THE GAMBIA AND BANJUL
The White Man's Grave
popular epithet for West Africa
I was relieved to be rid of Dakar and underway once more, if only as far as Banjul. I felt a strange, subdued elation as I cycled away, back up through Cap Vert, past the belching chimneys of an oil refinery, and past the chalky factories of Rufisque the old slaving post. As the stains of industry and overpopulation grew lighter, I found myself happily bemused as to how I'd managed to survive Dakar so totally unscathed, especially given the preconceptions I'd had, and the mess in which the three refugees had found themselves. As Dakar receded in reality, so it receded in my memory.
At a small unmarked village, some 50km along the road, a handful of garrulous women were gathered in the shade of an old palaver tree. They whispered as I passed, clicking their tongues and tutting. At this village, I turned south along a corrugated dirt track, which wound listlessly over stony ochre hills and across dusty parched valleys, intertwined like a hundred writhing snakes. The land shimmered, and the air trembled. Amber-brown termite needles, from afar resembling decapitated tree trunks, pricked the land. Some were as tall as men. Others had been reduced to mounds of snake-infested rubble.
The road dipped down towards the sea and the so-called Little Coast, which at the height of the slave trade was dotted with innumerable forts and trading posts. There were forests of baobab, kapok and coconut palms, dwarfing the handful of settlements scattered in between. An eagle soared high above, another in the far distance. Mbour, the busiest port of the Little Coast, with a population of around four thousand, is a fishing village shrouded in wood smoke and the stench of drying fish. The people hereabouts are the dark-skinned Serer and Lébou, pushed southwards in the nineteenth century by the French conquest of Kayor and Cap Vert. The Serer are Senegal's second largest ethnic group (the Wolof are the biggest), counting among their number the former president, Léopold Senghor. Many Serer still hold traditional animistic beliefs, or else are Roman Catholic like the former president, a legacy of the Portuguese and French occupation. Dusk in Africa and dawn in America - for millions, the Little Coast was the last they were ever to see of their homeland, a misty jumble of trees shrinking away into the ocean breeze.
After the Little Coast, the road swung inland for a long, featureless, largely lifeless, and seemingly endless ride to the village of Fatick, where I decided to take a short cut by crossing the marshlands of Sine-Saloum that lie between here and the River Gambia. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing strongly from the South, which too often made walking both easier and faster than cycling. Past the last few dwellings of Fatick stretched a large salt lake, the first of the Sine flood lands, in which children danced and cavorted after school. One little kid walked up to me and quite unabashedly demanded five hundred CFA. When I grinned back, shaking my head, he began to barter for the sum that I should give him! 500, 400, 300... We eventually settled at sharing my five remaining mangoes with him and a few of his friends.
Sine-Saloum. To me, even the name evokes the land, a magical aqueous kingdom of wide and snaking bolong estuaries and thick mangrove swamps, of fresh water marshes, and Atlantic salt flats, whose oyster creeks are a veritable paradise for birds. The marshes rise at most to dozen feet above sea level, with an infinite horizon broken only by the odd clump of coconut palms or a minuscule hamlet. There is little to be heard besides the flapping of palm fronds and the rustling of grasses and reeds. Some settlements have even been built in the waterways themselves, floating webs of reed houses anchored on great rafts of split tree trunks. Sine-Saloum is a land of great seers and diviners, and of Voodoo black magic. It is a land teeming with djinn spirits, some of them evil, scheming and devilish, others kindly and beneficial. This is a land conducive to meditation, especially when coming directly from the crazy confusion of Dakar: swampy, dreamy, calm, almost too calm.
The road itself tiptoed over narrow ribbons of land reclaimed from the marshes, and cycling was at times like swooping low over a lake, much like the herons who lived here. The sight of so much water made me want to swim, and as the wind showed no sign of abating - indeed it stiffened as I advanced - I called it a day and rolled the bike into the shelter of a clump of palm trees on the fringes of a long, white beach of silvery sand. Beyond, a wide and placid lake sparkled in the sunshine. The evening sun was a perfect disc, like yellow cardboard stuck onto a hazy, cottonbank sky. I stripped off, and then laughing, a little self-consciously I admit, walked away across the sand. Sploosh! My feet disappeared into a steaming, fine, hot and glutinous swamp, and I soon found that paddling was much easier than wading towards deeper water. The only problem was that, having paddled for ten minutes, the water was still only about a foot deep, and then got shallower as I neared the opposite bank. By the time I'd given up swimming, I was covered from head to toe in a slimy jet black silt, dripping from my armpits and groin like treacle.
I fell asleep at the foot of a palm tree, worried that a coconut might fall on my head, and awoke early, with the psychotic thumping of raindrops pummelling my eardrums. I packed quickly and left. The land grew grassier here, and in the rain looked as though it had been painted in oils. Before long, I reached a small riverbank settlement, built entirely of reed and wicker. The huts here were larger than those of the Senegal Valley, were round rather than square, and had tightly thatched roofs. The problem was that the ferry that my map indicated had sunk the year before, and its replacement was still being awaited.
'Is there no way across?' I asked the fishermen on the crumbling jetty, as the grey silhouette of a shipwreck about a mile upriver caught my eye.
'Impossible.' All four shook their heads in unison. 'You will have to drive back to Fatick, and then to Kaolack, and then...'
'But I haven't got a car,' I explained, 'I'm cycling.'
To my relief, there were a handful of pirogues that still made the crossing - aged double-prowed dugouts made from tree trunks lashed together with hibiscus fibres. We sat for an hour on the north bank of the sludgy waters, to await a few more passengers, and were then ferried across to the village of Foundiougne Venetian-style by a shorn-headed Serer youth, in a fashion that might have been most relaxing had I not noticed my bicycle rocking so perilously over the water that on several occasions I became convinced that my journey would end right here in the murky depths of the Saloum.
Sokone - some 50 kilometres further on - is a great little village: a petrol stop for Banjul-bound traffic, where old men chewing kola nuts and puffing on short pipes sits around playing draughts, dominoes and backgammon. I found an eathouse there, a smoky little shack with two tables and a chair, where I was served a wicked pimento ragout that all but blew my head off. Later, in the shaded calm of afternoon, I was beckoned over by a group of grandfathers who wanted to teach me their version of draughts (and which, despite all their patient explanations, I never came close to understanding). All around us were irrigated fields of vegetables, and groves of mango and apple wreathed with Tarzan-style vines. It was late afternoon, and it was hot and humid. A few vultures sat hunched in the treetops, sweating. Red and green parrots squawked loudly from the pepper trees. The vultures coughed uneasily.
* * *
'You must not be so jolly,' scolded the stern-faced officer at Amdalai border post, so I helped him instead with his geography O-Level paper that he was moonlighting on, and as a result obtained extended stay of residence in the Gambia. Not so fortunate was a would-be textile smuggler, one of many participants in the so-called 'traditional trade' between Senegal and Gambia, who had been caught with a pickup truck full of brightly coloured faneaus bound for Dakar and Thiès. He was bundled away to hoots of derision from a small group of mucky children, and in the confusion I noticed a couple of faneaus disappear over grinning shoulders.
I was greeted on the other side of no-man's-land by the now familiar throng of peddlers and traders. My first impression of the Gambia was of an almost comical nature, an incongruous place where people speak a funny broken English, where food is still weighed in pounds and ounces, and where street signs and pelican crossings in the middle of the bush pretend that they are in 1950s England. It was an impression that altogether reminded me of Gibraltar.
'Excuse pleace, meester, you is well my Sir?'
'Yes, thank you, and you?'
'Yes, I understand. Sir! Wonderful!' I asked him how far it was to Banjul.
'Yes, yes! Banjul! Wonderful!' he replied.
The Gambia is Africa's smallest country, and one of the world's poorest; a tiny sliver of land that has burrowed into Senegal like a grub in an apple. The Gambia is a bleakly flat country, at only 13.5 north of the Equator, a steamy river basin that at times seems to suffocate in its own humidity. Here, there are oil and coconut palms, small rice paddies, coastal salt marshes, lagoons and mangrove swamps. Further inland there are snaking waterways and bolong creeks accessible only by dugout. It is the River Gambia, not the Senegal, that forms the true geographical watershed between the dry Sahelian scrublands of the north and the tropics further south. But, like the Senegal, the river that forms the spine of this anomalous country was for centuries believed to be a mouth of the Niger, an easy route - or so the Europeans thought - to the riches of Timbuctoo. In fact the river, like the Senegal, rises in the Fouta Djalon highlands of Guinea, home to an ever dwindling population of elephant, lion, giraffe and other big African game.
The Gambia in its present form is a creation of the British, a curious legacy of the days when Britain and France vied for colonial ascendancy. It measures precisely 193 miles from east to west, but no more than thirty at its widest, because it was agreed that the colony's borders were to be determined by the distance that a cannon ball could be shot from a frigate in the river - apparently, it seems, just over ten miles. It began life early in the nineteenth century, as a naval base from which to launch anti-slaving operations against the predominantly French traders. As was the case all along the Atlantic coast, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the river. They were also the first to stay, attracted by an ample wealth of cotton, rice, exotic animals and golden jewellery. As a result, they called the river Cambio, meaning 'trade' or 'exchange'. In 1455, shortly after the Portuguese landfall, the Italian explorer Cà da Mosto received slaves, as well as gold, from a local chief, a commodity that was to shape over three and a half centuries of West African history.
British involvement dates from Elizabethan times, when, in 1587, two English vessels returned from the river laden with cargoes of hides and ivory, an expedition that resulted in a charter being awarded to the Company of Adventurers, enabling them to trade in rice, beeswax, hides, ivory and gold, and later, slaves. The British received lasting control as part of the spoils of the Napoleonic Wars, and declared it a protectorate in the 1820s during the height of the Timbuctoo gold rush. For the most part, however, the British experience in the Gambia was not a happy one. In fact, so disastrous was it that it now seems almost absurd, for the misfortunes of the would-be colonisers were caused not only by bad luck (and a lot of it at that), but by a remarkably sustained tendency to gross ignorance, arrogance and stupidity that almost defies belief. In the year 1618, for example, a British-led gold-searching expedition got 250 miles upriver (in the quixotic hope of sailing to Timbuctoo) before being massacred by hostile tribes. A second foray, also in the seventeenth century, was led by 'Richard Jobson, Gentleman' under the similar illusion that the rivers Senegal and Gambia joined, but nothing much came of the venture except for a hopelessly optimistic description of the region entitled The Golden Trade (in which Jobson spoke of 'a great Towne... the houses whereof are covered onely with gold').
After these initial disappointments, the following century or so saw little more in the way of further exploration, the Europeans being by now far more interested in plundering the wealth of India and the Far East. Then, in 1790, an Irish major named Houghton left the River Gambia for Timbuctoo. Alas, his last communication read: 'Major Houghton's compliments - Is in good health on his way to Timbuctoo, [but] robbed of all his goods.' He was never heard of again. Five years later saw the arrival of Mungo Park, the first explorer since Leo Africanus to make any substantial inroads into the interior, and one of the few Britons not to make a fool of himself. In 1805, however, he returned to the Gambia for the second time, and 'set sail to the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt.' Park's last despatch, in similar vein to Houghton's, read: 'I am sorry to say... that of the forty-four Europeans who left the Gambia in perfect health, five only are at present alive...' Weeks later, some 400 miles from the Bight of Benin, Park and his remaining entourage were murdered by vengeful Tuareg warriors, for it appears that wherever he went, Park's rifle had wreaked a trail of havoc. Still the expeditions continued. In 1816, a sixteen-year-old René Caillié narrowly escaped death by being refused permission to join a disastrous expedition under a certain Major William Gray. Death and disaster were commonplace. Of a contingent of 199 soldiers who arrived in Bathurst (Banjul) in May 1825, 160 had died from disease by Christmas. The next year, 101 of a further 200 soldiers had died. In an 1830s expedition sponsored by the Birkenhead merchant and shipbuilder Macgregor Laird (the sponsor of the first steam-powered Atlantic crossing), 38 of its 48 members perished. A decade later, on a government expedition, 48 of the 145 Europeans were lost within two months of leaving Bathurst. It has been estimated that of any group of Europeans newly arrived on the coast in the eighteenth century, between twenty-five and seventy-five percent died within their first year. It is with good reason that West Africa became known as the White Man's Grave.
Sir Richard Francis Burton, in inimitable jocular fashion, remarked: 'There is no place where a wife is so much wanted as in the Tropics; but then comes the rub - how to keep the wife alive.' Similarly, Mary Kingsley, one particularly remarkable woman who did survive West Africa (1897), was advised before her departure:
When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa (the Deadliest spot on earth) the very best thing you can do is to get it unmade again and go to Scotland instead; but if your intelligence is not strong enough to do so... get some introductions to the Wesleyans; they are the only people on the Coast who have got a hearse with feathers.
* * *
Between Sokone and Barra - on the north bank of the Gambia estuary - is the land of the ancient kingdom of Niumi-Banta (literally 'upward of the coast'). In the sixteenth century, many wars were fought over this fertile land, between the people of the Saloum and the Niuminka, wars that are fabled to have ended with an epic fight against a huge dragon-snake. The land of Niumi-Banta is a largely level plain, with a soil of sand and clay that absorbs the autumn rains like a sponge. There is an abundance of grasses and trees, mainly short and scrubby, with the exception of a few kapoks and lonesome baobabs. Passing Amdalai, the soil becomes clayish, dotted with bushes and termite nests stood to attention like sentries.
There was dust everywhere, though the colour of the soil - a deep Venetian red - was quite startling in the evening sunlight. The termitaria, though, were empty and crumbling, their ruins inhabited only by poisonous Gaboon vipers and pythons. The cry of a faraway goat resonated about my ears, gouging streaks across the deserted airscape. Screams, echoes, silence. The rustle of highway leaves and the wind, not quite strong enough to whistle, just sighed. Further on, a village rounded the savannah road, all brown and buff, with low, squat buildings and low, squat walls. They were picture book buildings, with thatched coronet roofs and straw ochre hues. Some had tiny missionary churches made of wooden planks, with quaint pointed roofs painted white, green and blue. Circular granaries stood on stilts, containing heads of Guinea corn, millet, rice, and pumpkins when in season. I passed several hand-dug wells - funded by international charities - their existence blazing forth from large painted signs that were posted outside fenced enclosures. From inside them, scraggy kids yelled and gesticulated at me as they hauled up rubber-tyre buckets splashing water, and then placed them dripping on the dusty ground. The odd lark circled around the luscious green canopies of Scotch bonnet pepper trees, cawing with a couple of lovebirds and the odd grey parrot.
Gnarled old men and trees stood motionless beside the road. In one clearing, beside a dusty mango tree, children were busily collecting the first windfalls into piles of orange and green, which were then packed into the wicker baskets that I saw everywhere along the road, accompanied by cries of 'Hey, meester, man-go man-go, fresh, goood!' and competing 'Hey, here very goood!' I stopped to buy some. They were cheap but hard, tasted acidic and made me nauseous. A few miles on, though, beside great porcupine clumps of bamboo interwoven with pink and orange bougainvillaea, the fruit was larger and more tender, and tasted much better. Many people told me that I would soon be able to live on mangoes, but whether through choice or compulsion, they did not say.
In the evening, the northern horizon whence I had come clouded over and the wind stiffened. Storm birds in crimson, peacock-blue and saffron circled high above, but then fell silent as the wind died to suffocate the trees. The sky became mottled in greys and browns.
The lightning metamorphosed the trees into split-second alabaster statues. A dog yelped in the silence. A couple of unconcerned zebu cattle walked slowly over a nearby hillock, silhouetted against a sombre patina of myrtle, jade and pepper green. Then came the deluge.
I had been asleep only for an hour or so, when I was awoken by a rustling beneath me. I removed my kipmat to reveal a couple of snake holes, which on reflection probably belonged to a puff adder. Unthinkingly, I stuffed them shut with twigs and leaves, then replaced the mat and fell asleep. I woke up a few hours later, dreaming of welcome faces and hot baths and beer. I was looking forward to getting back to Manchester. It was still raining - the second rain of the season - and I was soaked despite my Gore-Tex shroud. I shivered and felt hungry, and the wind was cold and blustery. I packed up by belongings, and set off towards Banjul in a miserable grey dawn, the going decidedly slow and cumbersome over the muddy quagmire that the red laterite road had become. At least the rains of that year were to be the best for almost a decade, and wherever I went, people were already talking excitedly about the prospects of a good harvest. After what seemed like an age, the road swung sharply to the left beside the riverine hulk of Fort Bullen, built by the British on Barra Point in 1826 to defend Banjul against French slavers. The road dropped gently down to the shore of the Gambia itself and the ugly settlement of Barra, once the capital of a powerful Mandingo kingdom. Behind Barra and its ferry quay stretched true forest, in parts almost rainforest. I was pleased to think that I had cycled this far south.
As I arrived - as cold and miserable as the sky - the heavens seemed to redouble their efforts to flood the country. Lumpy sewage overflowed their gutters, spewing shit and greenish brown gristle into murky potholes in which lived empty bottles and plastic bags. People were huddled in the shelter of dripping tin roofs, and greeted the arrival of the bedraggled Toubab with a kind of bewildered amusement. While waiting for the ferry, I observed a man who, I was frequently assured, was quite definitely the worst fisherman in all the Gambia. I watched him for a while, with his wrinkled mouth and cloth flat cap, eternal emblems of patience. He had a circular net, weighted at its fringes, which he spun into the river like a mop. Then, when he caught a score of heavy fish, he quietly packed up his belongings and made his way back home. My confidants were speechless.
I caught the eleven o'clock boat for the forty-minute crossing to Banjul. Peddlers sold tricorned Cornish fish pasties, fresh fish, and ice from shoulder-slung plastic crates. Fat, sweating men hawked biscuits and fish cakes, and grubby kids strutted about with bags of flavoured ice: plain, ginger, orange essence, and red bissap, made from hibiscus flowers. A few ocean-going freighters were moored in the estuary, alongside small Portuguese-style wooden cutters with their sails arranged like butterfly wings. Between them phutted motorised canoes, carrying salt in palm leaf baskets from the coast. The salt trade would shortly be closing down because of the rains. Eventually, through the mist, appeared the low skyline of Banjul, its few palms tickling the clouds like enormous feather dusters. It was a most welcome sight, because Banjul was the end of my journey.
* * *
I stepped off the Barra ferry to the sound of thunderclaps echoing dully from a murky brown cloud base that hung low over the town. For a while, I grew cold and miserable again as I cycled around in search of accommodation, drenched not only from above but by great dollops of rancid mud thrown up by passing cars. Once-bright shop fronts and neatly whitewashed offices, too, were coated in mud. Beside them, poorer people crouched under the cardboard packaging that probably served as their nocturnal shelters as well.
Banjul began life in the nineteenth century, upon the request of Sir Charles Macarthy (14), then Governor of Sierra Leone, for a garrison to control violators of the Abolition of Slavery Act that had been passed by Parliament in 1807. Then, in 1816, the settlement of Bathurst (named after the Secretary for War) was founded on Saint Mary's Island, intended as a haven for liberated Africans. Saint Mary's Island, however, is a forlorn place, flanked for the most part with steaming mangrove swamps. 'Like all European settlements of that date,' remarked Burton of Bathurst, 'that site is execrable and the buildings excellent.'
To be fair to Banjul, I thought at first that the town had something of an eclectic atmosphere to it. In fact, it was just the kind of place I had come to expect from an old English colony. It is flat, misty, sweaty, and sometimes quite serene. I considered the place to have a certain charm, a kind of laid-back dilapidation not dissimilar to that of Saint-Louis. Banjul, as the town was renamed in 1973, is the crumbling capital of the Gambia, a strange place still lingering with the old ghosts of the British Empire. Collapsing colonial townhouses line streets called Oxford, Wellington and Stanley. The signs at the taxi ranks read 'For Hackney Carriages Only' whilst others, long since corroded, still proclaim the health-giving properties of Ireland's most famous brew. There are Kenyan-style safari jeeps adorned like zebras for bush-hatted tourists to see crocodiles, and there is even an English-style fish and chip shop. Other immediate impressions included London-style letter boxes, Morris Minors, the odd Bedford lorry, adverts for 'Tizer the Appetizer', and ancient wooden chests that were stamped 'HORLICKS MALTED MILK'. On Buckle Street there were tailors who still crouched over Imperial sewing machines supplied by the Crown Agents, and there was even an old truck from Leeds, unceremoniously buried under a fallen tree. Beside it, pinstriped businessmen sauntered past carrying briefcases under their arms. Banjul is an odd place. As Richard West put it in 1965: 'Gambia is more English than England, more English even than India.'
The town that was created by the British now survives only amidst their rotten legacy (latter-day British visitors are treated with a curious mixture of hate and respect). Infrastructure was woefully neglected, even during the halcyon days of the Empire, and in the years since independence (1965), investment has been, with the exception of the coastal package-tour hotels, virtually non-existent. Like so many cities on the West African coast, Banjul has become a dead end, a stagnant place exuding little in the way of hope or optimistic bravura for the future. The corrugated roofs of once pristine sandstone houses are now rusted and corroded, their paint discoloured and leprous. The streets are full of murky potholes, mud-slurry and piles of rubbish. Rotting fruit, vegetables and fish offal lie everywhere, adding another layer to the often choking stench of open sewers that have nowhere to flow to. Once covered with iron grates or concrete slabs, most of these have long since been lost or stolen, though in places planks have been thrown over the rocking flagstones as an alternative to having to leap across the stinking ditches. In places there are dogs in the gutter, dead and bloated, and everywhere children can be seen playing in the mud or trying to catch rats. Clouds of flies and mosquitoes gather above the more rancid patches, and the stench is often indescribable. In consequence, one of the strongest impressions I have of Banjul is of a city drowning in itself. Add to this the hot and cloying climate of the tropical verges, and it becomes easy to see why ministers and officials deign no longer to live in the capital. Banjul, like Dakar, is a place where diplomatic limousines with smoked windows cruise along in silence past ragged beggars and pitiful hawkers, the latter almost pleading for your custom.
Wellington Street brought me to the iron railings of Macarthy Square, a grassy enclosure that doubles as a cricket field. On one side, it is flanked by the State House, a small bandstand and a memorial to both World Wars (in which both Gambian and Senegalese soldiers lost their lives). On the other side of the square is Gloucester Street, lined with aged casuarina trees and the tiny Anglican Cathedral of Saint Mary. Here, the more established street peddlers sell cigarettes and Chinese-built portable stereos. Other peddlers surreptitiously pass me bootleg Bob Marley and Michael Jackson cassettes as though they were heroin. Others push the real thing, invariably more openly. The less fortunate sell underpants and socks of behalf of rich importers and smugglers. The legal status of the hawkers is uncertain, and consequently their relationship with the police is something of a cat-and-mouse affair. The police, though no better and no worse than other West African forces, spend much of their time bullying and extorting extra wages from those hawkers too slow to pack up and disappear into the crowds. Once, when a telegraph pole beside the guarded entrance of the ministries caught fire, sparking like a crazy Catherine wheel, the police reacted by rushing into the laughing crowd with leather-bound truncheons.
Beyond the hawkers lies the waterfront Albert Market, a lively place despite having been gutted by fire a few months previously. Fat women with bulging backsides sold bundles of thatch for roofing, and mangoes of every description and size. Some displayed as few as half a dozen on plastic sheets laid out on the ground. Others, in contrast, were sitting atop hessian sacks full of the things. I saw great piles of red and green chillies, peppercorns, and chickens and limes for making 'Chicken Yassa'. Elsewhere, men were busy working leather into handbags, belts and wallets. The punter with money can choose from crocodile, python, giraffe, and many other endangered species. Other stalls sold carved wooden figurines, and sometimes ivory, despite the ban.
In one corner, a little old man dressed in a black and white polka dot robe, sat fiddling with a chain of worry beads. Like an emperor, he lorded over his barrowful of kola nuts. The man had a slim, wizened face, with a goatee and shorn hair. He also had a digital watch, which he made a point of frequently looking at. His hands were much the same colour as half of his kolas, a burnished orange-brown. The others were a creamy white. (15)
Past the last few blackened husks of the fire-gutted stores was the shore, where fishermen serviced and repaired their dugouts and nets, or else crouched beside smouldering blankets of ashes, over which fish were placed for smoking. Nearby rose odorous piles of discarded oyster shells, harvested from the mangrove swamps around the black, shark-infested waters of Oyster Creek (where else?). Once, on my way back through the market, I came across a jeering crowd, in the centre of which a fight was in progress. A couple of policemen prowled around on the periphery, waiting to see whether the fight would resolve itself naturally and so save them the paperwork. By the time the officers eventually decided to intervene - a good twenty minutes later - the two men had already been separated by a group of children. Five minutes later, when the police had gone, the shouting and fighting began all over again, the crowd having decided that the fight was about a woman. Accusations flew, alongside insults, feet and fists. At times the two combatants assumed karate-style postures, but their composure quickly became submerged by more kicking, pulling and punching. The crowd eventually called an end to the fight with one bloody nose, a cut arm, two ripped shirts, a bleeding eye, and humiliation to both crowned by the loud smirks and jeers of the children.
Another fight I saw was between a woman and a man, and seemed to be much more of a family affair. Although she was much thinner than he, she was a much better fighter, and hoots of delight arose from the assembled throng as her assailant/ex-lover/accuser was clobbered mercilessly around the head with a bag of groceries.
The Ministry of Tourism, consisting of a man, a desk and a cupboard, furnished me with the addresses of Banjul's cheaper establishments, meaning a tenner a night for a damp windowless room in a bordello, service not included. I faced the same problem as on arriving in Dakar and Saint-Louis, namely, that I needed almost all my remaining money for the flight back to Europe. The City Traveller's Lodge on Dobson Street was first on the list, a dingy whorehouse with no locks on the doors, and too expensive all the same. Little better, but unfortunately full, was the Duma Guest House on Hope Street. Also full was the Teranga on Hill Street. Empty, but far too expensive, was the Numa, just past Sam Jack Terrace. Probably the best of a particularly bad bunch was Uncle Joe's on Cameron Street, cosy in a damp mahogany kind of way, but certainly not worth the $20 asking price. In any case, I managed to offend old Joe himself, by not replying to him when he called me over. I'd been told that he was senile, although obviously not enough to let my rudeness go unchecked.
Put off by my lack of success, I made my way to the shack-like Anglican cathedral, in the hope that they might direct me to somewhere cheaper, or even have lodgings themselves. There, I had a stroke of luck. The gardener, a short youth with spindly, stubbled legs, offered to put me up. He was from Sierra Leone, and claimed to be Christian despite being called Abdul. He spoke Krio, a strange mixture of African dialects, English, French and Portuguese that sounds very like Afrikaans. Abdul was in much the same kind of mess as the refugees I'd met in Dakar, and like Tokpah Kennedy, had been discovered trying to smuggle diamonds into Senegal. In consequence, his only form of identification was a blotched photocopy of a letter from the Red Cross, stating only that he had been to them for help. He had found temporary lodging in an Aku compound (the Aku are English-speaking descendants of former Sierra Leonean slaves).
I was led to an ancient brick building on Clarkson Street, named after one of the initiators of the eighteenth-century anti-slavery movement. Its walls were now gangrenous with a decaying film of mildew. Only two of the three floors were inhabited, because the uppermost had rotten floorboards and no roof. Most of the windows had long been broken, their frames used for firewood, and a mesh of unconnected wires hung limply from the top of the building, at times used to hang washing. Tall walls topped with shards of glass enclosed a muddy courtyard spiked with more broken glass and bits of wood brandishing rusted nails. The overall appearance was of a bomb-damaged Ulster police station. In the far corner, opposite the main building, was a smaller shack, its oxidised roof held down with bricks and shredded tyres. It doubled as a restaurant, although as far as I could see, it had no customers other than the Akus who lived here. The toilet shed, beside the restaurant, was utterly stomach-turning (the slop bucket had never been emptied, and was infested with maggots).
Abdul's room smelt strongly of sandalwood, excrement and blood - the smell of squashed mosquitoes. He shared the room with his brother, who sold silky lingerie beside the railings of Macarthy Square: bras, stockings and briefs emblazoned with irreverent slogans like 'Men at Work', and a sideline in cheap cologne after shave and bead necklaces. Inside the room, the holes in the floor were covered with plastic sheeting, and like the refugees' compound in Dakar, the walls were bare but for the mould stains and a few fist-sized holes. Excepting a small table, on which another guy made Cornish pasties every evening, there was no furniture, not even a bed to sleep on. At night, the room was plagued by mosquitoes, and the heavy air gave rise to frequent headaches. Outside, the balcony was too rotten to stand on, but if you dared anyway, the ledge would crumble away under your hands as you leant on it, adding yet more rubble to the pile that had begun to block up the passageway below. Still, it was home and a roof, better at any rate than sleeping in the street.
* * *
Things began to go awry after I discovered that I could not afford a flight out of Banjul either. I spent most of my days traipsing increasingly heavy-footed from airline office to travel agency to embassy to consulate, all without much luck. I became a frequent visitor to the docks in the hope of finding a freighter that might take me back to Europe, but without much success either, although I realised that short of somehow stowing myself aboard an aircraft, the port was my only hope. With this in mind, I made friends with the guards at the gates, buying them cigarettes and offering them meals if they wanted. I also met Doudou, a young Senegalese from Rufisque who worked at the port whenever he could (which wasn't all that often). The port has only two berths, and even they lie empty for most of the time, there being at most four or five ships a week, mostly southbound. The gates outside were more or less permanently besieged with men, hopeful for the chance of precious little work.
In the absence of freighters, Doudou sometimes helped with the unloading of small fishing boats, but would only be paid with a few fish. He lived in a room quite literally made of cardboard at the southernmost reaches of Hagan and Buckle Street, the thin partition walls held together with makeshift rivets of nails and bottle-tops. At times, his expression would be almost childish, with a wide mouth and big, questioning eyes; but when he got stoned at lunch with a few other workers, his countenance changed markedly. He sucked on the joints with an urgency that betrayed his smoking yamba as a necessity and relief, rather than for pleasure. Together, the group had the same sad, gaunt faces and flaring, bloodshot eyes as had the workers at the iron ore terminal at Nouâdhibou.
One lunchtime, Doudou slunk off to buy half a bottle of cana, a near-lethal and illegal spirit distilled from palm wine. It tasted like paint-stripper, so I left it alone. Africa Gin, as it's known here, is sold by word of mouth only. Most of all, it is fear of the corrupt police force that keeps Africa Gin in the underground shebeens of Banjul.
One night it rained as never before, raindrops punching through the trees like water-filled balloons to bombard Banjul's tin roofs like some dreadful apocalypse. At the same time, or perhaps because of this, there was a power failure, accompanied by much shouting and screaming. Once again the roads were churned into a bubbling fury of mud and sewage, and after the rainstorm had subsided, the stench if anything was worse than it had been before. That night, I decided to pay a visit to the Ritz Cinema, which was showing some trashy American desert-romp in T-shirts and beach-buggies. The support feature, however, was what most people had paid their two dalasis to see: a scratchy film of Youssou N'dour and his band Super Etoiles de Dakar, to which the entire audience, despite the dire sound quality, got up from their seats and started dancing wildly, shouting, clapping, singing along, waving their arms, and even old ladies swirling their dresses! The place stank of sweat. Half way through the second film I threw up. I ran outside, took one lungful of the sewers, and to my embarrassment threw up again, to the disgust of passers-by.
'Ah, Banjul belly,' laughed Abdul's brother, who suddenly stopped laughing when I threw up over the floor and his tape player. I felt worse when, on looking through the bicycle panniers, I discovered that two hundred French francs had mysteriously disappeared, and that my camera had been tampered with. The brother suggested that I talk to Abdul.
The poor guy was so scared when I eventually confronted him that he immediately admitted taking the money, saying that he had only 'borrowed' it. I offered to take a walk with him, which he couldn't really refuse, and then over roasted butterfish threatened him with the police if my money did not reappear. With hindsight, this was the worst thing that I could have done. Good humour and a long leash, I learned much later, are the best way to deal with tifing. Or, better still, amnesia. Abdul pleaded with me to let him have the money as a gift, but I didn't relent, so eventually he said he'd give it me back midday tomorrow. No hard feelings, I said. I had committed my first mistake.
Midday. The door was locked. Abdul was late. One o'clock. Two o'clock. Still no sign of Abdul. I went to find his brother in Macarthy Square, but he said that he hadn't seen him all day. He gave me the key to the room. Confused, I walked back to the compound and unlocked the door. Inside, I found my bike, only minus my camera, my cagool, my harmonica, a bunch of clothes, and all my money. It took a few minutes for the reality of things to sink in, and then I was mortified. I checked and rechecked my bags in a panic, wailing. How on earth would I get back to England? Then I noticed that my diary too was missing. I slumped on the floor, half-sobbing and half-shouting that the fucker couldn't even read.
I was left with 22 pence, fifty dalasis (£5) and my passport that had been in my pocket. I had no credit cards, no cheques and no means. I went to the police station, but they refused to issue an insurance declaration because I had no money to pay for it. In any case, I wasn't even insured. 'Sorry, rules are rules,' they said. A woman officer smiled weakly, and seemed to pity me, but she couldn't help either. 'Boné, boné,' she said, bad luck.
The following day the gut feeling set in. I broke down in the evening when the captain of a Spanish tanker refused point-blank to listen to my pleas. Rules are rules, he said. I sat by the bow mooring ropes, sobbing quietly as I watched a large barracuda splashing in the murky water, free of cares, or so it seemed. Later I met a Dutch couple who had the first white hair I'd seen in ages, sat at a café on Wellington Street with bottles of coke, Guinness, Julbrew, and eggs and sausages that I could no longer afford. They were surrounded by hustlers and, much to my chagrin, actually seemed to be enjoying the attention.
'Oh, you've been robbed,' they said. 'Akh, that's bad news. Um, aah... Well, we've had a great time,' they said, not really knowing what else to say.
'Good for you,' I muttered, feeling even more depressed.
'Why didn't you stay at Uncle Joe's?' they asked. Christ, why didn't I bloody stay at Uncle Joe's? Because I needed the money for the flight, that was why, and now it was gone all the same.
The day after - July 1st - I was more angry than anything else. The situation was that although Abdul had obviously taken all my stuff and run off somewhere, his elder 'brother' had been taken in by the police as a suspect. There, it turned out that he wasn't Abdul's brother at all, and he said that he didn't even know him. I went again to the police station to see how they'd got on, and immediately noticed a change of mood. The inspector in charge of the case became angry with me because I'd said 'Hello' instead of 'Good afternoon, Sir,' and he obviously wasn't prepared to take me seriously. After half an hour of futile arguing, I left red-faced, confused, and depressed. I had also found out that the 'brother' had been released on bail, which made me angrier still because I knew that he was involved (he had the only key to the room). I tried to stay cool, though I must have seemed to be steaming with rage as I went back to the Aku compound to pick up my bicycle. Upon checking the panniers to see if anything else was missing, I found to my consternation that five hundred francs had been returned, I suppose, to give me something to live on whilst I sorted out my predicament. I still can't understand what was intended by the gesture, if anything at all. Perhaps it was meant to stop me going to the police, or maybe Abdul or his 'brother' had been forced to repay at least part of the sum by the other members of the compound. Perhaps, even, Abdul was feeling guilty or remorseful. I shall never know, although I discounted the latter as I was now convinced that Abdul was the most evil man that I had ever had the misfortune to meet.
I put it to several people in and around the compound that I knew that Abdul was still in Banjul, and indeed that they'd seen him, and that they knew where he was. To my relief and yet irritation, nobody denied this. Maybe... As I carried on with my hot-headed accusations, in marched two policemen and the inspector I'd argued with earlier. Before I knew what was happening, a pair of cold handcuffs snapped around my wrists. Facts didn't seem to matter as I, along with my bicycle, was bundled out of the compound and into a jeep where two officers waited. Abdul's 'brother' stayed behind, staring blankly at me as I was driven away.
'What have I done? Where are we going?'
'Keep your mouth shut, Toubab, you have caused enough trouble already.'
'Trouble? What trouble? I didn't decide to be robbed of...'
'You have been causing trouble,' he interrupted. 'You have been hitting people, and trespassing,' he added. By now I didn't know what to think. I was confused and very frightened.
'What have I done?' I asked again. 'It's Abdul you should arrest, not me.'
'Abdul?' the inspector asked, as though he had quite forgotten.
'You have no right to accuse people willy-nilly, Toubab. Now keep your mouth shut.'
Slowly, the realisation dawned that the police had been paid off with my money.
'HATE! Sickening frustration, dead-hearted. Heavy-legged. Want to get out, escape. I hate this... I'm going to find Abdul and beat his brains out!' I wrote while I spent the rest of the day in jail. It scared me as I wrote it, because I'd never felt so much rage before. In a way I felt proud that I'd at last managed to think of such a thing, for I was convinced that I would never have hurt a soul before this affair. I also decided that if I wanted to get myself out of this mess, I would have to fight. With hindsight, this was not only misguided, but sounds like all too much exaggerated bravura, but that's quite simply the way I then felt. The problem was that there was no one to fight. Abdul had disappeared, and if I approached his 'brother' or the police again, I would be re-arrested. The feelings of pride and invincibility that I'd gained from having crossed the Sahara quickly withered away, and for a long time after meant nothing any more. The difference was that the Sahara had been my choice, and to a large extent its problems, and my success or failure, had depended on my own efforts, whereas in Banjul I suddenly found myself in a situation that I had neither planned for, nor wanted. It felt like some perverse punishment for having succeeded so far.
Alas, I only now realise that I had forgotten the most important lesson of those crazy days between Atâr and Akjoujt, namely that I was largely responsible for whatever happened to me, good or bad. And not only was I responsible for my own well-being, but it should have been my duty as a foreigner not to conform to the hateful stereotype of the rich and arrogant Toubab, who, regardless, I played to a tee. Not once, for instance, had I thanked Abdul for putting me up, nor had I seriously considered offering to pay for his troubles.
I did not understand that society that I was in, and yet, more damning, I did not much feel the need to. As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, the reason for this was partly the anticlimax I felt after leaving the beautiful extremity of the desert. The desert had left in me a desire for extremes, and as a result, my way of regarding people and events had become more polarised, and I only saw things (ironically) in terms of black and white. Abdul, that night when I had confronted him about the 200 francs, had tried to reach a compromise, but instead I had menaced him and had caused him fear. By threatening him with the police, I killed his hope, and at the same time gave him no other way out of his predicament (I knew that he had spent the money). By my stubbornness, I merely showed Abdul that I did not understand him, that I saw him only as a thief. And since I saw him only as a thief, then he had nothing to lose by acting like one. Not once did I try to put myself in his position, to understand his helpless poverty, the squalor of life as a refugee, to comprehend his temptation. So, by pushing Abdul over the brink, I pushed myself over too. I was made to understand Abdul's poverty by being reduced to the same penury and misery. It was as though Abdul was saying: 'You, you who are so rich, if you still will not understand us, then we'll impoverish you so that you will. You will become one of us.'
That night, as I wheeled my bike down Buckle Street towards Doudou's, with whom I was now staying, a skinny youth, about twenty, latched onto me and tried to start a conversation.
'Hello my friend, what are you doing?'
'I don't want to talk to you,' I replied, paranoid.
'I want to be your friend,' he said.
'I don't,' I said.
'But, but I like...'
'I don't! Get Lost - LEAVE ME ALONE!' I was close to tears. Then another guy appeared and started following me. When he tried to take the bicycle pump that was attached to my now half-empty rear panniers, I stopped, turned around and simply punched him as hard as I could in his face. I knocked him out. Christ, I knocked him out! His friend withdrew to a safer distance, then ran away. I picked up the pump and walked on. It was the first time that I'd ever hit someone without them hitting me first. I was scared out of my wits.
I went for a midnight swim beside the port to calm my nerves, but I kept touching seaweed and floating planks which in my paranoia became corpses and dismembered bodies. Doudou said he'd stake out Clarkson Street for me to await any sign of Abdul's reappearance, but the next morning, I found that both Doudou and the rest of my money (the five hundred francs) were missing. I can't remember how I reacted. Probably cold, dull shock: déjà vu. Then despair. My last friend in the world, or so it seemed, had turned out to be even more two-faced than Abdul.
Doudou's friend came back about midday. He admitted that he knew Doudou had taken the money, but that he hadn't realised what I had already been through, and whether through guilt at not stopping Doudou or pity for me, the Toubab, he even showed signs of sympathy. He took me to his house - without exaggeration a mound of rubble - then took me to an eatery for a meal, all the time waiting for Doudou. We went to the port, but the guards said that Doudou hadn't turned up for work that day, which they thought was odd. At dusk, in a cloying hot breeze, I went to see a woman at the Teranga hotel who had known Doudou, and who had had a large butane gas cylinder stolen from her by him. She told of a couple of other Toubabs who had been similarly treated in the past, and she advised I try the City Traveller's Lodge, the brothel I'd visited on my futile hotel-search on first arriving in Banjul.
'Hello, little boy!' they purred mockingly, fat legs and short skirts splayed out on tables lining the hallway. The only light came from a couple of dim, orange bulbs.
'Oh, you're a friend of Doudou's,' they said, I guess a little disappointed that I was not a customer. They told me that he'd gone home for a while to get changed. So, Doudou was spending my money in a whorehouse. I was so angry that I decided that I would kill him, or at least slash him a few times. I was mad with rage, irrational, but above all pathetic.
We spotted Doudou at the far edge of a large gravelly square, lined with low eathouses and stores. I took large strides, I don't think deliberately. I took out my penknife, and pulled out its laughable two-inch blade. Suddenly, not looking, I fell into a sewage ditch. Doudou's friend took away my knife. I staggered out of the pit, my legs cut and bleeding, and my whole body trembling. My anger dissipated in the shock. Doudou looked on, fresh-faced and smirking, and muttered something about having been up all night but still no sign of Abdul.
'Where's my money?' I demanded.
'What money?' he replied glibly, still trying to look innocent.
'I'm going to kill you,' I hissed, but without much conviction - the peak of my rage had deserted me. 'I'm going to kill you!' He laughed and sneered, and a little of my anger returned. He unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall to the ground.
'If I am your thief,' he said, 'then fight me. Hit me, come on, hit me.' His sneer was gone as he braced himself. God, how I hated him, but still my legs trembled and reminded me of my sudden fall, and to my deepest humiliation, I decided that I would gain nothing by fighting him. So instead, I just stared at him, trying to leave a mental scar by letting him know that at least I hated him more than anyone else in the world, even Abdul. I stared and he sneered. He won and I lost. So much for having to fight my way out of things.
* * *
I walked back alone to Doudou's to collect my bike. I considered burning down his hut, but then came to the conclusion that it wasn't even worth the money he'd stolen (it shows something about the state of mind I was in that this was the only reason why I didn't commit arson). It was almost midnight. I was sitting at the roadside by a reeking sewage ditch. Two prostitutes tried to talk to me, giggling, but I was so depressed and uncommunicative that they soon left me alone, which made feel even worse. A woman with her little daughter walked past, but the little girl screamed and ran behind her mother's legs wailing 'Toubaaab! Mama, mama!'
I went to the police station to ask for a night in the cells, but the officer refused. So I said that since they'd already jailed me once before for nothing, would they please do so now that I was asking. No. I begged. No. Then did I have to attack someone, or steal, I asked. Yes, the officer replied. Though I was blind to the irony, my situation now exactly mirrored that of Abdul. He, too, had needed to steal in order to have a roof above his head.
To my eternal gratitude, on leaving I met a policeman who turned out to be one of the few honest and kind people I was to meet in this damned place, and spent the night in the police barracks on the western periphery of town. The officer on the gate, though, suspected that I was a spy, and so I was kicked out the next day, against the wishes of my host, who was probably hauled up in front of his superiors for his kindness.
I tried the embassies again. The British said no-go because of my German passport. The German consul was suspicious because of my faltering German, and in any case she said that regulations meant that I could have no money unless it was wired from Europe. And yet, having money wired from my parents was anathema for me, even though it would long ago have solved my problems. I finally tried to sell my bicycle, the only thing of value that I had left, but the few offers I did get were nowhere near enough to pay for a ticket.
One morning I sunk so low as to try begging alongside the hawkers of Macarthy Square. I must have squatted there for about three hours, without once getting myself to ask for money. I felt so humiliated. Then, one guy selling home-made biscuits asked me for money. When I asked him why, he said it was because I was rich and he was so poor. So I yelled obscenities at him, and asked if I was so fucking rich, then what the hell was I doing here squatting against these bloody railings without so much as a penny in my pocket? He just laughed, perhaps because he didn't believe me, or perhaps because the sight of a Toubab begging on the streets of Banjul was just so funny. Either way, I didn't have the energy or willpower to carry on. I went to the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption to beg for help, and a safe roof to sleep under while I waited for the non-existent ship to take me away from all this, but on the way I was attacked for no reason. He had a look of absolute hatred in his eyes, looking for a fight like I had been. I restrained my tears, and to my shame but equal relief was rescued by a band of children who had been playing in the cathedral grounds. A wedding procession was leaving as I arrived, delicately hopping over the open sewers. It was a strange sight: gauze veils, cloche hats, white chamois gloves, monocles, and fat little feet squeezed into little Sunday best shoes. The men wore dinner jackets, black bow ties, silks and cravats, and their wives hung on their husbandly elbows, crooning about the happy couple. In any other circumstances, I might have laughed at them. As it was, I just tasted bile burning up my throat.
The Irish priest gave me a ten dalasi note, and told me not to bother him any more because he already had too many things to worry about. Where was I going to sleep? I wanted to sleep so much, but I didn't even trust the bush outside of Banjul any more, and there were several unused rooms here, that were used only once a week for bible studies or some such thing. The priest said that it was impossible. I broke down on a pew, which was especially shattering for me as an atheist. I felt as though there was no place left to which I could turn. My nightmares had come true, nightmares that children have when they are trapped but cannot move, where they scream but no one hears, and they want to run but their feet are stuck fast to the ground like in a swamp and they are terrified. I vividly recalled my depression the previous autumn on all my plans for a world cycle ride falling through, when I'd never in my life felt worse. Then I'd imagined, horrifically, being locked up inside a bare, pale-blue padded cell at an asylum - long walls echoing silently, distant cries, anguished, forgotten ghosts, endless walls. On asking for at least a pen and some paper so that I could write something, I was handed a huge joke pencil made of rubber because I was considered a suicide risk. Through my sobbing tears I remembered my mind's reaction: smashing my head against the padding on the walls, so much so that I visualised my battered head gaping open, spattered with brain and mangled bone. And I remembered breaking down in consequence, for the first time in my life. And now, one year on, I was thinking these same thoughts all over again...
Children gazed in through gaps in the stained glass at the feet of the saints, shouting insults, until they saw my tears and walked in silently, staring and no doubt bewildered at this apparent manifestation of the power of a religion alien to most Africans.
* * *
A month later I found myself back in Europe, back home, having managed, to my unspeakable relief, to hitch a lift on a German groundnut oil tanker, whose captain had only taken me aboard on account of my German passport. It felt odd being back home, escapee from Banjul, swamped with very indeterminate and confused feelings, the exception being the great joy on having first sighted the grim, misty, grey and overcast Humberside coastline, and on seeing my mother and sister surprise me at the port. Beyond that, I can't recall thinking much about my journey at all, whether it was the Sahara and the exaltation at having crossed it, or the depths to which I had fallen in Banjul. My mind was, for a month at least, merely dazed, ticking over from day to day, exhausted, digesting, and unthinking. After a month, however, I found myself beset with nightmares, vengeful things that kept me awake at night. Bloody nightmares, gut-strewn daydreams, murderous fantasies. Every night, over and over again, I visualised killing both Abdul and Doudou. But not just killing - that would be too clinical a word - but joyously, deliriously, and hypnotically murdering in cold blood.
For a month I had these nightmares. It frightened me to see within. I found that I could not sleep, and when I did, I would wake a few hours later sweating and sometimes screaming, shocked and scared at the perverse innards of my twisted mind. The joke is that I never escaped at all. I merely accepted. I merely found solace in enacting revenge. Finally, I decided to write down these terrible fantasies, in the hope that I would then cope with them, and eventually, having barely slept and my nerves in tatters, my nightmares slipped away, and I had my first untroubled dream:
The desert. The burning sun. The burning sand. Upon which a man crawls. Dehydrated, semi-conscious. A lizard's tail flickers, far away. Crawling. Crawling towards a stone. The stone is a bird. Gold and black. Tiny, delicate, beak closed. 'Brother,' the man says, 'can you tell me how to find water? I don't suppose that you can tell me? I don't suppose that you can hear me?' The beak opens a fraction, but there is no reply. It seems that I can hear a whisper, a breath... Feathers ruffle gently in the breeze. Black grains of sand. The bird is dead. Its beak has become a mouth. 'Eat me.' Says the mouth. Says the little boy. The little boy is me.
Throughout my journey, I had thought only of me. It is not always a bad thing - if it hadn't been for my selfishness, my stubbornness, the belief in myself, I would never have managed to cross the solitary desert. And yet, in Banjul too, I had thought only of me. I had thought only of me. If a grain of sand were to say, I am but a grain of sand, then there would be no Sahara. If a drop of water says that it is but a lone drop of water, then there is no rain. There is no music without notes to make it, without a heart there is no life. Man without man is nothing.
As the Moorish proverb says: it is man, not the desert, who eats you.