A Day trip into Senegal

Trip Start Apr 04, 2010
Trip End Apr 04, 2010

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Flag of Senegal  , Fatick,
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Our day began bright and early for our daytrip to Senegal. With our fellow passengers, Angela and I arrived in Banjul, the capital of the Gambia, to catch a ferry across the river. The ferry terminal was a hive of honking, shouting and dust. Cars and trucks queued along every street and people were everywhere, a kaleidoscope of colour and activity.

Near where we stood, a couple of women were serving some sort of soup from a tiny tall. They served the food to waiting men, accepting well-worn banknotes in return. Peddlers came up to us trying to flog sunglasses, necklaces, fake watches and other such tat. Locals stood about, many of them carrying large bundles on their heads. Some men herded goats, others carried chickens by their feet and amidst them all, children sold bags of nuts.

Suddenly our guide beckoned us over. “We go to front of queue now. We are allowed to do this because we are a tour group.” He led us past the waiting locals who seemed used to this type of blatant queue jumping, even if we were not.

In the burgeoning heat of the African sun, we stood near the jetty awaiting the ferry's arrival. Even though it was only 9am, the heat was intense and so we stood in the shade offered by the waiting lorries. Thirty minutes later the ferry approached and there was a buzz of excitement in the air. Over a decrepit tanoy system, a woman's voice ordered everyone to keep to the sides to allow departing passengers and vehicles an easy exit. Everyone squeezed back as the warning was repeated in Arabic.

As soon as the two-decked ferry came to a stop, the barrier lifted and the madness began. Beeping and engine sounds filled the air as cars and lorries trundled past, billowing out clouds of noxious fumes. A uniformed man tried to keep order, even manhandling people who seemed to be heading the wrong way. The sea of colour seemed to last for ever but eventually the last passenger departed and we were given the all clear to board.

“How old do you reckon this ferry is?” I asked Angela as we took our seats on the wooden benches of the vessel's upper level.

Angela regarded the rusty railings, the broken benches, and the black smoke puffing out from the large upright exhaust. “I'd say about thirty-nine years old,” she finally said.

“Nope,” I said, pointing to a placard. “It was commissioned in July 2005 by His Excellency Alhaji Jammeh. It's less than five years old and already a banger!"

The journey across the river started slowly, but at the mid-point I was sure the captain had ordered full steam ahead because we must have hit at least two knots. Our guide told us that the crossing would take longer than normal due to the high currents. As we continued across the mouth of the River Gambia, with Banjul fading in the haze, vendors traipsed past selling all sorts of useless tat. Lamps, toy pistols, and torches came past, as did more useful items such as nuts, cold drinks and the intriguingly named pain balm.

At the other side, in a town called Barra, we boarded a different vehicle, this one an open-sided truck fitted with seats. At the front, our guide addressed us. “Very soon we will arrive at the Senegalese border so I will need your passports. They will be stamped by an official and then we can enter the country.” Twenty minutes later we arrived at the border and my excitement was turned up a notch. In all my travels I'd only ever done one land border crossing, but never in Africa. Our guide disappeared and the girls appeared.

“Cashew nuts!” they wailed en masse. There were about five or six teenage girls each with a tray of nuts balanced on their heads. “Only twenty-five Dalasi!”

They roamed the open sides of the truck looking upwards at all of us. At first no one seemed interested in buying and some even ignored the girls, but they were clearly hardened sellers and after some persistence (which sometimes involved putting bags of nuts in people's actual laps) the buying commenced. More girls arrived and soon money started changing hands.

“Hello lady,” said one of the girls, addressing a woman in front of us. “Can I have your lipstick?” The woman said she didn't have any so the girl asked for a pencil instead. "I need it for school!” Angela and I had already bought some pencils from a savvy vendor back in Barra. We got a few out and started giving them away. Immediately a posse of other children arrived, all clamoring for a piece of stationary. Luckily the guide arrived back with our passports and we moved on, passing a hut that served as border control. We were in Senegal!

Judging by Karang, the Senegalese border town we passed though, things looked much the same as in The Gambia. Children still waved with the highly infectious enthusiasm of their Gambian counterparts. The road was the same, the buildings identical and of course, the people were the same. In fact, the only discernible difference between Senegal and The Gambia was that the storefront signs were written in French and vehicle number plates were different. More subtle differences were to do with the local currency; it was no longer the Dalasi but the CFA Franc.

“Senegal was colonised by the French,” said our guide, “unlike the The Gambia which was colonised by the British. This accounts for difference in the official language. But of course the people have the same ancestry and speak the same local languages.”

We passed scenes of scrubland and the occasional village. Round huts with thatched roofs gave the view a distinctly African flavour. Whenever anyone under the age of ten caught sight of our truck they would holler and wave at the top of their tiny voices.

About six miles on from the border we came to our prime destination, Fathala Reserve, a large conservation area where animals had been reintroduced into the wild. As we set off on our mini-safari, there was a palpable sense of expectancy because antelopes, zebras, giraffes, and even rhinos were in the reserve somewhere.

“Eland!” said the guide five minutes later. The lorry came to a sudden standstill and the engine was switched off. He pointed to the left and everyone craned their necks to see the creatures in question. Four or five large antelope were grazing in the distance, half hidden in tall grass. Hindering our view further were our fellow passengers. The man opposite (on the favoured left-hand side of the lorry) was the worst offender. He hogged the whole window shooting off about a million photos without a care for anyone who couldn't see past him.

“Gazelle!” said the guide. The lorry stopped but the animals were on the left-hand side again. Mr Zoomlens quickly got into position and we didn't see hide nor hare of the animal in question.

When we set off again I turned to Angela. “When something is on our side of trhe truck, I'm going to block the whole window so that bugger can get a taste of his own medicine.”

“Vultures!” announced the guide. “On the left!” Bloody Hell! I fumed. What was it with the left-hand side's monopoly on all things safari? Why couldn't a rhino appear on the right-hand side just for once? Was that too much to ask for?

Ten minutes later my prayers were answered. The guide announced that there were a couple of rhinos coming up ahead, quite a rarity it seemed. I swiveled my neck and then felt crestfallen, the rhinos were on the bloody left again. Mr Zoomlens was furiously snapping away already, gleefully blocking every possible sight of the mighty mammal.

But just then, fortune smiled upon us because the track veered to the left, meaning the rhinos were now on our side! As the lorry came to a stop, I hogged my window and slowly framed my shot. Angela was looking out too and I could tell Mr Zoomlens was getting impatient. As I made a show of angling for another shot, Mr Zoomlens could wait no longer. From the corner of my eye I could see his protrusion edging over my shoulder. Snap! Snap! Snap! And more bloody snaps! The lens came even closer as he got even more shots in. Finally satisfied, he retreated back to his side of the coach, a massive grin etched upon his face.

As the safari continued, people grew restless. “I've had enough now,” said Angela, and I had to agree. For about an hour we'd been pummeled along dusty tracks and had seen hardly anything. Fair enough, the rhinos had been great, but after the tenth antelope, it was all getting a bit tedious. Suddenly the truck stopped and the guide jumped out. He mentioned something about giraffes and told us to follow him on foot. There was a stampede to get out first, headed by Mr Zoomlens, but we caught the rear and began trampling through the dense, bone dry undergrowth. After getting cut and scratched to death (some of which drew blood but not tears) Angela and I gave up and returned to the truck. As soon as I sat down, I saw three giraffes lolloping through the trees in the distance. They were being followed by what could only be described as a motley crew from a Benny Hill chase.

Thirty minutes later we were back at the park entrance, and it was there that I had my first interaction with a Senegalese man. He was standing outside a shop. According to the large sign outside it sold soft drinks for 1000 CFA Francs. I asked the man if he had any Fanta but he didn't seen to understand me. Then I remembered that Senegal was a French speaking country, and so I pointed at the Fanta sign. The man nodded and entered the shop and soon passed me an ice-cold bottle. He uttered something in French, which I presumed was the cost and so I handed him a 10000 note (about 14), the lowest one I had. The man shook his head. “Non! Trop grand!”

I didn't understand what he'd said and so took a stab at my best French. “C'est pas parles Francais!” (which Angela later translated for me as to mean: It does not speak French which I thought was pretty good considering the circumstances. The man shook his head in disgust but reluctantly took my 10000-Franc note. He then went through the rigmarole of finding some change, which involved a lengthy trawl through numerous drawers and even his pockets before he eventually opened the safe. Finally I received my 9000-Franc change, much to the disgust of the man in question. Satisfied with my transaction I sought out Angela and told her all about my skills at interaction.

With the time already late in the afternoon, everyone was loaded back onto the truck for the journey back to the border. The formalities were just as painless as before. Once through, our guide told us that we'd be making a quick detour to visit a local Gambian school. “Even though it is the holidays for children right now the school will open especially.”

We turned off the paved highway onto a sandy track bisecting a landscape of dry grass, occasional termite mounds and the odd mud and thatch hut. Once again, whenever children saw us they would rush out, shouting and waving.

The primary school clearly knew we were coming because about a hundred children were sat in a large circle, merrily singing and drumming away. A man stood in the middle, later identified as the Deputy Head. He ushered us all into a nearby classroom where we sat down at the old wooden desks, leaving the children outside. The classroom itself was a bare concrete shell with gaps to let some light through. There were no windows but there was a large blackboard at the front. A thin man wearing grey stood there and introduced himself. He was the Headteacher.

“Welcome to our school,” the scholarly gentleman said, “a school which has over two hundred children from nearby villages. Some children walk one kilometre each morning, but others walk two, three, and even four kilometres.”

Together with his Deputy, he outlined the school day for the children (start 8:30 - finish 2:00) and the subjects they taught. He said that the classroom we were all in catered for seven and eight year olds, a class of 58 children. He talked about the day to day battle with resources, or lack of, and explained that the Government only provided money for teachers, for chalk and for blackboards. His plea was for anything we could spare, and we all gave generously. We were then led outside to the children, all resplendent in their bright green uniforms. With the Deputy in charge again, the children all stood up to sing the Gambian national anthem and everyone clapped.

Now clearly the whole thing had been a PR stunt. In fact as we left the school, I saw a classroom for older children which had a sign saying it contained only 25 children, but it didn't detract from the fact the school was severely underfunded. We left with an email address that we could hopefully arrange a parcel of school stuff to get to the kids.

As we hit the main highway again, I said to Angela. “If I was that Headteacher, I'd wait for everyone to leave and then start whipping the kids. Get back to work! Clean my office! Get me some JulBrew! Do it now! And you, Mr Deputy, split the booty. We'll have ourselves some fun tonight! Foolish tourists!” We arrived back at the hotel, strangely uplifted by our day in Senegal.
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