How to get around, Gambian style...
TLDR: An anthropological examination of five main forms of public transport in The Gambia
Public transportation is one of my favorite adventures in any country visited!
I find it baffling how often tourists come to a new place and skip exploring public transportation. How could you go to London and not take a double-decker bus? Or NYC and skip out on the subway? How could you travel through Latin America and miss out on the local bus system? Or Europe and avoid the Eurail?
In my humble opinion as an aspiring anthropologist, local transportation is a key experience that helps to define a culture. Punctuality (or lack thereof) speaks volumes about a nation and the way transport is shared (or not) reveals much about the people.
The Gambia errs on the not-at-all punctual side and believes firmly that everyone-always-shares. Of course, the same sharing mentality is on full display anytime food is served in a local village. No one gets an individual plate; rather, everyone gathers around a large bowl and shares. If you’re lucky, you get your own spoon, but even if utensils aren’t provided, all are welcome so long as you only indulge with your right hand (the left hand is reserved for toilet time in nations like The Gambia where toilet paper is scarce).
In short, eating habits are equally clear indicators for cultural norms as transportation.
My first week in The Gambia, the bus system seemed chaotic and perplexing, but with a little knowledge it became simple and entertaining.
In this post, I’ll discuss the five basic forms of public transportation in The Gambia:
Yellow Taxi / Town Trip
Long Distance Bus
The most common form of public transportation in The Gambia is—without a doubt—the humble Gelli Gelli.
The Gelli Gelli is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get when it comes to these worn-down passenger vans. These low-fare Gelli Gellis are notoriously in all manner of disrepair. During my short stay here, I’ve witnessed the following:
The sliding passenger door fell off in transit (we made a u-turn into oncoming traffic, picked up the broken door, and tied it to the roof for later repair as we continued the journey doorless)
The engine stopped and the young apprentice kicked the driver out, lifted the front seat to reveal the battery, and poured water on the smoking terminal connections
The apprentice (and several teenage boys hanging off the back) push-started our rolling wheeled contraption after every stop
An entire Gelli Gelli caught fire and burned to a smoldering heap of ash only to be left in the road for several days (luckily, I wasn’t aboard when it caught fire)
The handle fell off and is now opened and closed by an attached rope or wire (this is the most common occurrence in the list — in fact, you’re more likely to have a missing handle than not)
While Gelli Gelli pickup locations are always shifting (especially as new infrastructure is going into place for the coming OIC), there are a few rules that seem to exist across the board. Firstly, the fare is calculated using a hub mentality. For example, on the new OIC road (which wasn’t paved when I first arrived, but now has a smooth new blacktop) there are several well-known hubs: Coastal Road, Turn Table, SeneGambia, Traffic Light, etc.
The fee to go from one hub to the next—regardless of whether you start at the beginning or board almost at the end—is 12 Delasi (~$0.20) although most drivers are lazy and don’t want to make change, so they just charge you 10 D. If, however, you’re going across two hubs, they round up to 25 D (~$0.40). Typically, hubs are several kilometers apart, although that varies significantly. For example, Turn Table to Brikama is two hub stops and takes about thirty minutes. Turn Table to Traffic Light costs the same amount, but only takes ten minutes. Go figure.
Fees are typically collected by a young boy (called “Aprendi” in Wolof—the local market language) who is often a family member of the driver. Somewhere mid journey the Aprendi starts yelling for “pass” and people begin methodically handing up their fare, row by row. The apprentice holds a wad of cash in his left hand and exchanges bills with his right, often not giving out change until much later in the journey as he collects the necessary bills from another passenger. I am continually impressed with the ability of these young boys to keep track of these calculations as people board and disembark along the journey.
Between hub stops, a passenger can get off at any point. The destination is typically told to the Apprentice when the fare is paid, but you can simply yell at the driver when your junction is next: “mya watcha” in Wolof means “my stop”. When the driver (whose very original name in Wolof is “driver”) decides that the “toubab” (“white guy”) can’t actually speak the local language, banging as hard as you can on the roof or side wall of the van is the perfect indicator to inform the driver that it’s time to randomly pull off the side of the road and stop.
One need not go to a hub spot to get on board, except at peak hours. Simply stand by the side of the road and wave down any passing vehicle. If they honk, hold up the number of passengers in your party. It took me a couple weeks to figure this nuance out, as I couldn’t determine why vans with empty seats were passing me. Turns out, when they honked and I held up my hand to hail them, I was indicating that I had five people in my party. Once that was cleared up and I began lifting one finger only, rides became much more abundant!
On a long haul journey, the van will pause at each hub spot (or sometimes randomly in the middle of nowhere) for as long as necessary to refill passengers. This could mean you’re waiting in the hot sun for ten minutes or more. On the contrary, some rides fill up quickly, so you find locals pushing their way to the front to ensure they get a spot, especially at peak evening hours.
A van is considered “full” when there are at least four passengers on each row. While passenger vans vary in width, the “row rule” seems firm across Gelli Gellis. It doesn’t matter how fat passengers are, seats hold four across.
Children don’t pay fare, but are expected to sit in the mother’s lap (or the lap of a stranger if the mother is traveling with multiple kids). I say mother because it is rare to see children traveling with the father. My favorite mom-move is the newborn handoff. As she loads or unloads the bus, she passes her kid to a random stranger to hold. The same rule applies to buckets of vegetables or cages of chickens. Goats, on the other hand, get tied to the roof rack.
As the van pulls into the next hub, it’s the job of the apprentice to stick his head out the side window and yell the next hub destination, followed by “ah”.
“Turn Table, Turn Table, Turn Table ah!”
Sometimes—especially at peak hours—the Gelli Gelli is only accepting two-hub fares. I was perplexed by this at first, but I soon learned that even if I wasn’t going all the way to the second hub, I could take the ride as long as I was willing to fork over the double fare. When waiting the next random Gelli Gelli to stop could take an hour or more, I find the additional $0.20 is worth paying! :)
In short, Gelli Gellis are amazing and—second only to the nimble moto—my preferred method of transportation in The Gambia!
Yellow Taxi / Town Trip
I mention these together because the same vehicle—the yellow taxi—pulls double duty. Yellow vans (Gelli Gellis) are not to be confused with yellow taxis, which are sedans with an unmistakable lime green stripe down the side.
The yellow taxi has two types of drivers: the always-moving-get-what-you-can type and the never-moving-unless-you’re-paying-the-long-fare type. It seems to be more of a mentality than anything else, and—upon careful observation—it seems as though the lazier method is the more profitable.
When a yellow taxi (or any random vehicle for that matter) is in motion, it adopts the same basic rules and fares as a Gelli Gelli. The exception, of course, is that instead of packing four across, the taxi fits three in the backseat and one upfront. Again, children ride for free, and I’ve seen as many as four kids packed into one taxi (a kid in each lap) in addition to the normal four passengers. Yes, that meant some snotty nosed child I’ve never met before rode on my lap during that entire leg of the journey.
Most yellow taxis, however, congregate at hub spots, turn their engines off, save gas, and wait for someone that needs to go to a more obscure location. You see, if you don’t live near the main line of a Gelli Gelli, you either have to walk or fork over the extra fare in what’s known locally as a “town trip”.
No matter where you’re going, a town trip will cost you at least 100 delasi (~$1.50) and can easily double or triple in price depending on the destination and, unfortunately, the skin color of the ride requester. For this reason, I typically avoid the stationary taxi, even when they incessantly barrage you with questions, as if you cannot see them sitting patiently for the next ride. Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?
Long Distance Bus
When I decided, on a whim, to travel inland to the Kankuran Festival to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of slavery in this nation, I had my first encounter with the bus system.
Previously, I had traveled to the same location with a Member of Parliament and the journey took a little over three hours. When I took the local bus, however, the journey would cost me 180 delasi (<$3.00) for a seven hour journey! Seven hours!
The buses in this nation depart from a main bus terminal on opposite ends of the nation. The first bus departs around 6am from each direction and the last bus leaves around 3pm. I was on the latter bus, which—as it turned out—was not the daily express bus, unfortunately.
Unlike Gelli Gellis, these buses do not pick up people at random locations (although they will stop at any random location you wish as long as you yell loud enough to get the driver’s attention). To maximize the speed of the journey, buses only pick up passengers as designated pickup points.
These buses easily hold 50-100 passengers and are used primarily along the main paved road traversing the country.
While the Gelli Gelli is my preferred inner city transit, my all-time favorite transportation is the nimble moto. I feel more comfortable on the back of a motorcycle with a local at the helm than I do in any other form of transportation.
In the city, motos are hard to come by and they aren’t a paid form of transportation. In other countries, namely Southeast Asia, you can wave down any moto and hop on. This is not the case in The Gambia. Shared motorcycle rides are typically only shared with someone you know, at least in the city.
In the villages, however, motos take on entirely new roles. The further away from the main road, the less options for transportation exist and the more often motos become viable. In fact, the same rules for the stationary taxi apply to motos in the villages. They only move when they have a specific ride and the fares are determined through negotiation in advance of the ride.
The moto is my favorite form of transportation and—in the villages—the fares are reasonable. You can hire a moto locally for the day and the driver will wait on you wherever you go for around 200 delasi (~$3.00), especially if you volunteer to pay for the fuel. In the village, a 200-delasi-day is a better wage than most, who are surviving on less than $1 a day.
I’ve never taken a green tourist taxi.
They cost 10X the price of a yellow taxi and are reserved exclusively for the “toubabs” (“white tourists”). As any Gambian will tell you, I’ve been here long enough that I’m a Gambian, not a toubab.
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