Thursday, 13 January 2011

Africa, land of dreams where even nightmares can be fun

Isn’t it great when things happen just as you’d expect them to? Even if the events themselves are far from pleasurable.

At the back end of the sixties, my parents were living in what had once been the Congo, was the Zaïre then, and today has reverted to being the Congo again (the one wittily referred to as the ‘Democratic Republic’). They took my brother and me for a Christmas holiday in the bush, and as we drove at nightfall into a market town which, it turned out, the President of the Republic was visiting the next day, we were arrested by trigger-happy, drunken soldiers. Or perhaps it was the police. The town had been taken over by detachments from both forces, they were much the worse for drink, they were armed and loathed each other, so they were generating the kind of atmosphere that would make a meeting of Sarah Palin supporters look tame.

The rifles across the bonnet of our Land Rover might have been the start of something classically African with an ugly ending involving bodies in a ditch, although generally that’s the kind of thing that happens to locals rather than to European visitors. In any case, things weren’t quite as nasty in the Congo then as now, and in the end it only took the half bottle of whisky that reduced our sentry to maudlin complaints about the difficulties that beset his life and a few dollars that made them easier to contemplate, to persuade him to turn his back and let us drive away.

Now fast forward over four decades and our recent trip to the Gambia. We decided to visit a game reserve in Senegal, partly to see some impressive animals – and there were a few – partly to tick another box: ‘Senegal – been there’. Unfortunately, although those of us who had British passports had no trouble, three of us were travelling on French papers and for some reason the Gambians have it in for the French. Odd, isn’t it? I mean, the Brits were the colonial power. Why the special aversion towards the colonialists of the country next door?

Anyway, the French passport holders had had to get themselves visas, at the last moment, before we even set out for the Gambia. And at the border, we ran into difficulties again.

‘I’m afraid your visas are for a single visit,’ said the grey-clad corporal behind the desk, ‘if I stamp your passports now to authorise your exit from the Gambia, you’ll have to buy new visas on the way back. At 350 Dalassis.’ Mental calculators went to work, contents of wallets were brought to mind. Yes, three times 350 – we could do that. We’d come this far, we’d go ahead.

The cynical among us thought ‘yep, this is Africa. You can fix anything with a few banknotes.’ For a moment I felt a burst of superiority because we don’t have that kind of corruption in Western Europe, but then it occurred to me that at least African corruption is democratic: we can all practice it, whereas in Britain you can buy the whole government, but only if you own a bank or a major company.

We visited the game park, we returned to the border. Our little corporal in grey had been replaced by a large sergeant in khaki.

‘Ah, yes, my colleague talked about you. He made a mistake. A big mistake. As of January the first, the price for the visa has gone up.’ Why wasn’t I surprised? ‘It’s now a thousand Dalassis.’

Now that wasn’t so funny, even though it’s actually only £25. The problem was that we didn’t have the cash with us. Besides, I don’t mind being bent, but I dislike being chiselled. We all burst into protest.

‘But if we’d known we wouldn’t have gone...’

‘We don’t have the money...’

‘It was your colleague who told us...’

The colleague reappeared. ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he said, ‘it was my mistake. Just wait here. I’ll go and see my manager.’

He reappeared a few minutes later. He sat and the desk and changed an entry in a hand-written ledger.

‘It was our fault. This time you will pay nothing.’

‘We want you to come back,’ explained the sergeant, ‘so even though it was you Westerners who invented visas and charges, we will waive the payment on this occasion. But next time be more careful.’

‘Next time,’ I said, ‘we’ll come to the Gambia and stay in the Gambia.’ The sergeant liked this idea, and suddenly everyone was laughing and smiling.

‘I want to give you a kiss,’ said Danielle to the corporal.

There was a horrified silence followed by pandemonium. The corporal was trying to back his chair through the wall, giggling hysterically as he tried to keep away from Danielle who had come round to his side of the desk. The sergeant was guffawing; then he issued an urgent instruction:

‘No, no, wait,’ and turning to another policeman, he said, ‘don’t let him go,’ pointing to the corporal.

He positively ran out of the room, showing a surprising turn of speed, as big men sometimes do. He returned with another corporal only slightly smaller than him, and in the same dun-coloured uniform.

‘Now kiss him,’ he announced. The chaos started again, with the sergeant and his corporal applauding loudly. Danielle got behind her target and planted a kiss on the top of his head.

Kissing the corporal: an unusual brush with African bureaucracy
And so our gloriously African brush with authority ended without our having to pay anything, after all, and with laughter all round. Because this was the Gambia, and not Rwanda or Eastern Congo, and Gambians, as they never tire of telling you, think that it’s ‘nice to be nice.’


The Gambia is basically just a strip of land round a river. We had taken the ferry across on the outward journey; on the return, that would have meant a long wait. So we took one of the open, wooden boats that many Gambians use instead.

They often talk about ‘dancing boats’, meaning that they tip alarmingly to one side or the other at the slightest provocation, but ‘never capsize’, or so they claim. We noticed that a great many Gambians were determined to wait for the next ferry, even for an hour or more, rather than entrust their lives to those boats. Since we've returned, Danielle's turned up any number of blogs warning people never, at any cost, to take these boats.

A dancing boat seen from the ferry
It’s true that on the other side, our boat hit the pier and got caught on a sandbank – we had to help get it off by tipping it from one side to the other, and were nearly precipitated into the water for our pains. But hey, the weather was lovely, the water was calm, and the boat did at least provide life jackets. Not enough to go round, and the flotation material had mostly rotted away, and you couldn’t close them anyway, but it was a nice gesture.

And in any case we made it. And enjoyed chatting to the people round us. And having another fine African experience.


Danielle said...

I want to go back there NOW!

Lia said...

Wonderful! Your laughter is truly infectious. But with regards the boats... whilst the weather was warm and the water was calm didn't I see some pictures of some alarmingly large crocodiles in that river?!!?!!!

Rich said...

That's The Gambia for you...
Brilliant place to Visit, or Live in.
Cheap and Cheerful, especially Away from Tourist Areas..

Anonymous said...

Your idea of democratic corruption is worth enlarging upon- possibly in a fresh blog.


Nicholas said...

Gosh, I was expecting more of you putting me to shame from that title.

I don't think we needed anything to get into Senegal (except a stamp, but you'll find you have one of those too). I believe Nicola has just sent you an image which is a little more than a small collection of pixels. Enjoy!

Nicholas said...

One student has provided me with the following helpful contribution for the geographically impaired:

Gambia: el dedo por el culo de Senegal.

David Beeson said...

Lia, don't worry about the crocs - they were on the beach by our hotel - the river was (probably) much safer.

Rich, splitting your time between Bristol and the Gambia makes it clear you've got something profoundly right.

Nicky, the problem wasn't getting into Senegal - it was, as the Gambian authorities pointed out, getting back after they'd stamped the passports to let us out and thereby ending the validity of the visas.

San, yes democractic corruption is probably an idea worth developing...