“We reached Bambali one day before the introduction of electricity. The village is 20km from the national road, by a bend in the Gambia river not far from Elephant Island. The guidebook merely said that there were no tourist facilities in the village, but that if we wanted to see a hippo or warthog, we should seek out the head of the village, who could arrange accommodation and a guide into the mountains. This sounded both entertaining and authentic to us, so we decided to take a look.
The bumpy road to the dead-end village was good in a way – for the first time we were able to try out a truly bad road, which would have been impossible to drive down in a normal car. Fifty minutes, four-wheel-drive, two gears. You could almost watch the fuel gauge indicator falling. There are no car roads in Bambali, of course, so we couldn’t simply drive into the center and ask to see the village head. Instead we called out to the first person we saw at the edge of the village. Musa didn’t speak English, but he willingly invited us to follow him, and we parked close to his house. Here we explained to Ibrahim, who had arrived in the meantime and did speak English, why we’d come to the village. He was the village mechanic. There was no more talk of the village head – guests belong to the person who found them. Everyone was pleased we’d come, and only seemed sad when we explained that we could only stay a night, since it meant there would not be enough time to arrange a traditional dance performance for us.
Our host soon suggested that we should set off. The tire tracks soon disappeared, but without giving the matter too much thought I pressed on through the vegetation. After a few hundred meters we came to the reeds by the riverside. We didn’t see any hippos or warthogs, however – just a lot of mud-crabs in the abandoned rice fields. We also noticed that the vegetation had done a pretty good number on our car’s enameling, and while it wouldn’t detract from the value of the vehicle, it could be a very good excuse for the rental agency to keep our deposit.
On our way back our guides insisted that we take a look at the mobile phone base station, which one of them guards for $75 a month. They eagerly dug some cassava roots out of the station garden to give to us. One of Musa’s wives cooked dinner for us, and our wait proved eventful: First, Musa had a phone call with another of his wives, who lives in the other half of the country, and passed her over to us: we swapped polite formulas for three minutes or so. Then there was a loud cheer as a large group of children arrive; it turned out that they were the team that had won the village football tournament. After I’d shaken hands with 40 celebrating kids, I was even allowed to lift the cup myself! Finally, I learned the rules of the toilet hole – there was no door, but if I lit the lamp, nobody would bother me.
Dinner was modest but delicious: together with Musa and his wife, we ate rice and peanut butter from a shared washbowl, but with separate spoons.
As we ate, we listened as the village crier shouted the latest news (two cellphones were stolen from the common charging station. If the culprit returns them to the village head by the next day there will be no punishment). The second course was roast cassava, which we ate with our hands. Ibrahim told us that the electricity would be connected the next day, and that if we returned in the future, we would think we were in an entirely different village. He also suggested that we should go by canoe to see the hippos the next day, but the price seemed very high at first. In the evening, a visiting DJ threw a huge party on the edge of the village, but we were simply too tired to watch what must have been an interesting event.
We set off at eight the next morning. Before that, however, we negotiated the price, paying roughly half the average local monthly salary for accommodation, food and a rower. While everyone was unquestionably very friendly, we also had the feeling that they were trying to make up financially for all the tourists who haven’t visited the village over the years. Ibrahim then cheerfully reported that a local hunter had shot a warthog during the night, and while we had no interest in seeing a dead warthog, the road still led to it. Half the village accompanied us to see the corpse, very proud to have something to show us.
Later, we had to summon our courage: his vessel was a half-foundered fishing boat, and while ‘benches’ had been carved for our benefit, they did cause the craft to lean alarmingly to one side, and there seemed to be a leak. What was more, even after two hours on the muddy river, we hadn’t seen a single hippo, nor even the traces of a hippo, despite our silent vigilance, and while our guides kept promising them around the next bend, we did have to get going.
Ibrahim was both disappointed (because he had failed to produce a hippo) and relieved, because it was quite clear he wasn’t an experienced oarsman. When we were leaving, Musa even tried to increase the price a little, but I wasn’t having it. You could see that, even so, he knew he’d made a good deal.
We left the village, and I started worrying again: how much were we going to be charged for the scratches to the paintwork, and would our rather seasick-looking hitchhiker throw up over the back seat? Did we have enough gas to reach the next filling station? Most pressing of all, though – would a year in Africa be enough to teach me to enjoy the present, instead of worrying about the future? (2016)
Banjul, the tiny capital of Africa’s smallest independent state, is actually not too bad. We took a long walk through the quiet streets, and every now and then we’d stumble upon some quite impressive piece of British colonial architecture. What really made Gambia memorable for us, though, was our encounter with nature after so many urban experiences. Near the capital are two excellent nature reserves, Abuka and Bijilo. After the dry savanna of Senegal we found ourselves surrounded here by lush, subtropical vegetation, and as we walked along the well-made paths we saw crocodiles, monkeys, baboons, hyenas, and an unbelievable number of birds. There were even a few gigantic spiders, which I was less pleased to see.
Our other encounter with the local wildlife was altogether stranger. We were walking in the gardens of Kachikally, where there is a circular pool which is home to around 70 crocodiles. The locals consider this a holy place, and the water apparently makes women fertile. The crocodiles are of course free to wander the entire park, but fortunately they appeared relatively calm and fell fed – disinclined, in other words, to bite us in half. (2016)