Getting stuck in a Medina – demolition with the Zil131

Well, now we are in Tarifa. We arrived here yesterday. It has been one hell of a crazy past few days snowballing into a rush out of Morocco one week earlier than planned.

Events took a downward turn in Meknes. We had hoped to spend a couple of days there exploring the Medina. There is a large Sunday market we hoped to catch. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn. It was a one way street that we became swept along. Quite by surprise we found ourselves behind the Medina walls. The tiny street then turned back through a gate into the wide world but the Zil was not going to fit through the gate. We began to maneuver to see if we could squeeze through – it would be tight. One vegetable seller was adamant we could fit and tried to direct me. I hesitated, whilst a few more residents, eager to help, started directing me in different directions. Meanwhile the Zil was getting into a rather awkward poition, neither able to fit through the gate, nor reverse back along the one way street which was filling up with waiting cars. Then I made a big mistake: I took instruction from one chap that insisted I could pass through a tiny alley that curved round into a wide open square. The idea being I could turn around in the square and return back along the one way street contra-flow. I had to pull in my side windows as the fit was glove tight – thus putting all faith in the competence of this chap that proceeded to get us truly wedged, the bumper passenger side dug into one wall, the cabin driver side grating against the pillars of a portico.

The noise brought out the entire neighborhood. Some people had advise to give, otheres just wanted to spectate. The residents of the two houses were screaming abuse, one lady was waving a cosh. The chap that was giving me directions slipped away quietly leaving us stranded. Not able to even open the drivers door, I hit the accelerator pedal. There was the sound of metal grinding, a child screaming, the collapse of rubble, tiles smashing to the floor. The Zil broke through into the square. Behind me was a plaster wall covered in deep incisions, a wreaked electricity box, a pile of rubble and smashed tiles from damage to the pillar.

There was nothing for it but to wait for the police. First I tried to placate the angry residents but there was no way of engaging them, even with supplicating myself on the floor, which just made me an easy target for the lady with the cosh. Some residents were sympathetic. ‘It happens all the time’ one said. Coffee was made for me. I nursed a mangled thumb whilst the storm showed no sign of relenting.

In such a situation the Police proved fantastic. A plainclothes officer took the case on. He made some notes, took my papers and got me to turn the truck around to go back through the tight alley. This time I had a more competent chap giving directions and we made it through without a scratch.

In the station witness statements were taken. After about an hour of paperwork I was told I could leave. Great service! Now there is some cosmetic damage to the truck. I also need to replace the protective steel skirting which was crushed.

Feeling rather shaken we now headed for Ceuta. The route took us past the ruins of Volubilis. It is a romantic looking Roman city. From the car we could see the Arch, forum, theatre. Amazingly, the city had a population of several hundred thousand, a mixture of Mediterranean merchant families and mountain Berber. Also amazing is that the city remained inhabited until the 1800’s when it was leveled by an earthquake.

Passing on we reached Chefchaouen. This is a gorgeous city. It is famous for its buildings being colour coded white with blue highlights. This gives it a very distinct Mediterranean look, it could be Greek, or Spanish. The walls are smoothly plastered over. Attention is paid to the details, pretty doors, doorknockers, birds in cages, plant pots, fountains. The Medina is where all the good looks are concentrated as is the thriving tourist industry which attracts plenty of urban Moroccans from Rabat and Casa. Unfortunately the city was been flooded with heroin in teh last two years which has seen a rise in junkies and crime.

So now we are in Spain! It feels good to be back in Europe. But then it also feels sad to have left Morocco. I can not wait for my next trip over there!

I need now to take some time to reflect. The Africa leg of our journey is ended. So much has happened. Its been an incredible adventure. It does not end yet. Next is France – will we find ourselves a home there or keep traveling?

Reflections on Gambia I

Gambia is a funny place. Here I am paraphrasing some of the observations I’ve made so far based on talk with locals and expats living here.

The Ferry
I have already mentioned the sketchy ferry crossing we made to Banjul from Bara. From a Dutch chap I also learnt that our fears were quite reasonable. A few years ago an overloaded truck carrying concrete from Senegal was squeezed onto the back in the same manner as us. The ferry arrived safely on the Banjul side but as the last vehicle exited prior to the overloaded trucks exit, the ferry tipped backwards due to the weight displacement and the truck went straight into the water. It took weeks to figure out how to get it out as it was too heavy whilst the incident sparked a diplomatic row between Senegal and Gambia over responsibility which resulted in the borders getting shut for a short period. A Dutch construction firm operating in Gambia was asked to assess and service the three ferrys. A team went into one of the Ferrys. It is powered by four engines. Two engines were dead needing replacing. One engine was nearly dead. The fourth was spurting so much diesel that the entire hold was ankle deep in fuel. The ferry chief engineer used to fill the fuel tank with a plastic cup from the surplus sloshing about. Hopefully he had the good sense not to smoke onboard.
The Dutch company returned their report stating there is nothing they can do to the ferries which are beyond servicing. I have also learn’t that the three new, smart looking Ferrys from Greece that ‘our President’ bought for Gambia are another local joke. Apart from the dredging that is needed so they can be used, these are not ‘roll on roll off’ ferries. What that means is that vehicles will have to reverse off in deep water, a terrifying thought.

JuJu and Spirits
The Gambians are firm believers in the spirit world. Everyone I have met wears a bracelet or waist belt with lucky objects sown in. Often the belt contains the name of Allah written over and over like a mantra. The use of prayers contained inside the amulet reminds me of the mezuzah nailed to the side of doors in Jewish tradition. The Juju belt is acquired through a visit to a Marabout who can have one made specific to ones needs. So if its wrestling, the belt will be one to make the wearer strong. If the wearer is planning on going abroad then the belt will offer protection and luck. For those going to Europe the belt must have powerful juju to reach the distance. It is not uncommon for the traveler to swallow the charm, or have it surgically implanted into the leg before flying. This allows the juju to work at maximum effectiveness where ever one is. I did hear though of one story of a Gambian in the States that had a warrant issued for trafficking in narcotics. He fled back to Gambia but could not settle down. Desiring to return to the States, he approached a powerful marabout for juju to shield him on his flight back to NY. However, despite the juju belt he was picked up on the flight manifest, or by facial recognition at immigration, and is now in prison. KarlMarx believes that it is hard for juju to defeat computers. If its crossing local borders that are none-technologically assisted, then juju works just fine. KarlMarx’s friends have made alot of money trafficking Ganja from Senegal. The Juju prevents the border police from being able to speak so that the carriers can cross the line. Though I then questioned a DEA officer on this story and he insists that the young smugglers were just lucky on that day. Juju works for most things but not for breaking the law.

Gambians are very sensitive to the effects of juju and spirits. If the belt is removed they immediately feel weakened. One fruit seller was telling me that when he woke up once he could feel an energy drain, tiredness, apathy. There could be no doubt that it was the work of some evil spirit. A quick trip to the Marabout and all was sorted.

Mara was invited to see a Marabout yesterday. He is an old man working from his house. A visit is only ten dilasi, though belts, oils, drinks, lotions and potions are extra. There was a long queue of people outside waiting to be seen and his assistant would receive phone calls from Gambians abroad needing advise. Divination in this case was performed through dice. Perhaps Mara will post what he said to her.

I understand the president Jammeh is also a firm believer in juju. He employs a team of Marabout to advise him. Right now he is convinced that there is a plot against him so he is using juju more than ever. It has been suggested that this is a contributing factor to some of his more irrational policy making of late.

The Gambia is very homophobic. The President set an ultimatum, which has now expired, for all queers to leave the Gambia. In the same speech he said Gambia will kill any remaining in the country. He has also said that he will introduce laws stricter than in Iran against queer acts, beheading. Though there is extra-judicial execution of opponents by firing squad, I have not heard of it used yet against the queer scene here (if there is a scene left here at all). We were at a Reggae party the other night and the MC started shouting out some horrific rhetoric of hate against queers. The song was one of my all time favourite tunes about a guy longing to start a family after seeing the joy family brings to his best mate, ‘I’ve got to find myself a woman’. The MC felt it necessary to remind the crowd, ‘We don’t want no lesbian love here’ after hearing some of the ladies on the dancefloor singing along. He then launched into a tirade lasting three more tunes by which time I decided to leave feeling quite ill in the stomach. The irony was that the last song was a Bob Marley song, ‘One love’, the lyrics missing the mark with the MC.

It has since been explained to me that Allah has made more men than women so women can not be lovers together as it would upset gods order. Well what about the over abundance of men? Men must fulfill their god given duty to love women, otherwise the poor ladies will be sad.

It has been quite extraordinary to see the rate at which the forest here is cut down. Fire wood is used in every village but more shocking is its wide use in large towns. Driving through Greater Banjul there are yards where trees are piled up, dismembered and sold in bundles. For the would be shop owner, fire wood is the first commodity to be sold as it is so easy to get with a consistent demand. In street markets we find charcoal sellers, a slight improvement on the dry wood. Propane/Butane gas is widely available but comes at greater cost to the user as well as requiring considerable outlay where as one can by wood for just one nights fire. On a larger scale the Chinese are fueling the demand for illegal timber. The main source is the Cassamance forest. Gambians working with the Cassamance rebels procure the timber and bring it to Gambia where it is collected by the Chinese. This in part fuels the Cassamance conflict as the rebels earn a tidy sum for their part, making them less inclined to engage in peace talks. The Gambians are also making a good living from it, both the truck drivers and owners of the haulage firms. I asked KarlMarx if he was not at all concerned about the rate at which the forest was being cut down. He answered in the negative, assuring me that the forest was so big it could never disappear. In any case, he believes the trees will grow back very quickly. But if the forest disappeared, then that would be progress as they could build compounds on top and then plant mango trees.
Thanks in part to the lobbying of civil society, the President has taken some measures to slow down the rate at which Gambia’s own forests are being depleted. There is now a body of rules governing where and how wood can be harvested though I wonder what sort of enforcement regime is in place. One warming moment was witnessing a school production on deforestation. The story was based around some characters needing income, getting seduced by an evil Malian wood cutter to savage their local forest, then repenting when there was no longer a forest for their children.
Another environmental catastrophe, one that is squarely the fault of our Gaia-sphere rather than the Gambian people, is the rate of coastal erosion. Whilst we were gone from Voodoo bar, two days of heavy swell battered the coastline. The beach can be described as a level concourse, a ledge of sand jutting out from the vegetation behind, that drops with a step down to the high tide mark. The swell had swept away an entire meter deep of the ledge, so that the paraphernalia of beach life, deck chairs, colourful parasols, had to be dragged back from the brink. What the sea devours, is not replenished in any holistic cycle. With a week of erosion at this rate Voodoo would be a waterside bar. Other beach side establishments with more financial clout have invested in an array of defenses against an ocean that simply will not recognize property boundaries, no matter how many stars are sewn onto the lapel. This imparts the appearance of hotels under siege, the green zone of Baghdad.

The Bara to Banjul Ferry

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 from reverse camera

View out the back door, Mara was covering the brake whilst I was taking the pic.

View out the back door, Mara was covering the brake whilst I was taking the pic.

exiting the ferry

exiting the ferry

We have arrived in Banjul.