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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Bakary Sidibe: A repository of Gambia contemporary history

The inevitable transition to the next world of a widely quoted Gambian historian Bakary Sidibe has been received with nervousness and anguish. Sidibe was a go-to-guy for many journalists, researchers, and enthusiastic students who gravitate toward contemporary Gambian history. His Tallinding residence was supposed to be a family home but the historian in him, made the complex a nexus for reading, solitude and research. 

The author of the classic Gambian history text, Donald R. Wright, in his book entitled; The World and a very small place in Africa quoted a witty saying from Bakary Sidibe: ‘Don’t forget who taught us how to drive’ Sidibe was  responding to complaints about Gambian drivers, in September, 1974.

Bakary Sidibe was credited for setting up the Oral History Archives Department ( OHAD) upon his return from the School of Oriental & African studies, ( SOAS) University of London, in the 1980s. OHAD gradually became what is now the national council for arts and culture which accommodates the national records and archives units.

His legacy

Fred Small said the only measure of your worth and deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone. While Marcus Aurelius states that bear in mind that the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about. Bakary Sidibe was passionate about talking oral and written history; he was always available for Tv & newspaper interviews even as old age and memory groped him.

The story of how the famed Senegambian traditional musician, Lalo Kebba Drammeh stole the show during a memorable performance at SOAS in 1972 was thoroughly explained to us by Sidibe. During my initial attempt to talk history, the old man was not in the mood for an elaborate interview on Lalo Kebba,  he tried to shelve the interview; as persistent as I was, I was determined not to go home with empty hands. I asked one of his grandchildren on what to do in such frustrating moments; the young girl disclosed to me that he liked the soft drink, Malta, saying once he drank it, his mind will likely change. And that was it, I  quickly rushed to the shop at the corner of the street, and brought a cold bottle of Malta. He smiled, and then, we began the interview. His wife, Aja Binta Sidibe who was once director of Women’s Bureau,  jokingly told when she heard about the story that I played it smart with the old to get away with my interview.

The first international conference on Manding studies was held from June, 30th to July 3rd,brought together over two hundred participants  mainly from West Africa. Sidibe, who was a participant at the conference in which the lateSenegalese President, Lèopold Sèdar Senghor delivered the opening remarks. Senghor, had prevailed on Lalo Kebba to represent Senegal but Lalo, who was at the height of career, coupled with the fact that he was a sought-after musician, traversing within the greater Senegambia sub region, politely refused.

Sidibe intimated to us that Lalo Kebba overshadowed all the musicians who performed at the conference and emerged as the champion of the contest. The mainstream media in the UK pursued him with keen interest, his story,especially his Gambian origins was comprehensively chronicled. At the end of the conference, the Gambian delegation returned to Banjul swollen headed. His people in Kwinella put up a triumphant welcoming ceremony for their son, Lalo Kebba.

Another day; this time, it was Gambia @ 50, Sidibe summed some of the major challenges the Jawara government faced in the first decade after independence from Great Britain. The drought that rocked the country and rendered several farmers poor and vulnerable; the veteran archivist spoke with precision through the arc of history.

The takeaways & beyond

Writing on his Facebook page, Momodou Sabally reminisced his relatively short period at GRTS and how he set up what became  takeaways from the riveting interview on Lalo Kebba. What an awesome story that was virtually thrown in the dustbins of history; the younger generation of Gambians should be inspired by Lalo Kebba’s ingenuity and valor to say no, ‘I’m gunning for Gambia’ and not any other country. Not willing to dilute the Lalo Kebba new-found euphoria, Sabally summoned Jali Alhagy Mbye of blessed memory, Sarjo Barrow and others at GRTS radio to reenact the Lalo Kebba legacy sourcing the exercise from the bare bones of our libraries. After painstaking efforts from other sources such as the national museum and archives to situate the Kora maestro’s momentum, a GRTS crew met Kura Mbissane the widow of the late Lalo Kebba in Dakar. The symphony and perspective from Kura rekindle long time memories, while, the spirit of Lalo Kebba permeated the airwaves. If you were a stickum of GRTS radio and television programs, one would be tempted to imagine the unimaginable- Lalo’s back!

After hearing his departure, I dug into the online archives of cambridge.org/core, in my bid to understand the grand design of the Manding conference. In his notes Dr. David Dalby said the conference was part of a continuing program of education and research sponsored by SOAS, devoted to the study of the Manding civilization of West Africa.  He said SOAS was concerned with the role of Manding culture as a mediumpresenting an African civilization to a western audience, and with the preparation of teaching materials relating to the Manding and other African peoples. According to Dr. Dalby, the term Manding has been used to cover a number of West African peoples ( including the Mandinka/Maninka, Bambara, Dyula, Dyakhanka, Khassonkè, Kuranko, Kono, and Vai) who speak related forms of the same language and share similar cultures.

Dr. Dalby also noted the conference was designed to create a new interdisciplinary focus on this major African civilization, by providing an opportunity for a large number of African, European, and American scholars, involved in various aspects of Manding studies, to meet for the first time, and for the preparation and discussion of a large body of new academic material relating to this field.

It took almost four decades after the Manding conference for the national media to relive the story of the Lalo Kebba dazzling performance in London. While death has taken Bakary Sidibe from the scenes, our memories of him are not blurred. He’s literary with us; I can still visualize his guzzling the bottle of Malta, and telling all he knew about the oral history of Kaabu, the nyanchos, the ceddos and the founding of Fulladu.

On death, Kahlil Gibran in his short story entitled; The Prophet said if you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond.

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