For nine decades, only a beige stone divided the border village of Ngunta. On one side is Senegal, the French-speaking West African country, and on the other is Gambia, a former British colony where English is the official language.
In normal times, residents pay little attention to the territorial boundary. They are just from Ngunta — population: roughly 900. They speak to each other in regional languages, strolling between countries like city dwellers move from block to block.
“We are very close,” said Modi Dem, 43, the village chief.
But the novel coronavirus is transforming life for people worldwide after dozens of nations have tightened or closed their borders. Travel bans are commonplace in this age of pandemic: A growing list of places — including Ghana, Kenya, Italy and Chile — have closed their doors without much notice to nearly all foreigners.
Even if they are next-door neighbors.
Gambia, the smallest country in continental Africa, is nearly surrounded by Senegal with a short Atlantic Ocean coastline — a legacy of colonial-era demarcation. The caterpillar-shaped nation sealed its 465 miles of border on March 23.
Police officers with AK-47s are enforcing the measure, which is meant to last three weeks in an effort to curb transmissions, officials say, but could be extended if the outbreak worsens. (Gambia had four cases as of Tuesday, and Senegal had 175.)
International traffic fuels a “high risk of contracting the disease,” the Gambian president’s office warned residents in a statement.
The beige stone of Ngunta has become a risky red line.
Travel bans around the world have scrambled markets, doomed business deals, wrecked study-abroad plans and canceled untold vacations, but the impact here is more intimate.
Families are separated. Boys are hatching illicit plans to see girls. Rice merchants cannot reach their regular customers, and food supplies are dwindling.
Villagers on the Gambian side say they no longer have easy access to drinking water. Usually, they send horse carts a quarter-mile over the border to fill jugs.
Now people are anxiously sneaking into Senegal with pots. The path is clear when officers are not around.
“We need to do the illegal thing to get clean water,” said Dem, the village head.
People are worried they could be arrested or worse, they said in interviews. Some have seen videos of security forces in Senegal and other countries beating people who break the new coronavirus laws.
Authorities have apprehended two Senegalese fishermen trying to float into Gambia and escorted them into a state quarantine hold, officials said.
Waiting for normalcy to return does not feel like an option, the chief said.
The main road tying Ngunta to the rest of Gambia is in rough condition. Travel, already a hassle, can be dangerous once the rainy season kicks off in June. The isolated economy does not work when it is split in half.
Buba Dem, 37, a sugar salesman, said he cannot afford to lose customers. (Dem, a popular surname in the village, belonged to the brothers who settled here in 1930.)
His wife surveys the horizon. She will shout his name, he said, if she sees anyone in uniform. That strategy worked last week when he stepped onto Senegalese soil to get change.
“I’m scared of getting caught,” he said. “The patrol team could be around at any time.”
Alagie Nije, 14, stuck to his phone this week, trying to persuade his girlfriend on the other side of town to sneak over.
His buddies did the same with their love interests. The teenagers made a pact to look out for each other.
“Tonight, we might invite them,” Nije said, laughing.
HawaCeesay, 34, is not so bold.
The peanut farmer yearns to see her brother, her best friend, the man who brings her Chinese green tea and chocolate cake.
He was visiting their sick father in Senegal when the border closed.
They are not sure whether he has been exposed to the coronavirus, she said, and he does not want to bring it to their doorstep — even if that means he must sleep on the floor for a while.
“Every day, I pray he can come home,” she said.
•Source: The Washington Post