6 mins

How President Obama secured my Gambian Visa

Marie's application for a Gambian visa is in jeopardy. Then President Obama intervenes...


"Hello. I would like to apply for a visa please."

The clerk behind the glass partition at Dakar's Gambian embassy stopped reading her Barack Obama autobiography – President Obama is popular in West Africa – and glanced up at me.

"Fill this out," she said, sliding a form under the partition. "Do you have two photos?"


"No, I'm sorry. I forgot them at the hotel. I'll run and get them."

"We close in twenty minutes."


"Fill out the form first, then leave it with your passport and the payment. Then go get the photos."

"Stupid of me to have taken so long to get out Saint-Louis this morning," I thought as I ran.

Sure, the espresso and chocolate croissants at the patisserie had been excellent after so many days of bread and Nescafé in Morocco and Mauritania, but more importantly, the hotel electricity and thus wifi had been off until 7:30 a.m. And I'd had to work.

I edit comic books as I travel. Comic books for Kuwait. I'd lived there at one point and also headed up the company's Cairo operations for a while before moving home to the New York office. So here I was, a mobile comic-book-making machine based in New York, traipsing around Senegal and then the entire world for ten months while producing Kuwaiti kid's entertainment.

The work-travel balance wasn't quite right yet. Maybe it wouldn't be for my entire trip. Yesterday, I'd blown off work to take a touristy caleche trip around Saint-Louis, and I certainly didn't regret it. While this sightseeing excursion was manufactured solely for tourists, it had been the most enjoyable thing I'd done in Saint-Louis and had transformed my time there.

The island of Saint-Louis is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of colonial architecture and brightly colored, deteriorating buildings. But after a man had yelled at me for taking photos the day I'd arrived, I'd felt self-conscious with my camera.

But once I'd hired the carriage driver to take me around the cobblestone streets, Saint-Louis's atmosphere went from mistrustful to downright hospitable.

People smiled and waved as I clicked from my seat high above the ground. We trotted around the island, clip-clopping past carpenters working with hand tools, cars and horses, Nescafé vendors, and school kids before heading over a bridge into a local fishing village.

The squalid conditions of the village were an eye-opener – though perhaps the interiors of the homes were not as decrepit as the exteriors – but fishermen and their families went about their daily lives without worrying about a tourist in their midst.

Small children filled the streets, most of them too busy playing to look up at me, but those that did giggled and waved. There is something inherently silly about a tourist being chauffeured by horse-drawn carriage, and I wouldn't dared have walked around photographing anyone's children without this silly dynamic.

I hadn't hired my caleche driver through official channels, believing it better to just go and find a horse-and-carriage rather than paying a middleman. But the down side is that I didn't choose an English-speaker and my French is ludicrously bad.

"Why?" I'd ask my driver as I pointed to something I was curious about. For example, why were there paintings of Muslim religious teachers all over sides of homes in the fishermen's village? Was this area deeply religious?

"They just like it," he mumbled, smiling.

Which is probably quite accurate and the most straightforward answer I could expect, no matter who I was talking with.

We passed colorful, ancient minivans loaded with passengers, clotheslines full of clean-but-tattered clothing, and riverside shacks built of planks and tarps, before heading back to Saint-Louis island.

This morning, I'd taken a regular taxi, not a horse-taxi, to the motor park, or gare routiere – not overpaying this time – and caught a long-distance shared Peugeot taxi – a sept-place
to the outskirts of Dakar. Then the traffic slowed, snarled, and the Peugeot went off-roading to get around the clogged roadways, until finally I was ushered into one of the most decrepit taxis I'd ever seen for the last few miles. The windshield was broken in little spidery impact lines, the passenger side window smashed to bits. But you should see the other guy.

In the end, I had to direct the taxi driver to my hotel, using a page torn out of a tourism magazine that I'd picked up in Saint-Louis. The editor had just introduced himself to me this morning in the Hotel du Palais coffee shop.

As soon as I'd checked in, I'd hurried to the Embassy of Gambia. Dakar is not a budget destination. Hotels are expensive there. I needed to get my visa, see what I could, and move on.

I followed the embassy clerk's instructions, rushed to my hotel and then raced back to the visa counter within ten minutes. I'd deliberately taken a room nearby – though the hotel's famous Lebanese restaurant had also been a factor.

As I entered, a well-dressed man with a briefcase left.

I missed the visa officer, I thought.

But the Gambian clerk was smiling.

"You have the photos?"

I handed them over.

"Here. He was just leaving and he signed it. You were lucky."

Now I could afford a little small talk.

"How is that book?" I pointed at her Obama autobiography.

She grinned.

"He is… Wonderful."

And with that, she handed me my passport. I could take the rest of the day off, do some sightseeing at Ile de Goree, and enjoy some hummus.

I was going to Gambia tomorrow.

Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.

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