Peeing in a cup at a Gambian airport: Character building

Guest post by Alex Sancton (Toronto, Ontario)

This past summer I spent four months in West Africa doing a few different side projects for World Vision. My first two months were in Sierra Leone, a great experience and real introduction to Sierra Leone culture. About two months into my stay in Sierra Leone, I was offered a consultant job in Dakar, Senegal working for our regional office, and I gladly accepted. My flight took me from Freetown, Sierra Leone to Banjul, The Gambia, where I would catch another flight to Dakar, Senegal.

Upon arriving in Banjul, I knew that it would be a fairly routine connection – I would need to fill out a landing slip for immigration in order to get a transit visa, and I needed to re-check my bags with the next airline that was taking me to Dakar.

After waiting in line for customs and clearing through without a problem, I saw three men standing in plain clothes just past customs. I also saw the luggage belts, and assumed these men must just be porters who were going to offer to carry my bags for me. When one of the men called me over, I waved him off and said no, as I had done many times in Sierra Leone.

Then he started yelling.

“How dare you disrespect me! I am just trying to do my job and verify your passport! Oh, you’re from Canada? Well, Mr. Sancton, I’m actually with the President’s anti-drug squad. I see this is your first time in The Gambia. I’m going to need to search your bags for drugs – it’s what we always do. I’ll keep your passport and meet you outside”.


I apologized profusely for ‘disrespecting him’, and told him I would submit to the search but he wasn’t keeping my passport. He agreed to stand with me as I got my bag as long as he could hold it.

Alex: Is this the face of a drug mule?... Ok, don't answer that.

Soon we were in the back rooms of the airport, in a tiny closet sized office where the search was going to take place. They checked random pockets on my pack, and pretended that they were “going to let me off the hook” for random things in my bag. They then looked into my wallet – which contained about $2250 US from various reimbursements and pocket money I had for the trip. Before you call me an idiot, banks don’t exist in Sierra Leone unless you want to draw from your Visa, and travellers cheques might as well be from the moon.

After they checked everything, they informed me that I would have to pee in a cup- you know, to check my urine for drugs – just to be safe. Whatever, I thought, I’m clean and I just want to get out of here. The “officer’s” accomplice escorted me to the men’s bathroom, where I indeed pee’d into the cup, washed up and headed back into the room.

Now for the moment of truth, the test results… I wasn’t pregnant. Yes. Their ‘drug test’ was a pregnancy test. I don’t know if they knew, but who am I to judge. I was done, so they let me re-pack my bags and be on my way.

Upon arriving in Dakar, I checked my wallet again. As you can probably guess, it was lighter, by about $250 US. Had it been a scam? Did these guys actually work for who they said they did? And most importantly, what would I have done if I was pregnant? It’s the kind of situation that you just have to laugh at.

Moral of the story: I’ve thought about this situation many times, and the warning signs I didn’t see at the time. But in retrospect, was I going to call them out as thieves when they could potentially throw me into jail, or worse? What was I going to do about it?

This situation taught me that even unfortunate incidents like this build character. Too often we are scared to take risks or leave our comfort bubble because something bad might happen. But it’s those wacky situations and circumstances that make us who we really are. Don’t avoid situations because you’re scared of what might be – go in head first at the excitement of what will be.

Got a lesson you learned from one of life’s absurd moments that you want to share? Click here to submit your story.


Funny stories. Good advice. Check out my books, “Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.” and “Balancing Priorities and Prioritizing Balance”. Click here to learn more and to purchase a copy.

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