When my cousin picked me up from the airport upon my arrival, on the drive home the chaotic nature of the traffic immediately stood out and my first reaction was “I am not driving on these roads!” And I meant it.
Seeing how he maneuvered around cars parked literally on the road, how he avoided crashing into abruptly stopped vehicles and when you think he’s in the clear a pedestrian jumps from the curb headed for the other side of the road walking nonchalantly. There is also the trash collecting donkey carts (they’re the “thing” now) that obviously have the same right of way as the vehicles. Get stuck behind them and take in some of the pungent aroma for a few minutes before you can maneuver past them also.
Be careful though, a wheel barrow pushing; plate toting or cart pushing hawker may decide that was the perfect time to cross over to the other side. There always seems to be the need to get to the other side of the road for some reason or the other and good luck seeing one pedestrian crossing point marked on the road.
Stop signs; what do they even look like? I would eventually drive (story for another day) and a police officer would chide me for not obeying a road sign. Bewildered, I asked what sign he was talking about. He responded with “that stop sign right there.” He pointed behind me to a roadside stall. Upon careful look, there it was, hidden right behind the street vendor’s umbrella. “Of course the sign was very prominent sir” I thought to myself. “I would’ve seen it had a street vendor not MOUNTED A STALL RIGHT IN FRONT OF IT AND HOISTED A COLORFUL UMBRELLA!” Apparently he needed it to shield him and his wares from the unrelenting rays of the sun. Under that same umbrella the police officer sought some shade. “Sorry officer, I didn’t see it” was all I could say biting my tongue not to scream the obvious, how can I blame him?
“Uncle banana?!” inquired a preteen girl with a plate stacked full of bananas standing in the median looking for customers to buy her fruits, and yes people do stop to haggle prices while holding everybody else up. “I just want to get the hell off this road” I thought to myself in response to her inquiry. I was longing to get under the shade of the mango tree waiting for me at home. The heat, the nauseating fumes, the incessant honking and blaring of horns, the whistle from the frustrated police officers, the sound of corrupted engines, the fear of an overloaded lorry tipping over on top of you in your car were all too much to bear. Last time I felt car sick was decades ago, but there I was fighting back the urge to throw up.
Speaking of car horns, almost all of them have been modified from their original version. Hit the horn once and instead of a familiar beep that a car horn is supposed to make, you hear a musical number, from the sound of rocket firecracker shooting off, to the crazy frog theme music or some Christmas jingle, it’s like a jukebox. So often you’d think you heard an ambulance needing to be let through. Those cabs with those fancy horns light up like Christmas trees when they honk at night.
How countless fatalities of vehicles running people over or into each other are not recorded on those roads on a daily basis is a miracle. Gambian drivers strike you as very reckless considering how inconsiderate they can be. Yet, on the other hand they come across as the most alert/attentive drivers anywhere considering how they maneuver with those gear shift vehicles and completely avoid hitting the road users of all shades from chickens to pigs and donkeys to pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists.
To the untrained or unfamiliar eye, it looks completely chaotic; absolute madness. But to the regular commuters, it’s just another day on the road and everybody goes about their business unbothered and then goes home unscathed.
I thought me driving was suicidal, but being in those speeding and swerving public transport vans clutching at the back of the seat in front of you thinking each swerve was the end was nerve wracking. Cab drivers smell “outsider” on you and charge you 3 fold the normal rate if you try to hire them.
That chaos was the subject of my every conversation. My older brother (cousin) convinced me to get behind the wheel after about a week. “Ignore every rule of the road you know, go with the flow.” That sounded crazy, but that’s the mentality, so I did and had an episode of road rage. Driving past a clinic where staff, patients and visitors alike park by the side of the road (meaning on the road), I slowed down to be cautious and this taxi driver (they’re always in a rush) yelled out from his window “dawwalal, hanaa jigain n’ga?” (drive!, are you a woman?) So I hit back, “waaw haameh wulo ma, man la sa ndeyy (cos ndeyy sounded angrier than yaay)!”(Yes, you don’t recognize me? It’s YOUR MOMMA!)
I felt right at home after that. Let’s all go crazy then, shoot! My cousin is a police commissioner so let me see which officer will try to pull me over.
Truth is though, I respect those traffic police officers; they are under resourced, under paid, over worked and completely helpless. Seeing how some frustrated drivers yell at them and how familiar ones disregard their presence, one can only feel bad for them. How they can stand in that heat day after day trying to establish some order is commendable, especially along that Westfield – Tabokoto stretch. Throw them a kind word now and again and please show them some respect even when you disagree with them.
On closer look you realize that the motorists are trying to make a living on very poorly designed and poorly constructed roads with seemingly no planning, forethought or forecasting on what future needs will be. The police officers seem aware of that fact and are understanding of the challenges the drivers face. The pedestrians and passengers are patient with them too (usually). A few years from now, the Westfield – Tabokoto stretch would be the longest parking lot in the country, traffic would be at a complete standstill for hours considering how many cars are being shipped into the country. Same goes for most roads across the country.
Seems the only winners in all this are the road construction companies; CSE and Ballast Nedam who made away with millions while we are left with two lane roads, one of which has been unwittingly converted into parking lanes since there are no shoulders and the curbs are raised up like fences. We’ve been duped!