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Book of the Week

Book of the Week

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The title of this book of literary criticism Saani Baat: Aspects of African Literature and Culture, comes from the Wolof saani baat, which literally means “to throw one’s voice” in a conversation. In this rich and path-breaking collection of literary essays and criticism, the noted Gambian writer, Tijan M Sallah, explores in provocative essays the theme of whether there is a Gambian national literature and how it differs from the literature of Senegal; explores the metaphysical systems and oratures of the Wolof and Jola peoples of Senegal and The Gambia; discusses the new Gambian poets and their poetry, and examines the writings and life of the late veteran Gambian writer, Lenrie Peters. In critically evaluating the metaphysical systems of the Wolof and the Jola, the book presents enormously rich, new information that has never been documented before and that had remained largely buried in oral traditions. The book also revisits and sheds new light on the diaspora movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and reclaims the poet-slave, Phillis Wheatley, the founding mother of African American literature, to her Senegambian origins. The book ends by looking at the poetry of Nigeria’s Tanure Ojaide, one of Africa’s preeminent poets, and also takes a look at the life of that veteran African novelist, Chinua Achebe, who has been described as the “founding father’ of the African novel. This book is an intriguingly rich collection of literary essays that is bound to provoke discussions among those interested in Senegambian, Nigerian and, for that matter, African literature.

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Tijan was born at Fana Street, Serekunda, on March 6, 1958. His father, of Halpulaar origin (Tukulor), was a fervent Muslim who inculcated the strict Pulaar upbringing in his children. Tijan attended Serekunda Primary School, then St Augustine’s High School before leaving for the United States. He attended Berea College, Kentucky where he bagged his BSc in Business Management and BA in Economics. Tijan proceeded to Virginia Polytechnic Institute where he obtained his MA in Economics and subsequently his PhD in Economics in 1987. After completing his PhD, he started his professional career as a lecturer at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. It was in 1989 that Tijan Sallah joined the World Bank where he worked as a senior manager until his retirement. He is an accomplished poet and writer and has published more than ten books of poetry, short stories and African culture.

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Chapter 1: Dreams Of Katchikali: The Challenge Of A Gambian National Literature

The question of a Gambian national literature, the search for a distinct narrative rooted in the sensibilities and rituals of a place, has been as illusive as the search for a Gambian national identity. What does it mean to be a Gambian; to be part of a population of about two million; to be dependent on a groundnuts or peanuts monocrop economy; to be geographically surrounded, except for the coastline, by Senegal; to be the confluence of some four major ethnic groups: Mandinka, Wolof/Serer, Fula/Tukolor, and Jola; to be defined spiritually by the predominant import of the religion of Islam mixed into a sumptuous syncretism with the folk beliefs of an atavistic past? What is it that ties this particular constellation of factors into some

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common identity? In a sense, the concept of The Gambia is purely a colonial construct; what distinguishes it from its neighbouring Senegal, is fundamentally the experience of having been under a different colonial dispensation; more specifically the experience of surviving British Indirect Rule as opposed to French Assimilation cultural policy as was in Senegal. So, if Gambians were today to cease speaking English or the Senegalese French and at the same time erase that anguished memory which is hidden in the manners, morals, and habits of thought and institutions so permeated by colonial inhibitions, then we would be speaking of a Senegambian culture. But this is an exercise in political fiction: the reality is that The Gambia is today an independent polity, has been evolving a distinct national culture. one so indelibly stamped with British superimposed sensibilities that to speak of Gambian culture involves speaking in the same universe as:

o          Cricket (British game similar to baseball);

o          Cable & Wireless (British-based telecommunications company)

o          The Beatles (a sixties British rock band);

o          The Twist (American-originated and British-popularized worldwide dance craze of the early sixties);

o          Monopoly or Ludo (two British-popularised board games);

o          Guinness (a British/Irish stout beer); Vermouth (a British fortified wine); Vimto (a purple fruity British soft drink);

o          Rothman King Size; Piccadilly; Benson & Hedges (all British brand cigarettes);

o          Custard (a British egg and cream mix sweet dessert);

o          Cow & Gate (a British brand dairy product);

o          Royal Victoria Hospital (British colonially built main hospital in The Gambia, named after Queen Victoria);

o          William Shakespeare (the British dramatist); Geoffrey Chaucer (the British medieval poet) and George Orwell British novelist and essayist);

o          Stamps and currency with the posters of King George and Queen Elizabeth;

o          Imperial nursery rhymes like “John Bull-e;”

o          Empire Day (a holiday that used to be observed annually in The Gambia on the school day preceding Queen Victoria’s birthday, May 24);

o          “Rule, Britannia,” (a British patriotic song);

o          And, of course, that jingoistic chant for imperial hegemony, “God Save the Queen.”

To speak, therefore, of a Gambian national literature, is to speak of that narrative which emerged with the colonial construction of a Gambian nation. It cannot be a literature narrowly confined within an ethnic text or context, though it could draw from that rich repository of folk repertoires; but it must intrinsically be a literature which, by virtue of the fact that English has become The Gambia’s national lingua franca, must of necessity also be written in English. When ethnic texts have not broken parochial boundaries to permeate the understanding of other ethnic groups in The Gambian nation, they cannot be called national literature. Even Arabic, which is transethnic in its appeal in The Gambia, because it has been strictly limited to a religious milieu, has not risen to the status of the language of a national literature because Gambians who are animists or Christians, do not subscribe to its use and are therefore excluded from its advantage. I know I have advanced a controversial thesis that the definition of a national literature is one that uses a national language; in this sense, ethnic texts could perhaps qualify if they get translated in the English lingua franca that all Gambians have the freedom and in some cases the opportunity to learn and to use.

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I have deliberately titled this essay, “Dreams of Katchikali: The Challenge of a Gambian National Literature,” to appeal to a shrine that is uniquely Gambian in character. Katchikali is a shrine in the Kombo Saint Mary’s Division (now Kanifing Municipal Council – my insertion) with a pack of sacred crocodiles and an attending priest; Gambian nationals flock to it for prayer or for cures of various physical and spiritual ailments. As far as I know, no equivalent of Katchikali exists in Senegal, except perhaps in Casamance where the Jola ethnic group maintain primordial African belief systems, unsullied by the encroachment of Islam or Christianity. Not surprising, therefore, that The Gambian writer Lenrie Peters, that paterfamilias of a national Gambian literature in English, would have his second book of poems called Katchikali (1971). Was he directly conscious of the fact that he was forging a national literature? Was he aware of the fact that so much depends on the founding father of a national literature? In Katchikali, Peters’s poem reads, “Can any good thing come/out of Gambia? /Wait./nay; go and see.” The lines suggest an intriguingly interrogatory self-doubt, but the answer, “go and see,” point to the fact that some good coming out of The Gambia may not only be in the realm of possibility, but also probability. I will twist the poem and ask, “Are Gambians capable of producing a national literature?” Well, let us see in the next section.

Lenrie Peters and the forging of national literature

I have argued in the Gambian Daily Observer of 1993, as follows:

“Our literature in English is still young. Lenrie Peters is the pioneer. His novel, The Second Round, and his books of poetry, Satellites and Katchikali, are well known, spanning themes of homecoming and the anxieties and frustrations of a “been-to” returning to an independent Africa. William Conton, a Gambian who has spent most of his life in Sierra Leone is sometimes identified with Gambian literature because of his novel, The African. /These literary pioneers, however, suffered one major syndrome: cultural marginality. By reason of upbringing, their interpretation of the Gambian universe is not significantly different from that of the African-American Alex Haley, author of Roots, or of the Afro-Caribbean Maryse Conde, author of Segu. The traditional sensibilities of the Senegalese Sembene Ousmane or the Nigerian Chinua Achebe eluded them.

To understand Peters’s writings, it is important to get a brief snapshot of his family background. Peters is quintessentially a Krio, which means that he is a descendant of liberated Africans. According to Akintola Wyse, the name Krio may have been derived from the Yoruba akiriyo, which means “those who go about from place to place after church.” Perhaps this is a reference to the fact that Christianity is at the core of the Krio identity, for Europeans often used the Krio as a “buffer class” in between them and “native” Africans and as conduits for the spread of Christian teachings and of Westernization in general. The experience of being a Krio suggests that Peters is an “uprooted” African. As such, he does not write out of any distinct African indigenous tradition. As Peters himself once put it at the Berlin Horizon Conference on World Cultures, “My family has been detribalized for nearly four generations. I am like Alex Haley. I am looking for my roots.” The special experience of being a Krio, I would argue, has weaned Peters away from tribal or nativistic allegiances and therefore made him into an avowed Pan-Africanist. We should note that the strongest advocates of Pan-Africanism have been not traditional or indigenous Africans, but Africans at the margin of African indigenous cultures; more specifically, the Afro-Caribbean, the African-American, and the Krio or liberated African. The names that come to mind are Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, WEB Du Bois, and Edward Wilmot Blyden. In short, Africa, as a totalising construct, is the comfortable niche foremost of Africans with a reconstructed identity.

To be more specific about Peters’s family background, he was born in Bathurst (now Banjul) on September 1, 1932, the son of Pa Lenrie Peters Sr, an accountant at the export-import company, S Madi Ltd, and Auntie Keziah Peters, who came from a privileged family which boasted, among his brothers, the Maxwells, the first African graduates of Oxford University. Both parents immigrated to The Gambia from Sierra Leone. His hardworking father studied Greek and Latin at Fourah Bay College, and his mother was raised in England as a young girl in a Victorian family. The couple were Anglicans, and they met in The Gambia where they married and became one of the most respected families in the country. Peters’s father also edited the private weekly newspaper, The Gambia Echo, while working as an accountant, and it may not be entirely wrong to assume that his mother, but especially his father, may have provided the environment and impetus for Peters’s love of literature and writing. Peters was a middle child, boasting two older sisters, Bijou (a nurse and journalist); Florence Mahoney (a distinguished historian), and two younger sisters, Ruby (now diseased – a retired UN administrator) and Alaba (now diseased, but a figure in film and big business). Peters’s early education was at St Mary’s Primary School and at the Methodist Boys’ High School in The Gambia. Because of the inadequacy of the science curriculum at the Methodist Boys’ High because of laboratory facilities and qualified teachers, Peters was sent for a two-year science study at Prince of Wales High School in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he received his Higher School Certificate and from where, upon his return to The Gambia, he left for Cambridge Technical College in England, where he studied Latin and physics. He proceeded, between 1953 and 1956, to study natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, becoming president of the African Students’ Union, after which he studied medicine at the University College Hospital, London. In Cambridge, he began writing poetry and plays, became a Pan-Africanist, and started The Second Round, which was first published in 1965, under the Heinemann African Writers Series. While pursuing his versatile interests– the scientist and the renaissance man– Peters pursued broadcasting with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Africa Service and later moved to the World Service. In 1969, Peters returned home and, in 1972, after two years of government service at Bansang Hospital, went into a private partnership with Dr Samuel J Palmer, starting the first private clinic in The Gambia, the Westfield Clinic, located in Kanifing.

In a sense Peters’s own peculiar personal biography informs his own writings. His novel, The Second Round, is in many ways autobiographical, depicting as its protagonist, a certain Dr. Kawa, who returns to Sierra Leone after studies in England, but finds himself alienated from life in Freetown because of the uneasy mixture of traditional African living and the demands and time consciousness of the modern world he left behind in England. To borrow a metaphor from the Nigerian poet Gabriel Okara, life in Freetown was, in short, filled with the existential tensions characteristic of listening to the “piano and the drum.” The return of the “been-to” is made all the more frustrating by societal expectations: Kawa’s mother is happy to see her son back and thanked the “English for giving her son knowledge and sophistication,” but “lamented their neglect of his stomach.” so, like all good African mothers, she made her prime business the task of feeding her prodigal son well, compensating retroactively for his years of food deprivation as a student in England. Kawa’s mother and friends expect him to get married, to settle down, and to acquire property, but Kawa’s reluctance and restlessness eventually lands him into a betrayed friendship with Laura and into the unhappy lives of Marshall and his wife Clara. Eventually, Kawa leaves Freetown to search for an illusory contentment in some lonely provincial hospital. This novel is essentially author life-reflexive; it very much mirrors aspects of Peters’s own life.

But autobiography worked into fiction does not necessarily make for bad literature. There are beautiful poetic lines in The Second Round and the book often echoes with moments of philosophizing about the condition of the black man. This often gives one the feeling of a writer who is overly self-conscious and who has a Pan-African cause, but it is a cause uninformed by a local traditional consciousness. In fact, the immediacy of the effects of the social realism is often filtered through the sieve of alienation, through the mental framework of an alienated African– or should I not say, of an alienated Gambian, a Gambian not alienated from the physical reality of The Gambia, but from its centuries-tested traditional psychology, from its intergenerationally transmitted oratures. Consider these lines from Kawa responding to his mother, using his English-trained wisdom:

‘But we mustn’t spend the next century moaning about what they have done and what they have not done for us. Perhaps it’s just as well they haven’t done too much. At least we shall have less to undo before we restart. We must get on with tackling with the vital problems of Africa without making martyrs of ourselves. It’s becoming a neurosis. I believe in Africa and I believe in the black man because he still has warmth left in him– the same warmth you and I borrow from the sun and transmit to the earth. He still has a smell so that when you go into his house you know a human being has been there. It is a kind of identity.’

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