Bridge over troubled water

28th November

 

Answer a fool not according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him.

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

 

Proverbs XXVI 5-6

 

I have never been poorer. I have never felt richer. I spend so little money here in village. Days go by and a Dalasi doesn’t leave my pocket and I always have a few hundred squalid dalasi lining it.

Money is funny here.

The biggest banknote here is a one hundred Dalasi note. It’s worth roughly $3. Everything is also done by cash here. No checks, not credit cards, no ATM’s. If someone wants to purchase a car, for example, they have to pay for it in $3 bills. This means bags and bags of filthy money. And I mean literally filthy – all the money could do with a good wash, as can your hands after handling it.

Change is a big problem here, in more ways than one. Trying to buy things with a hundred dalasi bill can elicit looks of shock and horror from vendors at the prospect of having to find change for you. I once bought a loaf of bread in my village and I received my change in three installments over a 48 hour period.

It complicates trade so much, it makes what should be the simplest of transactions, the lifeblood of any economy, a hassle.

The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa. This should benefit the whole country. Implementing nationwide initiatives, developing ideas, cross country trading should all benefit from people not having to travel vast distances as in other countries in Africa. It should be easier to have a responsive government, it should be easier to identify key areas for development and investment. Sadly this rarely seems to be the case.

There is a legend of how the British drew up the borders of The Gambia. They sent a gunship down the river Gambia and fired cannonballs out of either side of the ship, wherever they landed was where The Gambia ended and Senegal began. The Gambia emerged as a wrinkly elderly accusing finger of land, with a vein of a river running through it, in Africa’s abdomen.

The Gambia is no more than 70km wide at any one point along its length. The river, which was once a boon to British trade, now splits the country making travel an unreliable lengthy ordeal. The Gambian river is a surmountable gash in this country but it has not been prioritized. In a country where the river is such a prominent feature there is only half a bridge. In this country there is no way to drive a vehicle form one side to the other without relying on the most unreliable of ferry’s. There is one bridge that was donated by the Taiwanese government for undeclared favours, but it only crosses from the south bank of the country to an island in the middle of the river, so that to get to the north bank you still have to take a ferry.

I understand bridges are expensive projects but they should be a very high priority for this country and they are not. They would pay for themselves in benefits for the country in a matter of years. Trucks wouldn’t have to sit for days trying to take their goods from one side to the other. The amount of working hours pissed into the river is absurd. There is money available from the international community and AID organizations, it is just used on various intangible projects or poured into various bureaucrats pockets. Can you imagine if London suffered from poverty but it had no bridges, what would its priority be when seeking help or loans? Imagine a post war London, bankrupt, starving and hypothetically bridgeless. Building a bridge to cross the Thames is not easy, but it would be seen as an absolute necessity. Marshall Aid would have forced the UK government to build a bridge. Any other option would be incomprehensible.

In the Gambia there is still not even consensus that even one bridge is a good idea. The argument goes that because the ferry’s are so inefficient, and people have to wait so long for them, that this stimulates trade as people buy food and goods whilst waiting for the ferry. Wherever there is a ferry there is a parasitic quilt of vendors ever present. Predominantly it is a smattering of sales women with plates of bananas or fish balls atop their heads. A bridge would no doubt damage their trade irreparably but it still confounds me that this line of argument is taken seriously. A bridge would benefit so many more people and make so many more people richer in the long run.

If the outside world were really interested in developing The Gambia into a trading partner, not just using it as somewhere to misplace their lazy compassion. They would force The Gambia to prioritize the bridge building issue. The longer it doesn’t happen, the bigger hurdle it seems, the more people are attached to the status quo. Building one bridge would provide jobs, stimulate the economy, give experience to many people on big projects, and destroy the permeating feeling of impossibility.

Just after writing this I began talking to one of the teachers at my school about what people think about a bridge and he explained that the majority of people don’t want a bridge. He explained that if you build a bridge then the people at the ferry port would all be out of a job, they will have no money and they may starve. I tried to explain my view that a bridge would benefit a greater number of people. He continued that people would only want a bridge if they were given new rice fields. If one person dies or can’t feed their family due to the building of a bridge, is it wrong to build it? In The Gambia it seems it is.

“People in Africa, they are always asking what can you do for me. They ask not what they can do for you or each other. They are managing, that is the thing they want. Just to manage.”

The ethos here is you can’t fuck over even one person for the benefit of others. You can’t take away from others. You can be corrupt and steal from sources that would otherwise give to others, but that’s not that bad in moralities eyes here as the ones it was intended for didn’t actually have it yet, so could really claim no ownership of it. Finders keepers, losers weepers.

I keep thinking that unfettered capitalism will cleanse this place of many of its evils, that through progress and prosperity you will inevitably reach a moral safe ground.

But maybe it would wash away much of its benevolence.

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