By Lamin Cham
Just back from Dakar
The act of rolling out an idea into practical reality is always an opportunity for self-gratification, but when that idea is a dare devil adventure, such excitements are kept until the end. Such was the case with the organisers of the Senegambia Run for Integration, a 300 kilometer relay from Banjul to Dakar conceived 6 years ago, but only actualized over the weekend. From the onset the idea always looked on paper and sound on radio and TV as a near impossible task. How do you get people to run from The Gambia to Dakar?
“I always often feel frustrated and confused when people view every difficult looking endeavor as an impossibility. I have always known that this run can work if the details and logistics are meticulously worked out,” said George Gomez a former Gambia Olympic Committee official who initiated the idea on a piece of paper. George of course has had previous successful innovations under his belt while at the GNOC. He designed and introduced the famous May Day Sports with its unique features that never fail to captivate even the neutrals.
In the Senegambia Run too Mr Gomez believed that The Gambia needs a sport that will again depart from the conventional discipline to one that will leave an ever-lasting impact on the country and perhaps take the country to the international stage. One fertile but unexploited area he saw is sports tourism. “We already have a tourism centered outfit called Camp Africa which brings students from UK and Senegal for an education trip to the Gambia so I thought we could just expand our focus to babysit and start the Senegambia Run,” Mr Gomez said.
With the advent of the new Gambia, which energized every Gambian, Mr Gomez found an opportune moment to test the idea in January 2018 to coincide with President Barrow’s one-year anniversary in power. But that proved too soon and the idea was returned to the shelf but preparation to get it going in 2019 got into gear. The involvement of the Senegalo- Gambia Permanent Secretariat helped boost the profile and credibility of the run in official circles in Banjul and Dakar.
So on the 18 January 2019, history was made when athletes from six Gambian institutions led by the Gambia Armed Forces and comprising, GRA, Gambia police, Gambia Tourism Board, West Coast, and KM regions and the Association of Senegal Armed Forces took off from the Senegambia bridge at the start of the first leg of a three-legged relay to the heart of Dakar.
With technical back up provided by the athletics associations of The Gambia and Senegal, the runners defied the scotching heat to Kaolack, galloping and weaving through the path of lorries, buses, horse carts and pedestrians. Logistics was a nightmare but the technicians did a marvelous job. The whole race of almost 300 kilometers was divided into three legs and segments covered in three days. The first leg of 92 kilometers ended in Kaolack. Leg Two, stretching 110 kilometers ended in Mbour from where the runners did the final 92 kilometers to Colobane in Dakar . Each team provided ten runners which each tasked to run about ten kilometers a day. A mobile canteen followed the relay with fresh food and snacks at intervals while Red Cross officials from The Gambia and donated traffic police and volunteers from communities along the route helped protect the athletes.
Each finish line is completed with a reception and a welcome ceremony by local government and municipal officials all of whom extolled the initiative as an important development that must be supported to cement relations between the two countries. The Gambia won the first leg with GAF finishing first, Senegal Armed forces second and Gambia Police third.
From then on Senegal Armed Forces athletes took over from Kaolack and never surrendered the lead into the final day at Colobane followed by Gambia Armed Forces and GPF on the podium. The remaining Gambian teams all of which have no established season sports teams provided splendid performances in the rear.
The entire troop returned to Farafenni in time for the inauguration of the Senegambia Bridge where Run initiator George Gomez presented a good will message from President Barrow to President Macky Sall as well as his official accreditation as the runners lined up to shake hands with both presidents.
While the runners did their thing on the road, the organizers, team officials, and technicians from both countries spent the three days brooding over the few and sometimes funny lapses that characterized the race on all legs. There were both scary and interesting episodes on the way. One athlete sustained superficial injuries after been slightly hit by a motorcycle. There were occasional but well controlled outbursts of temper among officials of opposing teams and suspicion of conflict of interest by some officials but overall everybody took this maiden edition to be a learning curve to draw great experience from.
One flash point was the intriguing nature of the route in Dakar with its many roundabouts and crisscrossing roads that can confuse even the natives of the city. With very few volunteers and route indicators many runners, most of them Gambians, missed some part of the route, an issue officials explained had consequences on their timing.
The Senegambia Run, at least this first attempt to hit the Guineas book of record as the longest road race in Africa thus passed off a remarkable success. The Orgainsers paid tribute to their sponsors and partners in both Gambia and Senegal for their roles in making it possible.
I must end though with an interesting twist that kept me laughing till this day. In the night of the last day of the run in Mbour, Run initiator George Gomez spent the whole night working on the Runs good will message and accreditation to Macky Sall to be presented to him on the Bridge on Monday. He intended to pass the package to the head of the Senegalo Gambian Permanent Secretariat to deliver it who decided should keep it instead.
Very early in the morning of Monday the entire party of about ten vehicles set out from Mbour heading to Farefenni to the inauguration of the bridge .
George Gómez was in the lead car with Camp Africa co director Adama Bah and GTBoard team Manager Ousman Kebbeh. Since I was the head of the press committee George offered me a seat on the car and off we sped ahead of the convoy. Soon we arrived in Kaolack but under darkness and with George and Adama dosing, and Kebbeh and I chatting, our driver disastrously took the wrong road from the roundabout and sped towards Tambakunda. We drove for well over an hour without noticing our mistake. It was only when the drive became unusually too long that we began to worry. Our fears were confirmed when a motor cyclist told us that we were only very near Tambakunda and not Faraffeni. The news was devastating because this means that we would have to drive 100 kilometers back to Kaolack to start the journey all over again to Farafenni.
With the expected official start to the ceremony half hour away all of us resigned to the fact that we are going to be late for the ceremony. I could not stand the feeling of missing out on a big story while George mourned the fact that his good will message and accreditation would never be delivered. As the vehicle turned back a magic solution struck Adama Bah who knows the areas very well. He called a friend in Kungel who directed us through a bush path that would lead us to Kuntaur from where we could drive to Farafenni . And indeed we cut across the bush and emerged at Njoben from where we drove straight to Farafeni just in time for the ceremony. George was able to deliver his goodwill message while I cover the event in front of the VIP stand. A real treat indeed.
ASFA Senegal – Gold
Mbour 6.12. 39.
Dakar. 5. 29.49 t
Gaf Gambia – Silver
Total.. 17 14 23
Gambia Police – Bronze
Dakar.. .5 . 34.19
Total 17. 22..21