‘Hello. How are you?’

Inquisitive faces.

16th December 2021

Lamin Lodge, Banjul, Gambia – Bombali, Gambia Via James Island, Tendeba Camp & Senegambia Bridge, Gambia

Many nations are known for their catch phrases and the way in which they are delivered defines the country. In New Zealand the answer to any question is always either ‘Naa yeah’, or ‘Yeah naa’, both of which can be positive or negative but always spoken with positivity. In Australia everyone is greeted with ‘G’Day Mate’ over a cracked tinny making you feel welcome. In Gambia the streets ring to the sound of ‘Hello, how are you?’ always delivered with a beaming smile and actively wanting to know exactly how you are. This sums up the Gambia for us, friendly, smiling, interested and interesting.

Leaving the sanctuary of Lamin Lodge and heading up river into the wilds of the hinterland we were treated to our first ‘Hello. How are you?’. The very first fisherman we passed waved, greeted us like long lost friends and then went back to his precarious business of hauling nets on his equally precarious boat. This happened time and time again on the mirror flat waters of the Gambia.

In the middle of the huge river is a tiny spec of land that has a history as old as this continent and if it could teel tales they would be shocking in the extreme, full of pain and suffering and a testament to the cruelty of man. The shoreline of James Island bristled with guns from a different age and it was covered in crumbling buildings that once housed European captors and African captives. The stillness of the sky and the silence air gave a sombre feeling which we were pleased to have witnessed and more pleased to have left.

Even after measuring the bridge height from the land, we approached it from sea with trepidation and with calculations in hand. We knew wanted to pass under it at exactly 5.15 pm and so anchored just off it waiting for the time and tide. After several hours of being at anchor we received a very different greeting to ‘Hello. How are you?’

Just upstream or our anchor spot a fisherman had cast his drift nets across the river and we watched in horror as they drifted closer and closer. We had nowhere to go, in time we’d be trapped and netted like the biggest catch the fisherman would have ever known. Honking our horn and waving our hands furiously we hoped he’d take some action to avoid calamity. All we got in return was apathy and a blank stare.

The net drifted over our anchor chain and the fisherman on the end of the line drifted behind us gesticulating that it was our fault that he’d caught us. Things then went from bad to worse, as, with the weight of the net and the boat on the anchor we started dragging into the shallows. Hoping to avoid disaster Iain turned on the engine to stem the tide and crossed his fingers that the fisherman would pull the net in before the propellor did.

Pleading with the fisherman the inactivity continued but the aggression was being turned up as he could see his livelihood being ruined and we could see Ruffian being broken. Then the painful inevitable happened. The net was pulled under Ruffian, the fishing boat pulled closer, our engine made some terrible noises and we then had silence.

The silence was momentary, as the fisherman exploded in anger, and we then responded in equal form. He had no desire to resolve things and just wanted a payout as it was ‘our’* fault, but unleashing the full force of Fiona he was given short shrift and his demands diminished, having never met someone quite as formidable. In the face of the fishermen’s inaction Iain slipped into dive gear, donned a mask, unsheathed a knife and dived into the murky water.

With zero visibility and with nets catching on his feet and hands Iain dived time and time again hacking away at everything he found. Fortunately, most of the time he found net and line, but he also found fingers and hands and slowly the back of Ruffian was turned into a bloodbath. Iain leaked from cuts to his arms, slices from his hands, broken nails and scratched shoulders. Finally, we were free and safe, but the fear of having done permanent damage, far from help and far from safety, played on our minds. We’d also missed that 5.15 pm appointment with the bridge and had to form another plan to get under it.

The only course of action to get under the bridge was to approach before dawn and as the sun was starting to poke over the horizon, we’d slip underneath. Cerulean bravely took the lead, positioned their boat under the highest point on the bridge and Steve, at the top of the mast, relayed everything he saw. To woops of joy they were through and we then simply slipped under in their wake. Our calculations (ahem theirs) had been perfect and we could now get to the wonders of the hinterland.

Our first stop up river was at the remote village of Bombali and as we put our anchors down, we were greeted time and again by the classic Gambian greeting. Even while we were downstairs where no sign of life could be seen onboard, we could still hear ‘Hello. How are you?’ and feel the welcoming smiles.

Seeing us launch Brock the greetings and volumes increased and as Brock reached the shore it was as if the children were greeting long lost relatives. As we started our walk through the village to the infant school, we picked up child after child who clung to our hands, clamoured for our attention and exuded interest. With all this noise the whole village knew we’d arrived, chickens ran for cover and even more children emerged from every house.

Closing in on the school a hush came over the assembled hordes and an elegant man, dressed in white and exuding wisdom greeted us. We were privileged to be in the presence of the village elder who took us into his care and ushered us to those in charge of the school.

Like honoured guests we were invited to sit and introduced to pupils and teachers alike. From our bags we decanted items that we’d been told were needed. Books, crayons, pencils and pens went the way of the schoolmaster, agricultural equipment went straight to the gardens, but the footballs were the biggest hit. The children grinned nearly as much as Steve and within no time a full-on full school kick about was in motion, dust rose high into the air and volumes rose to new untold levels.

Touring the school, we learnt about the challenges the teachers and pupils face. Classrooms that in the first world would be full of tools for learning were nearly empty and walls that would be adorned with the children’s art were starkly bare. Even with this struggle the aspirations of the teachers and the children are the same as we know in Europe. Everyone wanted to learn, everyone wanted a better future and everyone knew the key to success was hard work and knowledge.**

As the school had opened their world to us, we wanted to share ours with them. Once again, being greeted with the ubiquitous ‘Hello. How are you?’, we picked up the vice principle and his entourage of teachers and took them to Ruffian. Touring our little ship they commented on our library, our technology, our tiny bed and like family we broke bread together, shared smiles and were sad to part.

The further up the river we have come the more we have been greeted by ‘Hello. How are you?’ and the more welcome we have felt. Gambia is known as the smiling heart of Africa and so far everyone we have met (with the exclusion of the nasty fisherman) have opened their hearts to us.

* Quite how it is our fault when he cast his nets around us we have no idea. Subsequently we have heard that some fisherman try to trap yachts, hoping it’ll result in something more profitable than a few fish.

** If you have any contact with a first world English speaking junior school then the teachers in Bombali would love to hear from you to exchange ideas, build links, and enable their children to engage with penpals. Please comment and we’ll send full details.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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