Ruth Millington wins £200 for her account of a river trip in Gambia, where she finds a renewed sense of hope after the recent election.
Beside the low-slung banks of the River Gambia, I see the boat. I am uneasy about joining the local ferry service. It is notorious for overcrowding, and tourists have been advised not to use it. I look for my local guide, who has agreed to accompany me to Senegal for the day. Hundreds of passengers are moving towards the open-air ferry when I hear my name.
“Ruth?” asks a smiling Gambian man in a short-sleeve black-and-white shirt.
It is my third day in Gambia and he must be the fifth Lamin I have met. “Another Lamin. It’s a popular name,” I tell him. Laughingly, he explains that firstborn males from the Mandinka tribe traditionally take this title.
Among the scramble of passengers, he takes me protectively by the arm to help me aboard across the rickety gangway, jostled by a man herding goats.
We climb three floors to the open deck. Lamin leads, I follow, holding the handrail. He finds me space on a narrow bench, next to a family of women. Tightly bunched together, they wear traditional Gambian dress. Golden yellows intersect with purple patterns across their adjoined figures. They shift seamlessly as I sit down beside them.
The engines announce our departure. I watch as the mouth of the river opens up, on one side meeting sea, on the other stretching inland, coursing a heart-line through West Africa. We rock rhythmically with the current: rising, falling, up, down, water widening.
Lamin says he will find me again before we dock, pushing himself against passengers to deftly make his way back downstairs.
A young Gambian man is watching me. He wears a T-shirt bearing the slogan “GambiaHasDecided”. I’ve seen countless people with similar merchandise, announcing their newly elected president, Adama Barrow. It is only a few weeks since he arrived. He had been sworn in abroad, after his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, disputed the result and refused to stand down, bringing the country to the brink of military intervention. Thousands of Gambians fled across this river, fearing war; tourists were evacuated; troops were sent from Senegal.
“I like your T-shirt,” I say. “It is a new Gambia now,” he proudly replies.
I see others are listening, nodding. There is hopefulness among the Gambians and I feel it here. “You will tell your friends it’s safe to come now,” he says, unquestioning.
I watch as the mangrove-lined shore sharpens in my view, the sun strengthening. As the ferry judders, docking, Lamin finds me. He guides me back down the steps and we join the tide of passengers stepping on to land. As our sandalled feet brush the dusty red road, Lamin points to the left. There is a driver waiting for us, leaning lazily against a Jeep.
Spotting us, he opens the doors and introduces himself. His name is Lamin.
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