The great Gambian commute

May 4, 2011

For such a small country, we ended up doing quite a bit of travelling on a recent trip to the Gambia.  One particular journey which sticks in my mind is a ferry that we took to cross from Banjul to Barra. For anyone whose Gambian geography is not up to scratch, this is the stretch of water at the mouth of the River Gambia, from the capital Banjul in the south to the town of Barra on the north bank. As we waited for the timetable-less ferry which was to take us across to the north bank, from where we would travel on to Senegal, it dawned on me that this was likely to be an eventful crossing. Whilst waiting for the ferry to arrive, I looked around at my fellow passengers: a man with a small herd of goats, a bus-load of singing prison wardens, a taxi driver with his car stacked high with plastic chairs and huge numbers of people carrying an unusual collection of belongings, all dressed in brightly-coloured garments.


Before the incoming passengers could scramble off the ferry, there was a huge surge of movement as everyone around me started charging onto the boat. Once aboard, I was squeezed into a little gap, from where – if I stood on my tiptoes – I had a good view of the lower deck. We hung around for a while. People started whispering and speculating as to what was happening and why we were still waiting… “The Chief of Defence Staff is on his way”, we were told. As we waited in the early morning sun, passengers started to make the most of this time: a couple of young boys holding a tin of shoe polish and a brush started to polish some of the passengers’ shoes and, across the deck, a lady made her way through the crowds selling bags of cashew nuts – all meticulously balanced on her head. Then the defence chief arrived.

Now that he was here, we could all set off after our two-hour wait. As we headed across the water the sky was a misty brown colour (full of sand from the Sahara, we were told) and we could see other little boats – the alternative to our ferry – which made our vessel look quite luxurious.

It wasn’t long before we reached the other side – Barra. Again, the first rope across seemed to be a signal for the crowds to start to move. I stood and watched as they charged off.

Our turn to disembark came and, as we walked away from the ferry ‘terminal’, we passed a long queue of cars and trucks which stretched along the road for about half a mile. “Some will be waiting for days” our guide said, as reached the end of the queue.

Although it was not a long crossing, the ferry journey gave me a fascinating insight into the hustle and bustle of everyday Gambian life. The colours, smells and sounds from the journey will be difficult to forget. Fascinating as it was, I did get off the ferry feeling pretty glad that this was not my daily commute – it makes London’s District Line appear to run like clockwork… However, I will miss the colourful costumes and unusual luggage of the Gambian commuters. Helena Hamlyn.