The Chronicle Gambia

‘Early Morning Run in… Banjul’


‘Cameo’ is not here. I walk to the end of the road. I look back down the narrow strip. It’s not exactly the south of France. This place is real and raw and sad. Music blares out from the nightspots still open. The wild dogs cry out in the night. As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company, I know that I must do what’s right. As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti. It’s Africa… I guess.

Our RV is the Senegambia Hotel, in Kolili, in the Gambia, at 0600 hrs. I’m nervous. I have lined up a genuine celebrity for the guest runner slot this morning. I met him signing autographs and handling the Banjul paparazzi in a local casino five hours ago. Nothing much good happens after midnight. But on this occasion? A flamboyant entrepreneur. For blog purposes; code name, ‘Cameo’.

Welcome to The Gamba, as President Trump might call it. My first impressions? Well, Banjul is completely whacky. Then again, so is London where I’m editing in a Starbucks off Baker Street. Ten minutes ago, a maniac sat at the next table to me. He had no smartphone, no iPad, no laptop. He just sat there, sipping his coffee. Complete madness…

Will Cameo show? I share banter with the local getaway drivers as a back-up. My chosen driver as a Plan B is Mr. White.

Whoa… 25 mins late, screeching to a halt, viola, the eponymous Cameo is here. Downtown Banjul is 20 km away. First light 40 mins away. Cameo smells of Old Spice. He says he’s late. No sugar Sherlock. I jump in.

One of my life rules, don’t talk shop unless you’re an astronaut or a celebrity. I’m neither, and he is. He leads the small talk from behind his Aviator sunglasses. His large gold signet rings glisten off the top of the steering wheel, as we skirt the Atlantic, he could be signalling ships. Usual stuff at first; weather, politics, local news. Mr. Cameo then tells me of his close uncle’s Viagra regime. Somewhat surprised, and to keep the conversation going, I ask if he knows the medical name for Viagra. He doesn’t; “Mycocksafloppin.” We laugh and push on; we’re running late.

We park outside his favourite lunch spot, ‘King of Sharwamahs’.

‘Cameo’ isn’t a natural athlete. Legs like pipe cleaners. Shoulders of an aspirin bottle. He likes his carbs. He hails from Manchester, from original Lebanese stock. He has considerable business interests here and in Freetown. Everyone wants a slice of him, including me.

Downtown Banjul is instantly shabby, unloved and filthy. It’s 0700 hrs as we move north from Nelson Mandela Street. As always, Africa is on the move early. The poverty is plain to see. It’s enough to make a Canadian lumberjack cry. No-one asks for anything. I take photos at will.

The plan is to jog around downtown Banjul; drive back to the Senegambia, park-up, hit the beach and jog along to the Coco Ocean Hotel, for brekkie overlooking the Atlantic.

We set off at an alarming pace; it’s difficult to run this slow. It doesn’t feel natural at 5 km an hour. We might as well walk. As I’m about to say something, Cameo swings around, one of his heavy-duty gold chains nearly takes my head off, he gasps, “bro, let’s walk bro.”

I look back at the 250m we’ve covered and say, “OK bro.” The conversation quickly turns to the most prominent ‘bro’ of the lot, the recently departed President. The one and only, President Jammeh.

This despot had vowed to rule this tiny country for 1,000 years, at God’s will. He declared a cure for aids. The Gambia became the Islamic Republic. He took the country out of the Commonwealth. Thankfully, his term was cut short by 978 years. 22 years of this fool was enough. The great fixer couldn’t fiddle the last election. Suddenly this wasn’t FIFA; votes counted.

Counting the marbles

The other six parties managed to come together, stay together, and unite behind one candidate. This togetherness, the use of observers, and social media to get the vote out did for old Jammeh Dodger. But, would he leave office? He wouldn’t. The people had voted with their marbles. He was going nowhere, citing voting irregularities. A hefty dose of Saxa time.

We’re moving northwest along Independence Drive. Cameo shows me the vanity projects and Jammeh’s burnt out bakery. Talking of boondoggles, how corrupt is West Africa in real life? I usually recite this tale.

Once upon a time, a West African President visited President Suharto as Indonesia was collapsing around him. The year was 1998; it was the height of the Asian financial crisis. After finishing the first day of the state visit, the two presidents were alone in the splendour of Suharto’s Presidential Palace.

The West African President asked Suharto how he lived in such splendour when everything seemed so dire. He’d observed Suharto was a wealthy man and asked him the secret of his ‘success’. Suharto paused and asked the West African to look out the window. Suharto pointed and said do you see the shopping centre? The African nodded. Suharto exclaimed, well, 10% to me. Suharto pointed and asked him to look out the second window, he asked, do you see the office block? Well, 10% to me. He asked him to look out the third window and pointed at a sports centre, and said, 10% to me.

Six months later Suharto visited West Africa. He was shocked by what he saw. Terrible roads, no electricity, no mains water, crumbling infrastructure and poor people everywhere he looked. Later the two presidents were secured in the opulence of the Presidential Lodge. Suharto asked the West African leader how he lived so well when the country was apparently so sick. He complimented the President on being powerful and successful and asked the secret of his success.

The West African leader paused, smiled and asked Suharto to look out the window. There was nothing there. The African laughed and said, 100% to me. He asked him to look out the second window, again nothing there. He roared with laughter and pounding his chest said, 100% to me.

Back to Jammeh Dodger. He’s now living in opulence in Africa’s equivalent of the Costa del Crime, Equatorial Guinea. His reign ended with a stand-off at the OK Coral. The OK Coral scenario being the Presidential Palace. ECOWAS finally decided Dodger was toast. Senegal, which surrounds the Gambia, sent troops across the border and quickly closed on Dodger.

Ex-president Jammeh walking past his guards to exile in Janruary 2017 ©REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Dodger then completed his version of the Great Train Robbery before flying into exile. You might say, the most significant rip-off since the invention of Velcro. He negotiated for his cars to accompany him (a Bentley and so on) and emptied the safe. Some say he took $15m; some say more.

The tyrant, who ruled by fear, made the ‘old French exit’ (leaving quietly without even saying goodbye) and was gone. Poor Gambia was left penniless, at least the dictator was out. Hopefully, the new Gambia will emerge. Good luck to President Barrow.

Cameo is telling me some great stories as we weave slowly around the sights in downtown Banjul.

We leave Banjul and head back to the beach. Cameo’s a spent force…

We ‘jog’ along the beach to our breakfast spot.

I’ve enjoyed Banjul a lot. What’s made the trip special is the road trip element. Travel and characters and memories, an excellent mix. You can travel by yourself (Casablanca, Tunis) or you can have someone special along; your spouse, a partner, a close friend, a wingman. Someone who’s excellent company and funny. My close friend ‘Cameo’ is all these things and more. Elements of this post are real, and some edge into the caricature for fun.

Thanks, Cameo. I know you’ve been nervous about this post. Stand the Lebanese hitman down, all good ‘Bro’. Let’s enjoy breakfast…

Only a few posts this year. Tunis, Casablanca, and Banjul. A Christmas special? Amsterdam in December. Should be fun…

Mark Reading is a British who has been traveling across Africa for many years for work and pleasure. He’s passionate about jogging and writing about his experiences.

Disclaimer: All used photos not credited in this piece are taken and provided by Mark Reading.

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