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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Berkeley Rice on Momodou Moussa N’jie (Excerpts from Enter Gambia, Birth of an Improbable Nation)

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Managers of the large trading firms speak with awe of their relations with him. “He started out as a clerk,” says one of them. “He’s never been to school, but he’s got what you might call a bent for making money. He signs his checks with a thumbprint and ‘M.M. N’jie’, but the signature is never the same. It’s the thumbprint that counts. Old Momodou’s very highly respected by the Bank of West Africa. He’s one of their best customers on the coast. Unlike the Lebanese and many of the Africans, he uses the bank. The rest of them stuff their money in mattresses or send it out of the country. He’ll come in to us about June, and buy a hundred tons of rice at up to ten pounds a bag. It’s none of our business what he does with it as long as he pays – and he always pays.”

One government official who has followed Mr N’jie’s career with interest over the years, says, “Momodou made piles on diamond smuggling from Sierra Leone, and money changing down the coast. Years ago, before any of the British territories were independent, there used to be absolutely free movement of currency between the four British West African colonies. CFA [French West African] francs used to be much cheaper in the Gold Coast than elsewhere. You could sail down to the Gold Coast on the Apapa with a suit case full of West African pound notes. You changed them there for a suitcase full of CFA francs, and then brought those illegally into one of the nearby French territories.”

Philip Bridges, the British Attorney General, has acquired grudging respect for Mr N’jie’s business acumen closer to home. “When I was Lands Officer,” says Bridges, “I went over near Crab Island one day and found an entire block of crinting huts thrown up on Crown land. I inquired whose they were, and was told they belong to Alhadji Momodou Moussa N’jie. I went down to his office and told him they’d have to come down. He suggested I think about it for a while, but I told him it was all settled – finished. He then claimed it was a charitable affair, built for all the Fulas and Serahulis from up-river who come down to Bathurst with nowhere to stay. He said their rents were only donations to the charity. I told him they would still have to come down. I went back to check up a week or so later and the huts were all gone -everything. Two weeks after that, I happened to be driving by and saw the whole development up again, with people settled in as if nothing had happened. I went down to see old Momodou and asked what the hell was going on. He said, ‘Oh sah! I be make mistake’.”

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I arranged to meet Mr N’jie one morning down at his Buckle street office in the Nigeria Airways Building. He came roaring up in a big 1962 Dodge sedan, with flashing chrome and jutting tail fins. He climbed out, wearing a chartreuse robe, white silk scarf, embroidered white Muslim cap and white plastic slippers. A tall, slender man with a relaxed manner and a charming smile, he greeted me warmly and let me into his outer office, where a dozen business “associates” sprawled in low chairs or reclined on straw floor mats, intently rubbing their teeth with chewing sticks. They all mustered the traditional Muslim greeting, “Salaam Aleikum” as we entered. We passed on to the inner office, partitioned off from the outer room by wood and glass panels. There were cans of paint in the corner, plumbing connections in a glass cabinet, two clocks on the wall and three on the desk. Dozens of fountain pens littered the desk, along with currency conversion booklets and a transistor radio. Behind the desk, piled one atop the other, were three ancient green safes.

N’jie told me he was born fifty-one years ago in Basse, where his father was a horse trader. He worked with his father for a few years, then entered the shop of a Lebanese trader there as a clerk. Later he worked at a Madi shop in Basse. “After 1940, I leave Madi. I go buy goods here, I buy ’em, sell ’em, buy more goods, buy ’em, sell ’em, buy cattle and sell ’em. I travelled all over-Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone. Now I no travel. I sit down here and buy property.”

The phone rang. He picked it up and carried on an energetic multilingual conversation with several people on the other end of the line. When he put the phone down, he apologised for the interruption and sent an assistant out for a bottle of tenants beer and a dirty glass, which he offered me. At 10:00 on a hot, sticky June morning in Bathurst, room temperature is warmer than I customarily like my beer, but since Mr N’jie was a strict Muslim, it was all mine. “Thank you very much,” I said. “For nothing,” said Momodou.

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I asked him why he no longer traded down the coast, and he replied, “I no travel now because I get plenty picken.” 

“How many do you have?”

“I think I get thirty-one… maybe thirty-two. I get four wives. I get one boy picken, he learning I think economics in England at Oxford school. I get three picken in Freetown at school, and one boy picken, he study in Amerique, in Philadelphia. He go learn for teaching. Amerique, dey give ‘im scholarship.”

“Is your next son at Oxford also on scholarship?”

“No, I send ‘im, but now dey government dey go help small.”

Throughout our chat, young boys invaded the office time to time, and I presumed they were his. When I asked, he said they were, and stopped the next one. “Dis be Brimah. Say hello dis Mastah Brimah.” When the boy had made his greeting and left, Mr N’jie said, “Dis boy, he be smart too much. Since he be born, he never get second. All time in school he get first.

How old is Brimah?”

“I don’ know-maybe ‘leven, twelve.”

When I asked if Mr N’jie had ever dealt in diamonds during his travels to Sierra Leone, he became excited. “No! No! I never do diamonds. Me never do it at all. Sometimes, maybe I bring kola nuts from Sierra Leone. I get some cattle too. I buy some and sell’em.”

“How many cattle do you have?”

“Maybe few hundred. You know, dey some dying, some living.”

“Do you deal in groundnuts also?”

“Not now. I want to buy groundnuts. All de Gambians want me to buy their nuts because all farmers my friend. Anything I want dey give me. But dey bank no let me buy groundnuts. First de bank say dey go let me have hundred thousand pounds [$280,000] to buy groundnuts, but de big firms no ‘gree. Dey tell bank no give me money for buy groundnuts. Dese firms can do anything. Bank he promise me money to buy groundnuts, but after two weeks of trade season, he say no. if I get money to buy groundnuts I must make big profit – hundred thousand pounds -because all farmers want me to buy. Now I maybe start small, small.”

Mr N’jie stopped to light up what looked like an incense taper stuck in a long black cigarette holder. He leaned back in his chair and drew contentedly on it. “Dis be ‘choorai Mecca’ [a cheroot stick]. My wife bring ‘im to me. I send five people dis year to Mecca-cost fifteen hundred pounds [US$4,200]. I send two wives, my daughter, daughter husband and daughter picken. I go Mecca 1951. Me build mosque on Picton Street. Fine, fine mosque – cost about four thousand pound [US$11,200]. I building also Mohammedan School.”

“What other property do you have in Bathurst?”

“Well, I get dis Nigeria Airways Building. I build ‘im for seventy thousand pound. He get ten shops and six flats. De Chellarams building, I buy ‘im for eighteen thousand. I get another building on Wellington Street, I buy ‘im for twenty thousand. I no get much money. Dey give me anything. Last year I build fine building near Crab Island School. He get plenty apartments. He called ‘London Corner.’”

During the morning, a steady stream of visitors entered the office – Fula cattlemen from up-river, Mauritanian cattlemen from Senegal, Hausa traders from Nigeria and Serahuli traders from down the coast. Mr N’jie dealt quickly with all of them, speaking fluently to each in his own language. I asked if perhaps I was taking up too much of his time, but he insisted that I stay.”No, no. you no go. Me no get worry.” Seeing that I was only halfway through the pint of tepid beer, he said, “Finish ‘im. Me no use ‘im. Me drink lemonade.”

As I rose to leave, later I asked if he agreed with the talk about town that he is the wealthiest man in The Gambia. “No! No!” he yelled, jumping to his feet. “I no believe. Plenty people dey hide de money. When I get small, I go build small. I still be small, small.”


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