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Friday, February 26, 2021

Letters: I love The Gambia

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Let me be clear: I love The Gambia. No doubt about that.

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Since our European winter of 2009/2010 I visit ‘The Smiling Coast’ every year with a big smile, even in the time the country was ruled in an undemocratic way. Not that I shared myself behind the former leader(s) – on the contrary – but the people are…. well… let’s say happy, engaging! An example to the world.

I even needed to visit The Gambia this year. I did not want to leave my friends to their own devices in this for everybody so difficult time. No tourist season, no income… What to do? Before I left Holland I already sent ten fully packed boxes, a bike and a huge (second hand) tv-screen for our charity project on the North Bank. The ideas would arise over there. This time, I had to do a Corona test in my country. No problem, it costed less than half an hour of my time. They send the results by mail. Flying from Amsterdam Airport was too expensive and too difficult, so we – my wife and me – chose to leave from Brussels in Belgium. The extra two hour drive we took for granted.

I love The Gambia.

As we arrived and drove to our hotel the same endless rubbish along the streets. The same old cars, the same corrugated iron cottages, the same endless row of clothing sellers along the road. We enjoyed the beach, the chitchat with locals and our trip to the North Bank… The hundreds of kids were kind as always, the sun was endless. Only the coming Corona test worried us somewhat. How would this turn out? Would the test be safe, be in time if we did undergo this only 48 hours before our flight home?  

At 10.15 AM on that Friday morning we arrived at the Independence Stadium. Just after the entrance we had to write our names on a piece of paper. We walked to the great big white tent in front of us to be tested. There the misery begun. No day care, sign or explanation whatsoever. Just a long line of waiting people. Halfway the huge tent one table with four persons behind it. Two of them with a palm top in their hands doing the registration. As we wanted to know what the procedure was, we asked one of them what to do. ‘Just wait till your name will be called,’ one of them answered. After waiting half an hour – in which only six people were registered, we asked the man again what to do. This could take hours and even the testers did not arrive yet! Finally they did, yes, around 11.45 AM… Two of them: one for labeling the tubes, one for the Corona test itself. As after 12 they finally started doing their work, we decided to escape from this chaos. We would be back before 2 PM, as we heard they would close at that time.

Returning to the tent we realized that the registration barely progressed. Still about a hundred people in the tent and still awful hours ahead of us. Only one ‘toebab’ grumbled loudly he had never seen such an unorganized shit. There were people waiting already from eight o’clock in the morning! How could this be? No reaction of the locals in the first instance, but as the waiting lasted and lasted, they started murming too. Of course, they would be used to it. The flame in the pan was the sudden announcement of the tester. He was tired and wanted to go home. Tired after two hours? Why didn’t he arrive at eight in the morning, why just before twelve? The locals threw themselves on top of him. This could not happen! Waiting all those hours for nothing? And would it be better tomorrow?

After the comeback of the tester another surprise hit the tired people. Praying time! All the officials just disappeared unannounced… Again waiting, another half an hour. And what a joke: the testers just left their administration and filled tubes full of results behind them! The big blue box was even left open; everybody could take advantage of the situation!

I love The Gambia.

The morning after the nightmare before. We decided not to go to early to the National Public Health Laboratory in Kotu as that would not make much sense. And, would it take us ten minutes, half an hour to receive just some results? Unfortunately we soon realized this would be another lost day of our stay. No information at all, no explanation what to do at this big black gate. Just waiting people of over the place. As he did not wanted to wait another day, a ‘toebab’ took his chance when the gate opened for an ambulance. Ten minutes later two big rifled soldiers full returned him to his starting point. He shouted: ‘Yesterday I waited eight hours! Do I have to wait another eight hours for just receiving a result? Why is this not organized better? Is that so difficult?’ Two minutes later a riot started. Locals were kicking against the gate, lots of people were shouting that this was ‘a disgrace for there country. This government had no direction.’ People were tired. One lady: ‘They promised change in 2016, but what happened? Almost nothing! People prefer returning to the old situation… The wrong people still put most of the the money international partners like the EU, UN and IMF gave, and which supposed to be for Corona testing and health development, in their own pockets.’ I was shocked. Not of that small riot or this money issue, but that whoever I spoke they all preferred the old situation from before 2016. The situation when there was no freedom at all, even no freedom to speak…

Waiting from 12 to 6 PM, and – after big pressure for handing over our results – we were just in time to grab a taxi to the airport, were… another chaos appeared. A mess entering the airport, people forcing me to weigh my luggage at their illegal weighing scales, counters that did not work, officials that couldn’t stop passengers telling them to fil in forms, walking to another departure building without any instructions or signs…  What is wrong with this country? Still that same poor system after so many years… What is so difficult to wake up from the slumber? A Gambia with this institution will never make a step forward.

To top it all off we noticed that only Dutch had to show a negative test before entering the plane. The in Belgium living passengers – like Belgiums, Senegalese and Gambians – did not… They would be tested at arrival in Brussels. Shocking, ridiculous. All that waiting and frustration for nothing. And even ‘positive’ people could sit next to you in the plane…

But yes, I still love The Gambia…

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