On Buying Ferry Tickets

This summer before I left I wanted to travel from New York to Boston to visit some friends from school before I left for Senegal. I hoped on my Amtrack app and within 3 minutes I had purchased a fair and my ticket was sitting in my email.

Fast forward two months I was planning a trip for my program’s week long spring break. It was decided relatively early on that we wanted to travel within Senegal and given that one student needed to leave the country for visa reasons, it was decided that we would take a trip to Casamance, the southern region of Senegal, and pass through Gambia for a couple of days on the way home.


Casamance is the result of some curious colonial partitioning by the French and the British. Hoping to preserve their access to the minerals around the Gambian River the British negotiated so that thin sliver of West Africa would remain theirs. This area, which is not Gambia, split of a portion of French West Africa. Post independence, these borders remained and a portion of what is now Senegal was left isolated under the Gambia.

Casamance is not only geographically isolated but also ethnically and religiously separate. Where the vast majority of Senegal is Muslim Casamance is predominantly Christian. Further, it is dominated by Jular ethnic group, which is not found any where else in Senegal. These divisions led to an armed secession movement that fought against the Senegalese military on and off from 1980 until 2014.

The easiest way to get to this rather remote region is too take an overnight ferry from Dakar to Ziginichur. This journey lasts 18 hours, but bypasses The Gambia, saving cost and hassle. This route is popular not only for persons but also for cargo and hence this overnight ferry is very well established.

Now I new that securing tickets would not be as easy as my Amtrack experience, but given how important this route is I assumed securing the tickets would be relatively easy. I went to the local Wifi Cafe logged on and went to the ferries website. I looked for a link to buy tickets and soon realized that this effort was in vain. Finding no way to buy the tickets on line I then looked for a phone number. I quickly found one and called and was greeted my a friendly message informing me that the number was disconnected. Discouraged and running out of internet I returned to the website and found an email. I quickly sent off an email, confident that my message would be responded too.

Two weeks later, my email still had not been responded too so it was decided by the group that one of us should go to the port to investigate. Seeing as I knew how to get there I was elected to be the one to go. Now by African standards, Dakar is a pretty big city and I live relatively close to down town, but all this being said, it still takes over and hour on a bus where you have absolutely zero personal space to get down town. This coupled with the nearly 100 degree heat meant that by the time I arrived at the port stop by shirt was completely drenched with sweet and I was exhausted. But it was ok because I was going to get the tickets.

In order to enter the port one needed to present a valid form of I.D. For me this is a notarized copy of my passport that is certified by the National Police. I presented my id to the officer at the gate and he looked at me and said this is not valid. I was indignant. After confusing myself I began begging and pleading and cajoling and eventually, with a promise I would leave quickly, I was let in. I B lines for the port office and entered in.

I quickly met a port official named Pierre. He quickly demanded why I was there and I said I wanted to buy ferry tickets. He asked when and I replied that I would be leaving in 4 weeks. He gave me a quizical look and replied that they aren’t available yet. Confused, I asked when they would be and he replied maybe next week, maybe the week after, potentially the week after that. He asked me if I had a piece of paper and I quickly obliged. He wrote down a number and told me to all it each Sunday. I asked him if it was the office number and he replied “no, it is me, Pierre.”

Flash forward two weeks and I went to call the number only to discover that it to was disconnected. Fortunately I was going to be downtown so I decided to pass through the port and see if the tickets were on sale. This time I was sure to bring my passport and entered with out issue. I walked to the ticket office with full confidence that this time I would  be able to buy the tickets. I entered in and went straight to the help desk. Seeing that I had all the documents and it was 415 I had complete confidence. Yet again I met Pierre who informed me that the tickets were on sale but that they were only able to be purchased before 4PM. I asked him why and he simply said “that is the way it is.”

Three days later I returned at 1 Pm prepped for this to be my last ride to the port. I entered in to the office walked up to Pierre full of confidence. He gave me a look and I knew that I was in trouble. “We are on our lunch break. Take a number and come back at three.” I took a number and headed to an art gallery near by. I returned to the port and finally was able to buy the tickets.

Though there certainly some comedy in this story, it also is telling of many of the inefficiencies that plague many aspects of day to day life here. When thinking about this experience in relation to the development courses that I am taking while abroad, I realized how problematic this must be if one is trying to conduct business through these channels. This is a major regional link and it takes 4 trip to the office simply to get 4 tickets. What does it take to send a pallet of machined parts? Food to your family? Why  development investment has been so ineffective in West Africa has been one of the critical questions asked in my courses here. When reflecting on my experience inefficiencies such as this seem to play a critical role.