By Ahmed Kemo Ceesay
By ordain of the creator, verse 154 of Chapter 2 of the Holy Quran: “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return”; and verse 185 of Chapter 3 of the same Holy book: “Every soul will taste death…” have, shockingly, even if inevitably, came to pass for my beloved teacher, mentor and a friend, who was a pragmatic and visionary scholar. Fondly called Mudir (Arabic word for director) by generations of his students and disciples, Sheikh Ahmad Cherno Banding Drammeh, is no more – leaving behind a void that will be hard to fill.
Mudir was a household name in the Gambia and far afield, especially in the sub-region, amongst Islamic scholars and propagators. He was well known, and admired, for his practical and pragmatic approach to Islamic and Arabic education with emphasis on tolerance and moderation.
In addition to his regular teaching and directorship of the first ever formal Islamic and Arabic institution in Brikama, arguably anywhere else in the Gambia beyond Banjul, he was also widely known for his weekly Radio Gambia programme, The Muslim World, which he dutifully presented on Friday evenings, from late 1970s until mid-2019 when failing health prevented him from delivering new episodes.
Moreover, he was an intellectual philanthropist, and an altruistic mentor for generations of students from disadvantaged background. He was genuinely sincere in his quest for human development through teaching, coaching and mentoring. He had unique ability to spot people with potentials which he used, altruistically, to nurture talents wherever and in whomever he could find. He was generous within and without. He literally carried his prepared lessons with him and delivered lectures and sermons wherever possible – at schools, mosques and even in his sitting room. And he never gave up on anyone; not even the less abled of his students like my humble self. In class, he was as imposing as his statue, as effective as his unique voice and as engaging as the occasion and moment demanded. It was impossible to be bored during his lectures.
His journey to this enviable apex status in life was not easy though; nor was it free from tribulations and unjustifiable detractors; a fact that enabled him to perfect his ways, hone his pragmatic skills and focus on his humanitarian work for the general good and national development. He was not a fanatic Sunni nor an intolerant scholar. He encouraged open-mindedness and independent research based on Qur’an and authentic Hadith. He was tolerant and moderate in his propagation and in his world view.
Born in Brikama town, then Western Division, his birth wasn’t officially registered; but during a recent conversation with this author, he indicated, with a degree of certainty, that he was born in mid-1930s. His family was, and is still, known for their devotion to the teaching and propagation of Islam.
As was a reality for most of his contemporaries in similar family settings at the time, he began his education at home, in the majlis/dara of his uncle, Sheikh Alh Malamin Drammeh. He remained under the latter’s tutelage for years during which he learnt the
Holy Quran and its interpretation (tafsir) in Mandinka, theology as well as Arabic language before relocating, with his father Sheikh Alh Mustapha Drammeh, to Basse Dampha Kunda where the latter was to take up imamship of the village, following the death of Mudir’s grandfather Shaikh Basidia Drammeh. At Dampha Kunda, he received further tutorials from another uncle, Shaikh Othman Drammeh.
Mudir was also reputed to have been an effective farmer who had endurance and stamina to toil on the land all day and receive lessons in the evening. He stood above an average man and had imposing muscular physique. “When I decided to go abroad for further educational pursuit, I knew there was only one way to fund this. I embarked upon a huge farming activity that resulted in a bumper harvest”; he was quoted as saying.
Before leaving the shores of this land in pursuit of further education, he went to say farewell to his maternal grandfather, a well-known great Sufi Sheikh, Ahmad Cherno Sillah – also called Kang Cherno Sillah, in Jinan. Seeking the latter’s blessing, Mudir gifted most of the proceeds of his farming to Kang Cherno.
In 1960, Mudir discretely left the shores of the Gambia and had Egypt in mind as a destination to seek knowledge. His journey took him through the sub-region, passing through Senegal, Mali Ivory Coast before landing in Ghana where he lived in a village called Sedro, some 350km from Accra, for three years. At Sedro, Mudir built a school, Ridwan, where he taught children Qur’an and Islamic studies. The next leg of his journey took him to Nigeria and then to Chad where he was forced to discontinue the journey and had to return to the Gambia, by sea, via Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Mudir quickly turned this setback into an opportunity. Upon obtaining a new Gambian passport, he set out on his journey to Egypt once more. This time, with the Egyptian visa endorsed on his passport in Sierra Leone, the passage was smooth. He arrived in Egypt in April 1964; and went straight to the world renowned and prestigious Azhar University where he was to spend the next nine years on intensive scholarship.
While at Azhar he experienced financial constraints, prompting him to spend holidays in Europe, mainly in Germany, Greece and Italy, taking up menial jobs to save funds for textbooks and for personal upkeep back in Egypt. He rejected many suggestions that it was better for him to stay on in the West rather than returning to Egypt for Islamic/Arabic education which was of little economic value back in the Gambia.
He excelled in his studies and successfully completed a Bachelor’s programme in 1973, majoring in Arabic language and theology despite some inhibiting ill-health at the time. From Azhar, Mudir won a scholarship to read for a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies and Propagation in Libya, completing a two-year programme in just a year. That success landed him a job as a Propagator and Teacher by Islamic Call Society of Libya, and was posted to the Gambia after rejecting a posting in Tanzania.
While in Egypt, he met the legendary boxer, Muhammed Ali, who invited Mudir to the USA and to settle there as a Daa’i (propagator) in Islam. In an interview he said: “The package was lucrative, but I always wanted to come to Gambia. So I declined.”
Back in The Gambia, Mudir’s first teaching post was at Muhammadan Primary School as a Quranic Teacher in 1973. He soon moved to Muslim High School, teaching at both English and Arabic Sections, until 1977. Realising, by then, a bigger call on him in teaching Arabic and Islamic Studies outside of the comfort of 1970s Banjul, he wasted no time when the opportunity arose. So the first-ever, formal Arabic and Islamic school, Mahad Islam, was set up by him in Brikama in 1978, initially at a borrowed premises from one of his uncles, Alh Sheikh Kebba Drammeh. Mahad soon attracted pupils from all over the sub region – The Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leon, to name a few. Mahad was to become one of the most prestigious and innovative schools in the Gambia. By 1980s Mahad had transformed and was akin to any formal school, where medium of instruction was English, in many respects; but it remained focussed on the core theological principles of Islam which was taught in Arabic. Its theological curriculum was based, overwhelmingly, on accepted Maliki School of thought. Thus, two well-known text: Ar-risala and Al-Akhdari were taught in the school.
Mahad was soon partaking in all major extracurricular activities as obtained in any formal school settings, including participating in Independence Day parade and interschool sporting activities. It became the first Arabic school in the country to have its own Scout Association and Red Cross Society which changed people’s view about the school and its students. By late 1980s the school had metamorphosed to become a formidable place of leaning; and by late 1990, it had separate English and Arabic sections running alongside each other under Mudir’s indefatigable leadership. Mahad English, in Brikama Jamisa, took its first in-takes in 2001.
In years to come, the English Section, found along the Jalangbang High Way, produced outstanding results in Grade 12 exams while the Arabic section continues to produce some of the best Imams, Qadis and theologians with moderate and tolerant message of Islam. In today’s Gambia, you can find graduates of Mahad in all walks of life, including countless Imams, academics, lawyers, Qadis, civil servants, bankers, economists, administrators, engineers, medical doctors etc… The author of this obituary, a legal practitioner, was one of Mudir’s disciples and mentee; so are the contributors.
Mudir also believed in sharing ideas. So he initiated publication of a monthly magazine (Voice of Islam) in the 1970s. The magazine was published in Arabic and in English, focussing on contemporary issues appertaining to the Muslim world. He was very current, regularly listening to BBC Arabic Service news at 5am; and he would also listen to News at Ten bulletin, over GRTS, before going to bed on a daily basis.
He was also instrumental in setting up the Supreme Islamic Council where he served as one of its supremoes. His tenure there was remarkably successful. He was a unifying force and a skilful diplomat who engaged, productively, politicians and senior government officials on one hand and followers of the traditional dara or majlis institutions on the other. It was during his tenure at the helm of SIC that the latter was allocated government land at its current location on MDI Road in Kaninfing.
He tackled and silenced his critics, who accused him of meddling in politics, with diplomacy and pragmatism. But would not hesitate to speak up and tell the truth to the power when the situation demanded it, as he had demonstrated during the last political
impasse when he was reported to have stated, publicly, that ex-president Jammeh had no mandate to stay on and must hand over to the President elect. Throughout his long and accomplished public life, he never stood on a political platform nor was he a member of any political party which was indicative of his political neutrality. It is thus no surprising that his passing on generated condolences from all the major political parties in the Country.
He had many friends, some of whom spoke well of him during the memorial service the day after he died. His friends came from all walks of life, including all tribes of the Gambia. At home, he was always jovially pleasant. In a private conversation, the most senior of his three wives, was quoted as saying he was a gentleman, a loving and caring husband and father who treated all his wives equally and fairly. At dinner time, he would openly share food with his many grandchildren while at the same time making sure that everyone had enough to eat.
Alh Banding Drammeh was a giant Islamic scholar. He answered to the inevitable call of Allah, peacefully, at home, on Thursday 2nd July and was laid to rest on the same day. He was a visionary educator, a moderate scholar and propagator who has left unrivalled and indelible mark on the education sector as well as Islamic propagation in the Gambia. He is survived by 3 wives, several children and grandchildren.
AK Ceesay, is Barrister-at-law, working for National Agency for Legal Aid, and a former student of Alh. Banding Drammeh. Edited and contributed to by Sheikh Basidia Drammeh and Dr Alh Manta Drammeh.