Banged-Up Abroad

Think about the last time you broke a rule (a big one, not just ripping the tags off your pillows). Were you burned, or did things turn out for the best?

OK, so I am rather late with this one, but something happened that made me think of this today, so please excuse my tardiness.

This morning I took a telephone call from Gambia in Africa. It was a former tenant, who, up until December 28th last year was living in a property my wife and I let out in Bournemouth Town Centre. The guy wanted a letter from me confirming that he had lived in my property, to help him with his visa to come back to England. We chatted for a few minutes and made some arrangements for his girlfriend – who is in England  – to come and pick the letter up.

After the telephone call I started thinking about my one and only trip to Gambia, and was amazed to realize that it was now exactly twenty years this week since I was ‘Banged-Up Abroad’.

I had never been to Africa before, but it was always on my bucket list. From the moment the aircraft landed and we walked down the steps onto the dusty runway, I just knew in my bones that I was in for an adventure.

I should say as a backdrop to this story that in the weeks leading up to the holiday there had been a great deal of publicity around a British National who had allegedly been tortured by the NIA (Gambian Secret Police), and held for six months without trial on what he claimed were spurious diamond smuggling charges.

With hindsight, I might have reasoned that the negative publicity Gambia was receiving at that time might have had something to do with my great fortune in securing ridiculously cheap tickets for the holiday. As it was I bragged to my friends about the excellent piece of business I had done on teletext (just how old am I?), while they tried to rattle me with stories of the many dreadful fates that might await me.

At that time, entering Gambia was a refreshingly basic business. The plane landed, some guys who didn’t even have uniforms on pushed some steps up to the plane and you climbed out. More guys in civvies unloaded the suitcases on to the tarmac and you just grabbed your own and walked a short distance across the runway to Customs, which was a few trestle tables set up under a wooden frame with palm leaves lashed to the top for shelter.

Two men were stationed by the trestle tables, one of them seated. The seated man scrutinized my passport looking from the picture to me and back at the picture again, over and over. I think he was really just killing time while his colleague rifled through my suitcase in search of contraband. Satisfied I was not a smuggler they waved me through to a mud car park beyond.

My girlfriend and I located the holiday rep who ticked us off a list and ushered us on to a bus. We were soon headed for our destination a mere 40 minutes away – The Badala Park Hotel. I drank in the towns and countryside on the ride, marveling at the ingenuity of a people that found a second, third and fourth use for just about any object you can imagine.  It was hot dusty and colourful, and I loved every mile of it.

The Hotel was an experience in itself. It was relatively small, with the reception and restaurant to the roadside, a square pool behind and a couple of two-storey blocks of rooms arranged around the pool. There were many more rooms and bungalows at the hotel, but I never had the need to look beyond our immediate surroundings.  Our room was on the ground floor and looked toward the swimming pool and bar area.  At either end of the pool was a bar and a sprinkling of tables with canvass sunshades. I laughed out loud when I realized there was no glass in the windows, only a thin kind of gauze or mesh to keep the insects out.

There was no air conditioning but the room was light and clean and we were content. I would discover that night that the poolside was also the discotheque  which was open until 2am every night. Sleep was only possible after this time, or after drinking copious amounts of alcohol from the pool bars.

Badala Park

The next day was spent mostly around the poolside and in the reception area, planning some excursions and learning about local sights to see. It was while arranging a trip to Banjul market that we met Roland and Nicki, also from England. Roland was a prison officer at Portland Young Offenders Institution and Nicki, his partner, was a stay at home mum to their son Steven. We got on well together and quickly decided to save money on the cost of the excursion and share a taxi. After a few drinks to aid our slumber we settled on an early night to be fresh for the 8am start the following morning.

The first part of our trip was pleasant and uneventful and therefore not deserving of your time, so I will skip straight to the meat of the story. It was early afternoon and we were on our way back from the market with a few colourful tapestries and some interesting carved fertility symbols, when a decision was made that shaped the course of our holiday thereafter.

On the way into Banjul we had passed a long, white wall broken by a huge gate at either end. Above one of the gates hung a red sign which read ‘Female Wing’ and above the other a blue sign with the words ‘Male Wing’. You have probably guessed by now that this was a prison; the notorious Mile 2 Prison no less. My new friend Roland, the prison officer, was very excited by this. It seemed that not seeing enough of prisons every day, our Roland had made it his hobby to set about photographing prisons wherever and whenever he could.

Mile 2

We persuaded the taxi driver to pull over in the dusty central reservation and Roland and I got out. Roland already had his camera in his hand to get some gritty pictures of a real life third world prison, and I was curious too, although my camera remained tucked away on my belt. Mile 2 really looked the part. A couple of guards with what looked to be machine guns stood menacingly on the roof of one of the buildings. The prison had a reputation for ‘disappearing’ political or troublesome inmates and the conditions were said to be appalling.

We crossed the main road and Roland began taking pictures from about fifty feet from the gates. Suddenly one of the guards on the roof began shouting and pointing at us and an alarm bell sounded. Roland and I stood rooted to the spot for a moment wondering what to do – until the gate began to open. A group of five men carrying machine guns ran out of the gate towards us.

“Run!” I yelled, dragging the shocked Roland with me. With the Guards rushing towards us we ran across the road dodging a couple of trucks that beeped their horns at us and raced back to the taxi. We jumped in and screamed at the driver to drive away quickly. The taxi driver shook his head repeating “No, no, no, no.” over and over, his hands raised in a gesture of surrender. By now the guards were upon us and quickly surrounded the vehicle, their guns pointing menacingly at us.

They signed for Roland to get out of the taxi, apparently uninterested in me. Roland looked terrified as they began to lead him away. “I’m going with him.” I said, “go back to the hotel and tell the rep what has happened.” and with that I got out of the taxi leaving the women crying, and quite possibly the taxi driver too, and ran after my friend and his captors.

“I am here as a witness.” I said sternly, in my ignorance believing that my presence might help my friend. I was made to raise my hands as well and was taken at gunpoint  into Mile 2 with my prison officer friend. We were taken to a small concrete guardhouse inside the compound where we were told to stand against a wall and wait, with just one armed guard for company.

Roland turned to me and said, “look, let me do the talking here I know how these places work.” I just had time to agree, somewhat reluctantly, when a guard screamed at us to shut up. Just then, in walked The Big Cheese himself, complete with beret, sunglasses, jodhpurs, boots and what looked to me like a riding crop. Another guard followed him in and aimed his gun at us while The Big Cheese made his point.

He said nothing at first, walking slowly and deliberately up to first Roland and then me, scrutinising us in turn, his eyes hidden behind his RayBan’s. He walked back to stand in front of Roland, leaning in until his face was just an inch from Roland’s. “Who the bloody fuck are you, and why are you taking pictures of my prison?” he suddenly screamed at my friend, tiny flecks of spittle hitting Roland in the face as he did so.

“Excuse me Sir, it was all a misunderstanding, I just…” began Roland

“It is an offence punishable by imprisonment to photograph any Government official or any Government building in The Gambia!” The Big Cheese shouted, cutting off poor Roland before he could explain.

“Please Sir, we are really sorry, I am a prison officer myself back in England, you can call my boss…”

“Silence! You will listen first and then you will answer my questions!” interrupted the screaming man again. It was without doubt an intimidation tactic, and it was working very nicely. Roland was used to taking authority in his job, and was a pliable and willing victim.

I, on the other hand was a Residential Social Worker; taught to challenge bad practice wherever I may find it – which roughly translated means I had a big mouth. I could feel the heat of indignation rising within me and I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could put up with. In my mind, I was not the accused, but a witness, there to make sure that Roland’s ‘rights’ were not abused and that he would get a fair hearing. I was a force for good, a sort of unofficial UN ambassador, ready to call on the might of the British Consulate who would doubtless ride in like the cavalry and give this bounder ‘a good telling off’. Didn’t he realise that we were British?

“You are in very serious trouble my friends,” his voice was suddenly quiet and grave. “and you are facing a long stay in The Gambia.” All the horror stories I had heard, of people disappearing, or spending months without charge locked up in a rat infested African prison, beaten and tortured for the sport of their captors, came flooding back to me. This was my Adventure!

“Why have you been taking pictures of my prison?” Big Cheese asked the terrified Roland. There was no need to shout now, Roland was clearly broken. Off course now it is obvious why he was so afraid, a screw in prison? what chance would he have of making it out in one piece? Or even alive?

“Please Sir,” he pleaded, “it’s my hobby. It’s what I do, take pictures of prisons. I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed. Please, take the film if you want to, just let us go please. We didn’t mean any harm.”

The Big Cheese walked up to me stroking his chin as he stood before me. I read his name badge, memorizing his name to make sure when I reported him the right man would be held accountable for this outrage.

Lt. Commander Djibou Sekka. A name I will never forget. “I  will interrogate the driver and see if his story agrees with yours. I warn you, we have many political prisoners here. Some times people come and they take pictures to plan the escape of our criminals. It may be that you are planning something like that. If I decide that you are lying I will give you to the Secret Police, and that will be very bad for you.  Give me your camera.”

Roland handed over his beautiful camera without a blink. “You too.” he said, turning to me.

“Why? I didn’t take any pictures.” I objected.

“If you do not give me your camera I will take it from you!” he hissed into my face.

Reluctantly I handed over my camera and Lt. Sekka gave both of them to one of the guards. “I want a receipt for that!” I called after the guard as he left with the cameras.

“Please Sir, honestly, we would never do something like that, we’re just tourists. It’s all a big misunderstanding.” said a trembling Roland.

“We will develop the films and find out the truth.” he growled before turning and leaving the room.

“Right.” I said, my patience finally at an end. “I have had quite enough of this. Roland, I am going to get the British Consulate. I will be back as soon as I can.” and with that I moved towards the door, actually believing that I would be allowed to leave.

Our Guard pointed his gun in my face, his eyes bulging as he stepped forward. I had to back up and stand against the wall. My heart was racing and I was finally worried. “It wasn’t me that took the pictures.” I heard my voice whining, as if it came from someone else. We fell silent and waited, brooding on what was to come.

Around two hours later Djibou Sekka returned. “It seems that your problems are growing. The taxi driver is an illegal from Sierra Leone and will be deported. He was rightfully afraid and was most helpful. He said that you tried to escape.” He scowled at us and then continued, “where are you staying while in The Gambia?”

“The Badala Park Hotel in Kotu.” I replied through dry lips.

“Then this is what will happen. You will return with your friends to your Hotel. There you will remain until tomorrow morning. At 10am you will present yourselves to the main gate with your passports. You will surrender your passports to me and accompany me to Banjul, where we will develop the films. I will then decide what is to be done with you. For now, you are free to go. I warn you, if you do not return tomorrow at 10am you will be arrested and imprisoned. If you attempt to leave The Gambia you will be arrested and imprisoned. Do you understand?

We nodded, grateful not to be spending the night in the prison. We never saw the driver again and had to flag down a passing taxi to take us back to the hotel. The return journey was yet more misery as the girls cried and screamed at us in equal measure, furious at the mess we were now in and terrified of what might happen next. They had spent over three hours in the back seat of a taxi on the central reservation of Gambia’s busiest road, not knowing when or even if their boyfriends might return.

As soon as we returned to the hotel we ordered a few stiff drinks and sat in the reception pondering our next move. If we gave up our passports we certainly wouldn’t be going home any time soon, and if we didn’t we would become fugitives. I spotted the holiday rep and Roland and I ran to tell him what had happened. “Look, I don’t think you should be too worried about it if you haven’t done anything wrong. Just do as they say, really.” were the only crumbs he had to offer.

Dejected, we returned to our seats.  And then a horrible thought struck me. “Roland, I’ve been thinking, he has our cameras.”

“Yes, and?”

“Did you have any pictures left on that film?” I asked, alarm growing by the moment.

Yeah, about 10 I think, why?”

“Me too, about six I think. Roland what if he takes some more pictures with our cameras, to make it look really bad. Like we really were planning a break-out?”

“Why would he do that?” said a confused Roland.

To blackmail us perhaps? This is Africa you know.”

After sitting in silence for a while, the girls went to speak to the hotel receptionists and told them what had happened. I watched the girls talking but couldn’t hear what was being said. After a couple of minutes they waved at me to come over. Roland and I got up and went to the counter. “What was the name of the Prison Commander?” the receptionist asked me.

“Djibou Sekka, why?” I answered puzzled.

“Ah! Good news, he is my husband’s best friend. I will make some calls, go to your rooms and I will see what I can do.” she smiled.

Obediently, we returned to our rooms. I argued with my girlfriend, took a shower and then argued some more. While we were arguing someone banged on the door ferociously. I opened the door and there was a prison guard, and not for the first time that day I had a machine gun pointed straight at me. “Come with me now.” said the guard, and I did.

He led me to the poolside where a man in shorts and a bright flowery shirt was sat smiling and sipping a cocktail. At the same time as I arrived Roland was approaching with another guard. “My friends, my friends!” said the man in the flowery shirt. It was Sekka, civilian styly.

“Sit down, let’s have a drink!” we sat and ordered some drinks, confused by the new friendly Sekka. “My good friend has explained everything to me and I am here to sort things out.” He signalled to a guard who produced our cameras and placed them on the table.

“You must understand how seriously we take these things here in the Gambia. You are very lucky my friends, that you were staying here in my good friend’s hotel. Things could have been very different.”

“Does this mean we get our cameras back?” I asked suspiciously.

“The cameras yes, but the films no.” he replied. “But I have one small problem. You see when these things happen reports get written and paperwork has to be filed. I must still take these films to Banjul and have them developed. There are a lot of expenses that must now be met and this is a very poor country. He looked around the table at each of us and we knew in that moment that this was it:  The Sting, The Pay-Off.

We didn’t dare haggle with him, and Roland in his eagerness to put the whole thing behind him volunteered the princely sum of thirty pounds each. £120 for Mr Sekka to smooth the administrative process that would keep us out of jail. We put the money on the table and he collected it all smiling like it was a poker win. I later found out that that was roughly equivalent to two months salary for Lt. Djibou Sekka.

That night we laughed and drank and laughed some more. Roland and I had been ‘Banged-Up Abroad’ and had managed to buy our freedom for £30 each. Of course the girls had paid £30 each as well, but it was their story too, right? I thought about it afterwards many times and I always come back to the same conclusion: Yes we were stupid, yes we were lucky too. But if I had to choose between having my £30 back or keeping my Gambian adventure there would only be one winner.

When these things happen to us we are desperate for them to be over, for there to be an end to our misery and suffering, or at least our genuine fear of the suffering we think will come. But how true is the saying that you  never feel more alive than when closest to death. Similarly, simple pleasures like freedom are somehow enhanced to become a much greater sensory experience when you have just escaped from the threat of incarceration.

In all of these things it is our perception of our circumstances and not necessarily the reality, which leads to the feeling of euphoria that we experience in the wake of a ‘close shave’. But I have no doubt that for me a life devoid of adventure is a life the poorer for its absence.

So a toast to adventures then, big and small, I wish you many – they are the colours painted bold and bright on the canvas of our lives.

7 thoughts on “Banged-Up Abroad

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