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What Happened to Banjul? - My Story - Part II

By Momodou Ndow

A city is a relatively dense and permanent settlement. They were initially formed as central places of trade for the benefit of citizens living in close proximity to each other. Such form of living facilitates all sorts of interactions. The benefits of city life includes reduced transportation cost, exchange of ideas, large local trade markets etc. As more people were attracted to cities in search of business opportunities, the need for amenities such as running water and sewage disposal became obvious. One of the most important amenities for a city to have is a proper working sewage system. Every modern city needs to have a sewage system in order to protect public health and prevent diseases such as typhoid and cholera. The focus of a sewage system is to convey raw sewage to a natural body of water, for example, a river or ocean, where it would be suitably treated and degenerated.

In the developed world, city sewage systems are usually constructed with pipes that connect from buildings to one or more levels of larger underground main pipes, which transport the sewage to a sewage treatment facility. Vertical manhole pipes connect the main pipes to the surface. The manholes are used for access to the sewer pipes for inspection and maintenance. These more sophisticated sewage systems are considered the conventional type. There is also a more inferior type of sewage system known as Simplified sewage. This is a low-cost sewer system with smaller diameter pipes at fairly flat slope. Simplified sewers are sometimes laid under pavements (if feasible), rather than in the centre of the road as with conventional sewerage. It is generally used in unplanned low-income areas, as well as new housing estates with a regular layout. With a simplified sewage, it is crucial to have management arrangements in place to remove blockages, which are more frequent than with conventional sewerage. The concept of simplified sewerage simultaneously emerged in Nepal, Brazil and Karachi, Pakistan in the early 1980s.


Founded in 1816 by the British, Banjul was used as a trading post and base for repressing the slave trade. It is on St Mary’s Island, where the Gambia River enters the Atlantic Ocean. It was first named Bathurst after Hendry Bathurst, the secretary of the British Colonia Office, but was later change to Banjul in 1973. My great-great-great grandfather, Imam Abdourahman Sowe and his family were among the early settlers there. One of the streets in Banjul is named after my great-great grandfather Imam Omar Sowe, the son of Imam Abdourahman Sow. My grandfather, Alhagie Alieu Ndow was born there in 1887. My father and I were also born in Banjul, and we still have a couple of family compounds there, even though we also later moved to the Kombos in the late 1970s.

As one of the smallest cities in the world, Banjul never really had a sewage system. Most of the compounds in Banjul had pail latrines that were collected at night when they became full and replaced with empty ones. They were then taken to a central location to be transported to the waste dumpsite located outside the city at Mile 2 prisons area. As more city dwellers gravitated towards Banjul in search of business opportunities and employment, the population started to steadily grow and public toilets were set up to further accommodate the needs of the residence. But this was not enough and something had to be done for the sake of human health and just plain old sanity. There were some compounds in Banjul that had private septic tanks and would pay a fee for BCC (Banjul City Council) to send their big tanker truck to empty the septic tanks when they were full.

In the early 1980’s, the then government adopted a policy to construct a modern sewage system in Banjul to eliminate the previous “human system” run by Banjul City Council’s Health and Services Department.


SOBEA (a French company) was contracted to develop Banjul’s sewage system. Work on the city's sewage project began in 1984. SOBEA brought in their heavy equipment and the unearthing began. So many streets were being dug up at once, and I was convinced that Banjul had diamond, gold or oil. The city was full of traffic detours and if you were a driver who didn't know your way around, you will probably end up where you started a few times over before figuring your way out. Although you can always hire a taxi and the drivers had no problem navigating the city, but your ribs will pay a heavy price as they recklessly speed over the potholes. The tar roads were on their last leg before being excavated by SOBEA, never to be the same again. I remember getting off a taxi once, two blocks shy of my destination because my ribs were screaming. I slept like a log that night! The work SOBEA did with the sewage system was perfunctory at best, and it left the city's roads that were already wounded for dead.


It didn’t take long after the sewage project was finished for the problem of pipe blockage, leakage and overflow to surface. The quality of the work was perfunctory at best (merci beaucoup SOBEA!). In constructing the sewage system, SOBEA used smaller pipes that were frequently choking and causing the system to overflow. Ultimately, the whole problem basically came down to lack of proper planning by the government. For a project of such magnitude, it is critical that the citizens are sensitized prior to commencing the project, and that reliable management and maintenance arrangements put in place to remove blockages, which are more frequent than with conventional sewerage. The people of Banjul were never educated about what can and can’t go into the new sewage system, so they threw almost everything in it, including solid objects. This was one of the main causes of the frequent blockage and subsequent overflows. Another mistake the government made at the time was not having a provision in their contract with SOBEA for them to restore the roads to their previous condition or better after they were done. In hindsight, it is my opinion that the government had a GRAND PLAN of building a conventional sewage system in Banjul, but the actual materials that were used by SOBEA are for a Simplified Sewage system. Was the government scammed by SOBEA or were the people overseeing the project in cahoots? When a government takes a loan to fund such a massive project, the construction contract should have all the appropriate provisions.


Dilapidated roads need to be cared for too. And who was there to do that? Public Works Department (PWD). The Public Works Department never really did a good job of maintaining the roads before they were butchered by SOBEA in the first place, but something is better than nothing. A PWD road maintenance session involved a bucket or wheelbarrow full of tar patch, a shovel, couple of guys and a piece of metal equipment to pound the patch into the potholes. These repairs were obviously temporary and would begin to come apart after a few months of use, but their worst enemy was the rains. They were mostly all rinsed away by the first heavy rain, so it was never a good idea for such repairs to be done right before the rainy season. I wonder what the guaranteed workmanship period was? With the roads worse than before SOBEA matched into town, a mediocre sewage system that was constantly choking, and a public that was never sensitize about the project, Banjul’s environmental problems multiplied. 


With the population shift now to the Kombos, the need to construct a sewage system there is inevitable. Even though some of the homes in the Kombos do have private septic tanks, the need for a sewage system is still there, in other to support the accelerating population growth we are now seeing in the Kombos. It is my hope that when the time comes (in the next 10 or 15 years), lessons would have been learned from the Banjul experience and that proper planning and tight policies will be in place to avoid the mistakes that were made when the sewage system in Banjul was being constructed. Proper planning and tight policies will always save the day!


Special thanks to Joey Goswell for clarifying a couple of items on the SOBEA bit.

What happened to Banjul? – My Story (part one)

By Momodou Ndow

Banjul was never a beautiful city, but it had character and charm. The architecture was poor, but the atmosphere was magnificent. It was dark half the time at night (GUC), but it had a bright spirit. Banjul was fun!

During the colonial era, Banjul was relatively clean and well maintained. The Board of Health (aka bodorfell) that was set up had strict health codes that were regularly enforced. Health inspectors routinely inspected homes, and fines were handed out to those who were found to be in violation. Inspectors were general unforgiving, and that forced Waa Banjul to be on their “cleaning toes” at all times..............................more

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