Sailing up the river to the heart of Gambia

August 02, 1992|By Susan LaRocco | Susan LaRocco,Contributing Writer

When the tidal current began to run upriver, we raised our anchor from the muddy bottom of the River Gambia and began a voyage back in time to a world we had never experienced.

We had arrived in Gambia, a country smaller than Connecticut, on the hump of West Africa, after almost two years of continuous travel on our 42-foot sailboat, Cygnus. It had weathered North Atlantic storms, carried us up the Seine to Paris, anchored off the little Irish fishing village, where my husband, Ed Quigley, was raised, and survived a knockdown near Lisbon. We had visited 18 countries and sailed 20,000 nautical miles. But this was our first visit to sub-Saharan Africa.

Making our way up the broad river at a leisurely five miles an hour, we saw storks, pelicans, herons and cranes as well as other birds with enormous wing spans that we could not identify. Dense, dusty green mangroves lined the banks. At Farafenni, where the Trans-Gambian Highway ferry crosses, the river began to narrow, first to about one-half mile, later to less than a quarter mile.

On the third day, the vegetation began to change from mangroves to low nipa palms. There we saw monkeys hiding under the trees. Farther upriver the palms were taller, like those we knew in Florida. Here the monkeys swung from the branches and chattered as they played.

As we continued up river, we began to see villagers. Women at the water's edge were washing themselves, their children and clothing. Men were dipping buckets for irrigation water. Children chased each other, running and jumping on small piers that had been built during the British colonial era.

Farther back from the river, we could occasionally see women working in rice paddies. Small dugout canoes, sometimes with an old cloth sack for a sail, made their way up and down the river. Without fail, adults and children waved enthusiastically as we passed.

Each night we anchored at the mouth of a small creek near a bend in the river, or off a village. We found the villages courtesy of a British Admiralty chart from a survey done by Lt. R. Owen in 1826.

A night near Kudang

The night that we spent near the village of Kudang was especially memorable. We anchored about an hour before sunset and decided not to go ashore. It had been a sunny day, and we both were exhausted from the heat. Sitting in the cockpit of our floating home with amenities such as a freezer full of meat, a hot water shower, gas cooking stove and diesel engine for power when the wind failed us, we watched the village life.

The homes were huts with thatched or corrugated tin roofs. Cooking was done on open fires; water was carried from the river in buckets. As darkness fell, the only light flickered from the small cooking fires. In the shadows, we saw people moving from one fire to another and heard the murmur of voices. A baby cried persistently. We felt isolated and strange, so far from the life that we had known prior to our travels.

Another night we anchored off a dilapidated government pier that marked the village of Bambali, hidden from the river by rice paddies and low vegetation. As we tidied the boat and sat down to relax, we started a conversation with one of the men on the pier. Junkung told us that he was a school teacher in the local primary school. He told us about the village, the school, his family and invited us to tour the school in the morning.

A school tour

At the appointed hour, we went ashore and started up the dusty path to the village. The primary school had six grades with about 100 students.

First, we were taken to the office, where we were formally introduced to each teacher. We had told Junkung that we would like to photograph each class, so, beginning with grade one, we made the rounds. Each grade had a separate room with the children sitting as still as could be when the foreign visitors were brought in. The lucky ones had a copybook and pencil; most did not even have those supplies. The entire school had about 10 textbooks.

After the picture-taking sessions were complete, Junkung, the teachers and a student took us to the school garden. Here, the wife of the headmaster (and the teacher of the second grade) proudly presented us with a head of lettuce, a large tomato and a carrot.

Junkung then took us to his mud hut home and introduced us to his wife ("She is not educated," he said, which meant that she spoke no English.) Junkung had not yet become a qualified teacher, but he was attending the university in Banjul during summer breaks. He proudly showed us his copybook, in which he had laboriously taken lecture notes. (When he last wrote to us, he was close to completing his program of study.) subhed A visit to Georgetown

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