Gambia And UK Open Fort Bullen Museum, A Bastion Against The Slave Trade

A fort in The Gambia that was instrumental in stopping the slave trade has been given a new museum, the Daily Observer reports.

Fort Bullen was one of two forts at the mouth of the River Gambia, placed there in 1826 to stop slave ships from sailing out into the Atlantic. It stands on the north bank of the river, and along with Fort James on the south bank constitutes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fort Bullen has been open to visitors for some time and tourism officials hope the new museum will add to its attractiveness as a historic site.

The museum was financed by the British High Commission in The Gambia. The country used to be a British colony. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1807 and soon took steps to eradicate it throughout its domains. Of course, before that time the empire made huge profits from the slave trade, with the River Gambia being one of its major trading centers for human flesh. One hopes this aspect of British history isn’t ignored in the new museum.

[Photo courtesy Leonora Enking]

Sit or Squat: Website helps you find a public toilet anywhere using your cell phone

One of my fondest memories of the U.S. when I lived in a dusty village in The Gambia without indoor plumbing was the smell of my grandparents’ bathroom. I remembered it as smelling clean and fresh, like Charmin. Oh, how I missed it. (Actually, it might have been White Cloud, come to think of it.)

But, regardless, that’s not the reason to sing Charmin praises today. Today, it’s about public toilets. Charmin has a website that helps travelers locate a public toilet anywhere in the world. If you have a public toilet you know about that isn’t included, you can add it. The beauty of this system is you can access it with your phone.

When you type in a location, up comes a map with markers showing where the toilets are. For example, when I typed in Venice, Italy I found one toilet. Copenhagen, Denmark has three. Columbus, Ohio is a real toilet mecca. There are so many public toilets, the markers cover each other up in certain places.

Banjul, The Gambia doesn’t have any public toilet markers as of yet. Here’s a tip, for The Gambia that I have found works in other places as well. If you’re in a touristy area, duck into a hotel and look like you belong. There’s bound to be a toilet, just don’t ask where it is.

By the way, I used my computer to access the system. I’m a dinosaur when it comes to technology. My cell phone doesn’t even flip. I don’t even know how to play the games. But, if you go to the website you can get what you need to use your phone.

For a better description to how this service works, check out Tom Barlow’s post on Wallet Pop. He’s the guy who clued me in on Charmin’s endeavor and has the latest gismos.

When is it stupid to step on a ferry or climb in a large wooden boat?

The news of the recent ferry accident in the Philippines reminded me of the many ferries I’ve taken in my travels. The journey across the wide mouth of the Gambia River between Banjul, the capital, and Barra, on the side of The Gambia where I lived, comes to mind the most.

Sometimes I made the trip in a large open wooden boat called a pirogue that would have given my mother a heart attack if she had known what I was up to.

When traveling in countries where bridges are scarce, ferry crossings are necessary. If you want to get from here to there, you step on. Generally, thoughts of accidents and the lack of life preservers are fleeting. Instead, one enjoys the thrill of watching one shore grow further away as another comes closer.

In the Gambia, a ferry is filled with people, cars, trucks, animals, motorcycles–basically whatever can be crammed on. It’s a mish mash of no order in particular. I always headed to the top deck to escape the crush.

Of all the crossings I’ve made in my life–and I’m not sure I could count them all, there’s only one that I should have never tried. Once, in a hurry to get to Banjul and not willing to wait for calmer waters, I climbed into one of the large wooden boats as it rocked furiously on the churning river.

A storm might have been coming in, but the owner of the boat, probably looking to make some money, embarked on the trip with about 70 people perched on the wooden boards that served as benches. Every once in a while, the top edge of the boat dipped within a few inches of the surface. We all shrieked each time.

Halfway out, my friend said to me, “If the boat turns over, swim away from it as fast as you can and wait.”

The idea was that the people who couldn’t swim would drown and we could swim back to the boat to hold on until rescued. If we stayed around the boat, people would pull us under.

Sure, I nodded, imagining myself a very strong swimmer, and not thinking too deeply about what such an accident would actually look like.

The truth is, I’m not a strong swimmer but at age 22 that sounded like a plausible plan. As years have passed, I realize just how dumb we were to get on that boat. And, lucky that we made it to the other side.

The last time I took the big ferry across, a cow fell off of it into the water after the ferry pulled away from shore. As I watched the cow swim towards land, its head and horns visible, I wondered just how the owner would get it back. The great thing about The Gambia is that someone would have held onto that cow until the owner came back to get it, even if it took all day and more.

This is a picture I took of the ferry in The Gambia. I was heading to the top deck. The quality stinks, (it’s an old photo, but you get the idea.) For a better picture, click here.

The top picture is of one of the boats similar to the one I took whenever I didn’t take a ferry. The crossing was not quick.

For a detailed account of the ferry crossings in Banjul and a visual look at how wide that river is, click here.

Christmas Eve in The Gambia: One holy night

Christmas Eve in N’Jowara, The Gambia years ago was one night where it felt like world peace has a chance. Instead of heading down to spend Christmas near the capital, Banjul where a group of us rented an apartment year round, I decided to have my Peace Corps friends come to my village for a village Christmas.

Having eight people show up on Christmas Eve day for two nights of comfort and joy in a place that doesn’t have running water or electricity takes a bit of planning. One of my Gambian friends took me on his motorcycle from village to small village a couple days earlier in search of chickens to buy for Christmas dinner. (Chicken and dumplings was about as close to a traditional meal as I could think of considering my gas stove oven was not much bigger than a bread box.

Chickens are hard to come by since they are considered special occasion food. The eggs are also valuable so people want to hold onto their egg-laying birds. Without electricity there’s no way to refrigerate meat, therefore all animals for parties are bought alive and kept until it’s time to cook them. We did buy four chickens and bought them back to my village with their feet tied together and slipped over the handlebars. Yep, it’s rough being a chicken in The Gambia.

Water for bathing and cooking also became a task where guests had to help out. Luckily, water in my village was not a problem even though there were only wells. (Now, there is one stand-pipe.) We were able to keep buckets coming. As soon as we boiled a kettle of water for drinking and it was cool, we started another one.

When the villagers heard I was having a slew of guests for Christmas, they were as excited as I was. Although, The Gambia is predominately Muslim, for the people living in my village, my decision to celebrate one of the most prominent holidays from my culture was exciting. Seeing what the village toubob (non-African) was going to do next was always a treat the other days of the year. Seeing what I did for Christmas was a bonanza. There was great interest in my small artificial tree that I festooned with ornaments–some handmade, some sent by my mother, and the Christmas cards I had scotch taped to my white washed walls. I tied a piece of red ribbon around each of the white candles I bought for the occassion and placed one in each of my five windows. As my friends arrived in whatever way they managed to get to my village (there wasn’t a regular taxi service,) shaking off red dust from their backpacks, thrilled that some of the homesickness of being away for the holidays would be chased away, the feeling of good will grew.

Christmas Eve night was when goodwill spilled out past our own gathering. As night fell, the village looked more like Bethlehem than any Christmas card picture I’d ever seen. The trees that rustled gently in the shadows and the men with their long caftans that were illuminated by the kerosene lamps set in shop doorways cast a certain holy night glow. The cattle were lowing, the goats were bleating, and if a woman on a donkey, a man with a staff, and some wise men rounded the corner, it would have been like a live nativity for sure.

I can’t remember whose idea it was that we should go Christmas caroling. Since one of us had a guitar to help us stay on key, why not? We bought candy to give out while we went from compound to compound sharing one of our almost extinct holiday traditions. Who carols anymore?

My favorite stop was at the compound of one of the village elder women, Mama Badja. Mama Badja was one of my most favorite people who always made me feel good, even on my lowest days. This particular night she was so tickled with the whole scene of us gathered in her yard that she grabbed my hand, chortling out, “Amie M’Bye” my African name) and danced to whatever carol we were singing.

That was a moment of transformation when it didn’t matter which religion was being celebrated. The point was feeling as if the world’s people were one. If it would have been possible to bottle up the air that surrounded us that night, there would be world peace for sure.