Is there anything on earth as powerful as a word used right? I remember when I first fell in love with words. Well to be honest, I don’t but I thought starting my essay with a line so beautiful would serve a purpose. I fell in love with words decades ago when my parents would make me spell the difficult ones lest I use them without knowing their full meaning. Actually I imagine that was the purpose of their random, fun drills. It might have been a tool of torture that my young mind found a way to circumvent. So yesterday when young Jama Jack (once called The Gambia’s Eraser for reasons I would hate to point out) mentioned I had made a spelling mistake on my letter to the Vice Chancellor, I realised my obsession with them…words…for before she said it, I had detected the error and was actually too lazy to reprint tons of letters.
But yeah words. My mother would scream at me once when I had come down to Jollof for holidays in 2006 that it was time I became a man of my words. Her words struck deep. I felt a certain pain refuse to leave my throat even as I swallowed hard. A man is nothing more than his word…no? So I gave her a flat goodbye as I made my way to the airport that night. I remember it was pouring on the coastal highway as my friend Baba Drammeh drove me at record speed just so I could make the flight. Suffice to say, I made the flight that night. I certainly could not afford to refund the Office of The President for a ticket for South East Asia. I kept thinking of her words the entire 15 or so hours back to Taipei and the feeling in my throat kept getting stronger. I was angry!! I was angry at her for attacking my character. I mean, who did she think she was…well apart from being my mother.
But another friend of mine would say, “words are just words”. My friend unfortunately has little use for words hence his lack of creativity in sending across his message. I remember he would spend hours listening and seconds talking. We thought he had a dark spirit living within him. Whilst we cracked jokes and made passes at beautiful ladies, he would just break into a smile and carry on. It was later when I was told he had lost his mind in the “land of the free white men and women” that I remembered when he had lost his love for words. He was my friend. Truth is, I have never had a friend who loved silence more than he or she loved words. I think I bring out the talker in them. Someone once told me she was sure I spoke in my sleep…actually she said I argued in my sleep. But yeah…my friend in the USA lost his mind, I think to silence. He used to be like me when we were kids. Somewhere along the way I think we attacked his love for speech. It was true that his contributions were incoherent and “unpoetic” but we were just being boys when we did. Words are like bullets and they ripped through him enough to silence him eventually. We cut his tongue and laughed as we did it so he also lost his words. The man who cannot speak to people will surely speak to himself…or to the devil.
Of all the kings that have ruled lands with their insanity, none has attracted my curiosity as Mustafa I of Turkey. He also like my friend lost his mind to silence. The unlucky monarch was locked in solitary confinement for 10 years by his own brother. After the death of his brother, he was released to take over the leadership but was sent back in months later when his nephew decided he would make a better prisoner than a king. After another four years in confinement, he was released upon the assassination of his nephew and the crown was dropped on his confused head. I would be confused too. I believe his madness came more because they couldn’t make up their mind what they wanted to do with him than him being locked away. So Turkey had a mad king who would run around knocking on royal doors looking for his nephew and my essay has its comparative character.
So words are a painful gift to have and still a painful gift to not have. The other day, dropping of Blaque Magique letters at Gamcel building on Kairaba Avenue a little girl walked up to me making signs with her hands. When she started I was on the other side of a closed transparent door and I told her (with voice) to enter yet she stood there staring at me. I opened the door and that was when I noticed her uniform; she was a deaf mute (the political correctness of the terms used have me confused). My heart immediately sank! Soon enough there were a host of other kids like her joining in to get a cup of water from the office.
I remember years ago penning an RBN on the TDA security and their approach towards locals. I had gone through a bitter experience at the Senegambia checkpoint and was disrespected by a man in uniform with the words “wait until the white people have finished eating…” It wasn’t just the words he spoke but the way he spoke them. He said them with such comfort that it made my skin crawl. I felt sad for him. That he assumed I was beneath the tourist was not something I should have been angry about (even though I let loose when he did) but the right feeling should have been one of sadness. That centuries of slavery and western dominance have turned the black man into a racist prick against his own people is sad! But after my essay and the accompanying uproar from the media, it changed…until it changed again. So even with a poor tourist season and a time for our authorities to seriously reflect on the way forward for the industry words are being used to demean locals and to tell them they are beneath other races even in their own country.
“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”
― Jodi Picoult, Salem Falls
After the back and forth of Aling Domo, someone sent me a message on the need to restrain myself when angry. He couldn’t have been more right. What I pointed out to him however, was that Aling Domo was a restrained me. It was an overly edited essay which had a little bit of anger but a whole lot of sadness. I knew the power of words and preferred to soften mine. Words have done such harm to nations that they can never fully recover from. To a Sierra Leonean, these words, “long sleeve or short sleeve” mean more than a discussion in a tailoring shop. So words become flesh and live amongst us…or is that scripture?
The younger sister of a friend in a former life made her concerns felt the other day via inbox. Apparently she had wanted to comment on a post I had put up about this year’s Blaque Magique Gala Dinner but had decided against it and gone the more private route of inbox messaging. Her concern was my use of words at a previous Word of Mouth event I had hosted at the Djeliba Hotel about two years ago. She claimed I had used an offensive word in the presence of her much older guest. I did not apologise to her for my choice of words even though I understood her concern. Her concern, I feel is the normal Gambian concern. We live in a highly censored society. If you’re not censored by the politics, you’re censored by religion. If you escape religious censorship, you still have cultural barriers to deal with. Even if you conquer all three, you have the censorship of your own mind to deal with. So where she saw an issue with my use of words in “performance spoken word”, I saw an issue with our society in general. I saw that we can live in a society where obscenities are uttered like common lingo from the markets to the meeting halls but performances at a late night event have to be clean and diluted to suit cultural and religious norms. We live in a society where pornography has become an addiction for young people, grown men chase around little girls, grown women become sugar mummies, etc but a poet shouldn’t be generous in his art. I know art doesn’t have to be dirty to be beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be clean either.
Last week’s RBN was a walking on water for me. I cannot remember ever seeing the word sh*t so many times before in my life and it was a test of our restraint and our appreciation for truth. I know many people read through it laughing through every single line and then turned to someone and said “kii morm dafa yaradeku”. As long as you laughed through it, the purpose was served.
I believe our society has forced our artists, historians, commentators and writers into a box where their art is diminished and the self expression is diluted simply because everyone wants to please the preacher on the side. However, a preacher in the ghetto has to use words that the ghetto can identify with. There’s no point preaching in Queen’s English in Farro Kono (no offense to my Bakau people).
So words…words are powerful. We must use them sparingly but we must use them well.
“The words with which a child’s heart is poisoned, whether through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind