The art of hunting hardly makes national heroes even though it is one of the world’s oldest occupations and providers of sustenance. Hunting is also a means of ensuring security for humans against beasts; it is in this regard that Abdou Saidykhan excelled to earn his place in The Gambia’s folklore and history.
Saidykhan specialised in hunting hippopotami, the largest mammal on land. Lore has it that during his hippo hunting career which lasted some thirty years, Abdou Saidykhan killed over two hundred hippos in creeks and swamps of the River Gambia. Armed with a single barrel gun and pouches of gunpowder and trigger caps, he roamed the north bank of the River Gambia to respond to the calls of distressed rice fielders, mainly women, whose crop was being devoured by hippos.
He did not charge a cent for his dangerous undertakings. Indeed, here lay his philanthropism, in addition to the fact that he shared among riverine people the meat of the hippos he killed. Considering that there was a period of famine in the protectorate due partly to World War Two food rationing and requisition, Abdou’s generosity was a livelihood to many people. But who was this great hunter, and as you will see later, soldier, Abdou Saidykhan?
Abdou was born in the village of Faraba, in Fulladu West District, in the then MacCarthy Island Division, in June 1925. Aged 18, he enlisted in the Second Battalion of the Gambia Regiment and fought the Japanese in the sweaty jungles of Burma and the Philippines during the Second World War. Because of his unalloyed gallantry and spotless marksmanship, he rose through the regiment ranks to become a sergeant. After the end of the war, he demobilised, returned to take up hunting hippos which were wreaking untold havoc on rice fields along the north bank of the river. In fact, the hippo menace was so severe that certain settlements in Sami and Niani districts were put
Therefore, Abdou’s bravery and dedication to cull these pests was highly applauded by the affected people who shared their gratitude in songs and praises in his honour.
Also, his exploits soon became legendary. It is believed for example, that he only used a single shot to subdue even the most ferocious hippo and “after shooting he would dive into the water and on surfacing would bring the hippo’s tail with him”.
He kept the hippos’ tails and would occasionally parade them before villagers, district chiefs and commissioners as proof of his daring exploits. The weight of such proof encouraged the colonial commissioners to grant Abdou a yearly ration of gunpowder for his work. And he always lived up to expectations for he respected and loved his occupation. Another legend tells how Abdou would spend several days and nights in the swamps or huddled inside a dugout in order to waylay a hippo. A legend has it that the great hunter reserved much regard for the protection of nature since he avoided shooting hippo cubs, pregnant or aged hippo, or crocodiles.
But perhaps the most interesting legend about the famous hunter concerns his death on Monday 7 March 1968. It states: “Abdou and his mate left the village of Jarumeh Koto, Sami District, where they were living, on Monday, to hunt at Sully Balong. On seeing a hippo, Abdou aimed but before he could fire, another hippo appeared from behind and overturned his canoe. Both occupants fell into the water.
The mate swam to the river bank, but the valiant hunter Abdou was nowhere to be seen. Repeated calls, whistles, codes, shouts and searches for him were made but to no avail. As night fell, the mate climbed up a tree and remained there until he was found by passing fishermen who took him to Kuntaur. There he told his nightmarish story to the chief who told the commissioner at Georgetown who told the police and a search was mounted. After four days of frantic searching, Abdou’s body was eventually found by the river bank at Kuntaur in the presence of the commissioner, the chief of Kuntaur and a large crowd.”
The news of Abdou Saidykhan’s death was greeted with disbelief and sadness. Disbelief because it was impossible to imagine that Abdou Khan, the great hippo hunter, who dared the huge animals so much that he wrestled with them in their domain underwater to slash off their tails as prize, would be killed by the riverside. Planters had looked up to him to save them from the voracious beasts which trampled their livelihood into pieces.
In recognition of such efforts, several Gambians paid tribute to and mourned Abdou Saidykhan. One senior government official said: “Abdou was great man and a national figure known for his courage and skill in hippo hunting. His death is great loss to rice growers in the MacCarthy Island Division whose fields he had protected from hippos for many year.” Recognition of his courage came in 1982 when his life story became a subject of study in Gambian primary schools.
Hassoum Ceesay is a historian, writer and academic. He works at the National Centre for Arts and Culture.