Toubabs, pigs and broomsticks

A guest blog by Louise Wilson

After a deserved lie-in and wholesome porridge breakfast with Caroline and family, we set off for The Gambia around mid-day. Not surprisingly though, one of the bikes wouldn’t start. This time it was David’s bike with the same sounding problem that Louise had had in Nouakchott; the starter would run without starting the engine followed by a very loud backfire! Caroline has a French neighbour who it turns out is a keen biker and he soon came to the rescue. He appeared with alcohol to clean the spark plugs and a helpful, problem solving attitude. There must have been an airlock and after some poking around and moving of pipes, we were on our way. Caroline and co in the mean time had a chance to experience what our last month had consisted of! Even the local sheep came over for a nosey.

We rode fast, passing through small villages and past huge baobab ‘upside down’ trees, to Kaolack, a junction town for people travelling north/south and east/west through Senegal. It’s a classic busy, bustling, dirty town where food is traded, trucks refuel and horns are honked. We rode through quickly hoping to find some snacks on the other side of town to pick up for our lunch. Instead before we knew it the shops were well gone, we were the only ones on the road and our right turn south west towards The Gambia left us feeling like we were in the middle of no where.

We had wanted to take the TransGambia Highway to a town called Farafenni in The Gambia so that we could then ride along the river Gambia and experience some of The Gambia before reaching Banjul. After some google searching it turned out that the ‘TransGambia’ highway which looks like a major road on the map is an awful dirt track and would take us hours on motorbikes. There was no talk of the road (N2) to Karang, the border town nearest Banjul being bad so we felt confident we could complete the 60km before sunset. That was until the tarmac ran out… First of all we experienced a few miles of tarmac with HUGE pot holes which made the traffic (including large trucks) weave all over the road, then the road became a few miles of bad, wash board piste, then in the distance tarmac would appear again. It was hot, we were sweating a large amount and it was hard to know a) how long we would have to tackle this type of road surface and b) whether each piece of tarmac in the distance was real or a mirage.

We hadn’t managed to have any lunch and it was becoming more and more obvious that we wouldn’t make the border before sunset. Neither bike had a break light working (the vibrations from previous washboard riding had jiggled the connections on both bikes!), we were hungry, feeling dehydrated and frustrated we wouldn’t be in The Gambia that evening. Washboard is tiring to ride on. Not only do your bones and teeth rattle like crazy but the poor bike is put through hell.

We stopped at the first petrol station we came to in a small town and decided to use the last of our CFA to fill up and buy a large bottle of Sprite. We found some shade from a local bus and sat down to regain our strength. Lunch was half a bottle of Sprite each and some cashews we’d bought at the start of the day. The sugar/energy was exactly what we needed!

While sitting in the shade we could hear some amazing drumming and singing coming from the building opposite and a guy sitting with the bus said it was because of a baby. We assumed this meant it was a christening and enjoyed the sense of community celebration. I wish we had gone over and had a better look but all I could do was muster the energy to drink and eat.

The guy greeted us as ‘toubab’ which means ‘white people’, then in basic English asked us about our bikes and where we had come from and then proudly had his photo taken in front of his bus.

Where we were felt very remote but after reading in the guide book it turned out there were a couple of villages approaching before the border where we could find somewhere to stay.

As we rode a little further we saw a pig crossing the road. This felt like seeing a lion cross the street in London. We’d been in Muslim countries for a month and forgot that pigs existed. This clearly meant the cultures and religions must be changing.

As we approached Toubacouta a couple of local guys asked us what we were looking for. We were very dubious of anyone asking us questions because sadly, up to now, it always led to wanting some kind of money. There appeared to be a different feeling about this place though and people were genuinely being helpful.

A guy on a scooter led us down a dirt track to a guest house to stay in, dropped our kit then walked into the village to buy water and change some money. We hadn’t planned to still be in Senegal and therefore had used up all our local currency.

As soon as we entered the village we were pounced upon by a group of giggling girls carrying broomsticks, asking for money to help for the village youth association. We asked them if there was somewhere we could change money and within seconds they had led us to the ‘Mauritanian guys’ where CFA could be bought!

We gave the girls some money and off they went to do some more fund raising.

Round the corner we could see groups of men raking the sand to collect twigs and scattered branches, girls using home made stick brushes to sweep up the streets and people walking along picking up rubbish. We stopped and watched for a moment until a guy came up and explained that every Sunday the village’s Community Association, made up of the local children and teenagers come together to clean the village. Once the chosen areas were cleaned, everyone would come together to pray then discuss which area they would clean the next Sunday, after which those that had done the cleaning were handed sweets as a thank you. This happened on a Sunday because the children go to school Monday to Saturday.

The guy explaining all this to David (in French) introduced us to the President of the Association who spoke surprisingly good English. We hadn’t come across many people on Senegal who spoke English but he explained he was studying at Dakar University and learnt his English there.

Villagers would give the youth money for cleaning and this money would go towards activities organise by the Association. It was such a fantastic sight to see everyone busy cleaning, the little ones helping push the carts and the older kids taking responsibility for the tasks. For most of our time in Senegal we’d only seen dirty streets, been pestered by people and hadn’t felt the same sense of community and pride that we’d seen in Toubacouta.
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The president explained how their village was made up of a mix of Christians and Muslims and both lived very happily together. Each religion would include the other in their festivities and Christmas played a bit part in the village.

He also explained that the village was very poor and any advice for how they could improve and develop their Association would be appreciated. We swapped contacts, gave them our ‘two wheel exploring’ badges and we went back to our guest house feeling very privileged to have met this group of people and experience their Sunday clean up. This was exactly the type of experience I’d been hoping for on our adventure!

Our faith in Senegal had once again been restored!

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