Gambia Project 2017

On 13 February 2017, Jannik Vanreppelen, Jeroen Maes and myself (Michaël Stippelmans) headed out to West Africa for a two-week trip to Gambia, one of the smallest countries in Africa. The purpose of our trip was to assist the PaxX Gambia riders during their training rides, to teach children how to ride safely on the road and for Jannik and Jeroen to get some training kilometres in the legs ahead of the new cycling season. I’d spent some time beforehand planning our trip but we didn’t really end up sticking to our plans: it was very much a case of going with the flow! I hope you enjoy reading about our trip!


Jannik, Michaël and Jeroen before departing for Gambia

My first trip to Gambia was back in 2012. My objective was to seek out a variety of ways to promote cycling culture, and progress has certainly been made over the last few years (check out the Gambia Project page on our website to see how PaxX Gambia came to be and what’s been happening in the meantime).

After a six-hour flight we arrived at Banjul airport. The first thing that strikes you when you get off the plane is the searing heat, with temperatures upwards of 30 to 35 degrees. This is especially the case if you’re wearing jeans and a winter jacket! It was just something we’d have to get accustomed to as quickly as possible as the heat would be with us constantly for the next two weeks.

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We made our way through customs and soon retrieved our bags. There were several porters waiting with baggage trolleys which were offering their services for a fee. We took one of them up on his offer but after all of 10 metres we had to haul our bags off the trolley for another baggage check. Nevertheless, the porter still wanted payment for the 10 metres we’d travelled: “€3 please”! I could hardly believe my ears and I was all for telling him that he needed his head testing. However, that wouldn’t have made for a good start to our stay in Gambia so I wisely decided to keep schtum. I didn’t give him the €3 he was wanting but instead handed over 50 cents, much to the disappointment of the porter who had really put in a fabulous performance to push the trolley all of 10 metres! We had to proceed to a side room as we had our big bike bags with us, not something they see every day in Gambia! The customs officer opened my bag and was amazed to see a mass of bike clothing and empty drink bottles. I told him that we had come to Gambia for a cycling project. His was quite enthusiastic about our project and wanted to take one of the jerseys whilst also insisting that we give him a bike. ‘Unbelievable’, I thought to myself, ‘I haven’t even got out of the airport yet and I’m already having to negotiate with a customs officer just to get to keep my bike!’

Outside the airport, Seal Sylvester Jammeh was waiting for us. We would be staying with Seal and his family for the next two weeks. I met Seal during my first visit to Gambia in 2012 and we had become good friends. Seal is a man with a lot of enthusiasm who works for several Christian organisations including Youth for Christ. He is also the pastor of several churches and is well-known and much-loved in Gambia: in short, a very special guy.

On our way to Seal’s house, we talked a lot whilst Jannik and Jeroen, who normally love to chat, were sat in silence in the back of the car. This was their first trip to Africa and their eyes were out on stalks as they discovered an entirely new world. They experienced a slice of culture shock when they first saw the slums at the roadside and the extent of the incredibly chaotic traffic. They expected a fair bit of chaos, but what they saw was on another level and they started to wonder how on earth we would be able to cycle in such an environment!

We’d planned to meet up with PaxX Gambia the following day for a couple of hours on the bike. I was very happy to see Cherno Joof, the leader of PaxX Gambia, for the first time in five years. Cherno brought two new PaxX Gambia riders with him along with a bike for me: three riders with four bikes. How did Cherno get the extra bike to us? Yep, he rode one bike whilst holding onto the other with one hand. I can assure you that this is no easy task at the best of times, never mind when you’re making your way through heavy Gambian traffic! We too had a surprise in store for our Gambian riders: a new PaxX Gambia kit. The Gambian jerseys have the same design and sponsors as the PaxX Belgium jerseys but with red replacing the orange sections.

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PaxX Gambia meets PaxX Belgium

Our first training ride was pretty uneventful, although maybe that comment should be taken with a pinch of salt – or perhaps a ton of sand, which would be more fitting in this part of the world! We were staying in the very busy coastal town of Fajara. In order to find some quieter roads, we often had to take the main road through Serekunda, which proved to be very hectic indeed. When you ride in Brussels you have to have eyes in the back of your head, but here even four eyes might not be enough! There are always taxi drivers stopping and starting, ducking left and right and we spent a lot of time weaving our way through the traffic with several lorries screaming past us too, just to add to the already copious amounts of exhaust fumes we were having to breathe in. The continuous sound of car horns added to the stress. All we could do was keep moving forward, we had to ‘go with the vélo’! There were also plenty of people walking around the roadside slums trying to sell just about everything you could imagine. Once we’d escaped the busy city we were able to relax a bit, although we still had to keep an eye on the fast-moving traffic as well as any potential hazards. The ironic thing is that everyone seems so impatient when they’re sat in traffic and yet once they’re out of the city they have all the time in the world! A good slogan for Gambia would be ‘more haste, less speed…unless you’re sat in traffic!’

Thankfully, we had Cherno and friends with us to guide us through. Cherno can’t stand cars; his passion is bikes! I like to think of him as Gambia’s cycling ambassador. He’s also a good role model for many riders as well as being the leader of PaxX Gambia. He’s a racer, coach, coordinator, team captain, mechanic and everything else besides! We’re working with him to help cyclists reach the next level, children to learn how to ride safely and promote cycling as a way of getting around. Cherno really is a blessing for our club and is most certainly the right man in the right place.

In addition to all of that, he knows the roads and the Gambian driving style like the back of his hand. On one of our last training rides we had to ride through the busy centre of Serekunda. We though that we’d seen everything by that point, but it soon transpired that we hadn’t! There was gridlock in both directions and there was no way we could cycle up the outside due to the constant stopping and starting of the taxis. Therefore, the safest option was to ride in the middle of the road. Cherno kept his left arm raised to let everyone know that there were cyclists present and we followed him, hoping and praying that we wouldn’t end up face to face with an oncoming car. We were so happy to get out of there unscathed! We just had to trust that Cherno knew what he was doing and we always felt safe when he was around, both on and off the bike.

Believe it or not, the tarmac roads in Gambia are much better that the roads in Belgium, although, to be honest, it doesn’t take much to beat the concrete slabs that make up our sorry excuse for roads! However, there are not as many roads in Gambia as there are in Belgium and you do sometimes come across a few potholes. Nevertheless, the roads are generally in pretty good nick. They’re also dead straight, to the extent that during an 80km ride you won’t come across more than 5 corners. If you’re after some climbing, stay well clear of Gambia! The highest point is a mere 47 metres above sea level and the only climbs you’ll find are short and sharp. Having said that, there are a few sections of false flat and the brisk sea breeze did make for some tough riding at times.

Once outside of the busy urban areas, riding was very pleasurable and freeing. Out towards Gunjur, a fishing village where Cherno lives, it’s even quieter and you can go quite a while without seeing anyone else at all, save for a few stray cows. There are also a few sleepy villages where you can have a good chinwag with the locals. We came across a group of children walking to school, spread out right the way across the road. When we went past they were so excited to see a group of white cyclists go past - certainly not an everyday occurrence in these parts! Such a reaction makes you feel like royalty!

PaxX Gambia currently has around 15 members. Some members have better bikes and kit than others, some are in better physical shape than others and some have more experience than others. Some of our riders have been training hard and can really ride well – as Jannik and Jeroen found out! Whilst the level of racing might not be on a par with Europe, they have certainly come a long way in the last 5 years, both physically and in terms of technique. On some rides we did sprint training or rode as a chain gang depending on the wind. Our average speed was between 27 and 31kph, but our top speed was a very respectable 50kph. What most of the riders here lack is an explosive kick. Most of the riders are lightweights and so there is certainly room for improvement in terms of power, but what they do have is an impressive amount of stamina.

Unfortunately, we had our fair share of misfortune. We had planned a long second training ride, without Cherno but with some other PaxX members. In the most built-up areas we rode very slowly and cautiously. However, our luck didn’t last. My fears became a reality in the township of Brikama. A taxi driver drove straight over Jannik’s back wheel and Jannik made the acquaintance of the Gambian tarmac. Thankfully, he was OK. However, his back wheel was bent beyond repair. There was suddenly a lot of commotion as around 30 people drew close to assess the damage (see photo below).


We then set about doing something that became all too familiar on this trip: negotiating. The police were called but they certainly didn’t rush, taking a good half an hour to finally show up. After a fair amount of umming and ahhing, they decided that both us and the taxi driver needed to go to the police station. We called Cherno and Seal as we knew we were in for lengthy negotiations as to who was at fault and how reparation would be sought for the damage. We spent a good 4 hours providing statements and negotiating with the taxi driver’s boss. Cherno and Seal did their best to clarify who was at fault, but it was no simple task as the police chief was an acquaintance of the taxi driver and so didn’t want to rule that he was at fault – hence the very lengthy discussions! Eventually, a compromise was reached whereby the taxi driver’s boss agreed to pay for the damage. I’ll leave my account of events at that as I still can’t quite make sense of it all. Believe me, you don’t want to know what bizarre goings on we witnessed at the police station. The lengthy delay really put a sour spin on our day, but this is Africa after all… We were unfortunate, but some things are unavoidable. Of course, the whole thing boiled down to money – and at times our trip felt like it was more about business than cycling. If such an accident were to occur in Belgium, it would be sorted out within a quarter of an hour, but here it takes half a day and you’re subjected to a whole song and dance in the process.

It turns out that in Gambia, anyone can be a taxi driver – you don’t even need to have a driver’s licence or any specific qualifications. It’s clear that safety is not exactly a priority. In addition, I reckon that a roadworthiness test is a foreign concept here, which is perhaps a good thing otherwise two thirds of the cars would be taken off the road. Whilst in Belgium it’s easier to buy frites than bread and in Scotland there are more sheep than people, Gambia has more taxis than cars. We saw plenty of vehicles with broken taillights, damaged doors, broken windows and flat tyres. If you sit at the side of the road even just for half an hour, you’ll see some unbelievable sights! There’s always something to see – for example, they put so many things on the roof of their cars (including chairs) that I took to calling such vehicles ‘sofa-cars’!

One of the highlights of our trip was organising local bike races for both adults and children. This was the official race notice:

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The notice gives the start time as 10:00 but we were unable to publicise an official start time as we first had to negotiate some logistical arrangements with the local police such as ensuring a traffic-free circuit, paying to cover their fuel costs, etc. My gut feeling was that we wouldn’t be able to start the race before 12:00 and, sure enough, it was 14:00 before the first race was underway. Prior to the start, a steady stream of riders and spectators arrived to sign in and see what was occurring. I used a piece of chalk to mark the finish line on the road, just like I used to do when I was a kid. Meanwhile, a large tent was being erected, although it didn’t last long as a sudden sandstorm blew in and the tent was airborne! In one of the videos you can actually hear our cameraman Fred Strauven say “the organisers are panicking as the whole tent has been blown over. We’re going to see plenty of echelons today!” Thankfully, no-one was injured and we were able to quickly patch up the tent. However, we still had to wait for the police to see what other surprises they had in store for us. The race route was very simple – a long straight 11km road with a 180 degree turn at the end for a total race distance of 22km. In addition, we organised 2 races for children on a shorter circuit. Some 35 children took part in the races. They were very excited at the start line! Most of them had their own bikes but none of them had their own helmets so the adult riders let the children borrow their helmets so that they could take part in the race. Some of the children thought that the helmets were so cool that they didn’t get around to giving them back. I’m sure that my yellow cycle helmet is being put to good use somewhere in Gambia! Our guys Jannik and Jeroen acted as support riders during the kids’ races in an attempt to set our minds a little more at ease, given that we had no idea whether the kids had any bike-handling skills at all.

The start of the first race wasn’t without incident: the police were supposed to drive ahead of the race but they appeared to be still half asleep as they didn’t move when we gave the start signal! Consequently, a couple of kids rode straight into the back of the police car. Thankfully, no-one was injured. In the second race, one young lad had his chain snap after a mere 20 metres – bringing his race to a very premature end. The disappointment was etched all over his face. As the kids came over the finish line one by one, you could see they had enjoyed themselves, and that is the most important thing. Our aim was to give them an introduction to cycling in a playful fashion – it didn’t really matter who won as they were all winners and all the participants were given a handful of sweets.

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The kids’ race

The men’s race was an altogether more serious affair. There was also some prize money up for grabs. 14 riders, including Janik and Jeroen and a couple of PaxX Gambia riders, lined up at the start. The police were not exactly exemplary in this race either: a rider went on the attack, got a gap over the others but was actually riding faster than the police car! It would have been against the rules for him to overtake the lead police car so the rider had to slow down, much to his justifiable annoyance. The only advantage for him is that he could actually benefit from the car’s slipstream – which isn’t exactly playing by the rules either! Furthermore, the riders had to stay on the right-hand side of the road to avoid oncoming traffic, hence it was hardly a traffic-free course! The riders’ cornering abilities were not exactly put to the test as there was only one 180 degree turn which most negotiated by taking one foot off the pedals for fear of falling. After 22 km of racing, the first rider crossed the finish line alone. And thus Samba Bah became the very first winner of the PaxX Global Cycling Gunjur Race!

Race classification:

1) Samba Bah
2) Ousman Janneh
3) Musa Bojang
4) Jannik Vanreppelen
5) Sarjo Ceesay
6) Samba Jallow
7) Omar Sow
8) Jeroen Maes
9) Keita Mamadou
10) Mamadou Badjan
11) Usher
12) Pabby Gomez
13) Musa Bah
14) Dawda Jallow

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The adults’ race

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The podium

The race was followed by the official prize distribution and the podium ceremony, albeit without a podium, podium girls or flowers. We had to make do with just a plinth fashioned from a crate and a fruitless search for some local podium girls! Each rider was given an envelope containing some prize money although the main goal was enjoying the race rather than making money. The spectators, riders and race organisers (i.e. us) had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed the racing.

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Our spectators weren’t exclusively human either: a fair few cows were interested in watching the race go past! I bet that Gambian cows don’t see cyclists pass right under their (somewhat large) noses every day! Have a look at some of our videos for proof…

Every year, PaxX organises the Ronde van Haspengouw, a multi-day race in Belgium for men and women. Cycling is a highly professional business in Belgium and so Gambia seems decidedly amateurish in comparison. However, that is the beauty of cycling: two completely different ways of doing things – it’s those differences that I find fascinating. At the moment, everyone in Belgium is gearing up for the biggest race on the calendar; what’s it called again? Ah, yes – the Tour of Flanders. The race is the biggest day in Flemish cycling, an annual celebration out on the roads of Flanders. Everyone knows the story – half of Flanders is sat glued to the TV screen whilst the other half, some fuelled by a handful of beers and plenty of frites with mayonnaise, cheer on their favourite riders at the roadside. It’s a great race and I was there amongst the masses of spectators in 2016 but, if I’m honest, I much prefer a Gambian celebration – a pure celebration without all the frills, glitz and glamour but lots of car horns (I know from experience!) and jubilation. Simplicity and spontaneity are still the very essence of cycling in my mind, and those things are important outside of the world of cycling as well.

We also got the chance to interact with the locals. If you go out onto the beach, they’ll always come up to you and, more likely than not, ask you a number of standard questions such as “Who are you? Where are you from? Do you like it here in Gambia?” We had to field these questions on a daily basis. Next time, I’ll have a t-shirt made saying ‘I’m Michael, I’m from Belgium and I like Gambia’. They walk alongside you for a while and try to get some money off you or offer you what they claim to be the best excursion deals. Of course, there’s always a catch to everything they offer you, but you’re also aware that they’re not doing it for a bit of fun but rather out of desperation, viewing tourists as a last hope. How would you react to being in such a desperate situation? Who among us has never felt a bit desperate at times? I can assure you that when you see children begging at the roadside for food or money, it does something to you – as is often the case with distressing situations. But Gambia is also a mecca for holidaymakers, although they usually stick to coastal areas. The inland areas have a very different feel and there’s a lot more poverty, with water and electricity supply remaining a big problem. Even at Seal’s house, there wasn’t electricity every day. Supply is limited and is thus distributed across the country meaning that you get power pretty much every other day. So what did we do on the evenings when it was pitch black? Thankfully, our smartphones had enough juice left in them to provide the necessary amount of light for a few games of cards.

Life in Gambia is far from idyllic, but we knew that beforehand, as I’m sure you did too. If you’ve been following the news over the last few months, you’ll know that there has been a fair bit of unrest in Gambia. We kept a close eye on the situation in the weeks leading up to our trip. A powerful dictator had ruled over Gambia since 1994 until Adama Barrow unexpectedly won the recent elections. Unfortunately, the former President did not want to step aside, which led to unrest across the country with many people fleeing the violence. The local population were very much living in fear and tourists were hastily evacuated. Thankfully, the situation didn’t descend into war as the former President, under international pressure and faced with the Senegalese army massing on the border, decided to leave the country. This was good news for us as it meant that we could go ahead with our cycling projects without having to factor army tanks and checkpoints into our ride plans!

Gambia celebrated Independence Day on 18 February. This was a very significant day for the country as the new President was sworn in. The festivities were centred around the football stadium, where thousands of people would stop at nothing to get a piece of the action. The stadium was jam-packed and even the surrounding area was chock-a-block to such an extent that it reminded me of the Heizel disaster in Brussels. Some people squared up to the police in an attempt to get into the stadium whilst others irresponsibly took the potentially deadly risk of climbing up the floodlights just to get a glimpse of what was going on inside the stadium. Seal had made it into the stadium but advised us not to try to get in due to the mass of people and the hours of waiting around in very intense heat, something that we Belgians are not exactly used to. It was certainly a very special experience for us and stood in stark contrast to our rather glum national day ‘celebrations’ on 21 July.

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Independence Day

We stayed with Seal and his family for the entirety of our trip and we couldn’t have asked for better hosts. We enjoyed some very good and varied food both before and after our training rides and we really began to feel a deep sense of gratitude towards them as they spent almost the whole day cooking for us. On the first few days we wanted to help them with the washing up, but we soon got the impression that that would be a source of embarrassment for them and would potentially come across as insulting. In Gambia, women are still by and large expected to do the housework. Could we European men ever dream of such a situation? Dream on, Michael! Perhaps European women could follow the lead of their Gambian counterparts?! (just joking....honest!)
Another project, which we hope to further extend in the future, involved teaching kids how to safely ride a bike on the road. Seal arranged for us to go into a local school and the road bike that we took with us proved quite the attraction! We talked them through the most important components on the bike and the differences between a road bike and a normal city bike. Some of the children also got to do a lap of the schoolyard on the bike, which was of course about 100 sizes too large for them, but they were so excited at being able to ride a real racing bike. Even the teacher got to have a go – as you can see on one of our videos. There are times when pictures reveal more than a thousand words could.

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Seal also arranged for me to talk about our cycling projects on a Christian radio station called Paradise FM. I was given a whole 45 minutes to talk about our work. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to fill the allotted time but it really flew by and was a great experience. The presenter asked me what ‘Pax’ means. I replied that it is the Latin word for peace. For the rest of the interview, he kept referring to ‘Peace Global Cycling’…

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We had a lot to thank Seal, his wife Rose and their family for. Seal is a pastor and works for a number of Christian organisations. He’s also always on his phone: I was amazed at how many calls he made and messages he sent every single day. Even when preaching in church, his phone was never far away! During our trip, we visited four different churches. I am a Christian and regularly attend services at Alive Kerk in Leuven. For Jeroen and Jannik, this was all new, but it was only a matter of time before they were up on their feet and dancing to the rhythm of gospel music.

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A local church

When I think back to our trip it always puts a smile on my face. Yes, there were a fair few challenging moments and at times I was running around like a headless chicken. Some aspects of life in Gambia did bring a lump to my throat. We had to continuously improvise and adapt, which proved to be quite difficult at times for all three of us. The Gambians do things their own way and you need to accept and respect that. If you’re impatient, you’re better off staying at home but if you want to learn how to be more patient, go to Gambia! I’m not the most patient person in the world and there were times when I felt that my patience was wearing very thin indeed but, as the saying goes, patience is a virtue.

Over the course of our 2 weeks in Gambia we were able to do many good things – mission accomplished on that score! But what’s next? In 3 weeks’ time, the Tour of Senegal bike race will take place and a few PaxX riders will be taking part. This is a high-level race and will be great experience for them. In March, we launched an initiative in Belgium which sought to collect bikes, components, clothing, helmets, etc. with a view to sending a container to Gambia in mid-April. We received so many items that it was impossible for us to send all of the donated equipment in one container, so we plan to send a second shipment in the autumn. It goes without saying that I wish to warmly thank everyone who made a donation. We even received word from the far north of the Netherlands that they had some bikes for us. A huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who contributed to the success of this project. I’d also like to especially thank cyclocross rider Jolien Verschuren (see my interview with her from 2016: and the parents of professional road cyclist Tim Wellens. Jolien donated many items of clothing from her old team whilst Tim’s parents (who run a bike shop) donated plenty of helmets and shoes.

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Bottles ready to be shipped to Gambia

I’d also like to say a special thank you to Jannik and Jeroen. They certainly showed that they’re made of strong stuff by agreeing to take part in this African adventure. They’re real men now! They have been training hard ahead of the upcoming cycling season but they’ve also made time to help out and support our projects. They’re both great guys! I’d also like to thank Kommert and his wife, Fred, Wilma and John and his wife for helping out during the race. Gambia is their second home and they have a lot more experience than we do and are also very committed to cycling. We received a fair bit of cycle clothing from them and even a laptop, which will prove very useful in a local school. A special ‘thank you’ also to Jerry (happy birthday!) and his wife Awa for the wonderful birthday party that they organised. And last but not least, I’d like to thank Seal, Rose, Cherno and all of the PaxX Gambia members for taking such good care of us. At times, we felt heavily reliant on you and yet we also felt that you were very thankful for our presence. We could see the gratitude in your eyes. There was and is a great deal of mutual respect. I’m very proud to say that I feel that we will be friends for life.

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A selfie with Seal, Jannik, Jeroen, Michaël & Rose

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A suffering Jeroen and a jubilant Cherno

In the meantime, PaxX Gambia continues to grow and our dream remains that of one day sending a rider to the Olympic Games. We know that this will be a long process but nothing is impossible. We also want to provide more cycle lessons (perhaps through third parties) to school kids in Gambia and set up a permanent cycle park where kids can get to grips with bikes in a safe environment, simulate different traffic scenarios and learn the meaning of road signs.

We put together a short YouTube video of our Gambia adventure and you can see all of the photos on our Flickr page. You can get all of the latest PaxX Gambia news on our Facebook page.

In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to go to Gambia or any other African country for that matter, grab it with both hands! I think that everyone has to experience it at least once. I could talk for hours about what I experienced. Watching videos and looking at photos is one thing, but it’s no substitute for actually being there. My stories pale into insignificance in comparison with what you can experience there. I’ll keep my best Gambia memories for myself as there’s no way I could attempt to share them in full with anyone. ‘Why?’ you might ask. Well, I feel that my words can’t do justice to the beautiful things I saw and experienced, so you’ll just have to go and see for yourself! What are you waiting for? Get out there and experience your own African adventure…

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