Alice Stephens has lived on four continents, most recently in Japan for four years. As a Smithsonian Journeys International Program Manager, she recently accompanied Journeys travelers to Timbuktu, Mali, Senegal, and The Gambia. Click here for Alice’s bio.
From the beginning of the trip, passengers on our tour to West Africa had asked about the possibility of seeing the Obama inauguration on television. On January 20, we were on the Gambia River, docked about 300 feet from the nearest bank of the wide, brown waterway, near the village of Kuntaur, The Gambia. It was a busy day of sightseeing, typical of the trip, which took us to such remote spots as Timbuktu in Mali and Joal-Fadiout in Senegal. The day had started with a pirogue ride off the shores of Baboon Islands, a collection of five islands that were the location of a chimpanzee rehabilitation project where human access was limited just to the rangers.
We saw two chimpanzees munching leaves in a tree, as well as a few Nile crocodiles sunning on the muddy banks. Small, widely spaced ears, curved brows, and dark nostrils were the deceptively delicate hints of massive hippos submerged beneath the water. We were accompanied by regally maned red colobus monkeys, the green vervet monkeys seen all over Gambia, as well as a plethora of birds, which attract large flocks of birdwatchers to the heavily tourism-dependent country. Next we stopped in Janjanbureh, formerly known as Georgetown, a refuge for former African slaves in the years when Great Britain had outlawed slavery before other colonial powers. Finally we stopped to visit a prestigious academy, Armitage High School.
We were welcomed by the school’s marching band with battered bugles, cymbals, drums, and flutes prior to visiting the classrooms. Gambia is a country of profound poverty and the classrooms were woefully under-equipped, but the students were obviously serious about learning despite the lack of many things we take for granted in our own schools. We were taken to see the boys’ dormitory, and some of the residents proudly displayed their wall to us. Beneath a few magazine pictures of soccer heroes taped to the wall was this proclamation, written in chalk:
“Obama is taking over today
Victory celebration at 2:30
Welcome to the White House 4 Ever
Hay, hay, hay Barack Obama
Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Hay, hay”
At the end of this long day out, our local guides arranged for us to watch the inauguration in the dusty village, called Wassu, home to intriguing circles of laterite megaliths and the region’s weekly market. We were taken to a nightclub, which had two televisions hooked up to various VCRs and DVD players by a snake’s nest of wires connected to a single surge protector. Chairs had been set out for us, and besides the owner and a few workers, the place was ours.