came .. lots of toasting, singing, handshaking, kissing and exchanging Happy New Year wishes. The booze had been flowing all night, some having had far too much and acting accordingly. A typical Toubab celebration amongst sparkly Christmas decorations under bright electric lighting, with amplified and somewhat slurred singing of European traditional old favourites blasting out .. some spending over the equivalent of a month's wages for many of the locals, on one night's revelry.

Celebrating the New Year .. the Toubab way !

Many were long-time and good friends of many years and long may they continue to be .. but as I sat amongst them, I was really missing my African friends on their farm. Given the choice, would I have preferred to be sitting outside under the stars, drinking attaya, listening to their stories and their music .. seeing bright white smiles light up their faces at the least possible excuse and feeling the warmth of genuine friendship, freely offered to someone from a totally different culture and race ?
                                                       -i I think you can guess my answer.