The Road of the Toubab

The road darkened by night, barely lit by a sparse moon and few precious twinkling stars, winds its way quietly through the city, where most are still enveloped in sleep, and leads to the port of Banjul. There the hustle and bustle of life and work amalgamated some hours ago. Pushing, shoving, arguing, bargaining, persuading and finally official words of priority grant access to the inner sanctuary of the ferry terminal.

the road at Barra emerges on the northern bank of the river as the night steals away hastily. Dawn breaks colouring the sky and water with pastel brush strokes. The early sunrays slowly warm the earth and those who left their homes shivering to travel before daybreak.

the road shows how the abundance of rain has turned fields and trees a luxurious green and gold. Ripened crops harvested, transported on overloaded donkey carts, ensure that this year famine will be kept at bay. Small lakes accommodate a profusion of flowers and a variety of exotic birds while vultures sail high in the sky looking for nourishment.

the road twists on from village to village while hovels change from stone and corrugated roofs to mud clay dwellings covered with dried leaves. Children stare, wonder – then realising – point, wave and shout: toubaaaab. The sound is elongated through the open windows. Stern officials, manning numerous checkpoints, are conquered by warm greetings and winning smiles, enabling the continuation of the journey.

the road crosses the river twice. While waiting for ferries children appear asking questions: what is your name / where do you come from / is you’re your first visit / where are you going / will you sponsor my football team / will you give me a pen / can I have a balloon? They know a toubab’s pocket is never empty.

the road, littered with potholes, slows us down but eventually the chanting sound of the children of Bakadaji School announces the first destination. Welcome, Welcome, Welcome, Welcome; it leaves no heart untouched. Similarly at Nafugan School the greeting is honest and warm. Smiling little faces, waving hands. Earnest Elders, beaming School Staff. Shaking hands, making welcome speeches, reporting needs, grievances. Some promises are made, some decisions are implemented. Never is there enough to satisfy all but huge efforts are made and therefore appreciated, valued, respected on both sides. At each stop two people are surrounded, greeted, welcomed, embraced, celebrated; are the key point of attention. And rightly so – for they are the ones who do, who organize, who make things happen, who make dreams come true.

the road reaches its eastern destiny. As night falls over Basse the desert sands are trying to invade the town, but for the trading, passing or resident, the market flurry, the zest for life, it is not allowed to happen. The warmest hospitality ever is bestowed. Seats and beds are given up with grace and ease, matter of fact, in true spirit. Words are inadequate to express our depth of gratitude.

the road turns to a despairing sight in Kanube. This community, so utterly poor, yet still extends a jovial welcome. They make music, they sing, they dance, they make speeches, they say thank you for coming. All the while children stare, hesitate, conquer their fear, draw nearer, touch hesitantly, withdraw, come nearer still, realise that the visitors are not ogres, that they have soft laps to sit on. Enthusiasm takes over as they sing the toubab song. Now all caution is abandoned and eagerly they pose for photographs, laughing loudly as they see their reflection on camera. The smiles, the little hands that won’t let go. It is so hard to say goodbye on both sides.

the road embraces ceremony. A formal hand-over of the ambulance driven over seven thousand kilometers by two ladies who are not even called Annie. The Governor’s attendance provides pomp and circumstance to the festivity, bestowing certificates, extending congratulations, solemnly promising the vehicle will be used for its approved purpose only.

the road to Janjangbureh suddenly leads to nowhere as a broken down ferry prohibits further travel. Accommodation is awaiting on the opposite river bank. Will the ferry be repaired today or tomorrow? Only Allah knows. Determination travels in small boats across the water. The late afternoon melts into a picturesque sunset over the river, cooled by a light breeze and amply supplies of honey gold brew. The monkeys observe, wait, need only a split second of distraction, to steal food from plates and counters. Chill is the night, but sleep is refreshing. In the early morning, after the muezzin’s call for first prayers disturbs the peaceful calm of the night, the bush awakens: a lone bird cries out, stirring the dawn chorus into chanting stealthily at first, then loud and strong. In villages rams and sheep bleat, donkeys bay, a lone cockerel crows; hastily the nightly creatures retreat until the next eve. Languidly stretched out on a boat, gliding over the water, observing the passing scenery, drifting into sleep, sun rays rippling over the river, floating down the waterway to Baboon Island. Is it a dream? Suddenly loud commotion! Monkeys rush over rooftops announcing another day: it’s time to get up, toubabs, it’s time to continue.

the road turns westward. Townships smolder under the heat of the sun. Men sit under the bantaba talking balabala. Children gaze at the passing traffic – toubaaaab! Women are baking tapalapas and making preparations for the feast of Tobaski. Rams travel first class on bus tops, on roof racks, in the back of cars, are cajoled onto ferries, unaware that they are travelling on the road to the dinner table.

the road lives on in the mind, it won’t let go. It recounts the memories of the people who have so little, who fight to survive daily, who can only give of themselves as that is all they have to give. It summons up the children, the future of this country, who have nothing but who light up our hearts with their captivating smiles, their honest eyes, their trusting hands. This is the road of the toubab, the road I do not want to leave, for this

the road engraved in my heart.

Kololi, 10 December 2008