If all the countries in the world were to send one slice of themselves to the country olympics to get judged, we'd probably send Kairaba Avenue, that proud stretch of road starting at West Field and ending at Sabena junction, named after the country's former President, which is usually what visitors to the country are referring to when they speak about "the great steps in development taken by The Gambia" (it's the next road you get onto after the Kombo Coastal/Airport Road, and is often one of the first things you see coming into the country).
I recently started work at an Internet startup here, and I never fail to be amazed by how different it is from any other place I have been in The Gambia. With enough money you could spend your whole life here, getting everything you needed - from food to a new sofa for your living room - and never having to leave.
All Great Avenues have a monument: Kairaba Avenue starts off with two. The first is a rather ugly-looking sculpture of two school-age children (teenagers?) holding a flag, and books. The sculpture itself is draped with leftover Christmas lights, which look like netting from a certain distance, as if someone went out hunting school-kids and captured these specimens, and froze them in stone and placed them here, as a warning. One of the sculptures holds and open book, the other a pen. Right underneath them there is a restaurant, which plays loud music at night (and is famous for being a soliciting spot for prostitutes, which rather spoils the effect).
Then there is the second monument - a sculpture of a palm-wine tapper in the act of climbing a palm tree, tapper and tree both set in darkest ebony, celebrating the virtues of honest labour. The traffic light changes, and cars zip by the palm-wine tapper, half-clad, silent, deeply concentrating on his task to the point of ignoring everyone and everything else. It is beautiful. A placard at the bottom reads "We Reap the fruits of our labor".
There have been quite a number of new banks opening in the country recently, and nearly all of them have branches here. Coming to work in the morning, it feels a little like walking through the streets of Dakar (though, of course, on a much smaller scale): strangers briskly walking past ignoring each other, on their way to work, cars everywhere, business suits and briefcases, a quality of busy-ness and the shortness of time in the air. When you meet someone you know there is a brisk nod of the head, a smile, perhaps a wave - then you both walk on. It's almost 9, you're both late for work and there's simply no time for idle chitchat.
Within walking distance of my office alone there are five furniture shops, selling sofas and TV cabinets and whole living/dining room sets, all imported. The local furniture shops cannot afford the expensive real estate here, and so they are located further in, in Serekunda and Banjul. For food, there are restaurants within 5-minute walking distance of any building here: small ones like Fast Ali's (located opposite the monument), and larger ones like "The Four Seasons", and "Sultan's" (both the chosen four-a.m., after-clubbing hangouts of the hip and happening youth population). You can get everything from fried chicken to humus (the restaurant industry here is mostly run by Lebanese immigrants).
Then there is the ominous sounding "Jobot Laboratories". Jobot means family in Wolof - and "Family Laboratories" is, in fact, a rather boring name. But consider that Jobot is also a verb, meaning "to make a family", so you can Jobot, as well as have a Jobot, and suddenly images race through your mind of a laboratory where whole families are produced in test tubes, Mum and Dad's foetuses floating in nutritional fluid next to each other, growing at a faster rate than the children's foetuses (which are in a different tube), all waiting to be released into the country (after receiving suitable training and orientation, of course). Finally yesterday I walked into the lab to find out what they really did. The reception area was empty - there was a table, and chairs, and the usual assortment of magazines. Then through a glass partition I saw stack upon stack of test tubes, and white gloved hands moving amongst them (just hands, from where I stood: ghostly, detached), and the murmur of indistinguishable, muted voices. I turned quickly and fled.
Outside Jobot labs there is a fashion shop on one side, selling women's clothes and accessories like handbags. On the other side there is a candy store. I went in there and looked longingly at the boxes of chewing gum ("bubbly", "fruity", "blowy"), and Mars bars. I felt sentimental. It took great will to turn around and walk away without buying anything.
The most heavily guarded building on Kairaba Avenue is probably the US Embassy. Even the banks don't come close: armed men stand in front of its gates at all times of the day, taxis are forbidden from stopping in front of it to pick up passengers. Solid concrete blocks (a more dirty-minded essayist would perhaps describe these as being almost phallus-like) stand erect before the gates and the building itself, guarding it from forced vehicular penetration. And at the gates there are metal detectors and a screening room. You won't see any long visa lines, because the visa waiting room is in the back (more armed men here too). The whole thing is one large fortress, and moving down the road a bit there is the Peace Corps office, Fortress #2, not as heavily secured but still learning quite a bit about paranoia from its older brother.
There are cracks in the high-tech Avenue, through which sometimes its humble beginnings show. A few doors down from where I work there is a tiny outdoor shop (nothing more than a one-person canteen set up against a wall really) with a painted sign that reads:
Saf Saf ["tasty tasty"],
The wall on which the sign is painted is pinched uncomfortably between a furniture shop and an electronics shop, both selling goods with the gloss factory-made finish of modern consumer items. Against the wall Sayidu Baba has set his grilling bar, and his knives of dull and stained metal, and the other instruments of his trade; the wall itself is blackened with charcoal smoke, and is almost invisible from the road (your eyes seem to jump from one high-tech shop to the other, ignoring this bit of brazenness in between). I imagine him at night, when all the shops are closed and there is almost no traffic, selling roasted goat meat to clients, who praise his tasty hand and good humor as he modestly smiles and waves them off, and who patronize him, recommending him to their friends.
As fast as they can be, buildings here have been torn down and made into leasable properties - for shops and banks and other businesses - so that there are almost no houses left. It makes no sense to live on property here, when one can rent it off for such high prices. Each new building constructed tries to outdo the others as much as possible in architectural elegance: Camelot Boutiques ("the Gambia's first mall", now closed - it is highly competitive (read: expensive) here, and businesses close as fast as they stop making profits, to be replaced almost immediately), The Emporium (a large looming hulk of a building with marble pillars and a glass exterior, looking rather out of place on this road - a friend called it "egregious"), Kairaba Shopping Centre (the largest supermarket here). And there are other construction projects under way, including the new Quantum Institute of Technology. GRTS is here too, and two of the country's cellphone providers (Africell and Comium).
There are beggars. They congregate at the head of the Avenue, and at the traffic lights, where they stretch their tired hands out to people in cars waiting for the light to change.There are also door-to-door insurance salesmen, and thieves (but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I repeat myself :-)). The other day a man came to my office. At the front office, as the receptionist turned around to remove something from her desk drawer, the man's hand inched forward slowly, ever so slowly, towards the mobile phone she had lying exposed on the desk. Just in time the receptionist looked up - perhaps catching the sly movement of the hand out of the corner of her eye, perhaps out of some "fool me once" intuition (this had happened to her, once before). Her gaze fell upon the man's face; he looked away, hurriedly muttered something, then turned and rushed out. There are street hawkers too, selling pirated DVDs and mobile phone covers and chargers. [The Peuls, traditionally cattle herders and shop keepers, have now almost completely taken over the pirated DVD trade].
At night the Avenue changes. It gets dark, all the shops close, and the streetlights come on. The light of the streetlights are not as harsh as the glare of the sun, and there is a lessening of intensity. The night traffic begins: a girl in a pretty red dress stands outside the monument restaurant, nervously twirling the strap of her handbag; outside the Gamtel office at the head of the Avenue there appears as if out of nowhere a black market in sneakers, spread out on the pavement. Traffic decreases a little (compared to the afternoon jams), and its quality changes - now there are more teenagers in their Dad's SUVs cruising around listening to 2pac. There is not so much of a rush anymore, to go places.