A Memorable Homecoming (Part 2)

05/22/2010 16:33

May 22nd, 2010

In the second of a three-part article on his and little cousin Mariama's last year's trip to Africa for the first time in nine years, the author recounts his arrival in Dakar. He experiences some of the usual hassles for any Africa traveler: unreliable passenger cars and foreign exchange worries. 

From Dakar to Farafenni: Foreign Exchange Blues, Annoying Driver 

By Amadou Basiru Jallow  

Well, The Gambia not so soon. It is 5am Christmas morning and our flight has safely landed at the Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport in Dakar, Senegal. 

Unlike what obtains in airports in the West, a bus was waiting outside the airplane to drive us to the terminal building where we had to clear immigration and security matters before being let into the country. The airport security was tight. They watched us as we got off the airplane and until we left the airport. A piece of advice: It is helpful to note down a Senegalese address on the I-94 arrival form when traveling through Senegal. I am not saying this is a mandatory requirement but it does help eliminate added questioning.     

At the baggage claims area, a tall charming guy, whose job was to help carry arriving visitors’ baggage outside the airport and help them find a cab for a fee, stood next to me as I identified my baggage.  After placing my baggage on the cart, we then started negotiating the fee. I was shocked when he charged me in US dollars. His final price was twenty (20) dollars for a distance of less than hundred meters (100M). I guess my complexion must have thrown him off. He thought I was an American.  I reacted unhappily, “brother, I wanted to make your day but never mind I will carry my baggage myself and remit the $20 as charity to some needy people at home.”   

Outside the airport, a cab driver, who was also a family friend, was awaiting us. We had never met. My cousin, who often traveled to Dakar, had arranged my pickup. My cousin did a great job in his description of the man. It was easy to identify him because he was old, a Fula, and drove a not so ideal taxicab. He led us towards his cab. While loading our luggage, some guys came and helped us without our request.  As one would expect, they had wanted me to give them some money. I did not have any local currency on me; so I urged the driver to offer them something. He gave each one of them one or two coins. They weren’t happy but they had no choice.   

The weather was cool. The traffic was light. It was still early for most people to go to work although some were already at work especially the taxicab drivers. We headed for the car garage called POMPIYEH.  This is the boarding point for cars heading to Banjul, Tamba Counda, Ziguinchorr, etc.  At the car garage, it was still dark. Some drivers and their apprentices were just waking up. As our car parked, a group of people rushed towards us asking for our destination. We were, of course, bound for Farafenni, but to get there, we had to join a car that was destined for Ziguinchorr and we were required pay the full fare as if it were a trip to the southern Senegalese town.  My cousin, who arranged our pick up from the airport, had owed me thirty thousand francs CFA (30,000 CFA). This amount was approximately US $60 at the time. We agreed that he would make arrangements to get this amount to the cab driver so that I would have some money enough to spend in Senegal. He thought that this amount would be sufficient for me. Unfortunately, his prediction turned out not to be the case. 

I was charged 24,000 CFA for our fare and baggage fees. The cab driver did not charge me a specific price; perhaps, he was simply being nice to me as a family friend. He just wanted me to give him any amount. I did not like the fact that he did not charge me. I didn't know the ideal fare. But I quickly realized that 4000 CFA was too small in his opinion when the other driver suggested that amount.  When I realized that  30,000 CFA would be insufficient, I thought I should convert $100  into Senegalese money. But I realized, at the foreign exchange shop, that those guys were trying to take advantage of me.  One hundred ($100) dollars was worth 50,000 CFA but the guys only offered me 38,000 CFA. I negotiated with my Farafenni driver to loan me 10,000 CFA until we got to the northern Gambian town where I would be meeting up with my family. When he agreed, I gave the cab driver 10,000 CFA. Suddenly, his face brightened as he said thank you and walked towards his taxicab and drove off. I knew the amount was more than he was expecting but I felt the need to brighten his day. It was his job but he was old, a family friend, and he had waken up that early morning to pick us up at the airport.    

There were some ALMUDUS (Quranic students) walking around the garage on bare feet with empty cans in their hands begging for food. They quickly caught Mariama’s attention. She asked, “Uncle, these children do not have parents? They do not have food?”  I replied, “they have parents but they do not live with them. They live with their AL’ QURANA teacher. They do not have food that’s why they are begging for food.” “Oh, OK”, she replied. I continued, “you see that you are very lucky that you do not have to go out and beg for food, right.” She replied, yes.  At this time Mariama was carefully studying the environment. The surrounding wasn’t clean enough. There were several pockets of water all around the garage. This made her quite uncomfortable. I offered to buy her something to eat but she declined saying that “this place is nasty.”  

Moments later, it was time for our car to depart.  Literally, five minutes into our journey, our car broke down. The driver took off the front tire on the driver’s side and started hitting the brake pads. My fellow passengers started complaining while I stood watching the scene with some amazement. I was surprised to see the driver perform ablution when things got really heated between him and the passengers. I guess it was his way of trying to calm himself, or may be ease the tension down. 

Our Car, broken down in Dakar

The driver should have inspected his motor vehicle to determine that it was fit for the trip. Unfortunately, I think that did not happen. We were stranded at this place for some time until the driver and his backup mechanics from the garage were able to fix the problem. They declared that the car was now ready for the trip to Farafenni.  However, our driver wasn't so sure about the condition of his car. After driving for another five minutes, he turned around and and returned to the garage. We got transferred to a different car and the new driver settled the 10,000 CFA with the former. Unlike the previous car, this one was in good shape. It seemed that Mariama could not believe her eyes as our car drove by the remote areas. After a long silence, she asked, “Uncle, why is everyone here poor.”  "Well, I don’t know," I replied. "May be when you go back you will ask Obama to do something about it," I suggested. 

Several hours later, we arrived at the Farafenni border. My wife greeted us with a warm welcome. But the greeting did not last long before the driver started hurrying me to refund him the money he had lent me in Dakar . Unfortunately, my wife did not have CFA (Senegalese currency) handy, and the rest of the family members had gone to the mosque for the Friday prayers. I am generally a calm person, but the driver was getting on my last nerves.  I was so frustrated with the driver that I could not wait for my family members to come out of the mosque. Fortunately, the Imam was reciting the sermon, so I went walking around the outside perimeters of the mosque until I saw one of them sitting. I waved at him to come outside. I was hoping that he would save me from this annoying driver. Unfortunately, he did not have CFA either. The driver would not accept dalasi or US dollars. All the stores in the area had closed for the Friday prayers. I tried to get money from the Custom’s official on site but he did not have the key to the cashier's tilt. The official with the keys had also gone to the mosque. I went to the immigration office; here, too, the official with the keys to the coffers was at the mosque praying. Now the driver was getting furious. And by this time, I was getting really tired of him. His impatience was driving me crazy. 

I was looking forward to see my family all along. And now the pestering I was receiving from the driver had robbed me of the joy of seeing my wife and family for the first time in many years. As a last resort, I decided to go into town with the driver in search of some Senegalese money so that I could pay him back. In the meantime, I told my family to wait behind. But no sooner had we driven off than the driver said he would accept American currency instead. I refused! I ordered him to continue driving. When we arrived in town, I went straight to the police station nearby. Fortunately, I met the chief and explained my predicament to him. I appealed to him to lend me some money so I could get this driver off my back. Thank God! The police chief ordered one of his staffers to give the driver the 10,000 CFA and assist me convert some dollars into local currency.  Even more annoying, the driver had the audacity to beg me some dollars after getting his money back. 

I was very relieved when I settled with the driver. And I was very happy that the police chief had come to my rescue. He was kind and sympathetic to my situation. This is the way our security services should treat us when we visit home. I was made to feel really welcomed at home.   

TO BE CONTINUED… the third and final part of this article will discuss the author's arrival and stay in Basse.   

Amadou Basiru Jallow (Cherno Mbaila) is studying Nuclear Medicine Technology at Northern Arizona University in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. He is also a member of My Basse editorial board.



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