The Gambia – a journey from Banjul to Jajanbureh

Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa (that is, excluding the islands), and is completely surrounded by Senegal except for it’s Atlantic coastline. In March, an opportunity came up to go to the Gambia for work, so I jumped at the possibility. It was idyllic to come home every day after work to sit by the ocean under the palm trees at Leybato hotel.

My husband took leave and came with to enjoy a bit of sun, and after my work was finished we did some sightseeing. We explored Fajara, Serekunda and the surrounds, and then we did a two-day tour from Banjul, the capital, to Jajanbureh, formerly known as Georgetown.

Meeting some monkeys at Bijilo Forest park

A two-man team (driver and guide) from the tour company picked us up early in the morning from our hotel, from where we would drive to the port at Banjul to make the ferry crossing to Barra. We were a small group that day; just us, a Swedish couple and the two young men from the tour company. The ferry crossing was part of the adventure itself.

When we arrived, we joined the queue of cars. People working at the port were constantly indicating where the cars should go, who should queue where, and so on. At one point we had to go backwards in the queue – not sure how they work out who goes where. As a result we didn’t catch the first ferry but the second one. “I hate it here” our guide muttered. For us it was ok, but it was only one day and all part of the adventure – he has to go there 2 or 3 times a week so all the waiting must get frustrating. Some people do the long crossing twice daily to go to school.

While the car and the driver stayed in the queue, the rest of us got out and stood outside on the dock. We spotted a UN vehicle in the queue, and an army truck with soldiers sitting on the back looking bored. There were several other tourists waiting around, as well as locals, and some vendors selling bags, hats and bracelets. There were some ladies at the dock selling pink and yellow madeira cakes and banana bread piled high. We bought some banana cake from them for breakfast. There was also a cafe where you could get a tea, coffee or some food. Coffee in the Gambia is usually Nescafe.

While we were waiting, one of the ferries arrived and a long stream of people walked off and past us out of the harbour, carrying all sorts of things, often expertly balanced on their heads: suitcases, baskets, tote bags, plastic tubs, balls of material and babies on their backs, all dressed in colourful dresses or robes. Once they all left the ferry, some of the cars were ushered onto the boat. I would have assumed the army van would go first, but it didn’t seem to have any kind of priority. My husband pointed out that it was actually a Senegalese army van, which might sound strange, but to cross from the south to north of Senegal you have to go through Gambia.

Once all of the cars and trucks were on the ferry, some kind of signal was given and then a new crowd of people appeared as if from nowhere to get on the ferry. Our car hadn’t been loaded, so we had to wait for the next ferry. The ferry staff looked vexed already and it could only have been 7:30am or 8, since we’d left the hotel at 6:15. Finally we got to drive onto the ferry, and then the guide said we could get out the car if we wanted and go upstairs. My husband and I went and stood upstairs to get better views of the dock and the ferry.

The crossing itself was surprisingly long – apparently it depends on the tide and current. I read it can take between 30 minutes and 3 hours. I’m not sure how long we were there but probably only about an hour, so maybe we were lucky. We stood and watched the water, but most people sat down since they probably knew how long it would take. The river Gambia is very wide, 5km at this ferry crossing, and 1120km long. The country itself is only 25 to 50km long and is located on the north and south banks of the river, from which it gets its name.

Eventually we arrived in Barra, a trading town. After we got back in the car, the guide told us a bit about Barra, although we didn’t stop there. Apparently there used to be British forts and cannons at the river mouth, which they used to prevent slave ships from passing after banning slavery. There was also a courthouse there. The ships sailing the Gambia river were stopped and searched and if a slave was found the slave traders would get the death penalty. The British banned slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. Prior to this, they had been among the worlds largest slave dealers, along with Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Ironically, at the same Europe’s own coasts had also been raided by Barbary pirates and sold to North Africa and the Ottoman empire.

In Barra, our guide stopped to buy some bread: tapalapa. It was like a baguette, but without much salt. We all ate it hungrily, since some time had passed since we’d got up in the morning.

From Barra, we drove along the north bank of the river Gambia. The guide told us that here people are self-sufficient, earning their living through fishing or farming. We passed by cashew trees, mango trees, rice, palms and baobabs. Further along the river, there is a region with sweet water, and there you can also see rice paddies. The guide said that the sweet water and salt water don’t mix, as there is a natural barrier, but that in the rainy season the water can mix. Because of this mixing of waters, oysters are not collected in the rainy season as there is more chance of getting poisoning from eating the oysters. People collect oysters from where they cling to the roots of mangrove trees at low tide. Apparently the big oysters are eaten and the little ones are preserved by drying. In the Gambia, oysters are eaten fried with onions, not raw. Crushed oyster shells can be added as a calcium supplement to cattle feed, and can also be used to make cement.

Oysters growing on the mangrove tree roots

All of us on the tour were interested to hear that cashew wine and palm wine are made by the locals. After harvesting cashew fruits, the locals make cashew wine and gather together to celebrate the harvest. The cashew nuts are the seed of the fruit and have to be roasted before eating. It had never even occurred to me that cashew nuts have a fruit. But the next day we would see it for ourselves. Along the road, we also saw many Capok trees (silk cotton trees) which have grey balls of cotton-like substance on them. The guide told us that this substance is not used to make clothes, but it can be used to stuff pillows. it also burns easily so it can be used as a fire starter.

A silk cotton tree

At midday we stopped for lunch at Farafenni. This town is apparently a popular stop on the way from Senegal, and market stalls and food stalls line the streets. A man with a horse and cart was waiting to meet us. We were reluctant to get on the cart at first and said we’d walk (I always feel sorry for horses pulling carts) but the man had been waiting for us and really wanted us to try it. At least the horse looked healthy, it didn’t seem to mind the cart, and it didn’t have to go fast. It was also only a very short ride around the corner to a street restaurant where we would have lunch. It was quite nice to watch the marketplace from above on the cart.

When we arrived at our street restaurant, the guide showed two of us the way to the bathroom. He specifically warned me: “It is a local bathroom.” At the door to the bathroom area you could take a can full of water to take with you. Inside were a number of stalls with rickety doors that didn’t close properly, inside which were squat toilets. It was fairly clean (I’ve seen much worse), so I braved it, holding the door shut with one hand. Unfortunately once inside I found that there were a lot of ants running alongside the toilet, so I tried to get in and out as fast as possible lest I get ants in my pants. Outside there were buckets of water with jugs for pouring so you could clean your hands.

In Farafenni

After the bathroom break, I walked back over to the street restaurant. We had to sit at a low table that had a huge tray of raw meat on the table cut into chunks, and to the left of us was another table strewn with various bits of meat. Next to us was a griddle where they cooked the meat. I do eat meat, but I have never been a big meat eater. I tried not to look at all the raw meat around us. Earlier I thought our guide had said in the car that we were having fried beef for lunch, but he must have said fried meat, because when someone in our group asked the man sitting opposite us at the table what kind of meat he had, he said “Goat meat”. I hoped maybe that was just the meat he happened to be having and that we would get another kind of meat or there would be vegetable option. But then the guide asked us cheerfully as they brought over the dishes of fried meat and onions “Have you eaten goat before?” “No,” I said. “Well, now you will,” he said. He said it was his favourite meat and the real Senegambia experience. In the background, live goats wandered around the market.

I decided to try to eat it because I didn’t want to be rude. It smelt quite nice cooking on the fire. They served it in a plate, fried with onions, and with a baguette, and they sprinkled some pepper and chili on it. The others dug in straight away while I started with some bread. Then I braved a piece of the goat. It was very chewy and full of fat and gristle, meaning you had to chew and chew and it still wouldn’t disappear. This always gets to me, even with other kinds of meat. Unfortunately I couldn’t stomach it, barely managing to keep the first piece down, so I gave up. It must be for meat-lovers only. Luckily the others ate all of theirs. I ate the onions and the bread and explained my full plate at the end of the mail by saying it had been too much for me. They promptly packed it for me in a takeaway box, in case I would like to eat it later. I offered it to the next person who came up to me asking for money, since it was a freshly cooked meal, barely touched, but he looked disgusted and left immediately. Perhaps people don’t like to eat leftovers here and he didn’t know it was barely touched. I put the box in the drinks cooler in the car so it would stay cold, figuring that if no-one else wanted it to eat it, I could always feed some of the skinny cats you see roaming around.

It smelt good, but was a bit too chewy for me

In Farafenni and along the way on our road trip, we saw a lot of donkeys, which I liked. They look like the donkeys you always see Jesus ride on palm Sunday (in the movies of course). It was also interesting to see women and girls balancing baskets of bananas and eggs on their heads (eggs is the next level I’d say!). I bought some bananas from some girls: 3 for 20 dalasi. I would have loved to have a photo of the way that the girls were balancing things on their heads, but I felt shy to ask them if I could. After stocking up on bananas, it was time to hit the road again.

In the heat of the day, we arrived at the Wassu stone circles. Stone circle burial sites like these are found both in Gambia and Senegal, with over 1000 monuments in a 100km-wide strip along the river Gambia. Together they are known as the Senegambian stone circles, and are a UNESCO World heritage site. The stone circles date from between 300 BC and 1600 AD.

Many Gambians told us there is a story that if you pick up one of the fallen stones and place it back on top of the pillars, you can make a wish and it will come true. Next to the stone circle site there is also a small but interesting museum where you can read about the sites themselves and the people of the region.

After our visit, we hopped back in the car and continued our tour. Further upriver, we came to the River Gambia national park. We stopped at a village from where we would take a boat on the river. All the village kids came running over to greet us and accompanied us to the boat.

The ranger driving the boat explained to us that chimpanzees had been endemic to the Gambia, but that as they had all been hunted, some conservationists had decided to reintroduce them to an island in the middle of the river. This way they were free to roam around on the island and did not come into conflict with any humans. As it is a sanctuary, the chimpanzees are fed daily. Before catching a glimpse of the chimps, we came across some hippos. They mostly hide in the water, but you can see their eyes and noses peering out.

Spot the hippo

We could hear the chimps moving through the trees before we could see them. As they swing from tree to tree, you see a wave of greenery like a ripple in the trees. Our boat stopped and we peered into the jungle. Just as curious as us, the chimps gradually emerged to look back at us. There was a young chimp and an older one. Later in another spot, we saw another chimp looking out from a tree. It was amazing to see them living freely instead of in a zoo.

Spot the chimp

Apart from the chimpanzees and hippos, there are also monkeys and many different kinds of birds in the reserve. The Gambia is a birdwatcher’s paradise. We saw herons, kingfishers, and many others whose names I don’t know. On the boat, we also came into contact with the infamous tsetse flies. We learnt about these and how they can carry sleeping sickness at school. But apparently there is not much sleeping sickness in the Gambia. Nevertheless their bite hurts apparently (much like a horsefly), so we swatted them away when they came near.

The river tour finished; it was time to head to our lodge for the evening. It was just a short drive to Jajanbureh lodge, which is on the riverbank. We stayed in rondavels (traditional round African houses) which had solar power showers and candles for light. At the camp there were monkeys, which as usual tried to grab some food off the tables if they got a chance. They are always fun to watch. Shortly after we arrived, a boat pulled up and another group of tourists got off. They seemed to be a mix of Swedish and Dutch people, all middle-aged.

We ate dinner all together in a boma, and afterwards there was a short dancing show by some locals, with live drum music. At the end we all danced together.

After that everyone headed back to their rondavels, and it was very atmospheric brushing teeth and getting ready for bed by candlelight. It reminded me of home (Cape Town), because sometimes in winter after a storm, the power would go down and we’d use candles. In the rondavel, like in our main accommodation in Fajara, we slept under a mosquito net.

I slept well, because it was so dark without city lights. I awakened early to the sounds of monkeys quarreling (apparently monkeys are early risers and not morning people). A chorus of different birds singing accompanied them. After enjoying lying in bed for a while, we got up and got ready for the day. Breakfast was in the boma, and a monkey ran off with some bread from the main table.

After breakfast it was time to head to McCarthy island, also known as Jajanbureh island. To get there we had to get on a ferry, and it was quite a squeeze – I just managed to get through the gates. When we arrived on the island, our guide took us for a walk. He had told us about the slave trade in the region the previous day, but as today we would see one of the main centres for it, he repeated his narrative about the terrible history of the Transatlantic slave trade.

It is thought that around 3 million slaves were taken from the Gambia between the 1400’s and 1800’s. In Senegambia, war was the main source of slaves. Most people were sold to Europeans by other African tribes after being captured in wars, while others were captured and kidnapped in raids by slave traders on villages. Since selling slaves was lucrative, some people instigated wars for this purpose. Other people were enslaved after accumulating debts that they could not pay off. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could enslave another and justify it to him or herself. But sadly this has happened throughout history. Although people say “Never again”, slavery still occurs today in different forms, according to the UN, such as human trafficking, debt bondage or forced marriages.

Ruins of a building where slaves were kept

On McCarthy island there are some important historical sites: the freedom tree, the wooden house built by a family of freed slaves returning to the Gambia, and the ruins of one of the buildings where people who were enslaved were kept temporarily. Most of the enslaved were sent onwards to major slave trading posts, e.g. the isle of Goree off the coast of Dakar, before heading to their final destination, usually the Americas.

The ruins of a wooden house built by freedmen returning from the US

Our guide told us about a mini-series called “Roots”, based on a novel by Alex Haley, who had traced his ancestors back to the Gambia. The book tells the story of a man named Kunte Kinte, who was captured in Gambia and enslaved, and sent via the isle of Goree in Senegal to America. Our guide said that this book put the Gambia on the map, and now many African Americans and African Europeans come to visit the Gambia and the freedom tree.

The freedom tree. The original tree is no longer there, but one was planted in its previous spot.

After a walk around McCarthy island, it was time to start the drive back to Banjul. This time we would drive along the south bank of the river Gambia. It was a long drive, but it was interesting to watch the scenery out of the window. We passed through many villages and towns. One of the villages was buzzing with a big market. Our guide said it was lumo, market day, when things are sold for cheaper. Almost everything you could think of was for sale at the market, including rolls of colourful cloth and hand-carved wooden furniture. We also saw plastic bottles for sale, maybe because people re-use them as containers for holding other things, like peanuts. We often saw plastic bottles full of peanuts for sale. In the village, our guide also pointed out a man dressed up in the traditional outfit for the protector of boys during the circumcision rituals.

It was so hot and dry during the day that at first I thought agriculture was probably impossible or very difficult, apart from next to the river. However, our guide told us that everything grows in the Gambia, and there is a saying that you only have to stick your finger into the soil and it grows. On our drive, we did see a lot of things growing: bananas, coconuts, baobab trees, rice (near the river), cashew nut trees, mangoes and vegetables, and the markets were always full of fresh produce. Apparently peanuts are the main export, and cashews are the latest way to earn good money. I would like to see the Gambia again in the rainy season, when everything is green, and see what else is growing. The risk for malaria is obviously higher in the rainy season though.

The car was very hot by the afternoon, but the tour company was well-stocked with water and cooldrinks. It also helped that we stopped a few times and went for a short walk. The smell of the fine, red dust instantly took me back to Namibia (it’s funny how smells trigger memories so easily). On one stop we went to take a closer look at a baobab tree.

There were fruit pods lying on the ground, which was interesting to see since we’d seen baobab being sold at all the markets and had tried the juice already. Apparently all parts of the baobab tree are useful. Baobab oil, made from crushing the seeds, is prized for the skin, and is exported to European countries for use in cosmetics. The fruit is good against stomach problems, the leaves can be boiled and eaten like a vegetable, and animals like to eat the bark because it contains a lot of water. The bark is also used to make baskets and ropes. Unlike many trees, when baobabs are stripped of their bark, they form new bark. Due to its many uses, the baobab is known as the tree of life.

Along the road we passed many, many police checkpoints and sometimes army checkpoints. There are police stops at virtually every entrance and exit to each town and village. They know the tour bus and usually just wave us on, but it must be a mission to drive across Gambia yourself with all the police stops. I read online in a blog that when you are foreigners the police often stop you and sometimes ask for things. In that story, the driver was Dutch and kept giving out salted licorice!  Our tour bus/car did get stopped at one point leaving Soma, a town on the south bank at the crossroads of the trans-Gambia highway. The policewoman asked to see the driver’s license and the car papers. After some searching, our tour guides realized that at the ferry crossing the officials had forgotten to give the car papers back to the driver when he was buying the tickets (you have to show the papers to get a ticket). At any rate, they managed to sort out the issue of the missing papers by calling the vehicle owner, and arranging to show the papers once they had got them back. Then we were back on the way – from Soma it is 2 hours to Banjul.

We made another stop to look at a parasite tree called strangler fig (Ficus sp). When it is young it grows on another tree. That tree eventually dies, and the parasite tree survives. Since being aware of parasite trees, I have also noticed them in Europe, although the ones I have seen here may be different species. the guide also showed us a camel foot tree, so-called because the leaf resembles a camel footprint.

The palm tree is the victim here
A leaf from a camel foot tree

Our final stop of the day was a nice surprise from our guide. He asked
the driver to stop at a home that had a cashew tree outside. In the yard in front of the house was an elderly man and some kids running around playing. The kids were excited that a car full of taobabs (foreigners) had stopped, and they all waved and smiled at us, and ran to the tree to help their grandad collect the fruits. Our guide asked to buy few cashew fruits so that we could try them. The cashew fruits were red (they can be red or yellow) and the cashew nut itself was in a shell attached to the fruit. When we got the fruits the driver said we should just eat the fruit and leave the nuts, as they are expensive and the family can still make money out of it. So we did this. The fruit tasted very interesting, you could taste the particular cashew flavour, and it was also sweet and juicy. I’d love to also try the cashew wine!

Nearer to Banjul, we passed through towns or suburbs where there were lots of colourful flags flying outside houses. Our guide explained that
each party has a colour in Gambia, and to show support for a particular party, people put up flags in that colour. The colour of the ex-president’s party is green, and in some towns you still see many green flags. The ex president, Yahya Jammeh, ruled Gambia for over two decades and was a dictator president. Now he is in exile in Equatorial Guinea. Apparently he looted 1 billion dollars of government funds before he left. Yet by the flying green flags it is evident that some people still support him.

People we asked about him have different opinions, which now they are allowed to voice. For or against him, everyone acknowledged that when he was in power, if you said the wrong thing you could disappear. A taxi driver told me that now things are much better because they have freedom of speech and democracy. Before, you had to be afraid to voice your opinions, you had to be very careful, because you could get killed if the president thought you were against him.

Back to Banjul

Eventually we made it back to Banjul, and the tour guides dropped us off at our hotel. It was afternoon and still bright and sunny enough for the beach. Apparently the beach is where people in Banjul head to in the weekends for some relaxation. But our guides would be working again the next day. They said during the tourist season they work 7 days a week, because they need to save up for once the tourist season is over. Hopefully at some point tourism will become less seasonal – I can imagine visiting Gambia at any time of the year would be worth it. We would definitely recommend their company – everything was very well organized and all of the staff were great. In case you are interested, you can find their details below.

Apart from this tour we had a lot of other great experiences in the Gambia. For more about that, keep a look out for the next Gambia post!

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