Requiem for the GPTC Man Bus

12/12/2012 22:53

Monday, November 26, 2012

 Requiem for a Bus
The Death of a National Company, and a Trip Down Memory Lane.


By Cherno Baba Jallow

It was only a matter of time before a death-call would be made on The Gambia Public Transport Corporation (GPTC). Having stayed in the industrial morgue this long, the GPTC – this behemoth among Gambian national enterprises – is now being prepared for a final burial. The Gambian National Assembly, citing the corporation’s acute losses over the years, has voted repealing the act establishing the GPTC. To that extent, there will be no more GPTC in The Gambia as we know it. This is the end of the road for a commercial entity, but for our nation, this loss epitomizes something bigger: our perennial inability to harness growth and preserve the gains of collective efforts. When a public institution like the GPTC, as viable as it was, collapses not because of competition or shrinkage in or lack of, demand, but mainly because of economic mismanagement and political interference, it underscores serious defects in the realm of policy planning pursuant to national development.

It is a pity.

Time was, the GPTC was the real deal. Its Kanifing headquarters was a beehive of economic activity. You saw fleets of MAN buses, some glisteningly "new", fresh from their manufacturer overseas. And for those handicapped by frailty or showing incipient signs of degeneration, you saw mechanics, clothed in blue overalls, and at various stages of engineering inspections, hard at work. You saw buses, those scheduled to be on the roads that day, go in and out, some revving up on the way out, and others just lumbering to the sides of the road by the Kanifing depot, either picking up passengers or just taking some momentary lulls. The engine needs to cool off? The driver and conductor and inspector need to use the bathrooms? An abrupt change in schedules and routes?

For a visitor or any would-be passenger at the Kanifing GPTC depot, it was hard not to be moved by the demonstrative buoyancy and profitability of this company and what its most important and ubiquitous product – the MAN Bus – meant to economic growth and national development. Year after year, the GPTC brought bumper harvests of revenues and profits into the national economy. It was reported in budget speeches and on national radio. And people talked about it, expressively proudly about a national endeavor concerned not only about revenues but also about advancing the public livelihood as normally understood.

Following a parliamentary act in the 1987/8 fiscal year, the Gambian Government created The Gambia Public Transport Corporation. The act defined the corporation’s rationale thus: to "operate and maintain the public transport services of The Gambia for the conveyance of passengers and goods." The GPTC came into being three years after the sinking of the Lady Chilel Jawara off the Farafenni coastline. The collapse of the boat, a public transport and a cheap one at that, meant a complete return to the sometimes dangerous TransGambia highway with its incessant accidents and fatalities.

At a time when the roads were plied by smaller, shabby and unreliable cars, the emergence of the Bus was a welcome relief. It became the king of the road. It had a towering physique and its elongated shape meant it had to take wide turns. On the roads, and when measured against other cars, the Bus took on an elephantine magnitude. Never mind their limited knowledge and understanding of engineering designs and properties, Gambians concluded that the Bus was hell of a vehicle. It looked strong, rugged and bull-dozing. It conquered distances, traversing the entire length and breadth of The Gambia and beyond. By its arrival and presence, albeit transient, it helped create boomlets of business activity: at Sankulay Kunda, Brikamaba, Kalagi, Sibanorr, Bwiam, etc. And it helped bring in purchasing power and employment opportunities at its depots (Kanifing, Brikama, Essau, Soma, Farafenni and Basse).

If the Lady Chilel Jawara “provided Gambians with a rare opportunity to unlock some of the mysteries of their nation's coastlines,” as My Basse editorialized in the recent past, the Bus helped in the recalibration of geographical understanding. Many more Gambians learned and came to familiarity with, their nation’s topography as far as the Bus would take them: Giboro, Fatoto, Panchang, Katamina, etc. The Bus, liberalized by an expansionist routing policy, pushed the boundaries of transnational traveling and led to a rediscovering of The Gambia. It also enabled Gambians to be tourists in their own country, indulging in sight-seeings and appreciating the beauty of their country’s landscape.

My mind is aflutter with memories about the MAN Bus, and its role in my fascination, if anthropologically, with Gambian traveling; with settlements and people, those by the main highway and more importantly, those far, far away. During my schooling days in Banjul, I would get on the Bus, at any given opportunity, for a trip home to Basse. It was even more fun when a group of us, Basserian students, traveled together. My friend Haruna Farage preferred the ‘Last Bus’ to Basse – the one that arrives in the middle of the night. He would never be convinced out of his late-night trips; he believed it was better to arrive in the dark, undetected and unrecognized, and that for a freshly-arrived visitor, Basse’s pulse was better felt at night. I never understood that.

In 1990, I boarded the 11 AM ‘Super Express Bus’ from Kanifing heading to Basse. It was the eve of Tobaski. On boarding the Bus, I saw several Basserians of different ages. We were bound for home. It was going to be a smooth ride. From Bansang on, stillness on the Bus gave way to waves of excitement. Egged on by the music supplied by the Bus and by the driver, a certain cheery fellow, some of the passengers started singing and dancing. The frolics of Abdoulie Wilson and others on the Bus that day made the trip a lot more fun and adventurous. Our weariness had begun to peter out and before long, we had arrived safely home.

So long, GPTC.

Cherno Baba Jallow, a contributing editor for My Basse, lives in Southfield, Michigan, USA.  He can be reached at:

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