There are security checkpoints operating all over Gambia’s road network. Local police, military, customs, immigration and traffic cops are rarely coordinated. If you’re driving your own vehicle or a rental car you may find several checkpoints within a mile or two of each other. Each one can be time consuming, even more so if they ask to search your vehicle.
Gambian police officers are often not well educated and they are not paid well. They have the African entrepreneurial spirit and the officers will use the opportunity to try to ask for gifts (or cadeau). It’s effectively authorised begging but such is life in West Africa.
Based on our encounters, here are our top 10 tips for dealing with police checkpoints.
Word of warning: you must execute all of these techniques with a smile on your face.
Top 10 Tips for Dealing with Gambian Police Checkpoints
Tip #1: Feign Ignorance
Your aim is to leave the checkpoint in the shortest time possible without paying for the privilege. It’s not difficult to feign ignorance (at least not for us) and may throw the officer off track, allowing you to pass by before they have a chance to educate you. This is how one police checkpoint in Banjul went for us:
Gendarmerie: Avec vous cadeau pour le officer?
Graham: What does that mean in English?
Gendarmerie: “Cadeau” is not English?
Graham: Non. C’est francais. Au revoir.
Tip #2: Distraction Techniques
Distracting the officer from their aim of getting something out of you, gives you just enough time to get away. Don’t hang around though. Stay in gear and be ready to pull away as soon as possible.
Policewoman: Do you have some breakfast for us?
Graham: No. We had ours ages ago. (In authoritative voice) Did you not have breakfast before coming on duty?
Policewoman: No sir. I am sorry sir. Please have a safe journey sir.
Tip #3: Camouflage
Ok so this one is stretching it a bit but it was hilarious. On the road toward Tendaba, engine running and the policemen looking up to Angela sat high in the cab:
Policeman: Do you have green tea for the officers?
Angela: Green tea? That’s Chinese!
Policeman: Yes. Is it what you drink?
Angela: No. The English drink black tea.
Policeman: Do you have black tea for the officers?
Angela: No. We only drink white tea.
Policeman: Oh I see. Sorry. No problem. Good-bye.
Tip #4: Flirt
Only immigration and drug police have the authority to search your vehicle. Heed these words. Do not allow any other officer into the vehicle. Be firm and smile as you ‘re saying no. We’ll post another article soon on how to deal with the drug police in Gambia. That aside, flirting is a sure fire way to make any search pretty quick.
A male officer was in Mowgli with me, carrying out a search. A female officer was stood at the doorway with Angela blocking her entry:
Drug policeman: What is this? (pointing to a box of teabags)
Graham: Green tea
Drug policeman: And this? (pointing to another box of teabags)
Graham: Black tea
Policewoman: Which do you prefer?
Policewoman (to Drug policeman): Aaaaah! See? He likes blaaaaack! (BIG smile)
Drug policeman: Let me out of here!
Tip #5: Turn the Tables
You will be asked for all sorts of gifts. Sometimes specific, sometimes not. Turning the tables occasionally may help you proceed swiftly through.
Customs officer: Do you have a pen for the officer?
Angela: I don’t have a pen but you have two in your pocket.
Customs officer: It is important to have a pen.
Angela: I see. Then may we have one of yours?
Customs officer: Drive on.
And no, we were not given a pen!
Tip #6: Promise to Comply
We were only asked once to hand over our vehicle. The fact that the policeman had a machine gun in hand made us feel a little apprehensive but he was polite and not really that menacing. This is how it went:
Policeman with machine gun: Perhaps you can give me your truck, I like it very much.
Graham: Sorry. It is our home.
Policeman with machine gun: Oh… (…pause for thought…) Perhaps you can arrange for a similar truck to be sent to me?
Graham: Well I can try. Let me go home and I will work on that for you?
Policeman with machine gun: How can we stay in touch to make that happen?
Graham: You could write to me.
Policeman with machine gun: Where shall I send my letters to?
Graham: Just send to my home address.
Policeman with machine gun: Yes of course, see you later.
In case that was too subtle, he did not ask for our address!
Tip #7: Comply
Sometimes, you just need to know when you’re beaten. So comply gracefully. We only complied once in 6 weeks in The Gambia and this is how it went… At a military checkpoint near the Senegal border:
Soldier: What can you give to me?
Graham: After so many check points on our journey today, we have nothing left. But you may have our utmost respect.
Soldier: Really? (Big smile) Thank you! We try to do a good job. Have a good day.
Tip #8: Name Drop (even if it’s made up)
Occasionally, you may find yourself in a sticky situation. Bear in mind, there are no problems in Africa, only solutions, but they may cost you. After handing over the lazier passer paperwork for inspection at one checkpoint:
Customs officer: The lazier passer has expired! (frowning)
Graham: Really? If you turn it over you can see the date extension. (which had already cost us 40 euros)
Customs officer: That is wrong. You have too much time extended. (frowning seriously)
Graham: Well the chief of customs and your big boss in the capital, Ibraham, is my good friend and he did this for me.
Customs officer: I see…… (stumped expression)…perhaps you would like to buy a tyre?
Graham: Why? I have 6 big ones already.
Customs officer: You’re right. No problem. Have a nice day. (smiling)
Tip #9: Honesty
It is requirement to carry your passport or at least a copy of it with you in The Gambia. On this occasion, our copies were in the back of the truck and the originals were with the Nigerian Embassy awaiting a visa. Not wanting to loiter at the checkpoint, we tried to get through without having to go in the back and open up a whole host of other questions.
Immigration officer: Can I see your passports please?
Angela: Well not really. They are in the embassy getting a visa. We are on our way to collect them.
Immigration officer: Oh, OK. Will you show me them on the way back please?
Angela: Of course we will. See you later.
Tip #10: Offer What They Already Have
After a long day and many police checks it is hard to keep a smile on your face when you’re pulled over yet again. Regardless, each time you’re stopped for a checkpoint never, ever, lose your temper or display frustration.
Customs officer: What have you got for me today?
Angela: Our smiling faces.
Customs officer: What about me?
Angela: You have your own smiling face.
Customs officer: Yes I do. Thank you. Have a nice day.
In conclusion, be creative, friendly, charming and polite with a healthy dose of confidence and humour. Although there are many, many checkpoints, they really aren’t so bad if you avoid showing any unhappiness. They’re sure to provide you with plenty of funny memories.