06 September 2009

The Green School Bus

Throughout my visit to Njau, my host father Chebo extolled the virtues of Gambia's new public buses. I will a bit surprised by this praise as he's generally not keen on initiatives undertaken by the APRC, Gambia's ruling party. [In a particularly rash pre-election moment a couple of years ago, he told the Njau police station officer that the S.O. would be slaughtered if the opposition won.] The vehicles are old American school buses painted green (the ruling party's colour) that ply the north bank road to the Barra ferry, and even across to Banjul and Serrekunda.

Chebo's main points:

- The buses are repainted green, and refurbished inside too - they're comfortable and have a good radio and speakers.

- The buses are cheaper than gelegeles (D90 to D100), which is forcing gelegele aparantis/conductors to reduce their fares.

- The buses don't dawdle for passengers and so are much faster.

- The buses get priority on the ferry so that you can quickly continue to Serrekunda (for no extra fare, although you do pay for the ferry ride).

Chebo, fan of green buses, and radios.

So on the appointed day I went to the bantaba (old men's hang-out spot) at the highway and waited for the 3 o'clock bus. Around 5 it rumbled up.

It soon became clear that the green school bus was not so different from the competition. The usual overcrowding led to great sharing of seats and children (I had one girl on my lap for a few hours), and plenty of time was devoted to picking up passengers, plus the obligatory food/toilet stop in Farafenni. But it also featured the usual kindnesses and personal interest of any trip - the girl who sat with me was being looked after by her grandmother as her mom could not manage. They were travelling to a wedding but didn't know how to get there. Fellow passengers made a few inquiries and phone calls to find out where they were going and someone on the bus agreed to escort them.

One improvement was the good state of the radio and speakers. There were no cassettes so we listened to a Gambia Radio and Television Service programme on the sexual exploitation of children, which somehow had the anagram SISSECS (like "scissors" with "ex" as the second syllable).

The moderators covered the main talking points, but weren't very good at countering caller responses. When one man called to castigate teenage girls for wearing short skirts thereby testing men's self-control, the presenters did not counter this argument.

The bus reached Barra around 10, which eliminated most of the ferry advantage as there was hardly any traffic at this hour (and we were down to one ferry). Whereas Gez and Liam elected to abandon their earlier green school bus, I didn't see any alternatives. I got to Mariama's around midnight, perhaps four hours later than I may have with the first post-lunch gele. But it was nice lying under the bantaba with my host dad and some of the men of the village, and I enjoyed the trip once I realised that Chebo's assessment of the APRC bus was hopelessly off.

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