The River Gambia is known for its navigability which allows ferries and boats to cross people and goods from one side to the other, giving rise to various businesses in the country. Flowing from Banjul to Basse, The River Gambia has divided the country into two parts: the north and south.
Basse, the administrative capital of Upper River Region (URR), lies 370km from Banjul, and serves as a business hub for citizens of various countries including Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leone, Mali and Nigeria.
As one leaves Basse on the south bank and moves into the northern communities of Wuli and Sandu districts – both in the URR – the use of boats and ferries becomes unavoidable. The banks on either side of the river teeming with multiple kinds of businesses, boosting the local economy and creating employment opportunities.
“This is our livelihood. It gives us what to eat and it helps us to provide for our families,” Sarjo Conteh, a boat operator who had just landed passengers on the Wuli side of the river told The Chronicle.
Sarjo leaves home early in the morning every day to help customers and their merchandise cross from one side to the other in order to earn a living. He describes his daily routine as a difficult task, but he has no other alternative he could employ to feed his family.
Sarjo the Boat Operator“I rent this boat and its engine which facilitates its quick movement. Every day I have to return D350 to the owners of the boat and the engine and I take the balance home. We do not have something to save but at least we go home with something to eat,” he said.
Ferrying people by boat, Yoro Sowe, another operator, said the business is faring well. According to him, business increases, especially around the times of a Lumo (weekly rural market), as many people would cross the river to access the market.
The Basse crossing point has a functional ferry service under the operation of Gambia Ports Authority (GPA), but many people prefer boarding the engine boats.
“Many people would join our boats because it’s faster. The ferry would have to wait for vehicles before it starts moving. People don’t have time and that’s why they always choose us over the ferry,” Sowe told The Chronicle as he guided the boat to the northern bank of the river.
Apart from the quickness of the boat, operators also offer a free service to people who cannot afford to pay the crossing fee of D10 for personnel and D25 for motorbikes. According to Sowe, this is another reason why they always have customers.
A resident of Kuwonkunding, a settlement in Wuli, Mamud Touray shared why he prefers boarding the boat. “I prefer to use the boat to cross because it’s faster. If you are in a haste, you can take a boat and sail through to settle your business without delay.” He pays D25 to cross with his motorbike.
“I use the boat because it is faster and it allows me to get to the other side earlier and do what I want to do. This is why I don’t wait for the ferry. These boats are helping all of us,” he told The Chronicle.
Apart from business, the boats also play a vital role in transporting the sick from the interior of the region to Basse district hospital. The speed of the boats becomes a life-saver in emergency situations.
Tida Barrow, a Jahkunda native, was returning from the hospital in Basse when The Chronicle caught up with her. “We always cross this river anytime we want to visit the hospital in Basse. It has not been easy but we pay D10 to cross. We couldn’t board the ferry because it must carry vehicles before it departs, and this is not always suitable for us”.
For Fantouray Barrow, she sometimes pays D20 to cross to the Basse side if she is in a hurry and cannot wait.
“If there is an emergency situation at night and we need to cross, we must go and wake the operators up to come and facilitate our crossing. Normally, we will leave the patient with another person on the riverbank and go back home to bring the operator. Some accept to come, but others would refuse to help.”
Up the slope from the riverbank in Wuli, there is a stall owned by Alpha Omar Sowe, a Guinean national. He sells second-hand clothing to customers who may not want to cross over to Basse for their clothing needs.
“I started this business last year when I arrived from Guinea. Since then, the business has been going well although its progress is slow at the moment. This is due to the fact that farmers are not coming forward as they are busy in their farms, but this is a matter of time – I will give it time and see. This is why I am not opening many of my boxes containing the used clothes at the same time,” he told The Chronicle.
The Basse River Bridge is currently under construction and that means boat operators will lose their venture. An experienced operator, Yankuba Sillah, who has been engaged in crossing people since 2006, says he’s worried about the future of his livelihood
“I am worried because the river is being bridged and that will affect our business. This is a good thing, but the government should help us with an alternative such as a commercial gardening which we can rely on for survival.”
However, in his opinion piece to The Chronicle, Dr. Basil Jones, an economist, said the Basse-Fatoto-Koina road and bridges project will boost transportation, ease connectivity, and facilitate economic activity and the movement of people and goods.
The bridge is 250m long and according to the State House, the Government of China has funded the construction along with a 47.13-kilometer road at the tune of $81 million (an estimated D4 billion) within the construction period of 32 months.