“What’s your mission?” the border official bellowed into my ears when I asked for a stamp at the tiny border crossing at the very eastern end of the small and undistinguished country on the Gambia River.
Phew, finally people are speaking English again was my first thought. And the second one was that I probably will have endless discussions now — ponderings about taking them with me to Germany and why I am here.
“I have no mission. I want to see Africa,” I replied.
“By bicycle,” his tone incredulous “Yes, with the bicycle,” I added.
Obviously irritated, he looked me in the eye and shook his head, “And who pays you for it?”
“No one pays me; I’m doing it to get to know the world. It’s great fun, and Africa is fascinating”.
“I don’t believe you,” he snapped. Then he paused for a second and added, “Who sent you? Your country?
“No, who would be interested in it except me?
“Where do you want to go? Do you have a map? Show it to me,” his tone even louder.
“I have been traveling by bicycle for many years now; I can find my way. Don’t worry,” and I tried to hang a smile on it.
“I am the boss here. Show me your map; otherwise, you can cycle right back to Senegal”, came next.
Five minutes had passed, and he still couldn’t tell where we were on the map, so I showed him the spot, took the map and asked him if I could camp somewhere nearby.
While he stamped my passport and explained to me that this was not the actual visa, but that I had to get it in the next place, about 50 km from there, he grumbled something about “You can sleep over there on the street!”
But then another officer interfered and helped me.
“Come I show you our backyard. Here you can camp. We have water and a toilet. You should move on tomorrow.” A bit later, he brought me something to eat and a bucket of water to wash with.
The Gambia was once a British colony. Some Gambians speak excellent English, while others not a single word, but I was amazed at how well I could communicate here.
In general, I must say I am deeply impressed by how many languages are spoken here by the people in this part of Africa.
Speakers can change from Wolof to Mandinka and from Pular to English as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Each village speaks a different language, and even within these communities, there are various ethnic groups.
Gambians tend to be friendly people who are proud that their country is called “The smiling coast.”
“Toubab Toubab – White person, White person” people are calling and waving to me endlessly. In every tiny village, at least 20 times. Laughing eyes of children, curious glances. Shaking hands, a hundred times a day, then in between are “give me – give me” and off I go.
Often at the end of the village, I can already see the next houses on the horizon. I only have time to breathe for 2-3 minutes, then again “Toubab Toubab – give me give me” all day long.
It is exhausting. The heat is a constant companion, over 40 degrees every day. But there are big trees under which I can sit in the shade again and again to take breaks. Just like the men here, only they sit there the whole day.
Here in the very far East of the country, there is no work. In the dry season, there is nothing to do in the fields. In the tiny villages, there may be a small grocery shop, but that is the only service jobs there might be. And what else? No electricity and almost nothing to buy. Minimal options for proper nutrition wherever you look.
Housework is a women’s or girl’s work. As in Senegal, they carry the canisters of water from the well home on their heads. Washing, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children.
And the men? A patriarchal society! They relax and watch the day go by.
It is a peaceful environment. I don’t see any aggression. Above all, I see an infinite number of children.
I took a break at a police checkpoint, where I was invited to share some mangos. Cars stopped, put money in the hands of the officers, and drove on. At some point, I asked the policewoman why they had to give them money, and she said: “They help us. We don’t earn much, that’s our extra income.”
One of the policemen asked me where I wanted to go. “Towards Banjul,’ I replied. “Banjul? That’s 450 km, you can never ride that far by bike,” he said to me. “Yes, believe me, I can.
“I’ve never seen a woman riding a bike even to the next village. Women can’t do that; they’re too weak for that. Just like in school, the boys always have better marks than the girls”, he added.
The Baobab trees continued to inspire me.
I discovered a huge owl and saw the first baboons. A large troop of about 50 baboons crossed the road in front of me.
I am in Africa, wow, how gigantic is that? A bright thought that made me forget my efforts and the brutal heat for a short moment.
When I asked a Gambian fella how he had been treated while living in England for ten years, he replied: “They sometimes called me a monkey.”
“It was often cold, and rainy there along with the foreign culture, so I’m glad to be home. At home, I have my family and friends. My place is here in Africa. I am African; I want to live at home again. Africa makes me happier.”
“Sure, I earned a lot of money there in the security business, but it never really satisfied me. Life is so beautiful here — so much nature. We live outside, sit together, and chat and don’t lock ourselves behind doors. But we are poor, very poor.”
In every village, there seems to be an economic refugee story. “Take me to Germany” is also a standard daily question.
I spent one night at a police station. Three young policemen let me camp with them and invited me to dinner. They all dreamed of working as policemen in Germany one day.
I tried to put their paradisiacal ideas of my homeland into a realistic form all evening long, and above all, I wanted to make it clear to them that they would certainly never get a job as policemen anywhere in Germany.
The sad thing is, they didn’t believe a word I said, but it was a fascinating conversation.
They see pictures and videos from the Western world, and the prosperity we have and of course want the same – it’s completely human – and so any explanations on my part are almost a waste of time.
They had some buddies who escaped via Libya to Europe. And apparently, they are in constant contact with them and only get positive news.
“They have jobs and earn a lot of money,” I heard them say.
But when I asked them what their friends were working at, they didn’t know what to say. And when I challenged their silence, implying that their friends were just telling lies to make the situation seem better than it is, they suddenly started to argue among themselves.
One of them admitted that he already had these thoughts, while the others claimed the opposite.
On the way to Georgetown, I met a teenager. “Can you get me a visa to Germany” were his words. “The visa is costly. I don’t have 1000 Euro. Can you help me?”
“What do you want there?” was my question in return. “I want to work there. I want to support my family. We are poor.”
“And why Germany in particular? You don’t speak a word of German. Why not England?”
“Germany is the best country, and they welcome Africans and are friendly to us.”
I also talked to him for a very long time and told him about our rising racism and the many adverse side effects he would be exposed to if he ever made it to Europe.
“There is no job for you, and with a three-month visa, you can’t work anyway.”
“But others who have gone, have jobs and send money home. Their families in our villages have beautiful houses and always have something to eat. I often have nothing to eat. They’ve made it possible. I also want to make it,” and with these words, we ended discussing this unsolvable topic.
Finally, I asked him what Georgetown was like. “Georgetown is great,” the boy replied. And what’s so great about it, I asked. “There’s electricity.”
Many people often believe a cycling trip such as mine is exhausting, mostly because of the cycling. But I have to say that cycling is usually the smallest problem, especially here in the flat plains along the Gambia River and with the slow speed I’m going.
The mental challenge here in Africa is much more demanding, mainly because I am alone. I can rarely communicate with other Westerners, except by phone.
I would like to be able to ask other travelers how they are doing out here. What they think and feel when they experience the intensity of Africa on a daily basis.
Am I the only one who has difficulties with the begging, the garbage, and the injustice of life? It sometimes feels like I am powerlessness? A roller coaster ride of emotions is probably the best way to describe it.
The mood swings which I am continuously experiencing are more extreme than elsewhere. This part of Africa is different from anything I have experienced so far. Put simply it’s very intense.
And of course, I know that I haven’t arrived in Africa’s most impoverished country yet. What I’m experiencing now may only be a foretaste. The Gambia ranks 20th among the poorest countries in the world.
When I look into the eyes of children stretching their hands towards me asking for my bottle, my T-shirt or my whole bike, I can tell myself a hundred times that it is not my fault that it is the way it is here. But the bitter aftertaste doesn’t go away.
I come from a privileged world. I have everything I need because I was lucky enough to have been born in the right place on the planet. These children here didn’t have that.
But my inner guardian angel then comes up with thoughts like this:
I grew up with the 2nd World War feelings of guilt that we Germans have towards the world still today, and if I am honest, I am tired of being held responsible for something for which I can do nothing about. I have neither colonized nor exploited these people.
And yet my skin color is white, and I have to take emotional responsibility for what we whites have left behind here. Whether I want it or not.
But do I even know if people accuse me? Or does it just feel that way? Only once have I been told by an African that we whites are to blame for everything. Otherwise always only from other whites, who are probably on the same rollercoaster as me.
Feelings of guilt are unpleasant, and I try to free myself from them every day. They paralyze me and take away my joy, and that is not good.
If I wanted, I could make it easy for myself and lie on the beach like other tourists and travel to the tourist attractions. Where it’s easy to meet other Westerners, get tasty food, sleep in beautiful accommodations, and fade out the rest of reality and call that vacation.
But for me, this would be like noodles without sauce or parties without guests. Or like a man would say, like sex with a condom.
When I have just torn myself away from the last eyes of a child, I soon look into the next ones, and the game starts all over again. Sometimes I see them as joy and lightness, but at least as often I see hope, an expectation that I can’t and don’t want to fulfill. I can’t help these people; they have to help themselves.
But maybe I always see myself in their eyes. If I am in a good mood, I see them shining positively; if I am in a bad mood, I see the expectations. In the end, I think it is probably the case that I am often overwhelmed.
Who wants to see that people live under miserable conditions?
And what actually are miserable conditions?
I don’t see anyone starving here, nor do people look ill or malnourished. The men are muscular, the children climb and run much better than children in the western world, and the women are better trained than Westerners who go to the gym.
I think what I’m most surprised at, shocked or disappointed about is the fact that I imagined that Africa is still a little bit of a healthy world. A world where it’s not just all about money. But that was a fantasy.
Perhaps it has only developed so negatively in recent years since the enemy – the mobile phone – has entered our world and brought faraway places right to our doorstep. Even here in the bush in Africa. Because if the people here own something, then it is a mobile phone.
To be white in Africa is of course far from the kind of suffering as to be black in Europe or elsewhere, but to always be the center of attention and to be seen as a donor and helper in all situations is not easy.
But there is also the other side here. People like to share. Every day anew I am called to eat with them, to spend the night on their property or to drink tea. Then I eat with the men from a communal bowl, we laugh, and the world is alright again.
Gambians have an extraordinary laugh. Pleasant, open, and happy. And what impresses me, even more, is how beautiful they all are — gorgeous looking people.
They keep their houses and properties clean. The women sweep the sand in front of the house every day. I see laundry hanging in the bushes all the time, and I have only admiration for how people in this heat and under these circumstances manage to wear such clean clothes.
I, on the other hand, always look as if I just had a mud bath, so that I am often asked if I want to wash, which of course I always like to accept.
I lost my towel a long time ago, but in this heat, nobody needs a towel in the first place, quite the contrary. I wash my clothes with every “bucket shower,” put them on soaking wet and have at least a little bit of coolness for a few minutes.
I was happy every day when children brought me mangoes from the trees without expecting anything in return. And when people asked what my name is and they managed to pronounce it right away saying “Heike, that’s a beautiful name.”
Or when people were curious and asked me where I came from and where I was going, or when I got water or tea. I like it too when they asked me to sit with them and tell them stories. I found them to be great people with big hearts.
I will carry a lovely memory of a little girl and her family somewhere in a tiny village. I camped on their property, and the father played Bob Marley’s – Buffalo Soldier – on his old mobile phone and we danced to it half the evening. Always the same song.
The little girl looked at me radiantly every time she tried to say “Buffalo Soldier.” Snot was running out of her nose, and her eyes were glowing, as unbiased as only children’s eyes can shine. I would have liked to put the girl on my rack and taken her on my journey to show the tiny lady the world. She had won my heart.
Buffalo Soldier has always been one of my favorite songs; from now on this girl’s eyes will always be connected with it.
An extraordinary evening, which ended with the fact that I could hardly sleep because goats and cattle ran around my tent and woke me up over and over.
In every small town, countless aid organizations left behind not only their projects but also their huge signs. Signs on which the aid organizations names appear and the reasons why they came to help.
Signs advertising who had built the hospital, school, or one of many wells. Even a project that works for equal rights for women.
What is it like when a person walks by a sign every day saying: “UNICEF – against hunger, malnutrition, and poverty”?
Does it not remind a person every day anew that he is poor and that white people must or want to help them so that he does not go hungry? What other kinds of thoughts are triggered by seeing these signs every day? Why do aid organizations feel the need to leave these huge signs behind – it is often the only sign in the village.
I have frequently been asked if I am on the road for the Peace Corps, an aid organization from the USA. They seem to connect a white person very often with someone who is only here to help.
I met two Americans who had been living in the country for two years and were involved in a cultural exchange with their host families. When I asked them if they thought they were doing something worthwhile, they couldn’t give a real answer. One of them told me: “I doubt my mission every day.”
Georgetown gave me the chance to talk to economic refugee returnees. Some who were tortured in Libya and did not make it to Europe. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to attend their meetings because people were afraid that I was a spy sent from Germany.
But I was able to talk to two of them outside of the meeting. What made me feel positive from this conversation was that from their experience they learned to take their lives into their own hands from then on. One of them had planted a large vegetable garden since returning and proudly told me that finally, he has something healthy to eat every day.
“I understand now that leaving was not a solution,” he beamed and added: “I just wanted to come home again. I was so afraid they’d kill me, I’m so glad to be back.”
In the pub, we discussed for hours life in Africa and Europe. Sometimes it ended in a heated discussion because they didn’t always trust me.
One had had the chance to visit his brother in Switzerland. “I never wanted to live there. The police asked for my ID every day; the people ignored me; nobody greeted me. They are not friendly people. They are racists” he was shocked by how people treated him in Switzerland.
“I tell everyone this again and again, but they don’t believe me, I don’t understand why they want to go to Europe, it’s much nicer here,” he added.
Having passed the stone circles listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, I continued to the River Gambia National Park, where I had a great time.
I chose a very special Baobab as my sleeping place and spent a few days there in the moonlight. Baboons came to visit; birds chirped their songs every morning. Cattle grazed around me, and at night, it was pleasantly quiet and not so hot.
I made friends with a few men who sat together every day drinking tea.
We visited a market in the neighboring village, fetched Baobab fruits from the tree and listened to music.
One of them showed me the area. We discovered hippos in the water, heard chimpanzees calling from afar, saw wild boars and baboons as well as other species of monkeys.
We also went fishing and explored the surroundings with our bikes. It was just great. In the evening we cooked or drank tea.
“Why don’t you have solar panels on your roofs,” I asked. “The Germans installed them, but after three months they didn’t work anymore. Poor quality from China. Now we just sit again in the dark at night.”
Ramadan began, during which people were not allowed to drink or eat anything between sunup and sundown. Torture when it is over 40 degrees, and the only way to cool down is to sit in the shade.
I wondered at how cheerful the people still were in spite of everything. They asked for the time often, as every additional hour became painful. At 7:25, they broke fasting, sat together, and ate and drank. I was often allowed to participate.
Again, and again, I was impressed by how religious the people are. Always praying at the prescribed times during the day, washing beforehand rolling out prayer mats and really keeping to it requires discipline.
Sometimes I think it would make more sense to use this discipline elsewhere, but of course, I say this because as an atheist I have never really understood the meaning of religions and even hold them responsible for many of the problems we have in the world.
A man proudly showed me his children’s encyclopedia about animals, the only book I have seen since Morocco. He opened the first page and pointed to an elephant and asked me which animal it was. Then it was kangaroos, wolves, bears, and sharks. Every time he seemed surprised that I knew all of them.
When we came to the chapter on dinosaurs, he told me that these animals had been extinct for a long time. Probably 400 years.
An older man approached me. “Toubab, Toubab please, I want to show you my garden. Twenty years ago, a Toubab from America told me to grow seedlings and earn money with them. I believed him and followed his instructions and was successful. Now I am old, and my boys want to continue earning money with it. But we need a well because we don’t have enough water.”
“Then build one, you have healthy strong boys’ was my answer. “We? No, we can’t, only Toubabs can, we don’t have such machines,” he said.
“And you now believe that I have a machine with me? But if you believe in Toubabs, then I would ask you to collect all the garbage in your village and burn it somewhere so that it doesn’t all of it end up in the sea”.
“Yes Toubab, that’s what I’ll do. I believe in Toubabs; you know a lot more than we do”.
The further I rode west, the more prosperous it became. There were now many more shopping options, schools, and hospitals. The infrastructure was much better, a completely different world and many more people than in the East.
Craftsmen, service companies in every village. Market women, who didn’t just sit tired at the roadside, but eagerly brought their goods to the windows of passing cars.
Unfortunately, begging grew worse and worse. “Toubab – give me money – give me money.”
A man invited me for tea. We talked, and he told me that he is married to four women and has 32 children. He was not the first one I met who had several wives.
Alarmingly, they are convinced that there are many more women in the world than men. So “polygamy is right, and religion recommends it to us,” they told me a few times.
But I have to say that most men said to me that they have enough to do with one woman and they don’t need any more stress in their lives and therefore will never take a second wife.
“You’re going to Senegal? Senegalese are unfriendly; they all want your money. They cheat you. They are richer than we are. But we have no problems, we are fine, we laugh a lot, and they don’t” I heard many times.
When I talked to other cyclists via WhatsApp, who were also on the road in West Africa, the thought arose that the children here, if they beg, could see me as a parent substitute.
In the Western world, children also ask and beg – they just beg to their parents and not strangers. Freely asking doesn’t cost, anything more than receiving a no for an answer which cannot hurt them.
I will hang onto this train of thought from now on; I like it, it frees me a little from my feelings of guilt.
On the last evening of my four-week stay, I also talked to wealthier Gambians from Banjul, the capital, who were able to understand my questions to them well.
“I have to feed my whole family; it doesn’t suit me. But my family expects it from me. That puts me under a lot of pressure,” said one of them.
While the other said: “My father has always told us five brothers that we have to take care of ourselves. That we shouldn’t rely on one of our brothers giving us money, we all work the same amount.”
“I can’t stand to see so many people in the country just pitying themselves and waiting for someone to give them something to eat instead of improving their life by finding solutions for their situations.”
“We need education. People have to understand that they have to take care of themselves. That is our culture, we share, and many take advantage of this custom. We have too many children. Money from aid organizations, ends up in the wrong pockets. There is too much corruption”.
I bought an ice-cold Coke at a shop; due to the lack of electricity it was very rare to get something cold.
A boy watched me and never let me out of his sight. When I had the glass bottle empty, I placed it in front of me, and the boy came to me, took the bottle and sucked at the opening trying to get every last drop.
Yes, Africa is another world and an eternal roller coaster of emotions.
Shortly before crossing the border the first pigs appeared, then churches and a little later the first white nuns.
When I reached the border, I noticed that I no longer had my beloved mp3 speaker. Had it been stolen from me? Or did it fall out of my pocket? It accompanied me halfway around the world and offered me great entertainment in many lonely hours. I hope I get a new one somewhere.
The border guards checked my bags for drugs. It did not surprise me; marijuana consumption is high in the country.
My thoughts at this border were, finally Senegal again, French, I can ignore the same endless questions, begging and lengthy suffocating discussions, “with sorry, I don’t speak French”.
I urgently needed a break.
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