With Omar Wally
Please tell us about yourself
My names are Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu, originally from Sotuma Sere village in Jimara, Upper River Region. I am Sarahulleh and Muslim. I have been living in Germany since 1998 as Diaspora Gambian. Now I consider myself as returnee, as I am gradually resettling in The Gambia. I am a professional filmmaker.
Why did you add the honorific title ‘Prince’ to your name when your father is not a king and you did not acquire it by virtue? Don’t you think it sounds hollow?
I did research into my genealogy and discovered my “Sankanu Kaggoro” clan is part of the nobility of the Ancient Ghana Empire though generations of migration southwesterly of the Sene-Gambian basin made them adapt and adopt various societal roles. The “Kaggoros” are known for their fearlessness. Besides, I am not begging anyone to call me prince. All my official documents and academic papers have the names “Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu” and I am prince of my clan.
This is enough. My father was not a filmmaker but I am one. Does this make my professional title “filmmaker” hollow? I did not just jump and add prince to my names without digging out the historical links to my clan. It is my clan that has the prerogative to reject or preserve the title in line with the customary laws of The Gambia. For now I have my clan’s blessing and that is why the princely title is on all my official identification papers.
You first got notoriety as a student journalist at Nusrat High School when you got beat up by some Sukuta boys for referring to them by the pejorative term ‘Alaa daa fix’ (fix his mouth). Tell us about the incident?
Those who know me can confirm that I like questioning taboos and challenging the norm. We were having discussions among my schoolmates and they said while in Sukuta anyone who uses “Alaa daa fix” will be beaten. I think it was a slogan for football or something like that.
I told myself I would write about it and then see what would happen. Some Sukuta boys came to me at Sukuta Secondary School and ganged up on me. The cooks in the school came to my rescue with their oversized spatulas and pestles. It was like a scene from a gangster movie. There were too many of them and they ended up fighting among themselves. I only had a swollen face. It was an exciting experience that gave me the motivation to keep on provoking debates on the unconventional topics. Today we call it “disruption” and in my formative years, it used to be called “stubbornness”. Hahaha.
You worked at the APRC’s party newspaper Upfront. Why did you leave?
I was a freelancer and not a full time staff. Upfront was one of the countless media houses I worked for. I did reporting for BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and The Point newspaper as well.
You worked at the national TV and were making a name for yourself but then you left. Did you jump on your own accord or were you pushed?
I never wanted to leave the national TV but I had to go save my life. I was having a strange illness. Anytime I entered the GRTS building, I felt as if fire was burning me under my skin. Looking at miserable situation of many people who served their country and left abandoned due to ill health, I decided to put my life above a glittering TV career. I secretly applied for a Schengen visa and left. My abrupt departure, understandably, left room for speculation and rumour-mongering.
It was said you left because you were involved in corruption and unethical profiteering while anchoring the programme ‘Business Forum’.
As the saying goes the tree that produces the most delicious fruits gets the largest number of stone and stick attacks. The price of being prominent in public life is that you will be criticised, accused of corruption and blamed for all imaginary stuff. In The Gambia most people have a primitive way of seeing things. If you work for the central bank for example, people think you have the keys to the national vault. Just because TV programmes I was producing had “business” on its titles, some people thought I was making a lot of money. So when I left they created all tales to suit their egos and imagination. Ask yourself: why for over 20 years, no one has dragged me to court over corruption and abuse of office if the allegations are true? Let people even say that I slept with Mother Teresa or emptied the national treasury.
I respect the right of people to accuse me of whatever they dream of. I have a thick skin and can stand the heat of public scrutiny and bashing. The Wolofs say, ku buga akara defa war nyeme kanni, he who likes to eat aka, must not be afraid of chili pepper. Even in our film sector now people are saying all kinds of bad things about me but I am not intimated.
Writing under your own name and under the pen name ‘Wagadu Ghana Renmi’, you became infamous for your writings where you criticised and openly opposed Islam and Christianity and praised indigenous African religion. You were born a Muslim. What changed you?
Just like the princely title, “Wagadou Ghana Remme” which is Sarahulleh for “Child of Ghana Empire” is a reference to my roots. I used this pen name while writing for The Point newspaper and Voice of America.
I was critical of the commercialisation of both Christianity and Islam and the demonisation of our voiceless indigenous African religion. I am not changed. Islam is part of my identity. Both my paternal and maternal family sides maintained the traditional karanta Qur’anic schools. I studied Islam and anything I don’t know about the Islamic faith is not worth knowing. I conscientiously choose to be secular and be challenging the religious hypocrites whenever they cross the limits of freedom of worship. Just like the way I challenged former president Jammeh when he declared The Gambia an Islamic state in a move to attract charity from wealthy financiers of religious politics from The Middle East.
Some of your critics say you are mad. I think you were even once arrested and detained in a police station in URR for fear that your two fives don’t make a ten.
It is nice to have critics. Most of the people who think out of the box were in their life time labeled as mad. Leonardo da Vinci and Diogenes vividly come to time. I was challenging former President Jammeh with my critical writing and videos and unlike others who stayed way, I took the risk of coming to The Gambia. To many, it was a suicide mission that only crazy folks would dare. As for the URR incident.
My community of Sotuma Sere is well known for being anti-Jammeh and the former president penalised us by denying us all rural development projects. On that fateful day, I was chosen by my community to speak on its behalf at a presidential rally in Gambisara. I was having a list of complaints that I wanted to read out when given the chance. It never came to that. Before I could take a place, some NIA, soldiers and paramilitary started pulling me out of the crowd to place me inside the police pickup. I was not beaten. Only that during the commotion, my D15,000 eye classes got damaged.
The police who took me to the Bakadaji Police Station were surprised as they told their superiors that they could not see any crazy person to arrest but they got the instruction to take me along. At the station, I was treated with respect, I was not in a cell and was moving freely between the compound and the road. The police serve me attaya green tea and the food was good. I spent the night on the same raffia bed with the police chief in the open compound as it was in summer. The whole experience was a blessing in disguise as the police put me through a master class in domestic politics when they discovered that dirty polices was played on me. After 24 hours of enjoying good food and attaya at the expense of Gambian taxpayers, the police received a “phone call from above” to let me go. The pickup that was used to take me to the police has since broken down and is now parked in front of the Bakadaji Police Station.
There was talk that your first marriage even crumbled because your wife could not deal with your eccentricities including your rabid anti-Islamic statements.
Again, people have the right to speculate due to my life as a prominent Gambian in the public eye. Today, I am revealing my innermost secret so as to help many people in my situation. My marriage crumbled because of lack of child and not about religion. The cadi who dissolved the marriage is still alive. I was accused of being impotent and dragged before the Brikama Cadi Court where the marriage was dissolved. I never had the chance to defend myself. My first marriage lasted 15 years but as you know in our African society when there is no child, they would accuse the man of being impotent or the woman of being barren. In my case, impotence was used on me as excuse without qualified medical examination.
The divorce left you devastated. But you picked up the pieces. It must have been a difficult time for you.
Of course, you cannot be married to someone for 15 years and out of the blue you get a court sermon for a divorce hearing with your manhood being challenged. It was devastating but not hopeless. As I told you, I left The Gambia and GRTS on medical grounds. When I came to Germany, I spent six months undergoing treatment. As a side effect of the intensive medication, the doctors said my sperm count was compromised and it will take time before I can reproduce but my
sexuality remains active. After the first marriage, I married for a second time and that one too collapsed within five years while arranging the family reunification visa. My supposed impotence was used as reason to end that second marriage. I am in my third marriage and continuing fertility treatment both through Western and traditional medicine. We just had our first miscarriage. It was unfortunate but a very relieving experience that I can indeed impregnate a woman. All one needs in such situation is a patient, supportive and understanding partner who can ignore the idle gossips of society. I am revealing my human shortcomings as I am not a saint and I am not interested in becoming one. With my openness, I want to give hope to people with childbearing issues and to challenge the associated stigma of delayed reproduction. Our society needs to grow up and end the discrimination of people with fertility challenges. It is not a shame if your marriage is childless. Let us talk about reproductive health.
Talking about women, some people think your writings were over-sexualized and even lewd. For example you wrote articles and opinion pieces full of sexual innuendoes directed at married women like Fatoumata Jahumpa Ceesay. In 2014, you told Alieu Khan of What’s On Gambia this: “I am mad about women will well-proportioned buttocks be they small, average or large but not too big like whales or flat like cardboards. Man must hold onto quality meat for rejuvenating romance.”
Hahaha. That is just part of humour in my thought-provoking writing and very careful. Seriously, I have problem with the moral hypocrisy in our society. What is wrong with us celebrating femininity? Yes I am an African man, I like women with well-proportioned bodies or wangs -it does not matter whether they are slender or chubby, let them just be hygienic. I like women with meat but I am satisfied with diminutive ladies with sense of style. If celebrating African sexuality and feminine elegance is a crime, then I am guilty. Tell the morality police to come and arrest me.
While in Germany you complained that GRTS and Daily Observer refused to broadcast and publish your articles, why?
You were also writing for the Daily Observer under Jammeh, would you have reported on my activities? It was obvious that because of my critical writing against former President Jammeh, I would never be given space in the Jammed-controlled media outlets.
Currently you are organising a film festival in The Gambia taking you to different parts of the country. How did you become a filmmaker in the first instance?
After 20 plus years of successful journalism, I decided to change my profession. First I went to a film school in Germany called SAE Institute to obtain my Diploma in Digital Film and Animation. This gave the transferable professional skills to work in the value-chain of filmmaking. After that I went to the University of Stirling in Scotland, UK, for my Master of Letters in Film Studies: Theory and Practice. After the master’s programme, I got the offer to do my PhD in Africa Cinema at the same university but I deferred it till later due to my tight work schedule. With the professional and academic qualification, I started making films in Germany before focusing on The Gambia. I launched the annual CineKambiya International Film Festival (CIFF) in 2015 and set up my registered Sanxaanu Kaggoro Film Kaffo (SANXAAFI) production the same year. Between 2012 and 2017, I made six Gambia-related films using my own resources.
What factors inhibit the growth of a thriving film industry like your much talked about Cinekambiya?
I chose Cinekambiya as a name of our Gambia film industry to give us unique brand way from the “wood” copycat. As small country, we don’t have the economies of scales of Ghana or Nigeria and if we are to stand the heat, we need a solid brand. The branding aside, stakeholders of filmmaking must be ready to learn their trade. Today anyone one who can use a digital camera easily labels him or herself a filmmaker without even understanding the history of cinema. It is not the camera that counts. It is the handling. We need a film policy and a film commission. I once sent a draft policy to the National Centre for Arts and Culture to consider as a working document for the formulation of a policy for the audio-visual industry. Patience and passion are key factors. Those who have been following my work, would know how I suffered under former President Jammeh in trying to build our film industry. I faced insults, ridicule, disdain, character assassination, marginalisation and all other challenges but with persistence, self-reliance and patience, I have made an impact. I am not interested in awards or going to Hollywood, Bollywood, Nigeria or Ghana. I just want The Gambia to be a recognised filmmaking nation through standard films we make within our Gambian cultural peculiarities.
Surely every country can’t have a successful film industry, why do you think that The Gambia with its small population and lack of resources will succeed?
The revelations of the ongoing Janneh Commission are proofs that The Gambia has the resources. The problems are misplaced priorities and inferiority complex. Most of us witnessed how former President Jammeh was giving millions of our tax money, plots of land and other resources to Nigerian and Ghanaian film starts to develop their film industries back home in Accra and Lagos while leaving Gambians with charities. Jammeh aside, Gambians don’t like supporting their own. They are ready to spend fortunes on fly-by night stars from Senegal, Jamaica, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana and other places to develop themselves and their home countries while downgrading their home-grown Gambian talents. The culture of self-hate and inferiority complex is affecting the rise of a vibrant Gambian creative economy.
I want The Gambia to be a respected filmmaking nation and I am not waiting for Gambians to give me money or patronise me. Passion and patriotism are driving me. I am glad that through my pioneering work, 2017 has been a very successful year for Gambian filmmaking. I have inspired a lot of people to jump into the bandwagon of filmmaking now.
Personally, I don’t need the huge amount of money that Gambians or former president Jammeh was spaying on outside movie makers. Let them continue to spend their monies on foreign creative artistes. Government support is of course crucial not just in terms of policies. If anything, let Barrow Administration give me just one million Gambian dalasis as seed funding and some of the assets of former President Jammeh that are forfeited to the state. I will use the money and assets to build a successful film industry without wastage. If I don’t get it, all the same. I will carry on with my passion and patriotic filmmaking, step by step.
Bleeding Blade, Pain of Sorrow etc, your film credits are getting longer. What is your best work so far and why?
As a professional filmmaker with pedigrees, I am very careful of my name. All films that came out bearing my name directly or indirectly are my favourites as I have invested passion, time and skills into them.
Sankanu, during the 22 years of Jammeh’s rule, you were always vacillating. Supporting him one day, opposing him another day. You even endorsed him in the election before last. Why?
I was and I am still independent. Yes I congratulated Jammeh when he did the right thing and aggressively criticised or opposed him when he did wrong. Indeed I endorsed Jammeh during the 2011/2012 election out of frustration when the opposition parties then failed to unite against him. I also remember telling Jammeh that after 20 years in power he should opt for an honorary exit. When he refused to listen, I just let him tighten the noose around his own neck. History has absolved me. I refused to endorse him for the 2016 election. He hired some Nigerian and Ghanaian actors and actresses as if they could influence Gambian voters but they just enjoyed our tax money from him and left.
Your critics say despite your liberal Western education, some of your public statements are very backward. For example you support polygamy and once said you would like to have a harem of wives.
Women have broken my heart brutally so I am very careful in my dealings with the feminine gender. I am a serial monogamist though I respect polygamy. I personally choose to be keeping only one wife at time and if the woman wants to leave, I won’t stop her from packing out of my life. The next one can come. I have no time for harem and so on. A woman who wants to be in the parking lot, is free to be there. I just like provoking the feminists to keep the battle of sexes interesting.
What are your views on homosexuality? Should it continued to be banned in The Gambia?
Homosexuality is not my problem. I am not the person to decide whether homosexuality should continue to be banned in The Gambia or not.
Last year you tried to run in an election for Member of European Parliament in Germany and you failed. What happened?
I read somewhere that “FAIL” also stands for “First Attempt In Learning”. I missed the deadline for the registration for the European Parliamentary election as I was in The Gambia at the time.
You failed in politics in Germany, will you try politics in The Gambia?
I don’t share your fixation on this failure thing. I was chosen to run for state elections of North Rhine Westphalia in Germany in a very conservative setting. Due to the influx of migrants at the time, there was a huge sentiment against foreigners and this affect most political parties that promoted diversity. The voters chose people who were spreading anti-migrant slogans. I did not fail as I broke the glass-ceiling and made a record. It was the right wing populists who failed their people with empty promises of expelling all migrants. Setbacks in politics or life are normal. President Adama Barrow could not win parliamentary elections but won presidential race. Barrack Obama of USA did not enter parliament on his first attempt. Presidents Buhari of Nigeria and George Weah of Liberia did not give up after their first defeats. Those who know me can attest that I am a very patient and persistent person. I only give up on my life passion when I am dead and buried for seven days. Where people see failure, I see opportunities. With Gambia politics I don’t know if I will try or not. For now I am staying out of the tug of war among surrogates of various political parties.
What are you views on ‘New Gambia’?
New Gambia is our common baby. We need to nurture it well. I did my fighting under former President Jammeh. In New Gambia, I am just doing my parts toward the success of our new dispensation under the stewardship of President Barrow.
What are the things that you think this new government should be doing that they are not doing?
I have been so immersed in developing The Gambia film industry that I am not religiously following the inner activities of the new government. I am keeping a respectable distance as I don’t want to be stained by the ongoing competition for survival among various forces that feel they must own the new government.
What are your biggest fears about ‘New Gambia’?
I am not a coward and fear is not part of my vocabulary. I just see challenges that need to be addressed. The first challenge is the “old wine in new bottle” syndrome where some cabals develop a sense of entitlement and feel they are indispensable. Just for their self-preservation, they would not mind to sabotage the Barrow Administration to get their ways. The second challenge is the implementation of the recommendation of the various commissions. We have the Janneh Commission. The Truth and Reconciliation and Reparation Commission is coming. The question is: will the recommendations of these commissions be implemented fully or are we going to see maslaha where some people are pardoned while small fishes are punished? If most perpetrators are allowed to escape justice in the name of rushed reconciliation without justice, it will set a bad precedence for impunity. Reconciliation without restorative justice is a recipe for civil unrest. The third challenge is the re-integration of the “back way” youths and all those who will be deported from Europe and North America sooner or later. The Barrow Administration needs to handle the bad media publicity around this sensitive topic. It should remember that if those returned or deported youths are not fully integrated into the productive sectors, they would revolt against the government. They have nothing to lose and are not afraid of dying or going to jail as they have experienced worse thing across the Sahara Desert. The fourth challenge I see is the security sector. I believe Ecomig should stay for at least 10 years or until the internal security sector reform is completed. The latest attacks in Casamance, Southern Senegal, are early warning signals that both our internal and external security should not be taken lightly.
The fifth challenge is the narrative that one needs to be a card-bearing member of political parties of the coalition to enjoy or be given a job. If true, this will put nepotism and lethargy above competence and nationalism. The sixth challenge is the fixation on transition and the survival contest among political entities. Since many people are treating President Barrow as “transitional president”, they are not keen at seeing him succeed. Instead they are busy working on their survival. The term “transition” creates an impression of a temporary arrangement leading to feet-dragging and lack of serious commitment to the cause of New Gambia. I recommend that we call what we have “Transformative President or Leader” be used in describing Barrow and transformation instead of transition be used on our current political dispensation. Finally, President Adama should see himself as the Scapegoat-in-Chief. He will be blamed when the transformation process fails as others are busy working on their political future while taking him as an indecisive leader. They are making a big mistake by underrating Barrow. The rivalry among militants and prominent figures of the various political groups is frustrating effort for the effective take off of New Gambia.