By Omar Bah
The lack of motorable roads has unquestionably held back Gambia’s economic growth for many years and it is still hampering the country’s march towards sustained growth.
Since independence 55 years ago, travelling across The Gambia has continued to be a nightmare as hundreds of kilometres of the country’s roads lay waste in ruins and lack of attention from governments.
Successive governments have failed to adequately square up to the challenges of building good roads for the citizens. For centuries and decades, many Gambian roads were neglected and continue to be overlooked up to today, precipitating locomotion problems for thousands, low agricultural productivity and incomes, a lack of investments, rural-urban drift but to list a few associated problems.
But now, some parts of the country have been heaving a sigh of relief when they finally realized that their many years of road worries would soon dissipate as the government sets out on ambitious roads projects in their part of the country.
One of such ambitious projects is the Hakalang Road. This road leads to the birth place of Kunta Kinteh, arguably The Gambia’s greatest when it comes to the country’s history.
President Adama Barrow last month inaugurated the project and both the government and beneficiaries said the project unlock the many business and tourism potentials of the Niumis.
Many are convinced that the Hakalang Road project will herald a new era of hope and limitless development for the area.
The D1.3 billion road contract is awarded to CSE (Company Sahelian Enterprise), a Senegalese-owned firm involved in large scale government public works, sanitation and civil engineering projects such as roads and bridges. The D1.3 billion was part of the D2.8 billion appropriation bill approved by lawmakers.
Impact on tourism
When discussing Hakalang the first thing that comes to mind is Juffereh, the birth place of Kunta Kinteh which is the main attraction of tourists to the settlement. But the lack of motorable roads has contributed towards huge loss of opportunities for the historic area.
The Ministry of Tourism has already laid a foundation for the construction of a Five Star Hotel in Fort Bullen, one of the historic places in the Niumis. Fort Bullen was built by the British in 1826 to thwart the efforts of some European slave traders.
The Minister of Tourism, Hamat NK Bah, said his ministry is working on implementing numerous infrastructural development projects in the area in anticipation of the Hakalang road.
“My ministry is cognisant of the tourism potentials in that part of the country. Constructions have already started on the DK Jawara hotel in Fort Bullen, a historic place located in Barra,” he said.
Abubacarr Camara, the acting director general of the Gambia Tourism Board, said one of the most important components of tourism is transportation.
“The Juffureh road was so poor that it was very difficult to access it, so constructing it alone is going to increase a lot of movement for tourists to Juffureh,” he said.
He said the condition of the Hakalang road has seriously affected the development of tourism in historic places like Juffureh and Albreda.
“The importance of that road cannot be overemphasised. In fact, that is one of the reasons why we are now deploying tourism regional representatives in all the regions and the one coming to North Bank will take care of all the tourism potentials in that area to improve on the existing tourism facilities as well as see the potential of some historic and cultural sites there to be made for tourism and more especially eco-tourism parks,” he said.
DG Camara said when the road construction is completed “we don’t only want to attract foreign tourists but domestic tourists too. We have people who are here who don’t know their history, who want to go there. All the developments the ministry intends to undergo would mainly benefit locals.”
“It is the policy of the ministry and the tourism board to encourage domestic tourism because we want people living within those areas to also benefit both in terms of tourism and also in selling their products. You will also see a proliferation of markets such as Craft markets because tourism goes with lot of positive impact,” he said.
He said all their partners are very happy about the planned construction of the road and they feel encouraged. “We hope the road will encourage residents of that area living in the Diaspora to start building hotels in the area,” he added.
The Director General National Center for Arts and Culture, Hasoum Ceesay, said the road will make a positive impact on tourism and the edifies of UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Juffureh and Albreda.
“Just to tell you how important the road will be – for over 18 months now there has not been any boat service across the River Gambia to Juffureh and Albreda and the Jetty has also collapsed about five years ago.
“When it comes to road travel due to the nature of the road, tours can be delayed. Sometimes it takes hours before they can reach Juffureh and when they arrive, they will be tired and they are running out of time to catch up the ferry again. So because of that, in most cases, they are unable to spend more than one hour in the community and this is a very persistent complaint of the community people there, that these tourists will just come rest and go out. All this is because they are rushing for the ferry or they are tired because of the bumpy road,” he said.
He said even the root festival was heavily affected by the poor road condition because “sometimes before the root party arrive at Juffureh, it will be around 1PM and you can imagine having to go to the Kunta Kinteh Island, Museum and have lunch – basically they have 90 minutes.”
“Can you imagine paying your fares all the way from the US just to have 90 minutes in Juffureh. So there is a whole sort of disappointment. So with the new road project all those will be the thing of the past. Access by road would be easier and more comfortable and therefore visitors will arrive early and spend enough time with the community to visit the important historic sites and the longer they stay in the community the more they will spend,” he added.
Hakalang is blessed with some historic areas such as religious villages which date back to the Soninke marabout wars in the nineteen fifties, oldest mosques in the Gambia, the Niumi wetland, Juffureh, Kunta Kinteh’s birth place, the slavery Museum, San Domingo as the first British settlement in Africa, the Chapel, one of the first Christian Churches in Black Africa, the Island and the intangible attractions like cultural performances.
Ceesay said the road project when completed will boost visitation and would also help the community to benefit more from the tourists. He said the whole Niumi is blessed with historic tourist attraction.
“The other problem we were facing in taking visitors there is because they cannot spend the night in Juffureh due to lack of suitable accommodation. But with the road, I think investors in the hospitality industry will now venture into that area and I am sure very soon, we will start seeing three and four-star hotels, lodges and standard restaurants so that roots visitors can come and land at Banjul Airport and go straight to Juffureh and spend whatever time they want to spend there and go straight to the airport,” he added.
What is at stake for the locals?
In anticipating of the road, Ceesay said the NCAC has already started training programs for local tourist guides in Juffureh and Albreda.
“The first week of November, we will spend one week there to give them refresher training. The idea is guides will no longer live in Banjul and take tourist there and take them round again. The anticipation is that when they arrive there, they hand them over to the locals who will take them round the village and then give them back to the guides who brought them.
“So that is one thing we are doing to ensure that the locals are not left behind after the completion of the road. We are also training 25 women in the localities in tie-dye, soap making and also packaging. So that they will be able to make things in the community to sell to tourists,” he said.
Operation ‘Save Kunta Kinteh Island’
Ceesay said NCAC is working with the US Embassy on a cultural preservation project and the Embassy has committed financial resouces for a three-year project for sea defence for the Island.
“We submitted the proposal in April; now we are waiting for reply. As a short term measure, we have planted mangroves to keep the soil together to minimise erosion. UNESCO has also supported a survey to collect data ahead of the approval of our proposal with the US Embassy.
“I am also happy to say that electricity has been extended to Juffureh and Albreda. That is also another boost for the heritage in the area because now when students and tourists come to the area, they will not only observe the chains and objects and go. We can show them videos and do PowerPoint presentation for them,” he added.
Residents of Hakalang in Upper Niumi are very grateful for the efforts of the Government and the Ministry of Infrastructure plans to provide improved road conditions in their community.
Some of the residents who have lived there for as many as 30 years recalled that this was the first time that the road has been attended to.
Lamin Darboe, of Niumi Sami, told The Standard the plans to construct the road have brought lot of relief among residents of Niumi especially those like him who engage in business.
“We never thought it would happen. We are really happy. During the laying of the foundation I came all the way from Sami Joronko just to witness the historic event. We have really suffered here over the past years. For instance, in Sami Joronko – we have just one car – if you miss it, you will have to walk for kilometres to Albreda to look for a vehicle to go to Barra,” he said.
Darboe said the road when completed will also ease business transaction.
“I wish you know how much we suffered over the past years because of the terrible condition of this road,” he said.
Yahya Fofana of Niumi Tobakolong (Hakalang) said the condition of the road has contributed significantly in hindering the progress of the area.
“We have really suffered here due to the condition of the road especially our pregnant women and women gardeners. It has also hampered tourism in the area. Many tourists don’t want to come here due to the condition of the road. Even those who buy our agricultural products will come here and tell us because of our poor road, they cannot buy our goods at their value because if they do they will run at a loss due to the high prices they also pay for transportation,” he resolved.
He said the construction of the road will not only attract more tourists but will equally contribute significantly in uplifting the lives of residents.
Some pedestrians also expressed delight at the planned construction.
Mamut Bah is a well-known fish vendor in the area. He said the road when completed will undoubtedly make life easier for him.
“This is still like a dream to me. I cannot believe that this road is going to be constructed finally. It will make it easy for me to reach the destinations I cover on time without delay and as well give longer duration to the motor bike I use,” he said.
Lamin Ceesay, a van driver said: “The new road will save miles and minutes; you won’t get stuck now on curves behind trucks. Also it will save lives and even resources. If you were spending D1000 for fuel after the construction you will spend D500 or less than that.”
Fanta Ceesay, a gardener, said the construction of the road when completed will attract investors. This, she said, will mean instead of them carrying their goods to Barra and Banjul, buyers will come and meet them in their communities and buy with good prices.
The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Works and Infrastructure Mod K. Ceesay said the construction of the road will not require the demolition of structures, houses or shops.
Asked to disclose the source of funding of 88-kilometre road, PS Ceesay said: “The road is entirely funded by the Gambia Government and a single butut is not taken to fund it.”
A top economics lecturing at the UTG who begged for anonymity told this medium that the D1.3 million allocations for the road could have a devastating impact on the country’s budget.
He said appropriation bills should be meant for an additional budget support mechanism to help finance other unmet contingency plans and international obligations, amidst the exhaustion of funds before the end.
“Budgeting is only feasible if the anticipated resources are available to fund the intended programmes of the government. Therefore, caution must be taken to guide the entire budgetary process and allocation of funds to worthwhile and critically-needed services or project areas that will add value to people’s lives and help grow the economy,” he said.
The story is supported by the Gambia Press Union (GPU) and funded by the International Republican Institute (IRI).