Editorial/Lament for a Ship

03/22/2011 08:24

Picture this: 30 years ago, a group of teenagers are sitting atop the erosion-challenged banks of the Basse river. They are probably brewing some Green tea or just whiling away time under the shades at "Nature", the popular hang-out along the river line. It is very late in the afternoon. The day's heatwave is tapering off, and the easterly winds, moistened by the cool breeze of the shallow waters, come whistling across the river. It is approaching evening, and the cows, a herd, are returning home, once more trundling on the powdery trails by the High Level football field and well into the wilds of Sare Koba. On the far, far horizons, where the earth meets the skies, the sun is fast disappearing into the ether. Nocturnal reality is creeping up.

But the teenagers remain huddled in their foresterial hide-out, unfazed by the coming darkness. They are waiting in hushed anticipation. For the arrival of the ship. They look to the west, towards the river bend. Sometimes the youngsters are darn lucky. The ship is on schedule. This time around, they are able to catch a glimpse: from afar, as the ship's mast gradually glows into view, and up close, as its bows cleave through the miniature waves, forcing a cascade of water into the interior of the river banks. At the wharf, anchors are being heaved to the depths of the river. And ropes are being tightened frantically.

The Lady Chilel Jawara has arrived in Basse.

Please pardon us if we have momentarily relapsed into the cheap thrills of nostalgia. We couldn't help it but be drawn to the idyllic years of the Lady Chilel Jawara. Built in 1978 in Glasgow, Scotland, to replace the Lady Wright as a weekly commuter vessel from Banjul to Basse, the Lady Chilel was a beautiful ship in its own right. It was neither large nor small. Its size was good --- good enough as not to usurp Gambian waters, displacing fishermen and their canoes. Its hull was spectacularly white. Both its mast and smokestack were dipped in yellowish-gold. The Lady Chilel also had a post office, a market. At one of the ship's jaunty ends, the Gambian flag soared high. At night, the ship was a splendid city atop motionless waters. During daytime, it teemed with people. This wonder of a boat wasn't to be feared. It was to be admired and celebrated. If anything, Basserians knew and took to heart that the ship's namesake, Chilel Njie, the-then president's wife and the daughter of the late businessman Alhaji Momodou Musa Njie, was one of their own.

Whenever the Lady Chilel docked at the Basse wharf, it would be an interplay of commerce and anthropology. Goods from Banjul would make their way into the Basse market. And Basse goods, say the fine pottery of the Serehuleh women, would rake in good purchases from the Banjul visitors. Tourists would be seen negotiating transactions with vendors spread out along the river. The Tubabs would fan across town, walking in neighborhoods, at the town center, mingling, and occasionally dining with folks. The Lady Chilel helped facilitate cultural understanding between urban and rural. Goods and services moved with relative ease. The ship was a great contributor to Gambian ecotourism. Its weekly commutes provided Gambians with a rare opportunity to unlock some of the mysteries of their nation's coastlines. Wherever it sailed by or docked at, in villages and towns, the Lady Chilel brought life and immense possibilities.

Long before the Gambia Public Transport Corporation (GPTC) and its Man buses captured the nation's imagination, the Lady Chilel was already helping Gambians conquer distance and meet their transportation needs, albeit by different, sometimes difficult, means. But the fact is inescapable: in an era of bad roads, rampant car accidents, and limited if unreliable, public transports linking Gambia's hinterlands, the Lady was often a good, safe bet.

Until 1984. It was the year, as Dave Farrow's personal account (see above) reminds us, that the Lady Chilel Jawara capsized. This tragedy happened at a time when it all looked as if we were returning to the peace and quiet of old, three years after the smoldering wreckage of the 1981 armed insurrection. Thus, the national mood took a jolt. And the Lady Chilel, a prized possession, a jewel in the crown of national ownership, was gone --- a victim of turbulent waters and winds. Years since, Gambian river transportation has never been the same.

From the Editors



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