Wednesday, July 8, 2009

‘A river runs through it’

A river runs through it, and a country called ‘The Gambia’ inhabits the surrounding banks. I was on my way to discover this little slither of a British colonial remnant in the heart of Francophile West Africa. Where people speak English and watch the premiership instead of ‘Le Championnat’. In short it was a place I thought I’d fit right in, in more ways than one. A friend of a regular cabbie from Dakar agreed to have me driven and dropped till the Senegal-Gambian border outpost of Karanga.

The only thing of some amused curiosity was my passport with its golden embroidered declaration, ‘Kingdom of Bhutan’.

After paying and thanking my cabbie, I couldn’t wait to get to the ferry terminal at Barra and then onto the capital city of Banjul. I would make further plans once I got there, move onto the Atlantic Coast, go to the beach, make those karate chops, or so I imagined.

Then the men moved in on me at the ferry ticket counter, they looked like local dadas, thuggish and menacing with their flowing tunics, skull caps and jaded beads. Just another group of hustlers out for a job, I figured. They then flash these plastic coated, insulated worn out little badges and announce, ‘immigration and customs’. Could I follow them to their good offices? Sure I would, they were the goddamn police, they don’t rob people, and what had I to fear?

‘Absolutely nothing’.

‘Yes sir, no problems’. I replied.

The problems had just begun.

At the good offices of the Barry ferry terminal immigration police branch of The Gambia Police Force, a complete search of my person and a bag I was carrying stuffed with personal items for a 7day sojourn produced along with the usual fares a file of Valium. The reasons for my Valium medication are long and varied but suffice it to say I wasn’t the most neurotically and mentally harmonized person at the time.

After being searched, checked, groped and manhandled, there lay the 250,000 Senegalese Franks I had carried for the weeks retreat, a 100$ bill, two 50 euro denominations and a hash of local currency called Dalasis, along with the curious looking passport. Valium, the catch of the day, became their most important bait and acquisition and now assumed an exaggerated spot of importance on the table. I sensed delight and good fortune in their auras underneath the veneer of officialdom. Auras are quite a giveaway, you see, I am a bit hippie and spiritual myself.

After what seemed like a long time of digesting it all in, the heavy set man with the red hot eyes declared me an official prisoner of the Gambia.

"How do you plead?"

"Guilty or not guilty?"

What are the kantoor conditions like, I wondered. Back in Bhutan, going to the kantoor meant being locked in a ‘safe’. Old habits are hard to shake off, and so’s the jargon one grows up using. They became your mental references, secret coded lingo you use as a shield, to communicate with yourself, preparing, anticipating and setting the parameters, the defenses. I was already making mental plans for the indefinite sleepovers. The Atlantic coastal beaches now seemed like a joke long gone stale.

Time went by quick in that room, and finally after hours of accusations, reconciliations and negotiations I offered the bribe. It was too late; my case had been forwarded to the highest authorities. It meant my bribe just climbed up another notch or two. I felt sick, I had gambled too carefully and now the suckers were out to bury me. An officer was assigned to escort me to the visitors’ chambers. This was it, back at the hanger!

The detention cell was what it is in most third world countries: dirty, filthy, grimy, smelly, sweaty, crowded, small, dark and narrow, suffocating and claustrophobic barred in with rusted chains and iron bars.

The lights outside began fading as dusk approached. Assorted types and distorted characters filled the cell chatting less and shouting more as I sat down on the bench exhausting my thoughts. Night came slowly and we were all ushered in divided into two cells. It was like going down into the dungeon. A hole in the top of the wall provided the only ventilation and some slither of moonlight, and as the doors shut thud with a clicking of the locks, the lights went out of the room and out of our lives.

Sweet dreams, I thought as I drifted into a surreal sense of hapless exhausted sleep. Hard circumstances always bring about an unexpected sense of resigned acceptance and quiet resignation. There really isn’t any use wasting your energy harping on about illegal treatment or detainment when they know it and you know it. It has nothing to do with where you come from, or the flimsy little charge you been done in with, its about survival in a country where everything borders on how one best manages to live a daily life negotiating as best as one can the ethos and morals of doing Allah’s will, the law enforcement's will, and the immediate will to feed, clothe and shelter ones family. For all they care, you can stub your sense of self righteousness right up the alley it tends to come from.

I hoped the morning lights would bring about some solution.

The cell was beginning to feel like home. The waiting game had begun.

‘Good morning’, one of the guards addressed me. ‘You sleep well? You like Gambia? ‘Yes, I enjoyed everything so far, but for now I need the bhog, where can I find one?

He opened the locks after fumbling through a dozen keys, led me out in the open sun and onto a door. It was full of shit, as it should. I decided to cancel the shitting part and just stick to the piss. The rule was that a shitting detainee had to be locked in, just in case he disappeared through the magic hole in the ground! A pissing detainee on the other hand could pose no such threat, the guard would look on, you’d do your thing, shake it up a bit, slide it in, zip it up and voila! You are done!

The rest of the day went by with no improvement on the status of my case. The one reminder I kept getting from them was that it had been referred to the highest authorities. That made me feel quite special; the highest authority in the land were interested in one file of Valium?

Was the Gambia that sober?

The third day was the same as yesterday and the day before. The morning air was breezy and refreshing, and everyone wanted to fill in their lungs. Our lungs refilled and revived, we got back to the cell and waited for our messengers of fate. I had mine and today I was gonna be transferred over to the other side, along with another local inmate. This was my lucky day. A round of Marlboro lights for all my mates and I felt satisfied.

The day passed by quickly in anticipation of the crossing, and when my name was called out, it was nearly evening. I gathered I had to spend another night in the capital cages, and prepared myself for the worst.

The ferry was a good ride, it felt good to work the legs and stretch them out. The ride lasted 30 minutes, and getting off the ferry, we walked the busy, dusty hawking streets of Banjul toward The Gambia Police Headquarters. We were led straight up to the 4Th floor onto a section and through a door that had the intimidating words, ‘Drug Squad’ scribbled on it.

I felt like a busted smuggler. The room smelled of marijuana, there were dozens of jute bags containing the stuff and a dozen or more suspects all seated. I was met by the OC, who made the usual queries about what I do, where I was from and why I had carried the banned substance. He said I had to ‘hang around’ until they could get everything verified and authenticated. An escort led me downstairs and after emptying all the stuff out of my pockets, I was allowed in with a book, a pack of Marlboro lights and a bottle of mineral water through a door with a monstrous lock on it. The narrow corridor inside was lined up with bodies right up to the door, as all eyes locked in on me. Sitting down I surveyed the room as I was being surveyed. They were checking me out, as I was checking them out. I noticed some guys popping in and out of an adjoining room. Sticking a Marlboro in my mouth, I gathered myself and walked a confident walk across the corridor to check out the adjoining room, for sleeping purposes and to see what was in store there. Kantoor surprises are never pleasant and seldom peaceful. Past experiences in police custody were beginning to bear their own unique brand of fruits.

The room was square and sitting all across were men of different shapes and sizes. I asked for a cigarette lighter and someone came forth with a match. I made my connection, and in the most unlikely of places, was about to discover the teachings of Jesus Christ!

After lighting my cigarette, I locked eyes with a man, his name is Chief Joseph, I say is, because he still sits there in that Banjul jail enlightening people.

This Chief was something, and during the course of the evening, we laughed, we talked and we ate the body and drank the blood of Christ, through the Gospel according to St. John. Now I have heard Christian preachers, and just about heard them, as much as you would hear anything; just bland random noises devoid of any meaning. But when Chief Joseph spoke, I not only heard him, I listened, for even as his lips did the talking, his eyes conveyed the faith, charity, compassion and forgiveness one hears so often in the good book, I couldn’t help feeling he was possessed and soaked with the absolute meaning and embodiment of what the bible teaches.

The night went by smoothly, this hanger was bigger than the ferry cell and except for two fights and an attempted suicide; the evening was exceptionally peaceful.

The next day, my fourth on the vacation period, was spent sitting and listening to West African music blaring out of a small radio at the Drug Squad offices. I was gonna be home free, the OC informed, would I like to leave anything for the guys who first got me in this mess at the Barry ferry? Sure, here’s the bribe, and with that I left a stack of Senegalese currency on the table.

Before I left the Banjul Police HQ, I asked to see Chief. We embraced warmly and I placed a few hundred Dalasis in his hands. I thanked him for nearly turning me into a Christian and said goodbyes to all the caged birds. The freedom outside in the streets suddenly felt paralyzing. With much nervousness, I hailed a cab and headed for the tourist resort of Fajara. Fajara felt lonely and desolate and I couldn’t wait to get back to my family in Dakar. The bed was much too luxurious and the TV played news of Yasser Arafat’s death. I downed a beer and called it a night.

I took the earliest cab down to the ferry next morning and couldn’t make the stopover I thought I would at the Police HQ. One final adios to the Chief; my concerns about making it to Dakar made me forgo that and there I was at Barra, back to square one.

The officials who hooked me weren’t in, but a call took care of that and soon we were talking like old friends. The goodbyes were warm and genuine, we exchanged addresses, just in case. I sensed like they did that within all of what had happened we had somehow come out knowing each other the better. And I certainly will always carry ‘The Gambia’, a small country where a river runs through it, and where I ran into my own little stream of consciousness.

Just one more hitch, I had no new visa to enter Senegal at the border!

Late Nov/2004/Le Virage/Dakar Ps: YourLustForLifeStartsRightNow!

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