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  • Wolfgang Fobo

Testing for Covid in Gambia

This is mandatory prior to departure. No negative test, no boarding pass.

Our departure was scheduled for Easter Saturday 3rd of April, so we should have the tests done on Good Friday.

We arrived at the test center at around 10.30 in the morning, an unassuming place we would have missed would not our guide bring us there.

What we did not know is that you have to pay the test fee of 2,500 Dalasi to the Eco bank first, and then show up with the payment slip at the test center. Because banks were closed (Good Friday) we got the exception to prove payment the next day, when picking up our test result, and on Saturdays the banks are open.

Alright. First we had to queue up for registration, luckily while sitting. So a sitting row slowly proceeded forward to the registration counter.

Waiting to be registered

The registration itself was pretty forward, our data were taken with a tablet (including the name of my mother). Finally we were registered and could proceed to the next station, which was the Covid test area. We were provided a waiting number on a piece of paper, which indicated the sequence of testing all of us - in other words, where you are in the test queue. And I had to note down my Covid number, under which my test would be conducted, serving as an identifier of myself. About a hundred people or more were losely sitting around, waiting for the test to commence. And it did not commence for a while.

The queue numbers we were given, for the sequence of testing

Eventually, a lady arrived, heavily protected in her gear, starting to test No 1. However, the numbers were not called, initially you had to guess (or to count) which number is about to be tested, such that you show up when it is your turn.

Waiting to be tested, sitting in random order

This unsatifying situation was overcome with one of the Africans yet to be tested, who shouted out loudly which number would be the next. That ended when it was his turn (No 40), and then we had to count ourselves again. This procedure ended with No 57 in the queue, the lady stopped testing, removed her protective gear, sat down at the counter, and for about 1 hour nothing happened, and we all were wondering what was going on. Eventually, a man arrived, guess an official, who started to sort us out in the sequence of the numbers that we were given, to be seated in a queue, number by number, waiting. Perhaps some 20 minutes later another man arrived, slightly protected, taking the test samples from us, which was pretty down forward, as were were seated in the right order, and just moved forward, until it was my turn (No 71).

Each of us got his test specimen handed out, once we were seated in correct sequential order

Let me define this as the first act in the total test theater.

Oh, I shall not forget to mention that at the test site there was a written announcement that the test shall be made at least 48 hours prior to departure, to ensure to receive the test results “in time”. That was of course contradictory to our travel plans, as our flight would be perhaps 30 hours after the test, and so I was quite nervous whether we would receive our test the following day, or if we would get stuck in Banjul, with no more cash in pockets (and with no ATM accepting neither my VISA nor my Mastercard). Let alone this would satisfy the conditions set by the German government, requesting a negative test result a maximum of 48 hours prior to arrival.

Woe betide the naive traveller who believes in this statement and has himself tested at least 48 hours prior to departure. Brussels Airlines would deny any German national a boarding pass with a test older than 2 days. And this happened to one of us!

But our guide insisted on calming down, we would get the test certificate for sure the following day. I confess that this calming down did not work properly, and getting stuck in Gambia is definitely not on my dream list…

The second act was the payment of 2,500 Dalasi at the Eco Bank (about 43 EUR), as test fee, the following day, Saturday morning. Again we had to queue up, which cost us perhaps 45 minutes until we were allowed into the bank, to pay the fee. Only cash, only Dalasi, no Euros or USD. Luckily we had the Dalasi prepared. We got a payment slip that later on had to be handed out when collecting the test results. Directly after payment we drove to the site where the test results would be handed out, another place, just to get familiar with the scene.

Over there, our guide arranged a “pusher” to ensure that our results would be handed out rather earlier than later. To this pusher we handed out our payment slip, adding by hand our official 7 digit Covid test number, under which we would be identified (whether this pusher was of any value - we paid some speed money, some 9 Euros for the 5 of us - is questionable, as we learned the hard way later.)

Anyhow, after some 2 1/2 hours we were back in our hotel, for some 90 minutes, until it was time to pick up the test certificates, which was announced in writing to take place between 1300 and 1400 hours the day after the test was taken.

Then came act three of the drama, the weirdest of all. At around 13.20 all of a sudden the crowd streamed to the court, where a voice could be heard, shouting out names. A man, an official, and our judge, as I would call him, stood there, holding sheets of paper in his hand, some test certificates, encircled by the masses, we standing together, rubbing shoulders, eagerly waiting for our names to be called.

The man in pink shirt distributes some certificates

After 5 minutes the show was over, perhaps 15 guys got their certificate, the rest of us, perhaps 100, remained empty handed. The official disappeared, and we had to exercise patience. 30 minutes later the official reappeared, this time behind the gate, starting to should out the names again. He behind the gate, we could of course not surround him any longer, but formed a half circle, standing together as close as possible, waiting for our names to be called, with the lucky one fighting his way to the front to be able to fetch the test certificate from the official. And it got even more bizarre. Adjacent to the Health Ministry there is a mosque, and the muezzin started to call for prayer, in such a loud voice that the voice of the official could only be heard when you stood very close to him. Suddenly the official gave up to shout names, since he could no longer be heard, waiting for the muezzin to terminate his prayer. Another 15 minutes of standstill. Came back. Same procedure. Shouting out perhaps 15 names, then, without any certificates left, disappeared again. Meanwhile I had fought my way to the very front, to the gate itself, such that I was practically at arms length to the official who eventually would show up again at the other side of the gate. There I stood for more than 1 hour, missing my name at each following sequence of name calling.

Waiting at the gate for the miracle to happen. In vain.

The remaining hopefuls gradually became less and less, and after 2 hours of rubbing shoulders with the crowd we slowly started to wonder whether we would at all get our certificates, or if we would get stuck in Banjul (a nightmarish notion). Our guide, who organised the pusher, was still optimistic, but he could not answer my question what a service of a pusher is worth when there is no push. (Our guide also had to suffer, as he already had booked his leave to Senegal with a bus, and had to give up his original schedule). All of a sudden, the miracle happened. Our guide called us. „Got the certificates, we can leave“. This is when you feel newborn. Or when a judge states „not guilty“. New life in our venes, certificate in hands, we finally celebrated this success at a beach restaurant, after having said good buy to our guide.

What a mess! Handing out the test certificates at the very place where the Covid rules should be taken seriously, the rules were executed to the absolute contrary. Nowhere in the whole of Gambia or even since this Covid thing began, a year ago, I had to be such close to so many people over such a long time. If you should get Covid in Gambia, then when picking up your test certificate.

In Gambia I never felt scared to contract Covid, nobody wears masks, we always kept our distance, and the reported cases are next to nothing. I felt safer than for example when taking a subway in Munich. Gambia can be travelled without fear. But, and this is a big „but“, the process of leaving Gambia under the present conditions spoils you the last 2 days of your trip. This is your sacrifice. In return you get a deep inside view into Gambian chaos. But to be fair, in the crowd the ones who complained loudly about this mess were Africans, expats, living in Europe, feeling ashame of their fellow countrymen who could not organise a civilised distribution manner. „Not worthy of any democracy“ was perhaps the mildest critics. We Westerners all kept quiet, being guests in this country, in no mood to rock the boat - who knows what would happen to your certificate if you would complain...

In any case, the Gambian Health Authorities either have no understanding whatsoever of Covid ( forcing us to rub shoulders), perhaps because they almost have no cases. Or they keep the issuing of test certificates deliberately disorganised, such that with the help of so called pushers some extra money can be made.

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