A Living Mirrow by Aloa Ahmed Alota and Demba Ali Jawo

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

Excerpt

Chapter Two

Deyda walked into Radio Syd, one day in 1988, and handed an envelope to Ms Constance Enhorning-Wadner who took over control of the radio station after her mother’s death in Sweden on 13th March 1987.

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Her brows rose. “What’s this, Deyda?”

“My resignation.”

She was visibly shocked. “But why? Aren’t you happy with us? Come into my office; let’s discuss this. Is it about money?”

Deyda followed her into the office, but as always, he gave the impression it was he who was in control of the meeting, not her. “I want to be my own man.”

“But you’ve risen to the position of Station Manager. And there’re better prospects for you here.”

“I will be better off being on my own.”

“Really?”

“I have no doubt about that.”

Ms Constance Enhorning-Wadner saw that dissuading Deyda from quitting was like banging her head against a brick wall, so she decided to accept his resignation.

He left Radio Syd to set up his own outfit, Excaf Printing, on Clarkson Street, Banjul, which was to be the germ of The Point newspaper.

Before now, Deyda had made his first foray into journalism in 1974, with the Agence France-Presse (AFP), working first as a translator and then as a local correspondent. When in early 1976, he was at a loss to take up an additional job offer, he turned to Maria for help.

“Reuters has approached me to be its Banjul correspondent,” he told Maria.

“That’s good.”

“But I do not think I can combine it with my other duties.”

“Are you going to reject it then?”

“No. I was thinking you could take it up.”

“Me? A journalist? Why me?”

“We need the extra income to take care of our growing family.”

“But I have no experience in journalism.”

“I will teach you the basics and you will build on them.”

Under Deyda’s guidance, Maria regularly sent dispatches to Reuters news agency for about six months, but developed cold feet later in the year.

“I can’t cope with this job any more,” she said.

“Why?”

“I have to look after the children. They are growing and becoming more demanding. There is so much to do around the house now.”

Deyda exhaled and stole a glance at her. “I will take care of it.”

“Can you cope?”

“I will talk to Pap Saine.”

Pap Saine is a tall ebony-skinned man with enormous physical presence. Deyda had taken him under his wings in the early 1970s after Pap had been urged by his own father to look to Deyda as his big brother. With this in mind, Deyda gave Pap the Reuters job in September 1976, as he was to do again in 1985 when he let Pap take over Disque ago-go. He also employed Pap’s younger brother Ousainou as his assistant at Excaf Printing.

After these tentative steps, Deyda took a plunge into journalism, joining The Senegambia Sun newspaper in 1983 as a special correspondent. The other members of the editorial board included Pap Saine, also a special correspondent, and Baboucarr M. Gaye, who served as editor-in-chief. The triumvirate was to form the nucleus of The Point newspaper.

The owners of Le Soleil, a Senegalese newspaper, had established The Senegambia Sun to foster the ideals of the Senegambia Confederation, which came into being on 17 December 1981. But the concept of a Senegambia Union dated back to the early 1960s. The Gambia had signed a defence pact with Senegal in 1965, as the former was the only country in the sub-region without an army at the time. The defence pact was however not implemented until the Field Force Crisis of 1980, which led to the killing of the Field Force commander, Eku Mahoney. Under Operation Kaba I, the Senegalese Army in October 1980 intervened to restore peace and order within the Field Force. Not quite a year later, they stepped in once again under Operation Foday Kaba II to foil the Kukoi Samba Sanyang-led July 30 1981 insurrection against the then government of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. In gratitude for saving his government, Sir Jawara opted for a confederation with Senegal. The confederation collapsed shortly after due to a number of factors, not least among them was the lack of agreement on rotational presidency. The Senegambia Sun inevitably fizzled out in 1985.

Towards the end of 1991, Deyda stayed out until all hours, which incensed Maria. One day when Deyda had returned home late yet again, she was openly cross with him.

“What time is it now,” she asked, fixing Deyda with an angry look. “You’ve been behaving strangely ever since you returned from Cotonou.”

Deyda managed a smile and shambled past her into the living room.

Maria slammed the door shut and followed him. “Talk to me. I say talk to me. What has come over you?”

Deyda slumped down onto a sofa, yawned and stretched out his legs. “I have a surprise for you.”

“What surprise? Don’t tell me about any surprise. You leave me alone with the children every night and now you tell me about surprises. Are surprises going to guide the children?”

“Be patient. The surprise I have for you will take care of you and the children for life.” He yawned again and then smiled. “It is only a matter of weeks and I will give you the greatest surprise of your life.”

“The greatest surprise of my life? What do you mean?”

“Then be patient with me.”

“Okay. We’ll see.”

As usual, he came back home late on 16 December 1991.

Maria seethed with anger. “You forgot today is my birthday?”

Deyda laughed and tossed a copy of a tabloid newspaper on her lap. “That is the greatest birthday gift you will ever get from me.”

“What is this?”

“It is the maiden edition of The Point newspaper, the first-ever desktop published newspaper in this country.”

“Oh! Is this the surprise you’ve been talking about,” Maria asked and hissed. Then she picked up the newspaper and flung it aside. “What makes this thing the greatest birthday gift of my life?”

Deyda took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. “If you know what this newspaper will do in our life, you should be proud and honoured that it is launched on your birthday as a special gift for you.”

Before the birth of The Point, there were only four letter-press tabloids in the Gambia, namely The Gambia News Bulletin, established in 1943 and published by the Gambia Information Services every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; The Senegambia Sun; The Gambia Times, published by the editorial board of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and edited by the late Mr Jay Saidy; and The Toiler, a monthly which Pa Modou KB Faal edited. All the others were mimeographed publications. They included The Gambia Onward, edited by RS Allen; The worker, an organ of the Gambia Labour Union, which Mr Pierre Sock edited; The Nation (William Dixon-Colley); The Suntorch (Jokunda Daffeh); Hibarr (Councillor Assan Ticks Manneh); The Gambian (Ngain Thomas); New Gambia (Baba Trawally); The Progressive Newspaper (Mbacke); Weekly News; Vanguard (MB Jones); The Gambia Echoes; The Gambia Outlook; and The Senegambia Reporter (MB Jones).

The Point began modestly, coming out every Monday for the first two years of its existence. Then it came out every Monday and Thursday. By 1995, its fortunes were already in the ascendancy, hitting the newsstand thrice weekly, and then four times in 2001 – Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (Weekend Point). It has gone daily – Monday through Friday – since early 2006.

But it was not without its own fair share of teething problems. The paper was barely six months old when its editor-in-chief Baboucarr Gaye resigned due to “personal reasons”. Mr Gaye’s exit however pales into insignificance when compared with two others odds that threatened the paper’s existence in 1995. In that year, the government imposed two new conditions for the renewal of newspaper licence. First, it increased the newspaper bond by a hundred fold – from one thousand dalasis to one hundred thousand dalasis. It also ordered all publishers to submit a title deed to the Attorney –General’s Chambers.

Deyda had assigned Mr Casa Taal, a pioneering staff of The Point, a special task in the wake of the new diktat. He now invited him to a debriefing session. Both Pap Saine and Babou Sowe were equally in attendance.

Deyda signalled Mr Taal to sit down.  “What did the Mr Secka, the quantity surveyor, from Physical Planning say?”

Mr Casa Taal, a dark compact man, flipped through his file and said, “I went with him to your house in Bakau Mamakoto. We went round the…”

Deyda cut in. “Go straight to the point. Did he carry out the valuation?”

“He did.”

“Does the property value up to one hundred thousand dalasis?”

“What he said was that the house was still under construction.”

“So, it is not up to one hundred thousand dalasis?”

“That was he said.”

Deyda shut his eyes and drummed his fingers on his desk. No one spoke for a moment.

Then Babou Sowe, a toothy-smiling childhood friend of Deyda’s, spoke up. “If that is what they want, I have a property that is worth more than that amount of money. I am willing to give you my title deed so that you can continue with your business.”

“No,” Deyda said, shaking his head. “ We will not have you stick your neck out for us again. We appreciate the fact that you signed the initial mandatory one thousand dalasis bond that enabled us to take off.”

He paused for a moment and drummed his fingers on his desk again.  Then he continued. “But we are now under a military government; anything could happen. And we would hate to see you lose your property.”

“You have got it all wrong,” Mr Sowe said and smiled with his eyes half close. “This business is as much as yours as mine. You appointed me chairman. Therefore, I have a responsibility to the success of the business.”

Deyda shook his head more vigorously. “No way! We are not going to have you forfeit your property to the State because of what we journalists write. We are the journalists…”

He broke off abruptly, as Mr Taal raised his hand. “Yes, do you have any objection?”

“No; it is a suggestion instead.”

“Okay,” he said, his voice was impatient. “Let us hear it.”

“I was thinking that I could go with the Mr Secka to inspect Pap Saine’s property.”

Pap Saine, who had not spoken since the session began, smiled. “You have taken the words right out of my mouth.”

With that the session broke up. Pap Saine eventually submitted his title deed to the Attorney General’s Chambers, as his property was valued to be well over one hundred thousand dalasis.

But shortly after that, The Point had a brush with the junta. On Wednesday, 29 March 1995, Pap Saine, Alieu Badara Sowe and Brima Ernest walked into The Point office in high spirits.

They barged into Deyda’s office, rhapsodizing about their scoops.

Deyda who had been startled by their sudden entry into his office rallied quickly and motioned them to sit down. “Are you sure of your facts?”

“Our sources,” Pap Saine said, “are reliable.”

“How reliable?”

“Very, very reliable.”

Deyda was all ears, as Pap Saine filled him in on the details of both stories and the infallibility of their sources. He smiled, as Pap said, “These are world exclusives!” 

“They will certainly ruffle some feathers,” Deyda said. “But I do not care whose ox is gored.”

Deyda had by this time assumed the responsibility of editor-in-chief following Mr Gaye’s resignation. He knocked both stories into shape and called Pap to have a look at them. “Do they reflect the facts?”

“Yes. Nothing is left out.”

Deyda blazoned both stories across the front page of The Point’s 30 March 1995 issue. The first one screamed, “Revolt At Mile 2”; the second one was rather subdued, but it was nonetheless arresting. It read, “Four Detained Officers At the RVH.”

The Point sold like hot cakes, but the reprisals were swift and stiff. The junta took umbrage at The Point stories and swooped on the paper, detaining Pap Saine, Alieu Badara Sowe and Brima Ernest. For two days, they cooled their feet behind bars. The junta demanded they reveal their sources, but the journalists refused, insisting instead that the law take its course. Charged with publishing “false news with intent to cause fear among the public”, the trio stood trial between June and September 1995 when the law court acquitted them and quashed the case as “a violent storm in a teacup”.

Deyda folded his arms across his chest and gnashed his teeth as he struggled to digest the piece of news Ousainou Saine had just told him. “Are you joking or what?”

“I am not joking,” Ousainou said, shaking his head. “They told us to go away with our materials.”

“That is what you were told at the Government Printer?”

“They said they would never print for us again.”

Deyda reeled into his office and made a call to Babucarr Sompo Ceesay, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Information and Tourism.

“I have just been told that we can no longer use the facilities of the Government Printer. Is it true?”

Mr Ceesay paused for a moment. At length, he answered, “Yes, it is true.”

“Really?”

“The directives came from higher authorities.”

“And it is irreversible?”

“I am afraid, it is.”

Deyda muttered his thanks, disconnected the line but held up the receiver for a long time, drumming his fingers on his desk. Suddenly, he had a brainwave.

He invited Casa Taal, Saul Njie and Ousainou into his office. “Ousainou, you are right; but nothing is going to stop this paper from coming out.”

“How are we going to do it,” Ousainou asked.

“It will be difficult,” Casa Taal said, “ to get somebody to print for us.”

“Definitely,” Saul Njie said.

Deyda smiled. “I have an idea.”

They asked him to tell them what he had up his sleeves.

“We are going to type and photocopy.”

“Photocopy?” They all said together, looking at each other in bewilderment.

“In the circumstances we have found ourselves, the quality does not matter; what matters now is that we are always on the newsstand.”

None of his staff spoke.

Deyda continued, “I will talk to Mbissan Supermarket to help us with the photocopying.”

“The one on Clarkson Street,” Casa Taal asked.

“Yes.”

A day later, they all assembled again in the office.

“There are four piles of paper here,” Deyda said and waved his right hand around the room. He squatted down and picked up a sheet from each pile. Then he held them together. He stood up and hit them widthways on a tabletop to make them completely level with each other. “Ousainou, bring the stapler.”

Deyda took the stapler from Ousainou and held out the sheets of paper. “Hold the other end.”

Ousainou held them together with both hands, and Deyda stapled the four sheets of paper together at three different points. Then he took the newspaper from Ousainou and thumbed the pages. “It looks good, doesn’t it,” Deyda asked.

Ousainou smiled and nodded.

“It is far better than nothing,” Saul said.

“Exactly,” Casa said in agreement.

“Now, the real work begins,” Deyda said.

 “We are ready for it,” Casa said.

“Ousainou,” Deyda said.

“Yes.”

“You will work with me.”

Deyda then waved his hand at both Casa and Saul. “The two of you will work together.” 

Casa Taal and Saul Njie rolled up their sleeves and pitched in with efforts to collate to the paper. They immersed themselves in work until Deyda called out to Casa Taal. “How many copies have you collated so far?”

Casa Taal counted. After a long moment he answered, “Four hundred.”

“That is good; we have about five hundred copies here. Now, arrange them into fifty copies per pack. Tomorrow we shall give each vendor at least one pack.”

Authors

Aloa Ahmed Alota studied English at the University of Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, and creative writing at the London School of Journalism. He worked closely with the late Deyda Hydara as editor. He is presently pursuing his PhD in Canada.

Demba Ali Jawo read journalism at the International Institute of Journalism in Berlin, Germany. He is currently associate editor and head of the English language Desk of the African Press Agency in Dakar, Senegal. He began his journalism career at The Nation newspaper in Banjul in the early 1970s, under the guidance of the late William Dixon-Colley. He worked as news editor at the Daily Observer, editor-in-chief at The Independent and as a stringer for the BBC African Service. For over one decade, he was the Banjul correspondent of the Associated Press. He took over from the late Deyda Hydara as president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU). He served as Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure briefly after the change of government in 2016.