Gambia is the smallest country in Africa. In essence it is fifteen miles on either side of the Gambia River. Our visit here only served to confirm my impression that if you had to be a colony, the British were the best mother country to have. Things were definitely an improvement over Senegal, which belonged to the French. An organized infrastructure had been left behind and many people had the opportunity to have at least a primary school education.
To see the sights we climbed into four wheel drive trucks that the British had left here vintage 1970's. We passed stores that actually had windows and walls. Although a number of the residents appeared to be in the relaxation mode, there was a more industrious feel to the movement of the people than in Dakar. The drive started in Banjul which is the capital, but small in population because it is confined by its island location. The road was a paved four lane boulevard. Once we came to our first suburb, the road went down to two lanes, but the shoulders were wide and full of merchants and shoppers. The store which proudly resold used American clothing, probably the same stuff you donate to Goodwill, caught my eye.
Then we turned off onto a sand road and it quickly became apparent why we needed four wheel drive. It was so narrow that we were whip lashed by the vegetation; a cashew tree branch ended up in my lap. Then the sand road turned into sand ruts and we found ourselves at a school. It was neat and clean with white washed buildings, but the school had no electricity or books. I did not see any notebooks or pencils. A teacher spoke with us and explained the educational system. Class size is usually about 45 and even at the secondary level, one teacher is the sole fountain of wisdom for the students. The government has made an effort to build enough primary schools so that no one has to walk more than two miles. Those kids who do well on their exams are allowed to attend middle school and the government has recently started giving scholarships to girls to promote female education. Another exam qualifies you for high school which appeared to have a modified British system with A and O levels. The kids in the school appeared thrilled to have us there and sang us songs. Our presence caused a general chaos in the classrooms, but the school profited from cash donations we made.
The potty stop took place in the bush. Ladies on one side of the trucks, men on the other; put all your cameras away. I thought about snakes.
Next we stopped at a family compound, the rural kind of living that used to be typical of the entire country. An extended family group of about twenty lived together in about six rooms, and an outhouse in the back. It looked like most of the living took place outside on the porch since the climate is so mild. The rooms were neat and clean and everything smelled fresh. The village compound had no electricity, but it did have a well. Most marriages are arranged b the parents and divorces are rare. When a couple has marital problems, their parents get together to work things out. If a husband dies, it is common for the wife to be married by and cared for by one of his brothers. Our guide pointed out that the women do all the physical labor like hauling water, while the men do all the thinking.
Since most Gambians are Muslim, they do not drink alcohol, but leave it to the Christians to take care of this need. We stopped at a plantation where palm tree sap is milked and made into jungle juice (wine) and fire water (grain alcohol.) The wine is drunk within days of its fermentation. If left longer, the fermentation would continue and the bottle would explode. The wine had an interesting flavor as long as you did not smell it.
Lunch was served on the beach, a wide, smooth, clean sand. The water was almost 98.6 and it was fun to bob in the gentle waves. Those who did not swim, found shells to collect.
Our last stop was the Williamsburg of Gambia - a collection of artisans and buildings meant to illustrate rural Gambian life. A weaver produced table runners from a loom he had set up outside with warp strings about thirty feet long. The xylophone band asked our names and performed an impromptu song containing those syllables. Who knows what the other words were.
As we worked our way back to the port, the roads improved again and we could see crowds of school children. Our guide said that they were waiting for the presidential motorcade to go by.
The port area is full of containers waiting to be hauled away and the passage grew narrow, so we came to a stop. Our eyes grew wide as saucers as we watched a truck loaded with cement barrel toward us. Surely he would see us in time to stop. He did not. At the last minute he veered toward the containers and only glanced our truck. After much shouting and waving of hands, our guide decided to take us back to the ship and sort things out later.
At 6pm as our ship was scheduled to leave, the cruise director started frantically paging about eight passengers who appeared not to be back on board. My imagination roiled with thoughts of what it would be like to be stranded without a passport in Gambia. As the gang plank went up, an open air vehicle careened into the port. We could see white people frantically waving their arms and tooting the horn. They told us that there had been a coup in Mauritania, the country immediately north of Senegal, and the deposed president was taken in by the president here, hence the students waiting for the motorcade to go by. They had come to a complete stop until the important personages had gone by. Whew!