MADINA WANDIFA, Senegal — Although still sweaty and tired after his long journey, the long-distance truck driver was upbeat as he watched workers unload hundreds of boxes of butter from his truck onto the pavement of a busy city street in southern Senegal.
The driver, Cheikh Oumar Tamba, had only one more stop to make, just two days after loading his truck with slabs of butter in the capital, Dakar. That, though, wasn’t the only reason for his good mood.
This drive used to take much longer. But with the construction of a towering bridge across the Gambia River, one of the region’s biggest traffic bottlenecks is now gone — a tangible example of the positive impact that much-needed infrastructure projects are having on people’s lives in West Africa.
Before the Senegambia Bridge was inaugurated three years ago, hundreds of truck drivers moving goods south from Dakar would need to line up for a ferry, sometimes waiting days to cross. Fruit would rot. Milk delivered by Mr. Tamba would go rancid. Ambulances would remain stuck in the mile-long line.
“We used to have to bribe the ferry folks to cross faster,” said Mr. Tamba, 45, who has been cruising West African roads for a dozen years. “That bridge has made our lives much easier.”
Also, ferries would operate during daylight only, cutting the north from the south when darkness fell.
“It didn’t matter what kind of emergency you had at night, it was impossible to cross,” said Ousman Gajigo, an economist at the Africa Development Bank who grew up in Gambia.
The ferries could be dangerous, whether crossing the Gambia or instead going by the ocean on routes that connected coastal ports in the south with Dakar. In 2002, one ferry, the Joola, capsized in the Atlantic, killing more than 1,800 people.
The lack of bridges straddling the Gambia River had also exacerbated a sense of regional divide, with residents of the southern Casamance region, Senegal’s food basket, blaming the government in Dakar for keeping them disconnected from the rest of the country. Earlier this year, separatist rebels in the south signed a peace deal with the government, bringing hope that a 40-year, slow-burning conflict — one of the longest in Africa — could finally end.
The ferry crossing itself is not in Senegal but in Gambia, a thin strip of a country, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to nearly 200 miles inland, that splits Senegal into northern and southern parts.
Gambia’s former strongman president, Yahya Jammeh, had long refused to build a bridge during his 22-year rule, using his country’s geographical position as a source of leverage against its bigger neighbor. Only after decades of political negotiations did the long-delayed construction project kick off in 2015, two years before Mr. Jammeh was forced into exile but when he was already facing intensifying pressure for change. In 2019, the presidents of Gambia and Senegal traveled across the bridge in the same car.
For a toll of about $7.50, a trip once measured in days now takes minutes.
In the southern Senegalese city of Madina Wandifa, not far from the Gambian border, Abdoul Aziz Faye was resting on the side of the road while his boss ran some errands. They had delivered medicines from Dakar to Guinea-Bissau, and were about to drive back north over the bridge.
“Home tonight, hopefully,” the 25-year-old driver said about Dakar, an E.T.A. that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
It’s not just the truckers who have benefited.
“I can leave this morning, drop passengers on the other side of Senegal, and be back by 2 p.m. to have lunch with my wife,” said Samba Diop, waiting for his minibus to fill at a bus station in Kaolack, the last Senegalese hub before the northern Gambian border.
Many people in Gambia and the surrounding regions of Senegal live off the production of groundnuts, rice and vegetables, but the lack of reliable transport infrastructure that could link farms to markets had kept most of them in poverty, according to the African Development Bank, which financed the construction of the $67 million bridge.
In October last year, the Gambian authorities inaugurated a second, smaller bridge in the eastern part of the country, financed by China.
For all the progress the Senegambia Bridge has brought, the journey south is not without its bumps, both literal and metaphorical, with the peaceful river flowing through mangrove swamps and salt flats just one of the many obstacles on the road.
In Gambia, where many wait for the authorities to prosecute those accused of committing wide-ranging atrocities under Mr. Jammeh’s rule, there were at least five checkpoints on a 15-mile trip from border to border.
And after Gambia? “That’s another story,” said Mr. Diop, the minibus driver.
Although President Macky Sall of Senegal has conducted major infrastructure projects in the north, critics say the south has been neglected, with its terrible roads a prime example.
As soon as those traveling south cross back into Senegal from Gambia, thousands of potholes littering the road await, as if armies of moles had turned Casamance into their personal playground. The 90-mile journey from the border to Ziguinchor, the main city in the Casamance region, is an ordeal that can take half a day.
“Better roads must be on Senegal’s agenda now,” Mr. Diop said.
Despite the benefits the bridge has brought, its building has also devastated the livelihoods of those who once lived off the hundreds of idling vehicles, and their hungry, thirsty and bored passengers.
On a recent afternoon at the river’s edge below the bridge, Lamarana Diallo was waiting for his first client of the day. No one had yet stopped to sip on his ataya, Senegalese mint tea. A father of four, Mr. Diallo used to make around $30 on a typical day, but now he said he was lucky if he earned $1.50.
Where once there were hundreds of fellow vendors selling clothes, sweets and meals, there are now only two left.
By the river’s pier, the few shops and ticket offices have been abandoned. A dozen Gambian military personnel were stationed there, chain smoking, eating thieboudienne, Senegal’s national dish of fish and rice, and chatting about soccer.
The Senegambia Bridge is open 24/7, but the job protecting it is “chill,” said Sgt. Lamin Badjie, the structure soaring over the barracks. In the sometimes complicated relationship between Senegal and Gambia, it was a welcome new connection between the two countries, Sergeant Badjie said.
Citing the ethnic groups he and comrades belonged to — Serer, Soninke, Mandinka, groups that also populate Senegal — Sergeant Badjie said about the bridge, “It makes us more united. We’re the same people.”
Omar Ndaw, a 36-year-old undercover Gambian police officer, said the bridge helped him navigate more smoothly in the areas he patrols. A surge in trafficking of counterfeit diazepam, a drug used to treat anxiety and alcohol withdrawal, has kept him busy this year.
“Let’s just say the bridge helps everyone — me, and the community,” Mr. Ndaw said before starting off in his used red Nissan.
A minute later, his car was out of sight on the bridge. He had crossed the river.
Mady Camara contributed reporting.