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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Niumi, the closest yet furthest district:A historical negligence and impoverishment

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By Muhammed Lenn, Lower Niumi

Niumi is the closest district to Banjul, yet it is the furthest. When we were much younger, on New Year’s Eve we would view the fireworks in Banjul from our village. As Jammeh started to organise his musical jamborees, we would hear Youssou N’Dour’s melodious voice echo in our houses. On their first days, Kanilai and Kunta Kinteh would ply Barra-Banjul within 20 minutes. Depending on the route one takes, it could be 6-10 kilometres on sea. This is how close Niumi is to Banjul. But Niumi is also the furthest from Banjul. For no closer district has been distanced as Niumi. Therefore, it is more expensive and takes more time to travel from Barra to Banjul than Westfield to Banjul. It is also riskier not because of God’s water, but for three successive governments have willingly failed to ensure that Niumi is connected. “Our friends who left BIA to Brussels reached long ago, while our friends are still stranded on the ferries”!

Long ago, our ancestors built an epic kingdom. One so much politically and militarily organised that they fought one of the first successful resistance wars against the British. Defeated and humiliated, the British sought for reinforcement from the French! Moreover, Niumi was economically viable, sitting on a strategic location with an enterprising people. It was a peaceful haven offering refuge to many in the face of politico-religious conflicts that gripped much of Senegambia during the 19th Century. Accordingly, it became a cosmopolitan center attracting peoples of all trades, beliefs and lands. And not so long ago, our people built the first commercial boats to ply the searoute.

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However, colonialism, laid the groundwork for Niumi’s negligence and impoverishment, leaving it the colony’s primary satellite. Jawara left us with nothing but Berending Middle and Essau Primary schools. Accordingly our people had to settle in Banjul if they wanted to access high school. After 22 years of Jammeh, we are left with no single significant institute of tertiary education. Unsurprisingly, Niumi had no sector of employment except what the ancestors left, seafaring, farming and petty trade. There is not a single industry, for packaging or assembling. This historical negligence has led to the gradual migration and resettlement of thousands of our people. This historical negligence is very much manifested in the treatment of the ferry services. Many of us have to settle in the Kombos because we dread the daily travel. The ferry has no specific departure or operational times except that it should operate 6.00-0.00. However, one could arrive at 7.00 and finds no ferry until 11:00. And on job’s Barrow’s beloved disciple, Hamat’s eco-lodge/hotel, exist in his dream only.

The ferry crises is not new, it has been there for as long as I can remember. I even remember in 2006, a few weeks after the academic year started, one of the ferries had a breakdown, thus there was no first ferry from Barra for weeks. Eventually some of us, students in Greater Banjul Area who had relatives/family friends, relocated. Others continued to struggle. Indeed it is not new. However, the frequency has increased. Nonetheless, this is not just a case of historical negligence. It is also a historical ‘de-membering’ of our people, to borrow from wa Thiong’o. Sometimes when there are late afternoon funerals, people dread going. How many of our people were laid to rest in our absence because they could not wait any longer while we waited for the ferries? How many of our people had to be laid to rest late because their corpses arrived late? How many of our people had to hire boats just to meet funeral arrangements? How many of our daughters and sons did we send to the Kombos to families, relatives and even strangers? This negligence which is also a de-membering by default, has disconnected us from our people. Today, we cannot physically connect with our people. Many of us would just go on pilgrimages – a homecoming, a visit to the graves once a year.

The ferries have destroyed marriages and families. They have led to deaths of patients on board ambulances for referral. Women have given birth on the ferries. They have gone missing numerous times? What more pain should our people endure? Didn’t people sleep in Banjul because there is no ferry at 10.00?

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Moreover, the negligence of successive governments in finding a permanent solution to the transportation sector, has also left Niumi impoverished. Transportation cost is a serious consideration for serious investors. For our enterprising people, it has made economic competition in this neoliberal neocolonial entity uncompetitive. I will tell you why. See, our women vegetable vendors, horticulturalist, wake up daily as early as 4 or 5, journey to the ferry terminal and wait for an additional hour for the ferry to load and depart, if there is a ferry. Then they spend an hour on the ferry. And over a quarter of an hour disembarking. Because, the men who offload such heavy loads are required to wait for passengers and vehicles to leave. If our people are without heavy loads, they can disembark within 5 minutes. However, that is if the ferry had landed properly. Otherwise, a vehicle would be guided to help the landers fitted smoothly on the ferry. How tragic! Since my first journey, the ferries landers have been operated manually. Someone must rotate the pulley. The lack of innovation, not even innovation, but adaptation, or matching with the times is pathetic. But the MDs drive the latest vehicles, got the latest phones and PCs.

In any case, the Niuminka, and by Niuminka, I mean the northerners and anyone using the Barra-Ferry as a vendor, and agriculturist, the middlemen and women, spends over 4 hours just to reach Banjul and disembark. Someone traveling from Basse, would have been in Soma. Someone travelling from Brikama would have been in Banjul. By the time Niuminka vendors/producers reach Serekunda, Banjul, or Brikama market, their products are no longer the same as the one from Bakau, Banjulinding, and Yundum. How do we expect the Niuminka vendors/producers to compete with other vendors. Therefore, for our women to stand and compete with other women, they must spend the same travelling time to reach the market as their fellows. But the ferries have made this possible.

Banking on transportation, those who come to directly purchase from the gardens buy at lesser prices compared to real market value. But when our people think about the transportation hustle, they are resigned to sell at giveaway prices. Is this not impoverishment? How do you convince the youth to get into horticulture? How do you expect us to be happy from an economic point of view? Still the same women have to leave the market earlier than their counterparts to get the ferry and reach home on time while her counterparts from the Kombos are waiting for the afternoon and evening buyers. Therefore, the income that they lose in waiting or rushing for transportation cost the entire nation.

But the ferry isn’t a concern for our women vendors alone. There are countless students in tertiary, secondary and basic education institutions who ply the route daily to attend school. They equally spend a lot of time waiting and on the ferries. How do we expect them to compete, and to study when they get home as their counterparts? Don’t tell me they can read onboard, who reads under the sun? Who can read standing? The ferries lack enough seats and shades to provide a resemblance of comfort zone for reading. We are a disciplined people, we allow our elders to sit! And so are health care workers. Their patients are at the mercy of the ferries. And so is it for civil servants and those in the security sector who use the ferries. And the bankers in Barra, Credit Union operatives etc. face the same problem if they are crossing from Banjul to Barra daily.

In the state of affairs, as it has been, the alternative is the boats. They are twice faster than the ferries. However, the boats come with huge disadvantages. Except for those knowledgeable in the science of the sea, one is assured of getting wet on board. Again one is assured of getting dirty. Moreover, the cheapest, one must pay is about twice the fare on ferries. Pay a minimum of 20 to be carried on and off the boats; and a minimum of 50 to the boats. That is 70 dalasi on one way. Kontongho mannaa! Daasamo mannaa!

Furthermore, there is a risk factor. While with vehicles, passengers can help ensure compliance with passenger limits as the number of passengers vehicles are allowed to carry is often marked on some vehicles. Such is lacking with the boats, hence overloading and the resultant danger. Furthermore, it’s really difficult to establish what a seaworthy boat is and if there is anyone who enforces that. Also, no one has made a quality control of the life vests that are offered onboard. Perhaps with the prayers of our ancestors to our Lord, we’ve been spared from major boat accidents. For the past three decades I don’t remember any but one. Since then, the boats have been banned from operating at night. For most of the daily commuters, trans-Gambia is not an option. Imagine telling students, those who work in Banjul to travel from Lower Niumi through trans-Gambia to Banjul. 6 hours?

With the outcry on the latest crisis, we have heard the response of the remarkably ineptitude government, and the corrupt and nepotic Management of the ferries. We have seen the Minister of Info, my good professor, but bad politician, speak as if he is a regular commuter of Barra-Banjul. He spoke as if he is a trained mariner. In his Ministry’s first statement, unfriendly conditions were blamed. Dokiter! I have crossed that point on harsher conditions. In fact, on that same day, I travelled on a boat. Safely! We do prefer the ferries especially during harsher conditions, because it can crush the waves. So it was not the harsh conditions that drifted the ferry, rather it was the operation of the ferry on a single engine which failed on sea. If a boat has an engine failure, they drop the anchors to prevent drifting and quickly try to fix it or call for rescue. What the Dokiter, my good professor but bad young politician failed to explain is the standard operating procedures in such cases. Can the ferry be stopped before it drifts to an uncharted route? How long did it take for the ferry to send a distress signal? How was the signal sent? How long did it take for emergency teams to get to the ferry? How prepared were those teams? Who certifies a ferry before it departs? What checks are made? Dokita is no expert of the sea. However, as Minister of Info, he should have asked these questions. As a person of knowledge, who instilled curiosity, he could not have missed this. But if you join an ineptitude lazy government, you become defensive of failures. For this is what my good professor did.

And so Adu went to inspect, acting tough and concerned! But Adu was too late. For weeks, people have suffered. During the Koriteh, he could have gone to see how people are suffering. He could have apologised for all the trouble during his Koriteh speech but he didn’t. So his visit was the least reassuring. And when his Minister for Transportation spoke, it was no better. He said they are purchasing new ferries. Can they share the specs for the new ferries? At what cost? Where are the managers and engineers who bought the two ferries that could not anchor on the landers? Have they employed qualified engineers? What is the lifespan of the ferries they are purchasing? Furthermore, the Minister said they are going to conduct feasibility studies for a bridge. We have heard this before. In 2017, while Adu was Moses, he announced that the foundation stone for the Barra-Banjul bridge would be laid and works would begin. It has been 7 damned years. Was that announcement a lie? Was it just a dream? We still remember when Jammeh too announced that Barra-Banjul would be connected by a train. It never came.

Even within the higher echelons of government, I have heard people passionately argue against the construction of a bridge. Even within our people, some do argue that government would never give us a bridge because of the revenue generated. To date, we have not seen a single report showing that constructing a ferry is not feasible. I don’t know of a study that shows the ferries are more profitable. How much does the Ferries spent on fuel, maintenance, employees? Certainly, employment is good, but Ferries is a center for nepotism, corruption and favouritism. There are employees who are just there because their relatives work there or have influences. People can dodge queues because they have the money. The rich and powerful are given priorities so much that it seems as there is no waiting time.

Solving the crisis is in the national interest. However, even for our people to express their dissatisfaction, in the national interest, the government denied them a permit. Our national assembly members, ministers and directors from Niumi within the government have failed us. Those who have a say in government have failed us. They should have led a protest even without a permit! If I were a director in this government, I would have resigned. Well, I have my pen, and I shall write! The Management of the Ferries is intact, no one has resigned. The negligence and impoverishment we face is manifested everywhere in varied ways. If they wanted to solve it, they would have done it long ago. Didn’t Jammeh turn Kanilai into a mansion? Didn’t Barrow turn Mangkamang into a villa? How much did they seddaleh amongst their favourite media houses? Hopefully, our people will pay back in the polls in 2026. If they bring a ferry, it would be for their interests, let them bring a bridge or tunnel.

To be continued

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