IT IS AN UNWRITTEN RULE that every cruise up an African river must have a Greater Purpose–some guy named Kurtz to chase after, a lost explorer to rescue, a legendary city of gold to loot, some palpable goal to lure you ever onward into regions where you might not otherwise venture. My partner Carie and I by now had spent nearly two weeks cruising up the Gambia in my old Alberg 35 yawl and decided finally we had two of these: we wanted to see a hippopotamus and we wanted to attend a dance.
Our desire to see a hippopotamus was, of course, quite facile, merely a box to check off on a bucket list. Hippos were the local megafauna, the largest creatures indigenous to the river, and it was only natural we should want to clap eyes on one. Seeing a dance, on the other hand, we hoped might yield some significant insight into the soul of the continent. I had long admired Isak Dinesen‘s famous memoir, Out of Africa, and recalled in particular her description of the great dances, called ngomas, that were held on her property in Kenya.
“The real performers,” she wrote, “the indefatigable young dancers, brought the glory and luxury of the festivity with them, they were immune to foreign influence, and concentrated upon the sweetness and fire within themselves. One thing only did they demand from the outside world: a space of level ground to dance on.”
More recently I had discovered a lesser known work, Africa Dances, by Geoffrey Gorer, an anthropologist who traveled throughout West Africa in the early 1930s studying traditional African dance. He considered it the continent’s most important art form:
Africans dance. They dance for joy, and they dance for grief; they dance for love and they dance for hate; they dance to bring prosperity and they dance to avert calamity; they dance for religion and they dance to pass the time. Far more exotic than their skin and their features is this characteristic of dancing; the West African negro expresses every emotion with rhythmical bodily movement. Dancing [for them] has always held first place.
But first, we realized, we needed more fuel. Thanks to the tide, river current, and wind, all of which flowed against us more than we would have liked, we were doing more motoring than anticipated. My yawl Crazy Horse carried just 30 gallons of diesel in her fuel tank, plus we had one 6-gallon jerry can on deck, and already we’d used up nearly 20 gallons. I did expect we’d do much more sailing after we finally turned around and came back downriver, but still it seemed prudent to increase our supply. The best place to do this, I guessed, would be at the ferry crossing at Farafenni, which was the first place east of Banjul where motor vehicles could cross the river.
Crazy Horse at anchor on the river
I had expected to see some evidence of the ferry landings from a distance. But as we motored past the ominous-looking wreck of the Lady Chilel, a Swedish tourist boat that sank back in the 1980s, then through a sweeping bend in the river at Devil’s Point immediately west of Farafenni, we spied only unbroken walls of mangrove and no hint of human infrastructure. I was beginning to wonder if this ferry was a myth, when an ungainly yellow blob of a motor vessel suddenly sprang out of the trees on our port side and trundled across the river blaring BBC news and Western pop music through its loudspeaker.
We didn’t see the landings themselves until they were almost directly abeam. The one on the north side, to port, looked much more substantial, so we anchored there and went ashore in the dinghy to investigate. There was a narrow cut through the foliage leading down to the ferry dock and a crude road, the sides of which, for a short distance, were jammed with small tin-roofed shops. Unlike every other place where we’d landed on the river, no one here paid us any attention. It seemed a very Wild West sort of atmosphere. Off to one side a small group of vultures with pink bubble-gum heads picked over the carcass of a large dead mammal. In the middle of the road, roaming through the cars and trucks that stood waiting for the ferry, various police and military types swaggered about with guns in their own vulture-like manner, asking questions and looking at papers.
Vultures waiting for some action
This presumably had something to do with the coup attempt I’d learned about earlier. Eight men with pistols had tried unsuccessfully to storm the police barracks here, and the authorities evidently were still in a state of high alert. The police, fortunately, were not interested in us, though all the shopkeepers were, once they realized we actually wanted to buy something. Unfortunately, they had no diesel fuel; for that we had to take our one empty jerry jug a few miles up the road by taxi to a service station in the main town. One enterprising fellow did, however, convince us to buy an empty 5-gallon cooking-oil container, so as to augment our carrying capacity.
Past Farafenni the river quickly became much narrower, with deep water close to the banks on both sides, which simplified navigation, and the water itself became brackish. We soon came to Elephant Island, the first of the large upriver islands marked out on our chart. Directly opposite, on the north bank, was a village called Bambale, with a substantial wooden wharf. We anchored the boat and went ashore here and, as always happened when we visited a village, were quickly lost in a swarm of excited children.
The first adult to spot us was a middle-aged woman who at once pulled us into her hut to show us a younger woman, heavily pregnant, who was feverish and lay on a bed wrapped in blankets. On the dirt floor beside her a charcoal fire was blazing away in a tin brazier. The older woman spoke anxiously in Mandinka, pointing alternately at the sick woman in bed and at us. Our herd of children, meanwhile, all of them yammering at each other, packed themselves into the tiny mud dwelling behind us so that they could see what was happening.
The crowd in the hut grew larger and larger, and louder and louder, and just when it seemed we might be suffocated by all the confusion, a young man in a long blue robe suddenly appeared, parting the crowd before him like a prophet.
“This woman’s daughter has been very sick for five days,” he announced in perfect English. “She wants to know if you have medicine to help her.”
This was in keeping with the pattern we’d noted as we traveled up the river. In the villages close to the coast, not far from Banjul, people always asked for money; further on they had asked for books; more recently they’d been asking for medical supplies. This woman with the fever, I guessed, most likely had malaria, and I did have some anti-malarial drugs onboard, but I had no idea if they would help her, or if they were safe for pregnant women.
“We are not doctors,” I said. “She needs to see a doctor. Is that possible?”
The young man explained that there was a clinic in Farafenni, but that to take her daughter there this woman would need money to pay for a donkey cart ride out to the main road, then money to pay for a bush taxi, and more money still to pay the doctor at the clinic. All these things, he said, would cost 45 dalasi.
Carie, who was Dutch, gave me a worried look. “Shall we give her 35?” she asked. What she was worried about, I knew, was that these people were somehow swindling us.
“Let’s make it 50,” I said.
Which was all of $5 U.S., a very small price to pay, I figured, to know we had done what we could to help. I took out my wallet and extracted from it five 10 dalasi notes, an act that made me feel incredibly omnipotent. But it also made me feel very self-conscious, and I was careful to make sure no one could see how many more notes I had.
“Please take this,” I said to the woman as I held out the money. “Please take your daughter to a doctor as soon as possible.”
Her reaction was everything a philanthropist might hope for. She gave out a great howl of surprise and glee, dropped to her knees, literally groveled at my feet, clasped one ankle with both her hands, and promised she would for the rest of her life pray to Allah on our behalf.
HAVING FOUND US, the young man in blue, whose name was Ebrahim, seized on us like a terrier with a bone. He was the only person in the village who could speak fluent English, as he had spent four years at a secondary school downriver. This had been paid for, we learned, by a generous Irish couple who, like us, had met Ebrahim while sailing up the river. Ever since then Ebrahim had zealously befriended the crews of every foreign yacht that stopped at Bambale. He remembered the names and nationalities of every sailor he’d met and could describe in great detail everything they’d said and done while visiting.
We had not intended to stop here long, but Ebrahim convinced us we should stay at least two days, until Sunday, when the villagers here would perform a calabash dance. “The Swedish tourist boat will come,” he explained, eyes bright, as though he had guessed what our ambition must be. “It is a very important ceremony.”
Meanwhile, he worked hard to monopolize our time. The morning after our arrival, the very instant I stuck my head out the companionway at the crack of dawn, there he was standing on the wharf waving his arms.
“Hello, hello,” he cried. “Please come ashore. We have many things to do today.”
We spent most of the morning with Ebrahim touring the village in detail. We met women grinding meal with huge wooden pestles in great wooden bowls; we met women doing laundry; we met women hauling water on their heads from the village well. We also met many men–the village elders taking their ease under a baobab tree, a group of holy marabouts who sat on benches and copied out long reels of Arabic on to grey chalkboards, a group of men putting a new thatched roof on a hut. It seemed as if we were introduced to most everyone in town, and during our procession many people complained at length about their health. One man claimed he’d been kicked in the head by a donkey when he was a boy and had never been the same since.
“It is true,” said Ebrahim sadly. “This man, he is always very confused.”
Carie poked me in the ribs. “You see,” she hissed. “They all think you will give them dalasi, like the woman from yesterday.”
I listened to all these complaints and took notes on a piece of paper, nodding my head gravely, but otherwise said nothing.
That afternoon Ebrahim took us over to Elephant Island in a dugout pirogue to show us the bush pigs that lived there. We had heard about these animals, wild warthogs that often made pests of themselves by decimating crops, and were happy to have a chance to meet some.
“Sometimes we must hunt them and kill them,” explained Ebrahim. “It can be very hard. They are dangerous when they are trapped.”
“Are they good to eat?” I asked, as I assumed they must be a valuable source of protein.
“No, no!” exclaimed Ebrahim. “We are Muslims. We cannot eat the filthy meat of pigs.”
Unfortunately, Carie and I made a great deal of noise mucking through the dense mangrove roots on the shore of the island in our big rubber boots. Ebrahim, meanwhile, who was barefoot, slipped like a silent wraith through the muddy tangle. When finally we reached high ground, Ebrahim pointed out several monkey tracks, but we found the bush-pig dens–holes dug in the ground between the roots of baobab trees, neatly carpeted with dry grass–were all empty.
“This is too bad. Very too bad,” said Ebrahim. “Normally the bush pigs will sleep here all day and only go at night to look for food.”
“I think they heard us,” I replied. “They heard the clumsy tubabs coming ashore with you, and they have all run away.”
Ebrahim said nothing, but smiled shyly in agreement.
Ebrahim with Carie aboard Crazy Horse at Bambale. Elephant Island is in the background
That evening he had us to his hut for dinner, a meal of fish and rice, which had been prepared by his sister. The three of us ate with spoons from a single steel bowl while the inevitable horde of children, who were very curious to see if we would eat Gambian food, watched from the open doorway and window. Afterwards we were joined by these children, and by many adults, who all crammed into the hut to drink China green tea with us. While the tea was prepared and served, always a laborious process, there was a great deal of lively conversation.
Like all villages we had visited, Bambale had no electricity, and the only light in Ebrahim’s hut came from a single candle. There was also an old flashlight that clearly needed new batteries. Amazingly, it seemed to be the only one in town, as people often stopped by to borrow it. There was no moon that night, and the world outside the hut was as black as ink. Never before had I been in any human community that was so devoid of illumination.
The tea party went on for hours, and when I eventually checked the time, I was surprised to see it was almost one in the morning. “Is this normal?” I asked Ebrahim, pointing at my watch.
“What do you mean?” he replied.
“Do people here always stay up this late? Or is tonight different, because you have tubabs in your house?”
“Oh, no,” he laughed. “This is what we always do. We are often awake late at night, laughing and talking with each other.”
I was astonished by this statement and immediately envied these people. They had so little, but it seemed they always had food to eat, and they had each other. Did they really need much more than that? I wondered: if they became wealthier, would they do what we had done? Would they segregate themselves into hermetic homes filled with electric light and material objects, lock their doors, and become lonely? Was this the price of prosperity?
In the morning, again, Ebrahim waved to me eagerly from the wharf. I waved back, but we did not immediately go ashore. As much as I appreciated the intense sense of community we had experienced the night before, this relentless companionship, so freighted with expectation and desire because of who we were and what we represented, felt burdensome. Visiting villages on the Gambia, especially this one, had given me a good idea of what it’s like to be a Very Famous Person, and I wasn’t too sure I enjoyed it. Having the boat to retreat to, with its portable moat to protect us, was a blessing I greatly appreciated.
We spent most that day on the boat, hiding from the people in the village. In the late afternoon we finally went ashore to fill our water jug and invited Ebrahim to join us for dinner aboard that evening. He was thrilled and insisted on bringing the food, a spicy peanut soup with rice, which again was prepared by his sister. While we were eating together, Carie remarked on this and belabored Ebrahim about the unequal division of labor in Gambian villages.
“I see the women, they are always working,” she insisted. “And the men, they do nothing! I do not think this is right.”
Ebrahim was flabbergasted and could not utter one word in response. I actually agreed with Carie; it did seem the men were always idle in every village we visited. But out of loyalty to my gender, I came to Ebrahim’s rescue and listed the few jobs I knew of that the men did: building and repairing huts, tending the vegetable gardens (as opposed to the rice fields, a much more labor-intensive chore that fell to the women), and killing bush pigs. I hoped Ebrahim might add to this list, but he simply nodded.
“Yes, yes,” he said, greatly relieved. “The men also do work.”
Afterwards we presented him with gifts, a moment that inevitably felt awkward. For Ebrahim there was a pair of sunglasses and some books and magazines. For the village as a whole I had prepared a bag of medical supplies, along with some general instructions on how to use them and a list of what could be used specifically to treat the people who had complained to us of their maladies. There were also two packs of fresh D-sized batteries for the communal flashlight.
Ebrahim was effusively grateful, but still I felt embarrassed that our gifts were not more lavish. Ebrahim had made it very clear that he hoped that we, like our Irish predecessors, might pay for more schooling, and in fact this was, by our standards, entirely affordable. A year in school here cost little more than $100. But Ebrahim’s very fervent desire couldn’t help but taint his hospitality and made it seem something like extortion. This, I think, now haunted all his relationships with visitors.
The next morning we went ashore–at last!–to see about the calabash dance. I had assumed the tourist boat was coming on this day because this was when the dance was taking place, but in fact it was the other way around. The owners of the boat, explained Ebrahim, regularly paid the villagers to perform the dance and had also promised to someday build a small medical dispensary here.
And the boat, unfortunately, was running late. While standing on the wharf with the rest of the villagers waiting for it to appear, I noticed there was a marked change in the behavior of the children who always followed us around. Before they were always trying to hold our hands and constantly asked: “What is your name? What is your name?” But now, for the first time, as if caught in some Pavlovian reaction, they became much more aggressive and asked if we would give them candy and money.
Eventually the boat did come, two hours later than expected. It was a dilapidated steel thing, perhaps 70 feet long, and looked like it might have been a gunboat in some previous existence. On board were ten German tourists, plump and prosperous, festooned with cameras, all of whom looked horrified when they stepped ashore and were mobbed by the locust children, who grabbed at them, demanding candy and money. I noticed one man in particular, heavy-set with jowls in a brightly colored shirt, who was especially vicious and slapped hard at his tormentors as he barked at them to stay away.
Because the boat was running so late, it turned out the calabash dance was cancelled. The tourists only had time to rush into the village for a quick 15-minute tour, and then immediately came trundling back down the trail toward the wharf. The man with the jowls, I noticed, had resigned himself to his fate and was now holding hands with two children, whom he lectured quietly in German. Finally, once all the tourists had gathered again on the wharf, the skipper of the boat gave a great happy shout and hurled handfuls of candy in all directions. With an ear-piercing squeal of delight, the children all chased after it, and the tourists quickly scrambled aboard their boat and escaped downriver.
JUST A FEW MILES upriver from Bambale we came to Sea Horse Island, so named because this supposedly was where European explorers first discovered the species hippopotamus back in the early 15th century. From here the water in the river became fresh and the scenery on shore was transformed. Instead of the endless unbroken walls of mangrove, we now saw open marshes and rice fields, nipa palm trees, and enormous termite mounds that looked like wax drippings from giant red candles. In the distance in a few places we saw low hills, bright red knolls standing proud over the landscape, and sometimes low cliffs that crowded up to the river bank.
Cattle refresh themselves beneath a hill on the freshwater portion of the river
Termite mound on shore
We were also now tormented by new sorts of insects. At night, as before, we had to defend ourselves against mosquitos, but now during the day we were assaulted by tse-tse flies, which had an almost supernatural ability to evade detection. You’d see nothing, hear nothing, then suddenly you were bitten and felt a sharp stab of pain. Only then would you notice the rather large noisy fly that seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. They liked me much better than Carie, and every bite I received swelled up into an itchy red welt that took days to subside.
There were other types I could not identify, including one species that looked like a fearsome cross between a centipede and a Star Wars satellite. I found the first one under the floor in our inflatable dinghy and thought little of it as I flipped it overboard with an oar blade. Just two days later, however, I found nearly a hundred of these “dinghy bugs,” as I now called them, swarming under the teak grate in the cockpit on Crazy Horse. Yelping in surprise, I grabbed a can of insecticide and sprayed and sprayed, screaming like a victim in a zombie movie, until finally the can was empty and all the bugs were dead.
The dragonflies, at least, were both harmless and beautiful. I noticed them often, as they perched in the early morning like iridescent gems on our anchor rode, just a fraction of an inch above the surface of the water, with their wings quivering gently in the weak-willed breeze.
A geography dominated by bugs
Searching for hippos now became an important priority. An old man in Bambale had told me that he remembered when there were so many of them you could walk across the river on their backs. An apocryphal statement, no doubt, but I had no reason not to believe him when he also told me they were now hard to find. In the past, I’d heard, hippos had been hunted, as they are destructive, with enormous appetites, and are capable of devouring most of a rice field in a single night. Now they were protected by law, which meant you could only kill one if you caught it actually eating your rice. Supposedly there were less than a hundred left living in the navigable portion of the river below the falls at Fatoto.
Between Sea Horse Island and Kuntaur, once an important river port, there was a long series of islands stretching along the south bank of the stream. Between and behind these islands was a network of small creeks, and I was hopeful we could find hippos here if we tried hard enough. To increase our chances, we set out in the dinghy in the mornings and early evenings to look for them.
A small fishing pirogue under sail
One morning while we were out creek-crawling, the dinghy’s outboard got tangled up in a crude unmarked fish net that stretched clear across the creek we were exploring. Unfortunately, I had to cut the net with a knife to get free of it. Further up we found more nets, which we successfully evaded, and then the fisherman who had set them, who was paddling along in a dugout pirogue.
I hailed the man and led him back to the net we had damaged, showed him where I had cut it, and offered him 10 dalasi in reparations. He was clearly angry and at first rejected my offer, out of pride it seemed, but then thought better of it and accepted. After I actually paid him, he became much friendlier, and I was emboldened to ask if he knew where we might find some hippos. He pointed in the direction of the next creek upriver and nodded his head vigorously.
We could not be certain, of course, whether the fisherman had sent us to this creek because there really were hippos there, or whether he simply wanted us well away from his nets, but this did not dampen our enthusiasm. The further up the creek we went, the more wildlife we found–first an otter swimming deftly through the water, then numerous monkeys racing through the trees on shore–and with each sighting our hopes soared higher. The creek became ever narrower and more twisted, and soon we spotted big mudslide breaks in the foliage on shore where very large animals had obviously entered the water.
“This is it,” I told Carie, and I shut down the engine, pulled out the oars, and started rowing so that we wouldn’t frighten our hippo once we found it.
The creek became narrower still, such that there was barely room to swing the oars, and finally it dawned on me that meeting a hippo at such close quarters might possibly be dangerous. But still we pressed on. Just one more bend in the creek, I told myself, and then we’ll turn back. And so it went, through bend after bend, until finally we reached a small open pool ringed with tall grass.
We paused a moment here, as we could go no further, and then, as I was struggling to turn the dinghy around, we heard a rustling noise in the grass on the creek bank above us. The noise grew louder… and louder… and we held our breath, bracing for the impact of a one-ton hippo swan-diving down into our tiny inflatable boat.
Then, at last, we caught a glimpse of the beast. Not a hippo (fortunately), but a hairy old bush pig, which poked its head through the grass, inspected us briefly, flashed a curved tusk in our direction, and stomped off inland away from us.
COINCIDENTALLY, OUR HIPPO MANIA was assuaged the very next day. While motoring on to Kuntaur aboard Crazy Horse in the late morning, we spotted two at a distance on the open river. They looked like slim grey lozenges floating on the surface of the water–a mother and calf, presumably, as one was much smaller than the other.
“Shall we go closer?” asked Carie.
“No,” I answered morosely. “I think it’s best we just leave them alone.”
Our goal achieved. Hippos seen from a distance
We stopped two days at Kuntaur, to search (unsuccessfully) for more diesel fuel and to see the famous stone circles at Wassu, just two miles inland. We marched over in the early morning, before the sun rose too high, and inevitably collected an entourage of people, mostly children, along the way. It was startling how quickly the green foliage along the river gave way to dry savannah and surprising, too, how little the people who lived here knew about these mysterious stone monuments.
The mysterious stone circles of Wassu
“These once were houses,” proclaimed one man who had repeatedly offered to be our guide.
But this, I knew, was patently false. The red laterite cylinders, which had been carbon-dated to about 750 AD, were arranged in neat circles around grave sites that were considerably older. Similar sites have been found through out West Africa, from the Sahara as far south as Guinea, but the largest concentration by far was just here, on the north side of the Gambia. Aside from the great pyramids in Egypt, they were the only evidence of megalithic culture on the continent, and no one knew for sure who erected them.
Carie examines some beached pirogues near Kuntaur
Wreck of the Lady Denham, near Bird Island
Past Kuntaur the river turned back on itself, then flowed west for some distance through a small archipelago, the Baboon Islands, which were part of the River Gambia National Park, a nature preserve that was strictly off limits to visitors. The vegetation on shore grew even more lush and jungle-like, and while passing by in the boat we strained to catch a glimpse of chimpanzees in the trees, as we’d been told there was a troop that lived here. We had no luck, but we did see river eagles soaring high overhead and various smaller birds clothed in shocking iridescent plumage that skittered along the shore.
Soon the river turned east again, passed through another lush archipelago, the Kai-ai Islands, and arrived at MacCarthy Island and the old provincial capital of Georgetown. From the river it seemed a bedraggled, ramshackle place, but it was much larger than a village, and that in itself made it seem an important destination. The most startling thing about it was the black steel schooner we spotted anchored off its southern end, the first foreign yacht we’d seen since leaving Oyster Creek outside Banjul weeks earlier. A tattered Australian flag flew from its backstay and on its transom was a hand-carved board that had the name Black Pic inscribed upon it.
Black Pic at anchor near Georgetown
We circled the schooner hopefully, and almost immediately a head popped out the companionway–a bearded face topped with a long tangle of blonde hair.
“Meet you for drinks at sunset,” shouted the cheerful man who belonged to the face. “At the tourist camp across the river.” And he pointed to a small pier directly opposite the town.
We anchored Crazy Horse about a half mile further on and dinghied over to the pier at the appointed time. The tourist camp, which was run by Monica, a German woman, and her Gambian consort Modu, was like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson–a series of elevated platforms and dwellings hanging among the trees, illuminated by burning torches, with gangs of monkeys filtering through the surrounding foliage like a raucous wind of laughter.
We were still on the Gambia, but it seemed now we had been transported into an alternative dimension, into some ideal travel-magazine version of the river. We savored cocktails, nibbled on delicious hors d’oeuvres, and talked for hours–with Monica and Modu, the professional hostess and host; with one of their guests, a bizarre Italian woman with an intense gleam in her eye who was traveling alone across the breadth of West Africa on a three-week holiday; but mostly with Colin, our fellow sailor, master and commander of Black Pic, who had recently returned to the river after a two-year absence.
“It has infected me,” he admitted with a broad grin. “Africa is in me now, and I had to come back here.”
During his last visit, he explained, he had been overwhelmed by the simple desire to help people. He had a spare pump aboard his boat, a big gasoline-driven trash pump, and had given it to some rice farmers he met on the north bank of the river near the Kai-ai Islands.
“I showed them how to run it and how they could use it to grow twice as much rice each year by pumping river water up into their fields during the dry season.” Colin poured himself another vodka tonic, took a long sip, and settled back in his chair. “I tell you I felt like fucking Prometheus, like I’d fucking changed everything for these people. But you can guess what happened. They had one year with two good harvests, and now I come back and everything’s gone to shit. Pump’s busted, ruined for good, and everything’s exactly the same as it was before.”
Now Colin had decided to do good by helping himself. “It’s so fucking obvious!” he exclaimed. “They kill bush pigs here all the time and waste the meat, because they’re Muslims. I reckon I can buy dead pigs dead cheap, smoke the meat, pack it aboard, and sail out to the Cape Verdes to sell it. It’s an easy reach, three days or so, and they’re all Christians out there, just dying to taste some pork.”
Next morning we were awakened early by the haunting wail of a muezzin calling the devout to prayer at the mosque in town. After breakfast we went ashore, eager to explore, and were amazed. Georgetown, in spite of its dowdy appearance, seemed a fount of modern civilization. There were power lines hanging from poles, electricity everywhere, and even a public telephone outside the marketplace, where women in brightly colored shawls and robes hovered over small piles of fresh food and other commodities they offered for sale.
The marketplace at Georgetown
We soon ran into Colin, who greeted us with a great shout. “Come!” he declared. “I’ve just the lad for you to meet.” And he led us a short distance down the waterfront to a small cafe and “galary” run by a young man named Yahya. He seemed a bit bashful, with a wry smile on his face, but perked up instantly when he noticed the large plastic water jug dangling from my hand, which I’d brought along in hopes of getting it filled.
“I see there,” he said hopefully. “That looks like a very useful container. Would you like to sell it to me?”
I cannot describe what a relief it was to hear those words. We had been months now in West Africa and had met many people who wanted things from us. Not once, until now, had anyone offered to buy something from us, rather than just suggesting, or demanding, that we simply give it to them. I felt a rush of gratitude and was immediately chagrined that I could not agree to this request.
“I’m very sorry,” I explained. “But this is the only one we have, and we really need it.”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” said Yahya. “But perhaps you can lend it to me for a short time, so I can fetch some water with it.”
I said I’d be happy to, if only Yahya would show me where I could get some water myself. And from that moment on, at least as far as I was concerned, we were fast friends. Carie and I spent several hours that day talking with Yahya in his little shop and returned again the next day to talk some more. He was unlike anyone else we’d met thus far on the river–first because he was a member of the Fula tribe, rather than Mandinka or Wolof, and also because he was not at all Muslim.
He never declared this to us, but it soon became evident from his conversation. I remarked to him, for example, remembering my friend Charlie the crocodile back in Serekunda on the coast, that Yahya was the toma of Gambia’s new president, Yahya Jammeh.
“Yes, that is true,” he smiled. “I know very well I am the toma of the president, but alas he does not know he is the toma of me. But perhaps, if I am lucky, the spirits will tell him so.”
Yahya outside his shop
Yahya was also the first Gambian to offer us marijuana, rolled up in a nice fat joint, or “wrap,” as he called it. The marijuana, he explained, was grown in the Casamance in southern Senegal and was brought across the border by men who were protected by the spirits, as they carried special amulets given to them by a famous fortune-teller.
“You have met the husband of Monica, Modu, from across the river,” he explained. “He also carries such an amulet, so the spirits can protect him from being caught by Monica when he goes with other women.”
THAT EVENING Yahya invited us to have dinner with him, a meal of cous-cous he served al fresco at a small table he set up outside on the old ferry pier near his shop. After the meal he passed around a wrap, and as the pungent fumes of Casamance homegrown oozed through my consciousness, he looked at me quite intently and asked, “How is it that you find your way at sea? How do you know where to go?”
“There are satellites in the sky that tell me where I am,” I explained. “And if the satellites are broken, I can look at the sun and the stars. I have a tool I can use to measure exactly how high in the sky they are. Once I know that, I can figure out where I am.”
Yahya nodded his head carefully. “There is another way,” he announced and proceeded to tell a long involved story about a bush-pig hunt.
It seems Yahya and several other men had tracked the pig in question far out into the bush, far from the river, until they were surrounded by hills that they did not recognize. Finally, they succeeded in cornering the pig in a den at the foot of one of the hills. For a long time they threw rocks into the den, until eventually the pig came out, and they surrounded it. It was Yahya himself who administered the death blow, as he struck the beast in the head with a large stone.
Yahya then suggested, to the amazement of his companions, that they take the pig back to town to sell it. Most of the men believed the pig had no value, but Yahya insisted he knew people who would pay good money for it. After some debate, the men all agreed to this plan and skewered the pig on a long pole they cut from a tree so they could carry it more easily. The only problem was they now had no idea where they were and did not know in which direction the town lay.
“Fortunately, there was one man with us who was a soothsayer,” explained Yahya. “He said he could find the way. He took a leaf from a special tree he found and folded the leaf four times, so that one end was longer than the others. He then put a small stone inside the leaf and threw it into the air. When it fell back to the earth the man examined it to see which way the leaf was pointing, and he said this is the direction we must go. We all followed him, and he led us straight back to town!”
Yahya now had a self-satisfied look on his face, as though he had demonstrated to me an important scientific proof.
“What became of the pig?” I asked. “Were you able to sell it?”
Yahya laughed out loud. “That is the best part of the story,” he announced. “The soothsayer and I took the pig and left all the other men to wait for us. We brought the pig to our friends and together we cooked it and feasted on it and drank palm wine together all night long. The next day I told the other men that they were right, no one would buy the pig, and that we had thrown it into the river.”
And as soon as he had finished this story, Yahya then asked, out of the blue, if we would like to attend a dance.
“What sort of a dance?” I asked, a bit suspiciously, remembering the bogus calabash dance for tourists we had failed to witness in Bambale.
“It is given by the ruling government party,” explained Yahya. “To announce the nomination of the party’s candidate from Georgetown in the elections to parliament next month.”
“You mean it’s a political dance?”
“Yes, yes. It is very political. It is starting just now.”
In the distance we could hear the faint sound of a drum, interspersed with blasts from a whistle. Together the three of us walked away from the river, toward the sound, and soon found the dancing ground, in the middle of an unpaved street, beneath a single naked lightbulb dangling from a wire overhead. A single row of wooden benches had been set out in a large square around the ground, and already these were packed with people, with still more people standing behind them, all swaying in time to the music. The band consisted of just one man, a slender crooked-looking fellow with odd tufts of hair sprouting from his head, who capered about beating on a single drum hanging from a cord around his neck while simultaneously blowing on a shiny tin police whistle.
The music, which was remarkably rich and complex given its source, continued for a short time, with no one dancing to it, until suddenly there appeared a spotless white Mitsubishi pickup truck. In the back of the truck, sitting in a large upholstered armchair, was a young man wearing fancy basketball shoes, a red satin track suit, a baseball cap, mirrored sunglasses, and several gold necklaces. As soon as the truck stopped, several other men came forward, picked up the armchair out of the truck bed, and carried it and its inhabitant to a prominent space at one end of the dancing ground. As soon as they set the chair down, the music suddenly stopped. The man in the chair rose up, and the crowd cheered. The man smiled, his teeth glistening in the thin electric light, and waved grandiosely in all directions.
“This is the district commissioner,” whispered Yahya. “He is also a major in the army. He is very popular here, but the law prohibits him from speaking at political events.”
The commissioner continued waving for perhaps half a minute, while the crowd continued cheering, and then he sat down and the music at once started up again. In between beating on his drum and blowing his whistle, the one-man band started chanting a refrain. Something to the effect, as Yahya translated it, of what a great and glorious man the president was. Soon all the crowd took up the chant and the dancing started, but it wasn’t the sort of dancing I expected. There were no traditional costumes and no ceremony or ritual of discernible sort. Instead it was very much like any Western disco or school dance, where any anyone could get up and dance however they wanted.
Yahya’s toma, the president (in the red beret)
I made the mistake of swaying a bit in time to the music and in just a moment heard the familiar cry of “Tubab! Tubab!” coming from somewhere nearby. A strange woman suddenly appeared in front of me, grabbed me by the hand, and pulled me out into the dancing ground. My head still thick with the fumes of Casamance homegrown, I threw myself into the music for all I was worth. Arms and legs akimbo, I flailed about in comic style, threw myself on the ground and wriggled madly like a fish out of water. The crowd ate it up and gave me a huge cheer and a laugh as I retreated again to the sidelines.
In between the spates of dancing, like commercials on TV, there were political speeches. Instead of a PA system, there was the one-man band, who stood beside whoever was talking and repeated everything they said, only louder. The most important speech was by the woman who would be running as the ruling party’s local member of parliament. This was a huge triumph for her, Yahya explained, as she had long been the town’s most outspoken opponent of the old president and his government. Most of the other speeches were fairly anodyne, the sort of clap-trap you’d hear from politicians anywhere, except for one old man who got up and told an old folktale about farm animals who failed to tell the farmer about the rat and the lizard who were quarreling in the ceiling of the farmer’s house. The rat and the lizard fought and fought, until they had destroyed the roof of the house, and it collapsed upon the farmer’s head. The moral being (again per Yahya’s translation) that the people of Georgetown should “keep it all in the family.”
“Don’t let your troubles take you to the opposition,” warned the old man. “Talk to us, and we will help you.”
The people of Georgetown endured all this rhetoric patiently, but no one cheered the speakers too loudly, and it seemed clear that the dancing was all anyone really cared about. Once the speeches were finished, it continued unabated and the energy of the dancers grew ever more intense.
And again I made the same mistake. I was swaying a bit in time to the music, and another woman appeared in front of me and took my hand. In her other free hand she held a white shawl. I resisted at first, but Yahya laughed loudly and pushed me forward. The woman carefully tied the shawl around my waist, and we then we started dancing.
Once again, I gave it my best, dancing wildly in all directions, though I did not fall on the ground and wriggle like a fish this time, as I suspected something important was happening. When we were done, the woman darted at me, grabbed her shawl, seized it to her breast, and scampered off into the crowd like a scared rabbit.
The crowd all laughed and cheered and pointed at me.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked as I returned panting to the sidelines.
Yahya was grinning like the Cheshire cat. “You have performed a fertility dance,” he explained. “The woman you just danced with has been trying to have a baby now for 10 years. I promise you… this is very powerful magic.”
I could only laugh in response. I smiled and glanced up at the stars overhead, which were plainly visible through the thin veil of the town’s electric lighting. I started wriggling again in time to the music and prayed to the spirits that soon I might have another toma in these parts.
NOTE: This is third in a series. Check out its predecessors: