By Kebba S. Juwara
I blame myself ferociously for having taken all this time before reading Baaba Sillah’s Trilogy: When the Monkey Talks, Dabbali Gi, and Dreams of the Islands. However, as the adage goes, “Better late than never.” I feel much fulfilled after reading these novels. Sillah presents a segmented yet continuing socio-political story that delves into the history of Kataminaland over a span of more than one hundred years. In his creative way, he refers to Gambia as Kataminaland, Banjul as Galoyaa, and Edward Francis Small as Edu Fara Mundaw.
The first book in the trilogy is When the Monkey Talks. This novel revolves around Samba, a young boy who grows into manhood during the peak of colonialism. Sillah skillfully presents a society that still holds onto many African cultural elements but is already on the brink of losing them. As a master storyteller, Baaba Sillah does not fail to depict the rich African culture, particularly the Senegambian culture, in this book. He fully depicts the social setting of how families live, how marriage proceedings are conducted from courtship to the ceremonies, and how funeral rites are performed in When the Monkey Talks.
When the Monkey Talks also vividly outlines the political struggles of the time. The colonial masters impose several unfair and inhumane obligations on the colonies. For instance, the people of Kataminaland are forced to abandon their rice farms and grow groundnuts instead. Although groundnuts are a high-value cash crop, its production does not benefit the locals. They are forced to grow groundnuts, and after harvesting, the colonial masters and their trade partners determine the price at which they will buy the groundnuts. This happens at a time when these poor farmers are plagued by hunger and debts. Since they are no longer growing rice, they are enticed into taking loans with heavy interest. Ultimately, the income from the sale of the groundnuts goes toward repaying the loans. Some are left with no choice but to take loans again in order to buy food.
In this same book, we witness the rise of Edu Fara Mundaw. He is the first among the locals to rise above the subdued nature of the colonized. He envisions self-governance and democracy. Mundaw begins his movements by creating trade unions and questioning the status quo. Although the colonial masters label him as a communist, Mundaw continues his revolutionary and nationalistic movements. He establishes the first newspaper called the Kataminaland Outlook. In its columns, he criticizes the colonial administration, exposes their flaws, and educates and informs the locals about global events.
It is in this newspaper that he disapproves of and condemns the involvement of local men who were enlisted in the British army to fight alongside the Allied Forces in the Second World War. To him, Africans had nothing to do with the war as it was a European problem. The many young Africans who lost their lives did so in vain. Moreover, those who made it home did not receive the promised rewards. The British once again demonstrated their dishonesty by not honoring their word.
Dabbali Gi, the sequel to When The Monkey Talks, is another groundbreaking, breathtaking, and worthwhile novel to read by Baaba Sillah. Sillah delivers an enchanting and emotionally gripping story while providing detailed imagery of the events. Dabbali Gi emphasizes the underlying socio-political and economic exploitation by the Europeans, particularly the British and the French. Sillah adequately addresses every theme, including World War I and II, the forced production of groundnuts by the colonizers, exorbitant taxation, displacement of the colonized, and mounting debts (Dabbali Gi) among others.
Sillah continues to narrate the movements of Edu Fara Mundaw. At the end of the novel, Mundaw writes a letter to Lamin Senghore (Leopold Sedar Senghore) of Senegal to express his successes and failures. He succeeded in exerting pressure on the colonial administration until his famous slogan, “No Taxation Without Proper Representation,” became a reality. The colonial administration yielded to the pressure and admitted two representatives from the locals. However, he laments the betrayals he experienced from his close allies, which prevented him from establishing a political party.
Dreams of the Islands is the last book in the trilogy. It revolves around the years leading up to independence. This novel focuses on two main areas: the political struggle and life in Armitage. Jegaan, a boy from Bathurst, enrolls in Armitage and makes several friends in Janjan Bure. While the majority of the novel depicts life in Armitage, Sillah maintains a strong grip on the political atmosphere, which is filled with anticipation of independence.
The Crown Colony, which was better positioned to lead to the much-needed independence, failed to form a unified party due to the gross marginalization of the protectorate people. As a result, the protectorate people founded their party, known as the Protectorate People’s Party, which later became the People’s Progressive Party. This shift occurred due to the repetition of the same mistake by the people of the Crown Colony. In other words, the PPP emerged as a response to the political differences, and its name clearly signaled a warning to the people of the Crown Colony. However, this party would eventually become the leading party in Kataminaland for the first thirty years after independence.
In conclusion, although the novels do not dwell extensively on the independence itself, but having given all the information gathered in the trilogy, one can conclude that Baaba Sillah has finally presented the literary piece that Gambia needs. Undoubtedly, he has RECLAIMED THE MANTLE.