The experience of Bara is quite something. A head dunk into Gambian life, all its mess, dreams of youth and corruption. The town is a dusty, dirty, ugly, encampment of breeze block shops, houses and garages with no town center unless the ferry terminal can be considered one. Bara also has a real solid identity that the people here believe in very strongly. Pulled up on the shore is a fleet of pirogues, with some being constructed out of mahogany by a local team of expert builders. I am told that they have recently started using bolts to hold the craft together rather than the traditional nails. There is an abandoned warf with a red rusty conveyor belt that once moved peanuts from the collapsing tin roofed warehouses to waiting ships. The Peanut business was once the mainstay of the Gambian economy in the early days of independence (1970’s). Beside the ferry terminal is a half sunken British fort, more like a Battery in size. Its heavy guns were installed to assist the Banjul fort in closing off river traffic when Britain moved to abolish slavery in its colonies. The river deposits have raised the river bank with sand surmounting the battery walls. This has the added implication that the three new ferries that ‘our President has bought us’ can not be used as it is too shallow around the Bara port. A program of dredging is already underway. Without the three new ferries that Jammah bought the Gambians, we must use one of the three old ferries, which frequently break down, which drag themselves against the river current making a five kilometer crossing a one hour (if your lucky) affair. What this means for us is that despite our arrival at the ferry port in the early afternoon we must wait till the following day in a frozen line as ferry after ferry comes and goes with people paying off the ferry staff for a space. Meanwhile as we wait our window is tapped by every ‘legal’ hustler in Bara – and Bara is mostly hustlers. We get acquainted with the Bara youth, who are on the make by pointing out the hustler scams to the tourists (i.e. us). We explore the town and I get to see a wrestling match with a Brit I happened to meet.
Whilst there we befriended a gang of youth that were determined to assist us. They seemed harmless as well as doing a splendid job of warning us of hustler scams each time one came to our window. A shake of the head from the youth spokes-kid was enough to give us warning that whatever was on offer was no good. We also got a break down of the true price of goods though we have never been able to purchase at said prices. Gradually the youth ingratiated themselves into our service until slyly we were feeling indebted and I slipped the head boy 100dalasi. Nevertheless they were very sweet. The head boy is in year 8 in school, from 8am till 2pm. His favourite classes are English and maths. His family is Christian. His mother is a fish seller in the market whilst his Rasta dad takes tourists on tours to the Senegal delta de Saloum, where we had stayed a night, to see hyenas, gazelle and turtles. His dad has two wives, a practice quite common here. Though when I asked if it could happen that two women could have one man the boy said with absolute conviction ‘That would be impossible’. I do not believe he was even able to abstractly grasp the thought.
Through walking the streets we discovered some local types, ‘Legal Hustler’ and ‘Mr. Fixer’. The ‘Legal Hustler’ is basically a hustler. But he is an honest one that will make it known that he is one. He is also very proud of being a hustler and a legal one at that. It is the pride, the blinded belief in his profession, that permits him to grant himself the title of ‘legal’. They usually want money, clothes or a useful item. Otherwise they might offer a service such as piggy backing people through the Atlantic surf to the waiting pirogues that do the unofficial Bara to Banjul crossing. A ‘Mr. Fixer’ is basically a hustler but wont ask for gifts for nothing. They always have a service to offer, buy tickets to a show, score you some ‘Bob Marley’ (Gambian street for Cannabis), brown, charlie, get you a night time partner etc. They tend to be more creepy than the legal hustlers who are all ‘Rasta-man!’ and sing reggae songs about world peace, poor man’s burden and positive vibrations. The Hustlers are actually quite charming if not annoying. One tall chap with a great voice sung us a song he wrote about Government corruption and arms in Africa, it was very poignant. I wished it could have been recorded but the State apparatus would probably remove him from the streets.
I met a ‘Mr. Fixer’ that also made me chuckle inside. He wanted to sell various class A drugs. I thought he meant Ganja at first, ‘No man, I am not talking bout that ting, see here, its my little boys that push that around, I only do the big stuff, you hear? I know dem boys from England like to do it, I can give you a good price cause I see you ain’t got much money an all. I’m a Mr. Fixer you see?’ I declined his offer convinced that even if I wanted something this guy was not going to be able to deliver.
I had a less pleasant encounter with another legal hustler that wanted various things that we did not have to give. First he wanted a T shirt. ‘Im a DJ man, I gonna wear it on stage and say my good English friend gave it to me. Its not a gift man its supporting Jah Rastafari.’ Then he wanted a beer to put him in the party mood. Then it was money to get into the party. I pointed out that if he wants all these things, he should go and ask his President for them. My refusal to pay him made him very angry with accusations of the white man coming back to Africa to steal once again. ‘What you here for?’ He shouted, ‘What you here for? Come back to steal – Boodclot – dem white man back to steal,’ he points at out truck accusingly and looks out into the crowd for support, but everyone knows that hustlers, legal or not, are crazy.
Walking the streets later in the evening with Miki I bumped into an excited Brit holidaying in Bara. Of all places, he comes here every year for as long as he can, six weeks this time. It could have been any city, but it is Bara he chose to build connections, befriend families and become part of the matrix of this place so that now everyone Bara knows him. He is from Bristol, an events organizer, that is incredibly easy going. He displayed a great interest in just about everything and everyone that he met. I found out from him a bit of the slavery history of this place, the traffic of people along the river, the Bara fort. Worth visiting is a Rasta colony ten kilometers north of Bara on the coast where weed is openly grown (but remains in the colony). The coast up to the Senegal border is protected so that there are no villages apart from the Rastas, just an endless coastline of white sandy beaches with the usual covering of plastic rubbish regurgitated up by the sea. The Bristolian Brit took me to a wrestling match later that night. The technique was similar to the informal training bouts we witnessed in Saint Louis. The atmosphere was something else. The event took place in a large dusty yard enclosed by walls of corrugated tin, illuminated by five bright tungsten bulbs. This has barely enough light to illuminate the fight. There are several hundred people packed around the yard edges. Two men with mics are co-hosting the rounds whilst four ladies accompanied by six drummers are singing African melodies that loop over each other endlessly for literally hours (I was told the fights go on for four hours). Their voices never break nor the drummers tire of beating out energized rhythms. The ten wrestlers in the yard dance around in large circles to the music, wearing only loin clothes with juju belts packed with strength enhancing spells, their powerful frames are ripped with muscles that gleam with perspiration. These are perfect human bodies, the sort seen on posters in my old gym back in London, toned, strong, beautiful. I heard that they drink special juju potions for days before the tournament to enhance their physical and mental prowess, to make them hunger for victory. As the warriors pass eachother one will begin insulting the other until the mutual dislike is so absolute that a fight must take place. The rules are no kicking, no punching, the opponents torso must touch the floor for victory. The nights winner emerges by a process of elimination. I saw four fights, they are quickly over then the actors return to dancing which is what mostly goes on. At one point the rounds were interrupted when the Gambian Olympic wrestling champion stood up to recognize the prowess of the fighters. Born in Bara, the chap is a local legend. Immediately on his standing up the wrestlers came to honour him with a dance, along with all the prettiest girls in the yard. The wrestling was interrupted a second time at 11pm when the electricity to the town gets turned off. As this occurs every day the organisers were ready with a generator which caused the tungsten bulbs to pulse their warm light creating quite an atmosphere.
So we encountered all this whilst waiting for the Ferry. The reason we had to wait so long is the incredible corruption of the ferry guards who take tips from vehicle drivers to go ahead of the queue. So there is in effect two queues, the very long one that never moves and a short corrupt one that is replenished by the minute. All the expensive 4×4’s as well as some trucks and taxis all jump ahead. Behind us is a school bus that like us must wait two days. The guards naturally offered to bump us to the front for a small fee but I am feeling sick of the corruption. I had struck a note of solidarity with the school bus driver desperate to get to Banjul for the Monday school run and did not want to betray him.
Our position in the queue was further worsened when a military intelligence plain clothes officer called me into his office. He wanted to have a peek inside the truck and although the office is only three minutes walk from the truck (almost opposite him), he insisted that we exit the line and pull up right outside his door as he was not in a mood to cross the road. Naturally after the 30 second inspection we had to go to the back of the queue which is where we met the school bus.
Come the morning the staff decided to prioritizes us, finding a space on the second morning ferry. It could be that they took pity on us as we have a child. Or it could be a response to my making a scene over the blatant corruption (which they emphatically denied), promising to write to the Minister for Ports about this.
Getting prioritized was not necessarily a good thing. They squeezed us onto the back of the ferry in the only space available which was too small for the Zil. This meant that our rear wheels were inches from the edge of the ship with our back overhanging the sea. Because we stuck out so much they could not get the stern gate shut. One large wave, one moment of weakness in our hand brake, and we would tip backwards into the sea and straight down to the bottom. Fortunately the waters were calm (I have heard that once in the middle of the river the sea can get choppy). We arrived safely on the other side after a long tense hour with my foot hanging over the brake pedal. First the forward cars, truck, goats and foot passengers debarked. The boat had been so packed that some of the goats had to stay under our truck.
view from reverse camera
View out the back door, Mara was covering the brake whilst I was taking the pic.
exiting the ferry
We have arrived in Banjul.