In our series of letters from African journalists, Sierra Leonean-Gambian writer Ade Daramy, who moved to live in The Gambia earlier this year, fastens his seat belt.
On moving to a new country, there many things to consider – learning the language always helps you get around.
But if you are a driver, learning the “road culture” is a must.
After six months in The Gambia I popped backed to the UK for a visit and felt oddly disorientated yet could not figure out why.
It was only on my fourth day when I heard a solitary “beeeeep” as I was walking along that I exclaimed, “That’s what’s missing.” It was the car horns. In The Gambia, a symphony of cacophony is so ever-present that a gap of four seconds would be considered an eternity. As you can imagine, hearing a horn sound with such frequency indicates that Gambians have found many uses for it.
These include saying hello to friends – expecting the friends in a crowd of hundreds to know it is them being greeted. Then there’s the beep to warn pedestrians: “Don’t you dare cross the road.”
Drivers deem it wimpish to allow anyone to cross and it has surprised me that The Gambia has not produced more world class sprinters – as sprinting is only way get to the other side of a road.
You actually get crossly beeped at by other drivers when you give way to a pedestrian. Rarely do you hear a courteous beep. I have tried, without success, to find out if it is a chargeable offence to allow other cars to pull out in front of you.
In fact, many drivers seem to prefer to crash into another car rather than allow it to go.
This is borne out by the fact I have witnessed the result of an accident a day since January, just in the small area I live and work.
So if travelling to The Gambia, here are some things to be wary of:
- Stopping at a red traffic light: compulsory in most countries it seems to be optional here – and those of us too scared to make the dash are likely to either be prodded by the blare of a horn or overtaken by a steady stream of Formula 1-like drivers.
- Centre-line driving: This happens when a slow car is in front – the vehicle behind will be in permanent overtake mode though to be honest, the only people who drive slowly are newcomers to the country or those with something seriously wrong with their vehicle. This speeding is quite ironic, as no-one arrives on time for appointments – ever. This is a country where a wristwatch is only mean to be a piece of hand jewellery.
- Zebra crossings: it is quite normal to see folks overtaking at pedestrian crossings – in fact outside schools, police personnel have to be stationed to force drivers to stop.
- Drivers on the phone: most people have two mobile phones, and many have three. Passengers often give me odd looks when I have left mine go unanswered because I’m driving.
- “Optional” car lights: On my nightly drive home; a three-mile (4.8km) journey, I can guarantee I will pass between 20 and 25 vehicles with one light or none. Even though I pass five police checkpoints, they will never be pulled over for this.
- No such thing as overloading: The only time this becomes a consideration for commercial vehicles is if they can’t move. The one example that aces it was when a taxi, already full, overtook me and pulled over in front to let the next passenger get in the boot – giving me time to take a photo.
- Rush-hour “lanes”: if you find yourself caught in the morning rush-hour traffic, you simply drive on the pavement or the opposite lane if clear. Also, if you are in traffic and an ambulance comes along with sirens blaring, watch out for those who tuck in behind it.
- SUVs follow no rules: If you have one of these vehicles, all you need do in the mornings is put on your hazard lights and drive on the opposite side of the road forcing those who do have right of way to give way – creating the impression you are someone important and in even more of a hurry than everyone else.
- No car is too old: there’s many a vehicle ploughing the roads here that would be rejected by a scrapyard and many others that stopped production decades ago. At times, you drive along thinking, is there a fire somewhere? Only to realise that about 20% of the vehicles are belching really thick black or white smoke. No-one bats an eye at this, there are just too many.
- Vehicles blocking junctions: this is totally acceptable and something you will see every day.
Above all, remember, as you climb in your car, to leave your good manners in the house – just as everyone else seems to do.