Driving in The Gambia Lesson 101 

Driving is a habit. That is my contention. And when everyone develops a similar habit, it becomes the standard. That is why in the West (Europe and America), everyone goes through a standard driving test before they get a driver’s license.

So do we have such standards in Gambia? Well I will try to illustrate this by way of an example. Just as I was thinking through this article, the car I was in almost hit the car ahead as it suddenly made a sharp U-Turn simply because there was no facing traffic and he could care less about any vehicle behind him. Driving in The Gambia, I have come to learn during my visit, does not require caring about your driving environment, the focus is just to get going as long as the space ahead of you is available. And folks that is driving in the Gambia for you “A very bad habit that you have to learn when you really want to drive.”
So for you guys coming from the West with your driving licenses, welcome to Gambia Driving lesson 101, the basic introduction. Please don’t be fooled by your years of driving experience and much time and money it cost to obtain your license. In Gambia, driving is a very different thing. There is no right or wrong way to drive as long as you can see the space where you can fit your car. Driving is not a matter of right of way. And please don’t remind me of “Give way to traffic from your left”, if you remember this famous Gambian traffic slogan. You do not have any right anywhere and under no circumstances. Not at the roundabout (turntable they call it) or at a traffic light. Who has the right of way is a technical questions that may come into play when there is an accident that was not negotiated at the street level with a plea for forgiveness.

In case of an accident minor or major, and before the “official police” will arrive, the community members “freelance citizen’s police” are most definitely going to be the first adjudicators. With their plea of forgiveness following a quick finding of fact as to who was wrong and right. And the mere admittance of being wrong is always good enough a reason to forgive in the name of religion. And voila, problem is solved. You are expected to walk away and pretend that it will cost you nothing to fix the damage done, “sorry has taken care of it”. No one mentions insurance, it is all done by saying “sorry”. The one word that solves everything in the Gambia particularly when it comes to road traffic bumps, scratches, and accidents. Yes, they will hit you and expect you to expect nothing else in return but an “I am sorry” and both parties to walk away. And believe me the most common reason given are that the faulty party could not afford the cost of the damage done. Wow how amazing!!! Gambian drivers must be very lucky or unlucky depending on who is affected. And even when they agree to fix the damage, be prepared for the cost negotiations stage. So if you are left with a broken tail light which costs over a thousand Dalasi ($20+), don’t expect an offer more than the few hundred Dalasi ($5-) they would have paid to fix their run down vehicle. So folks, my first warning to you is to employ all your defensive driving techniques to avoid any traffic incident, minor or major, an impossibility, you must pray against.
Just when you think it is inconceivable to avoid damage to your car in traffic, try parking your car on street, in a neighbourhood our in your own crowded family compound, and you will soon find some sketch marks and lines engraved on it. This my friends, will be the artistic works of a child who perhaps likes your car so much, but lack any appreciation of the value of a car. And don’t forget other potential scratch marks that will be made by bicycles, horse carts and passer-by’s. And if you are to witness it, no worries, because “sorry” will be waiting to solve the problem.

Sad does it sound! Well you bet it is happening. Very sad given the fact that there are more high end valued cars now trolling our streets which should make someone proud. But one must pity such car owners, because they cannot avoid the few tarred roads which makes it seem like there are too many car but the fact is that there just a few roads suitable for comfortable driving.

I cannot bring on the full spectrum of the compounded problem of police officers littered all around the busy roads collecting person income tax in the name of checkpoints and traffic control, but it is worth a limited mention. Only in Gambia, with my limited experience, would you see more than three traffic officers within 100 meters of each other standing in the middle of the road. And your guess is as good as mind when you begin to question why they had to be in the middle of the road? Well nothing else but to beg for money to buy lunch or Atayya (tea). Sad really. But I refuse to go in the lame excuse of “poor salary”. What is wrong cannot be right.

Must I mention government number plated vehicles who disregard all traffic rules and make you asham of being Gambian? And please limit you blame on these government drives, as some of them were former taxi-van drivers who have already mastered the art of driving in the Gambia, so what do you expect of them. Apportion the blame equally on official they are driving.

So my second warning, of several I could have come up with, to you coming to Gambia with your Western issued driver license, if you really want to drive in Gambia, you have to adapt, and “do as the Romans do when you go to Rome”, or else your experience will be a sad story to retell.

Boye Baldeh

Banjul visit experience 2019

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