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One man (and his cousin) in three boats

July 4, 2009

To cite the Barra ferry, which connects Banjul to the north bank of the Gambia river, as an example of organised chaos would imply some sort of organisation. Having given my cousin a very pessimistic briefing as to how much of a pain in the arse the experience was going to be, I was very disapointed when, for my fourth and hopefully final crossing, we bought our tickets and were rapidly shooed onto the boat, and departed five minutes later. Previously I had been faced with waits of up to 2 hours, with no clues about impending departure other than a sudden stampede towards the gates, followed by a fight for what little space was left on board once I had worked out what was happening. The waiting time for foot passengers is nothing compared to that faced by those with vehicles. I met two Welsh chaps who had brought a Landrover all the way from Swansea, and despite paying their way into the fast queue, had a wait of 18 hours. The queue of trucks often tails back a couple of kilometres. Safety on board doesn't seem to be much of an issue. On one ocacasion a truck squeezed on at the last minute, driving through the back of someone's car into the last bit of space that remainied. On another I sat on the middle deck alongside the top of a very wobbly lorry full of very wobbly drums of petrol. One of the two, sometimes three, boats in the fleet of five seems to function better if it follows a loosely spirally course across the river.
The ferry that connects Dakar to Ziguininchor, the capital of the Casamance region of Senegal, is an entirely different proposition. It is, by the way, the best way of getting between the north and south of the country as they are separated by the Gambia. Way back when, someone in a red coat with shiny brass buttons thought it would be a wizard wheeze to demarcate the boundaries of the latter by sailing up the river intermittently firing off cannonballs, then doing a big dot-to-dot between the points where they fell, and thus carving a big lump out of what became Senegal. I digress. It is a big swanky modern boat, but there is a sad background behind its existence, for in 2002, over 2000 people died when its predecessor went under due to dangerous overloading. The upside is that there now exists in West africa at least one clean, safe and efficient means of transport. Passenger numbers and the cargo weight are strictly limited, and there is even a timetable. Safety is taken so seriously that there are regular patrols that kick awake any shabby cheapskates that decide that the seat they have bought is not a good place to sleep, and so try lying in the aisles instead, something that is left to pass on Brittany Ferries. You are, however, still allowed a few cheeky ones at the bar, and in said location allowed to dance (or stagger arythmically from side to side in time with the waves).
The dancing in West Africa is a sight to behold. In situations where there is a threat that I may have to become involved, I find myself hiding in the corner with a perhaps paranoid, but not entirely unfounded, suspicion that I have been hewn from a particularly inflexible piece of wood, then had my legs broken off and reattached the wrong way round and at slightly different and somewhat jaunty angles. Since first drafting of this I have experienced being the only white person in the disco, which comes with its own special imaginary spotlight. The rather better Senegalese dancing skills come to the fore in the presence of a style of lusic called Mbalax, which drifts along just about managably until two thirds of the way through the song, when the drums go a bit radio rental, as do the movements of the more adept gents, who execute high kicks, spins and jumps, all perfectly in time to what sounds to the untrained ear like an unpredictable rhythm.
The Ladies' dancing is also a sight to behold, quite often involving the type of goings on that, were one not aware of such things, might cause one's monocle to pop out unexpectedly. I was recently taken along to a Soiree Senegalese, where part of the evening was taken up wirth what was billed as a dance contest, but which to the unitnitiated looked more like a competition to see who could wiggle their bum the best. The first of the pre-selected aversaries did a fairly good job of combining her posterior acrobatics with what could plausibly be referred to as dancing, but the rest of the field all preferred to assume a more horizontal position in the middle of the floor, much to the amusement of all concerned, particularly the band leader. For their troubles, the two runners up went home with 5 litres of cooking oil, whilst the victrix received a sack of rice.
The dress code, particularly in Dakar, is no trivial matter. It is not uncommon to see suits and ties, and high heels are de riguer for the ladies. Shabby t-shrts and flip-flops are certainly not the done thing. My cousin and I were turned away from one of Dakar's more with it establishments (more, I suspect, as a result of my meticulously thrown together ensemble than hers), much to the embarrassment of the finely preened Dakaroises who had invited us along.
From what I have witnessed, the clubbing scene in The Gambia appears to be taken a little less seriously. There are certain establishments for which the term meat market is less apt a description than the image of a combine harvester slowly advancing thorugh a field of (perhaps not so) innocent lambs.
Back to Dakar, where we had decided to spend Friday evening at a venue that plays host to many of the stars of the Senegalese music scene. That afternoon we were at the French Cultural Institute, and saw the sound check for a band that sounded pretty good, and reasoned that we could defer our original plan until the following evening. The first song of the set on the Saturday night sounded a little familiar, and we very soon realised that our plan to see a nice variety of different bands had been scuppered. To rub salt into the wound, it turned out that on the Friday night we would have got to see Titi (fnarr fnarr), the current darling of the Senegalese pop scene. At least it was better than the band at the bar opposite the hotel, who as we passed were launching into a casio-driven version of "Wind of Change". I shall end this discussion of Senegalese music with a question: does Youssou N'Dour refer to his wife as Her N'Dours?
The last week of my cousin's visit found us stuck on the Ile de Karabane at the mouth of the Casamance River. This was in part due to inertia, for it is the type of place that induces such, but also due to the keen insistence of a lunatic French fisherman and his equally lunatic, but differently so, Senegalese skipper, who kept forcing us to accompany them on their forays into the mangroves in search of fish (my arm still aches from all the twisting). The fishing was entertaining (although we where sensibly only allowed to do the reeling in as attempts at casting would no doubt have involved catching lots of trees), although the general silliness was more so.
We were left facing a mad dash back up to The Gambia, which took over seven hours to cover 100km, and involved a boat ride, a minibus, an unexpected change to another minibus, a bush taxi to the border that the suspension dropped out of, its replacement, another bush taxi from the border, some general chaos at the bus station, another minibus, a final minibus, and then a fifteen minute walk in the dark to a place that turned out to be a bit crap. Somewhere in the middle of all this the monkeyometer registered another hit, this time the Patas Monkey, which although widespread in its range has proved rather elusive. Also in the middle of all this I had a nasty case of imaginary malaria, which was probably due to having stayed out in the sun too long. A week or so later I had a second attack, although that did turn out to be a bit iof a chest infection, which counts as a proper illness, and provided an admirable excuse (the less admirable alternatives being laziness and cowardice) to put off the continuing south into the fruitier corner of West Africa, which is where I now am.
More of that anon.

Posted by jamesb at July 4, 2009 11:34 AM