What happened to Banjul? My story (Part 1)

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The storm drain system built in Banjul was not the best, but it was functional and served its purpose. Smaller gutters in the streets collected water that freely flowed, and channeled it into much larger gutters. The big gutters on Grant Street, Hill Street and Kombo Street comes to mind, just to name a few. Some of these larger gutters drained into the “Tann” (like the ones on Kombo Street and Hill Street) and the rest drained into the main pumping station that was located on Bund Road. The storm water was then released into the river. The gutters were not fancy, but they did the job they were designed to do, as long as they were kept clean, and the Board of Health made sure of that.

It was around the late 70’s that Banjul started to head south. The electricity was the first victim on November 1, 1977. At this point, the British were long gone and the city was now Waa Banjul’s full responsibility to manage and maintain. As the years went by, the Department of Health (formerly the Board of Health) became more and more lax in their inspections and enforcement of the health codes, and that affected the city tremendously. The gutters that used to freely carry the storm water started collecting trash (selepass bu duck, horhe mangoro, packeti cigarette, bopi jene, butale bu toch, ak njome saine). The storm water went from “freely flowing” in the gutters, to full of trash, stagnant and rising to the top. There was sporadic cleaning, but that didn’t make much of a difference, Waa Banjul were already comfortable with throwing trash in the gutters at this point.  Stagnant water in the gutters became a “new normal” for Banjul in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The maintenance of the city’s roads by PWD, was also poor at best. Don’t let the rain catch you in Banjul!

With stagnant water all around Banjul, the city was now the perfect place for mosquitoes to breed, and breed they did! They took full advantage of the opportunity handed to them on a silver platter by Waa Banjul. The mosquitoes started a vigorous breeding program to build their armies, and launched nightly attacks on Waa Banjul. Overwhelmed with the invasion of mosquitoes, Waa Banjul decided to fight back by arming themselves with ‘Baygon’ mosquito spray and ‘Moon Tiger’ mosquito coils. The war was on! And if you were in the business of dealing arms (mosquito spray and moon tiger), you were raking in the dough. But these were not your ordinary mosquitoes; they were “the Banjul Mosquitoes”. Just like the “Banjul Ndongos”, they also learned how to evolve and survive when the going got tough. They strengthened their immune system and became resistant to the weapons Waa Banjul had. Baygon spray and Moon Tiger soon became like air freshener to them.  You can lock “the Banjul Mosquitoes” up in a room, empty a can of Baygon spray or smoke them up with Moon Tiger, and they will still buzz you off and stick their tongues out at you. They had Waa Banjul slapping themselves silly, in their disparate attempt to smash them out.

As Waa Banjul continued to lose significant battle ground to “The Banjul Mosquitos”, families were also growing and living space was shrinking. This, coupled with the constant arrival of new city dwellers from the various provinces and everywhere else, became unbearable for Waa Banjul and they began exploring the Kombos. Waa Banjul were never keen about the Kombos, but now they had no choice. Banjul was getting tighter by the day.  The kombos offered abundant space, soothing breezes and clean beaches, comforts they were not used to. It opened up a whole new horizon to them, and they never looked back. They were desperately searching for a better quality of life, which they found in the Kombos. Of course, there will always be those entrenched in the idea of “live and die” in Banjul, and you can still find them there holding their little ground. But for how long? More and more Waa Banjul are jumping on any chance to move to the Kombos, and the city has now fallen into the hands of the new comers (gan) and businesses. Most of the homes that were “down afdie” have been turned into warehouses, and the city is desolate come night fall.

Neglected for far too long, Banjul is now a “has been city” that is in dire need of a face lift, or even reconstruction. It has lost all the glory. The lack of proper maintenance after all these decades has brought Banjul to its knees, and that was hard for me to see. I have deep roots in Banjul, for that reason, I’m extremely saddened by the city’s current state. Every time I think of Banjul, an avalanche of memories come rushing in. The streets I roamed, the friends I hanged with, the parties I attended and the list goes on. I can say, with reasonable certainty, that most Waa Banjul feel the same way I do about Banjul. A city we all love, but sad to see kneeling down. The question now is: what should be done about Banjul? This is my story and I’m sticking to it! 

A city is a relatively dense and permanent settlement. They were initially formed as central places of trade for the benefit of citizens living in close proximity to each other. Such form of living facilitates all sorts of interactions. The benefits of city life includes reduced transportation cost, exchange of ideas, large local trade markets etc. As more people were attracted to cities in search of business opportunities, the need for amenities such as running water and sewage disposal became obvious. One of the most important amenities for a city to have is a proper working sewage system. Every modern city needs to have a sewage system in order to protect public health and prevent diseases such as typhoid and cholera. The focus of a sewage system is to convey raw sewage to a natural body of water, for example, a river or ocean, where it would be suitably treated and degenerated.

In the developed world, city sewage systems are usually constructed with pipes that connect from buildings to one or more levels of larger underground main pipes, which transport the sewage to a sewage treatment facility. Vertical manhole pipes connect the main pipes to the surface. The manholes are used for access to the sewer pipes for inspection and maintenance. These more sophisticated sewage systems are considered the conventional type. There is also a more inferior type of sewage system known as Simplified sewage. This is a low-cost sewer system with smaller diameter pipes at fairly flat slope. Simplified sewers are sometimes laid under pavements (if feasible), rather than in the centre of the road as with conventional sewerage. It is generally used in unplanned low-income areas, as well as new housing estates with a regular layout. With a simplified sewage, it is crucial to have management arrangements in place to remove blockages, which are more frequent than with conventional sewerage. The concept of Simplified sewerage simultaneously emerged in Nepal, Brazil and Karachi and Pakistan in the early 1980s.

Founded in 1816 by the British, Banjul was used as a trading post and base for repressing the slave trade. It is on St Mary’s Island, where the Gambia River enters the Atlantic Ocean. It was first named Bathurst after Hendry Bathurst, the secretary of the British Colonial Office, but was later change to Banjul in 1973. My great-great-great grandfather, Imam Abdourahman Sowe and his family were among the early settlers there. One of the streets in Banjul is named after my great-great grandfather Imam Omar Sowe, the son of Imam Abdourahman Sow. My grandfather, Alhaji Alieu Ndow was born there in 1887. My father and I were also born in Banjul, and we still have a couple of family compounds there, even though we also later moved to the Kombos in the late 1970s.

As one of the smallest cities in the world, Banjul never really had a sewage system. Most of the compounds in Banjul had pail latrines that were collected at night when they became full and replaced with empty ones. They were then taken to a central location to be transported to the waste dumpsite located outside the city at Mile 2 prisons area. As more city dwellers gravitated towards Banjul in search of business opportunities and employment, the population started to steadily grow and public toilets were set up to further accommodate the needs of the residence. But this was not enough and something had to be done for the sake of human health and just plain old sanity. There were some compounds in Banjul that had private septic tanks and would pay a fee for BCC (Banjul City Council) to send their big tanker truck to empty the septic tanks when they were full.

In the early 1980’s, the then government adopted a policy to construct a modern sewage system in Banjul to eliminate the previous “human system” run by Banjul City Council’s Health and Services Department.

SOBEA, a French company, was contracted to develop Banjul’s sewage system. Work on the city’s sewage project began in 1984. SOBEA brought in their heavy equipment and the unearthing began. So many streets were being dug up at once, and I was convinced that Banjul had diamond, gold or oil. The city was full of traffic detours and if you were a driver who didn’t know your way around, you will probably end up where you started a few times over before figuring your way out. Although you can always hire a taxi and the drivers had no problem navigating the city, but your ribs will pay a heavy price as they recklessly speed over the potholes. The tar roads were on their last leg before being excavated by SOBEA, never to be the same again. I remember getting off a taxi once, two blocks shy of my destination because my ribs were screaming. I slept like a log that night! The work SOBEA did with the sewage system was perfunctory at best, and it left the city’s roads that were already wounded for dead.

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