Banjul – turning a corner is no longer crossing a line

After breakfast I prepare to leave Bakau. Mustapha, who I confuse with Khalifa, asks how I’m getting to Senegal. ‘Taxi to Banjul, Ferry to Barra, taxi to Amdallai, walk through the border post on the Gambian side and into Karang, via ‘poste de controle’ on the Senegalese side, then sept-place (shared taxi) to Mbour.’

Wow, says Mustapha. Then, as if he has learned his English from the Artful Dodger, ‘save you some quids’. I buy my bottle of water and breakfast. I count the paper Dalasi notes. Each one brings me face-to-face with Yahya Jammeh. I ask Mustapha for a pen before I hand over the notes. He asks me why? ‘Well, maybe it’s time to cross out Yahya and draw President Barrow in his place.’ He laughs, neither disagreeing nor agreeing: ‘Printing notes is expensive business.’

Joking and comedy is serious business. It Is something I never would have risked in The Gambia in 2006. But the atmosphere here is different to before. Only one person volunteers that Jammeh is ‘a very bad man.’ Many do not rush to critique him. Yet this willingness to take part in critical comedy, if awkwardly, is the turning of a corner.

As I reflect on this in my taxi to the ferry terminal, we turn another corner. Next to a roundabout in Banjul stands ‘Arch 22’. Jammeh built the arch in 1996 to celebrate his armed coup two years earlier in which he overthrew the democratically elected government. At present, Wikipedia states that ‘because the stability of the construction is in doubt, the Arch has been closed to traffic’. Yet, when I last visited in 2006, it was guarded and only Jammeh was permitted to drive under it. Today, we exit the roundabout and drive under the Arch. As does everyone else. I doubt that the stability of the arch was ever an issue. But the climate of fear and interdiction around it clearly served to address Jammeh’s doubts about the ethical stability of his own government.

Jammeh’s arch may still be here, and his banknotes, but the palpable fear has gone. Problems and abuses may remain: I know nothing about the new government. But I find no obvious reasons to critique it during my brief transit.

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