Rekindling the Banjul energy – A development scheme for an ageing city

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Banjul is the capital city of The Gambia occupying a land space of approximately 12km2. It is an island with a population of only 35,000 in 2003 which fell to 31,000 by 2013 – a 10.7% decline. The population has since been on a constant decline. Banjul is the seat of government with the location of ministries and the major government office headquarters, and it is the main seaport and transiting point for goods to the hinterland. Its location on the mouth of the river gave the colonial settlers the advantage of controlling trade along the river and destined it to be an efflorescent commercial center apart from being the seat of government. Its physical position is a natural gift for its function.

As a city that has its existence tangled with colonial rule, latter day administrative system and the hub of commercial activity, Banjul has its own quaint existence with a variety of history, culture and development. It has a tale that can be narrated by almost every Gambian that passed through and/or settled there. Each tale can unravel personal experiences that have left indelible memories of this quaint enclave – from being nostalgic and romantic to being political – whether as a student from the far flung corner of the Gambia, as a trader looking for business opportunities or as an employee in the public or private sector. No matter where one hails from, this city, has found a heart to receive and provide an abode to the ‘stranger’ – whether in the homes of the Jannehs, the Njayens and the Fayens, Denton, Dobson or Lancaster Streets, Banjul has variety – in culture and history. It has the capacity of making one feel “Banjulian” and at home – an accommodation that gives it a national character providing almost everyone with an opportunity to carve a cultural or economic niche in this tiny island of compassion and national landlord of a wayfarer.

It has been a bustling city in the heydays of the re-export trade. It had a fewer educated class amidst a communal family system. It was also a settlement of family compounds with a limited capacity for intensive housing development amidst waterlogged soil conditions. It is in close proximity to what used to be the main semi industrial zone of Denton Bridge (Saro) and gave greater accessibility to the hinterland by sea than road. It had a small population where everyone knew everyone else but was also rapidly producing a growing number of an educated generation with a changing family system from communal to a more nuclear type of living. It had fewer vehicles plying the strident streets full of life of ‘mba-bas’ drumming and religious nights of gaamos. Banjul had a tale of exuberant ambiance and of serenity bordering on religiosity and stringent discipline in the “daras’ with “magi-daras” but it also had a general atmosphere of tolerance and social cohesiveness. It was a tale of seemingly never ending prosperity and sovereign administrative authority that has caste some emotional affinity into all who passed through it or simply stayed on. This nostalgic indomitable character of the city gives it a special place in the hearts of many who have found it necessary to decry the indignities that are becoming a symbol of a city whose tale has been richly imbued with diversity as a national centre of economic and administrative gravity.

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I have always taken the social media platform as a good teacher – for me that is – learning a lot and getting inspired by some issues raised therein. Banjul has now extended its cry to this platform. A Banjul fever seems to be rising high, taking a high dose of nostalgia, genuine concern and patriotic pride. The emerging tale of the city portrays a rather gloomy outlook – extremely poor infrastructure, be it roads, drains, or housing, a failing economy and a bleak sociological transformation. Our dear capital seems to be losing it. It seems to be surviving only out of a natural endowment as a special physical location after being robbed of its ambience of a buoyant trade and inadvertently being politically and administratively cheated with neglect, a dim vision and poor planning.

I have a second tale for this rather old fashioned city that has given the likes of me an abode to pursue secondary education and make wonderful friends. It is a tale of re-invigoration, a tale of hope and a tale of renewal, planning and resourcefulness. As a seaport city, the city is losing its luster with not only the low import activity but in competition with the development of road infrastructure as a faster means of transporting goods to the hinterland. River transport has gone ‘caput’– the days of MV Apapa, Lady Wright and groundnut clippers have gone and not replaced. The educated class of the indigenes have taken on a more nuclear family system, family compounds are no more feasible as a practical social unit partly due to overcrowding and inadequate accommodation space for a growing family. This phenomenon is not unique to Banjul alone; it is happening in the inner areas of the Bakaus and the Brikamas (Satay Ba needs its regeneration programme of its own). The new generation moves out to newly established and planned middle income neighborhoods of the Fajaras, and all the other urban spill-over areas. Positively, this is progress but it also has its concomitant negative impact too. Family ownership is not the best incentive to develop landed property – what everybody owns belongs to none. Evidentially homes are deteriorating with little or no repairs or maintenance.

The road infrastructure is old and unsupportive of the heavy duty vehicles plying it and the increase in the number of vehicles. The rains seem to mercilessly reinforce the indignities of an ailing city instilling frustration, if not irritation and perhaps desperation, with the potholes and pools of murky water in the streets filled with overflowing drains of raw sewage. This abominable condition of the drainage system simply rubs the salt in the wounds of a moaning city – moaning for attention and moaning for the return of the glories of the past, the bustle, the ambience and the extended family bonds of togetherness. The seaport activity is gradually encroaching into the residential zone – the bowel of social interaction. Other areas are being absorbed as warehouses as a “dead end” investment activity that is turning the city into a ghost town. With improved transportation, commuting is the norm for non-residents as opposed to yester-years when students had to stay with families and employees stayed overnight – all adding to the pain and ageing process of the city.

The Albert Market monopolized the business activities of the region as it used to be the center of commerce. This market is now weakly competing with Serekunda and the suburbs as a hub for the Tobaski and Koriteh shopping. The tourist markets of “Ganaw Marchè” and Marina Parade have shifted to the tourism locations of Bakau and Senegambia. Even some branches of government are sneaking out to new locations outside the city. The relocation of Box Bar competitive sporting activity has robbed the city of a now vibrant and a social magnet of football competition. Banjul was once the heartbeat of night life with night clubs of Sahara, City Pride, a floating Cheetah II, social clubs such as Banjul Club, the birthplace of Super Eagles and I-Fang Bondi – pioneers of the Senegambia music of today, parades of “fanals” (lanterns) and other major events of celebration (regatta, ‘march past’, etc), not to mention the sporting events – football, cricket, tennis, basketball, volleyball and even indoor games at the youth centre. Some of these have been lost and some dissipated to other centers and locations. The dynamics of the decline are many with everything and everybody leaving the city behind and leaving it alone to fight it out on its own.

This tale of ostensible gloom and the flight of luster should be seen as a transient condition of a city that that can rebounce to its days of glory if the challenges are met head on with deliberate efforts of planning and management. The assault on the pride of our capital city has to stop and there are all indications that its warriors of goodwill are amassing all the arms of resourcefulness to abate the situation.
This may be a rather simplistic diagnosis of Banjul as a moaning city that still keeps its pride; it is only surviving on its natural and locational advantages whilst being gradually abandoned and neglected by so many that have once found solace in its abode.

A city has been treated as a living organism that has a life and a life cycle that needs to be taken care of through an iterative process of planning in all its aspects. It requires thinking ahead, anticipating and taking measures that would abate negative consequences of this cycle. The blighted condition of Banjul can be briefly attributed to a failing economy of the city, changing demographics, poor and egregious infrastructure and blatant neglect and lack of or bad planning. Compressing these challenges into a ball of resourcefulness it can generate hope and rekindle the losing energy of the city.

In the short term, it is necessary to improve the state of the infrastructure – the drains and the roads. The capacity of the Bund Road Pump House needs to be reassessed in the light of the impact of increased flood water. The major drains supplying the pump should be re-examined, cleaned and have a maintenance programme put in place. The sewage disposal system requires a similar project in order to avert a long break down that leads to raw sewage overflowing into the streets. Approximately 10 kilometers of roads should have a cement concrete finish. Such roads should be ‘life line’ roads of the city – Independence Drive through Hagan Street out to the Cotton Street through Bund Road to the main highway. This project should branch through Russell Street, along Wellington to the Ferry Terminal connecting to Cotton Street. Other streets to benefit could include (but not limited to) Buckle Leman, Picton, Anglesea through to Crab Island to the Arch, Clarkson Street, and Allen Street. The dredging of the ports area and plans for refilling the coastal area as recently done should be an ongoing process. In the long run, a Banjul Barra bridge will run a life line through the city.

Zoning laws could be introduced to control the development of the city in order to avert the encroachment of a ‘ghost inducing’ type of users – warehousing. Such laws could be enforced at the local authority level – BCC – after a comprehensive physical planning of the City that will map out the various users. For example, the Independence Drive and Gloucester block running up to Russell Street and down Wellington could be strictly institutional and commercial, including Buckle, Leman and Hagan Streets. Parts of Half-Die and Crab Island to be for warehousing. Other major users should include recreational and residential users the development of which could be discussed with the families and private developers with the assistance of government (formulating a partnership is indeed possible).

The infrastructure and physical planning proposals are to lay the foundation for the real issues that will revive the city on a long term basis. Most of us do remember the days when major sporting events, including international ones, were all held in Banjul – football, cricket, basketball, and so forth. In addition, Banjul was the venue for the celebration of national events of independence, workers day, religious festivities (Sang Marie, gaamos, etc) with regattas, “fanals” and “gesè” processions. In other words, Banjul was the centre of national cultural and sporting events. These events kept the city alive and thriving. Ever since they were moved to other locations with no replacement, they gradually took away the breath of the city.

The new brand of the City of Banjul needs a rekindling of its energy through culture, sports, education and some economics. It has a major advantage of being the seat of government with the State House and all the major ministries located there, a feature that has kept it going and that seems more permanent and part of the city’s existence. Football is one of the biggest magnets of social mobilisation and as such the location of a second national stadium in Banjul (apart for KGV) should be considered. The current location of the House of Parliament was a candidate but the Bakau location was preferred over it. McCarthy Square should be redesigned to incorporate sporting events such as track and field events (especially for school sporting competitions which should be revived) including cricket. Cultural events such as some form of carnival could also be revived and dovetailed with a National Roots Festival. This event can formally organize the “gesè” and “fanal” competition whilst introducing drumming parades (brings Alhaji Dodou Njie ‘Ross’ to mind) with international or at least regional invitations.

The city has always been the staging post of education for the country with the location of the traditional secondary schools – “Saints and Gambia High”. With the growth of private schools which are finding locations farther away from the urban centres, Banjul can offer an alternative location through privatisation and upgrading some of the old primary schools to a secondary or technical school status– the Muhammedans and St Mary’s. This will not only give a facelift and renewal to the city in the context of new physical development but it will also add to its magnetic attraction of revival. In the economic context, the city needs a small enterprise zone to attract investors (GPA may be interested to create one).

The management of any future development programme for Banjul, will require the cooperation of central government, BCC, the private sector and the families. A combination of these institutions could be in the hybrid form of a ‘quango’ for our purpose. It should be responsible for putting together a master plan for Banjul. It should comprise a good professionally qualified team of a civil engineer, architect, physical planner, sociologist and traditional historian. Some technical assistance could be incorporated in the system in order to fill in some professional vacancies, such as physical planner or an all-round coordinator. The programme would need financing of both the initial running cost and the implementation of the physical development. Part of the funding could come from investors such as SSSHFC, GPA, BCC, but a major part from central government through support from multilateral agencies and the private sector.

The formula for such financing will depend on the outcomes of the planning and of operations and implementation and could be in phases.
The ideas put forward require an exigent attention to develop a blueprint development plan. The purpose here is to simply kindle hope and to be a goad and fuel for the current concerns being echoed in order to rekindle the extant character of the Banjul energy.

 

The author, a private consultant and businessman, served as a senior civil servant in both the first and the second republican governments.

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