I was on a van heading home. Since my car broke down some two months ago, I have wholeheartedly returned to my exasperating habit of joining public transportation for the love of it. In spite of the hassle and the distance I have to walk needlessly, I just love sitting downbundled up together with a bunch of strangers exchanging banalities and/or simply listening to them chat endlessly.
There is always something new to learn when one joins public transport. There is always an eccentric passenger, a loud woman, a termagant, a grumpy man or a rude driver and his apprentice to enliven our boring lives. There was this particular day when an apprentice was supposedly defrauded by a lady my mother’s age, mid 50s, I mean. This was a very hot day along the Mamadi Maniang Highway whilst I was heading back home from Farato village.
The apprentice, a young man in his early twenties or late teens, was for the most part so rude to everyone in the van; it was a culture shock for me in my own country. In small Gambia, where I am born and raised, I could not believe anyone could be so rude to elders as that young man was. It transpired that the lady was insisting on having allegedly paid her fare. The apprentice nonetheless was adamant that she did not pay up to him.
He did a total recounting of the money he had at hand and soon after blurted out to everybody’s hearing, “You are a crooked old woman. You know you are lying. You are the kind of woman who gives birth to thieves, yet you go round appearing saintly and holier than thou. You are the mother of the pickpocket and the bandits we have across the streets.”
As if that was not enough, he hissed and added, “Shame on you,” with vengeance in his voice.
Such was the shock in the van that all the passengers were stunned into silence.
The awkward moment was made more awkward by the uneasiness of the old lady, who stumbled some incoherent words and then pretending to search her purse, removed some cash and paid the apprentice straight away. The young man pocketed the money nonchalantly and started to hum a tuneless song as the van journeyed on.
A few metres away and the old lady alighted from the van with a mortified face I cannot still find the words to describe. The stunned silence continued as the visibly uncomfortable passengers looked ahead pretending nothing had happened.
Once we reached Caw Junction, a grouchy looking man in his late forties or early fifties, who had joined the van at Lamin village asked to alight. He was lean but appeared to be very strong in his tall frame. As he was going down the van, he gave the apprentice his fare, which was D2:00 short of the normal fare. Before the apprentice could open his mouth to protest the amount, the man straightened his tall frame, looked down at him and said calmly, “This is what I have.”
“Do you have a problem with that?”
The young apprentice, perhaps measuring himself against the much taller and stronger looking man, kept his mute on and returned into the van, where he had dismounted to make way for the descending passenger. “Let’s go,” he exclaimed as he sat back at his side of the car.
The irony of the moment hit me as the driver hit the accelerator and shot away with the older man still looming over the van door. I burst out laughing. It was the moment everyone was waiting for in the van. The laughter rang out uncontrollably as the poor boy tried to ignore us. His tuneless humming gave way to moody silence, as an older woman at the back of the car called out, ‘Nyaw. Rewebehdae’.
“Good for you. Insolent as death,” she bellowed. “So your tongue is only strong among old women, eh?” she mocked.
“Little wonder that young men die so young these days,” another passenger held.
To everyone in the van, the discourteous boy, was brought back to earth from his high planet by the stronger, no-nonsense guy. Perhaps that incident would alter his discourtesy, perhaps not. This was a momentous ride for me, and to this day, I recount the brusqueness of the boy towards the old lady, who was no doubt trying to defraud him off his earnings.
I smile at my own apprehension of the meanest he demonstrated on realising the old lady was trying to con him. I laugh at the shock with which it was received by the passengers, their stunned silence and later their uproarious laughter at the timidity he demonstrated in the face of the threatening behaviour he met with from the male passenger. If nothing else, this was one significant instance in my travelling journal.
Another significant instance in public transport transpired recently. The day in question was a rallying day for one of the presidential candidates of this upcoming presidential election. The van I entered into was especially animated. Everyone in the van seemed to be supporting the eminent candidate. ALL, or at least that was what I thought.
That particular day, I was on the Amadou Samba Highway from Gunjur, heading towards Brikama. The language was particularly skewed towards the unfortunate lines of tribalism. “We will win, because we form the majority in the country. We constitute 95% of the population,” the apprentice called out.
The enthusiastic passengers acceded in unanimous expression. For the fun of it, I spoke in one of the native languages and exclaimed that it was impossible for one tribe to constitute 95% of the population of The Gambia, wherein the recently concluded census, says differently.
This seemed to rile up the passengers, except for one who was in another Party’s costume. He looked to be of unsound mind, but he was coherent enough to explicate that in spite of being of the same tribe with the passengers in the van, he supported a different Party. That was the start of his woes, as the driver flippantly asked him to alight from his van, amidst the insults that were hurled at him for being a traitor of his own lineage.
To make light of the situation, I told my fellow passengers that I was Wolof, my mum Fula, my cousins Mandinka and my stepfather Jola. Since there is no Wolof presidential candidate, who was I to vote for and why, I asked innocuously. I asked whether I was to base my vote on my tribal relationships, for I had many, my genetic composition, or my inclinations toward the Party leader whom I felt reinforced my Gambian identity and shared my values.
Needless to say, it was an unending argument in the van all the way to my port of call, as everyone tried to convince me to vote their way.
In reality, The Gambia is a melting pot of different tribes, religions and cultures living and working together in peace and mutual respect. No tribe is above the other. Religious tolerance is exemplary. And harmonious living is our hallmark. Let us exercise our civic rights and duty come Election Day, this Thursday, without deviating from who we are and who we represent, as land of the Smiling Coast.
Whether we identify as Jola, Manjago, Fula or Mandinka; Muslim, Christian or Animist, wherever we go outside of our motherland, we are regarded as Gambian – one people, one nation and a common destiny. This has been my theme song for the past months, in forums I have been honoured to speak as Guest Speaker. Let the politricks of tribalism not divide us. We are bigger than any one tribe. Our rhetoric should be patriotism, nationalism and unison. Nothing more, nothing less…
Let politricks not divide us. Let the politics we practice, unite and reinforce our democracy. In the end, The Gambia, is all we have.
…To The Gambia ever true.
by Rohey Samba