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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Berkeley Rice’s Enter Gambia – A review and commentary

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Part 1 – Witness to a country’s birth

In Enter Gambia – The Birth of An Improbable Nation, a book published in 1967, Berkeley Rice, a white American writer offers his first hand experience of a year in the life of The Gambia at the dawn of its political independence from British colonialism.  The book is insightful in many respects. It is at once educative, factual, embarrassing, credible, authoritative, damning, myth shattering, and side-splittingly humorous (at times mockingly so.) The book is also atypical for a Western writer in that it lacks much of the usual defensiveness about western complicity for how things came to be the way they are in our part of the world. And unlike the usual Western generalisations and insulting insinuations about our lack of a history or story pre-Western contact, Rice at least endeavored to state – however short, part of our history in The Way Things Were – one of the longest chapters in his 389 page book. (Much of the chapter is devoted to the history of how sundry European nations tried to con or scheme each other out of the territory that is now The Gambia.) Throughout the book, he butchered many names of people and places, and his grasp of native Gambian historical facts is clearly shaky, but overall, these do not detract from an otherwise insightful eyewitness, and factual (even if pun-filled) narrative.

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This is a book that every Gambian, or anyone else interested in the country’s contemporary socio-political evolution should read. Some race-sensitive types might find some parts of the book racial if not outright racist, and therefore offensive. I have to say, it didn’t bother me. From what I can discern, the man is simply an excellent reporter, with a gift that we Gambians generally lack – an eye for detail. He went to The Gambia, travelled the entire length and breadth of the country, spoke to everybody necessary to speak to – native, or foreign, and reported exactly what he saw, or what he was told, or what he found in his research to support the book. In short, he did what so many native Gambian historians, commentators, or researchers fail to do: tell a simple story about how things actually were at the beginning of modern Gambia! For that reason, I find Berkeley Rice a god-sent.

As I’ve alluded to, in some ways Enter Gambia… is an indictment of native Gambian historians and political commentators. That, because much of what we often hear and read about early Gambian political history seem to be at best, incomplete half-truths. Some clearly are “my-father-said” or “my-grandpa-said” conjecture that have absolutely nothing to do with reality in those crucial nation-formative years. In reading Enter Gambia…, it becomes pretty obvious that many of the most common stories we hear about early Gambian politics and politicians are in fact what some want us to remember or believe happened, as oppose to what actually happened or how things actually were. Most of our native political stories often lack context, and in some cases basic commonsense logic. It’s apparent to me now that native Gambian political stories are to a large extent dependent on the integrity of the storyteller, and therein lay the problem. You see, if truth be told, integrity –as is conventionally known, is a trait that has been in severe short supply among Gambian people for some time now. The longevity in power of the semi-literate madman named Yahya Jammeh, whose determination to rip our country apart at the seams to satisfy his twisted quest for absolute primitive power and wealth accumulation, attest to the lack of a culture of integrity among Gambians. Watch how blood relatives, marital relatives, friends, and neighbours continue to betray each other in their selfish and myopic quest to “get their share” by subjecting themselves to the whims and caprices of a mad, ignorant tyrant, even though a fish can now predict with certainty how the paranoid ruler will use and eventually dump them. It’s endless roll-of-shame is a telltale sign of a country without a moral core.

Berkeley Rice, without setting out to, clearly expose the bias of most native Gambian storytellers of the history of the country’s struggle for political independence. One can’t resist a feeling of “my teacher lied to me” on reading some parts of his book. In the political histories we tell each other, very important aspects of the lives and character of most of the major players are totally ignored (as are crucial facts about the general environment,) while relatively insignificant aspects of others are sexed up apparently in the pursuit of some nefarious agenda. What’s hard about simply telling the story of what happened at a particular time, or place regarding men and or events – as a foreigner like Rice has done with ease?

Enter Gambia… is educative because the author provides the context – that like I’ve stated, is often lacking in Gambian political discourse. He also gives powerful and matter-of-fact character sketches of the major political players at the time. The personalities of the politicians that he had successfully unearthed, would under neutral conditions – in any normal country, be as vital barometers as any, of the various politicians’ suitability for, and electability to political office – instead of the “usual suspect” excuse we’re often boldly told is the bane of many (especially ethnic minority) politicians’ electoral prospects.

You see, in order to accurately assess any manager, or ruler, it is imperative that one has access to information regarding the resources that manager or ruler has to work with.  The size of a manager’s “asset portfolio,” be it material or human, invariably determines what the manager can accomplish –given such manager is a human being without the ability to flash some magic wand in the air to create things out of nothing. In this respect, unlike any Gambian writer that I have ever come across, Rice presents us with these vital facts throughout his book. Perhaps it was to buttress his own thinly disguised pessimism about The Gambia’s prospects for survival as a nation. Regardless of the motive, he describes the paltry resources our country had at the beginning of The Gambia journey. He lays bare the inventory that constituted the core wealth of not only the state of The Gambia, but also complimentary private economic structures at the onset of our stab at nationhood.

This is the first time I have ever come across any such data. And I find it invaluable because it highlights what the proponents of the new Gambia were up against. I now know that most of the yardsticks I had used in the past to evaluate the PPP government and President Jawara in particular were inappropriate, and thus my conclusions were unfair to the man, his party, and government. I was simply basing my evaluation and judgment on incomplete and faulty data! If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been among President Jawara’s most ardent supporters, and defenders.
Those curious about my volte-face considering my past critiques of the man and his government, will find out soon enough why I’m doing a mea culpa.

Though Rice shies away from stating plainly that he doesn’t think the country has a fighting chance at all, he quotes many – people and organisations, who did just that. But in spite of the professional in him, the general tone of his narrative leaves one in no doubt about what he really believes regarding The Gambia’s chance of surviving as a stand – alone geopolitical entity.

Here is an inventory of the major assets the Gambian State had as its arsenal at independence as reported by Rice (this include major private assets):

Total annual revenues of $6.5 million; two small groundnut oil mills (one is privately owned;) 95% of the country’s total export was groundnuts; six cabinet members (only one – a Michael Baldeh, had a college degree, the rest were high school graduates or drop-outs;) a two-man Foreign Ministry; a four man Foreign service; a 150 member Field Force; a dozen or so well-trained administrators (he cues us in on the fact that “well-trained” doesn’t mean they’re well educated – just that they’ve had years of experience working as understudies of British officials); a Parliament dominated by
barely literate and completely illiterate MPs (he mentions an MP who couldn’t pass the basic Civil Service admission test, yet defeated “a well qualified Bathurst accountant” in the 1963 elections;)  an abandoned poultry farm that was converted into a Teachers Training College at Yundum; one hotel –the 50 room Atlantic Hotel built in 1958 (a second one, Adonis Hotel was being rushed to completion on the eve of Independence;) an airstrip of an airport; one sea port that still needed much work; one bank; two restaurants; three high schools; one technical school; less than ten

primary schools countrywide; one bookstore; one fire engine; one hospital; one pharmacy; one dentist; one civil engineer; about twenty miles of tarred road outside Bathurst (many streets in Bathurst itself were unpaved – he shows a picture of an unpaved Perseverance Street;) one river boat – the Lady Wright (Rice calls it “an ancient creaking steamer”;) a radio station that could only broadcast to a limited part of the country for only three hours a day; a fleet of about twenty taxi cabs in the entire urban areas (all of which the government rented for the duration of the independence festivities to ferry its august guests;) and three mini buses (newly acquired by the government on the eve of independence.) No town or city hall anywhere, no sporting facilities, no parliament building, no real roads beyond Brikama (Berkeley notes that the entire north bank road is shut off during the rainy season.) Really not much else. And a population of 320,000 people!

The quoted data are spread over several chapters, but Rice begins rattling out the unflattering stats from his introduction to the book (Introduction XIV.) He supplies more data beginning with the first page of his beginning chapter – Bathurst. Though in pun, as is characteristic of his style in the entire book, he warns his Western readers not to rely on his stats because they are “approximations gathered under conditions that would drive any reputable statistician insane”.  But from some old hands that I’ve checked with, the data is in fact a pretty accurate reflection of Gambian reality at independence.

But surely, the new country must have had a “lot of help” from outside friends? It did. Here is the sum total of what was donated as Rice reported:

The British led with “more than $3 million in annual aid,” paid half the US$140,000 cost of the independence festivities, gave the PM a motor launch costing $224,000, a new chair for the Speaker of the House, and “some furniture for the cabinet room.”

The US gave US$100,000 worth of machines –a heavy duty hauling crane for the port, a heavy tractor for land clearing,
and twelve rice-hulling machines.

West Germany “announced that it planned to give” an executive river craft and six scholarships to German universities.
Israel offered 25 scholarships.
India gave Mrs Jawara a shawl and a handbag.
Pakistan gave a silver salver.
Australia gave an oil painting and a desk set.
Canada gave two projectors and film.
France gave a Sevres vase
Nigeria gave US$28,000 for development projects.
Ghana gave a carved mahogany box.
Kenya gave a silver tray.
Zambia gave a lamp stand.
Senegal gave five tons of assorted raw fish, by simply dumping them on the Bathurst Wharf causing much consternation. That, because most people noted that “the fish were probably caught in Gambian waters.”

Private businesses were not to be outdone.

The Bank of West Africa gave US$14,000.
Elder Dempster Shipping Lines gave US$14,000.
United Africa Company gave US$28,000.
CFAO gave US$6,160 to the Agric Department.
Four French companies collectively gave the RVH a sterilisation unit.
Shyben Madi Ltd gave the PM a Chrysler Imperial convertible, and some expensive dinnerware.
BP gave a compressor for the technical school.
Shell Oil gave Gambia High School a set of reference books.
Mobil Oil gave 20 wall thermometers and 600 ballpoint pens.

This was what the new nation was welcome with! (Enter Gambia, 52-53.)

It was particularly due to the paucity of human (forget material,) resources that he had at his disposal, and what he was
able to do with them at that point, that prompted a British colonial official to tell Rice of Prime Minister DK Jawara: “Considering what the PM had to choose from, the old boy’s done bloody well.” (Gambianization, 161.)

However, due to that lack of native Gambian human resources, the PM in his wisdom, chose to retain the services of about “forty to fifty” British colonial officials even though – Rice notes, he was under considerable pressure from rabid Gambian nationalists to “Gambianise” the civil service when anyone with a modicum of commonsense could see that there wasn’t the requisite native talent available. The PM’s stance on this issue among many others apparently won him many non-Gambian admirers. Because Berkeley Rice, and indeed the British colonial officials’ assessment of PM Jawara (which I’ll deal with in subsequent pieces,) is not only positive, it’s sometimes astoundingly effusive!

Anyhow, the following important posts were still in British hands at independence: Permanent Secretary to the cabinet
and to the Prime Minister (same man), Chief Justice, Attorney General, Registrar General, Senior Magistrate, Director
of Cooperatives, Commissioner of Income Tax, Director of Marine, Commissioner of Police, Provincial District Commissioners, Provincial Development Officers, Senior Engineer at the Department of Public Works, and the Principals and half the staffs of Yundum Teachers College and Gambia High School. An Indian expat took over PM Jawara’s old Chief Veterinary officer job. (Gambianization, 165.)

Saul Saidykhan

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