By Lamin B Ceesay
Two decades and some years ago, I was born in Bundung, Serekunda. But I come from Barrow Kunda, a village in Jarra. My parents didn’t tell me I was a Mandinka. My childhood friends did. Alieu Banjul Cham, one of the first childhood friends I used to play with, knows a bit about this. He and the other boys nicknamed me “Boy”. This is where my nickname Boy came from. My middle name B signifies Boy as Lamin Boy Ceesay. I was only about 7 then. ‘Bakoteh Borehole’ was our playing ground. My childhood friends would single out my every action and throw a tag on me – sosseh du sosal kenn. Confused, I would go home to ask my mum about the actual meaning. She would say you are from the Mandinka tribe. I would be like, okay, so why do I get singled out among my friends that I am a Mandinka? My mother said to me it meant we care about no one but ourselves. I would later be shipped to my second hometown, Brikama… I got appreciated and loved in Brikama. It was in Brikama I was told the real meaning of sosseh du sosal kenn. It means we are selfish people. Is that not condescending enough towards a group of people? I was labeled tribalist before I even knew that I was a Mandinka. I was born a tribalist.
Growing up, I served in both the Children’s National Assembly and Youth Parliament, representing Serekunda. My long activism kicked off. I learned to ignore the tribalism tag because I convinced myself that it was coming from only few people. I lived my life having to ignore it and ignore it and ignore it… until this day.
Buffer Zone, Talinding, Summer of 2016. Former President Yahya Jammeh showed his true colour that we all know before… that he hated Mandinkas. He insulted my parents, their lineage and their identity up tofive generations and beyond. I thought of my parents and relayed Yahya Jammeh’s evil words to them. I was hurt. I was helpless. This was coming from a president of a country. I asked myself if I was doing enough to protect my parents from Yahya Jammeh’s insults. I was ready for anything. I bought my air ticket, flew to The Gambia to join the Youth Protest called by the former chairperson of NYC, Ibraheem Ceesay.
Bankie Grey-Johnson, Lamin K Saidy and myself, all came out to hit the streets. Our colleagues didn’t turn up, to our surprise. I spoke to Bankie that we have to plan for another day. I messaged Youth Parliament Speaker Samba on whatsapp Samba Bah used whatsapp for communication to avoid any wiretap) about this new date. Determined, I went all the way to Lawyer Darboe’s compound because that day, I was smelling blood or freedom, ready for either of them. I spoke to Lamin K Saidy that we had to go out and protest. We brought in banners and started writing protest slogans. As we were ready to go, some UDP elders stood at the gate and blocked us from going out. There was a heavy military checkpoint by Pipeline Mosque. They didn’t allow us to leave and equated our planned action to suicide. There was push and pull at the gate because I thought of the expectations of that day from the diaspora and the word chicken out is not in my vocabulary too. UDP executives, chaired by Deputy Leader Aji Yam Secka, convened an emergency meeting and summoned us in Darboe’s living room – Darboe was arrested few days ago and his whereabouts was not known then as conflicting reports came that he was detained at Mile 2, others said NIA… but we later found out he was detained at the PIU barracks.
Aji Yam and her executives pleaded for us to postpone the protest. Lamin K Saidy was present at this meeting too. We had a side discussion and decided to postpone the protest. Immediately after the meeting, a report came that there were some NIA agents about. I drove with Saidy to my house, changed our clothes and disappeared in our separate ways. I didn’t sleep that day in my house. The next day, one of Darboe’s family members rang me to take some medication to a certain detainee. This is partly because some NIA personnel owed a big chunk of my business and while I have not received a dime from them up to this day, I could ask a favour from them such as giving medications to detainees. This was granted but they told me Darboe and Co. were not under their custody but the PIU. I would later leave with Kumba Jaiteh – now a nominated MP – to PIU where Darboe and Co were detained to deliver these medications. I gave my car keys to Kumba to hold as I decided that I would enter it not known if I would come back or not. At the door, one officer held an AK47 at gunpoint, asking us why we went there. Kumba explained to one of the officers why we were there and one officer came from nowhere and took the medications from me. I still don’t know how this officer knew we were coming to PIU but it was well coordinated by someone in the UDP. Someone alerted this officer before we arrived and he was watching us from a distance. But that’s UDP for you; the party looks out for everyone carrying out their duties.
Thankfully, change came on Dec 1. We were liberated from the dictatorship. But while some of us are looking forward to develop and prepare our country’s future, I see my tribe being insulted and ridiculed again… this time, from the people I expected the least. I was in The Gambia a few days ago. I am usually in The Gambia every end of a month for business purposes. But this trip was my worst! I saw my former colleagues, classmates and friends – with confidence- labeling this government a Mandinka government with tribalist agenda. They see nothing good coming from this government, which I found unbelievable and shocking! On the streets of The Gambia, I heard people making bold claims…. saying Yahya Jammeh should be back because Barrow is a sleeping president; that they would rather have Yahya Jammeh than Barrow. I was like, what went wrong? You want an evil dictator who murdered and destroyed the lives of countless Gambians over someone who has not even issued a direct threat to you? I realised these people do not necessarily want Jammeh back. These people have problem with the current composition of power in The Gambia – that’s how far I can describe it because I do not want to say the obvious, out of respect for a Gambia that belongs to all.
Yahya Jammeh’s rhetoric at the Buffer Zone rally has emboldened some Gambians to feel that they are more entitled to The Gambia than others. Jammeh lied to you. Do not believe a word he said at that rally. Jammeh claimed that Mandinkas are foreigners from Mali. I am not from Mali. I cannot go to Mali and pinpoint a village where my ancestors come from. When I visit my friends in their homes, I will see a relative of theirs. They will introduce me to him or her. They will say, “Lamin, this is my aunty from Senegal”. Or, “This is my uncle from Guinea”. Or, “This is my cousin from Casamance”.
Come to think of it, I never had any visitor from Mali. I have no aunties, uncles or cousins from Mali. Unlike them, my aunties, uncles, are from Jarra or Brikama, all in The Gambia. But, here are people who think we are foreigners – what could possibly go wrong? The parents of my grandfathers – you can count them to many generations, are from Jarra Barrow Kunda. I can still show you the graveyard where my great grandfather Alhaji Kawsu Ceesay was buried in Barrow Kunda in Jarra. There is a big tree on the outskirts of Barrow Kunda, right hand side on the main highway to Pakaliba, and underneath it lies my great grandfather (RIP). If Pa Modou Jobe, who claims to come from the city (I don’t know whether to cry or laugh with that) shows me the graveyard of his great grandfather anywhere in Banjul or Serekunda, I will begin to engage and take him seriously. Other than that, he is just a bollixed dopey who do not know himself or history. I was born in Serekunda but when someone asks me where I come from, I always say Jarra Barrow Kunda. Pa Modou Jobe can be born in Serekunda, like most of us were, but where does he come from? Does Pa Modou knows what he just admitted to?
My great grand father, Alh Kawsu Ceesay, used to own a big farm in Barrow Kunda. He used to bring labourers from Senegal locally called “samala” or seasonal workers. They will usually come between June and July and leave around end of the year with good income. Most of you from the villages know who these “samalalu” are. My mum said when they were young, villagers used to call them “grandngno-lu”. This is because, at the farmyard, samalalu used to call each other grand grand, grand. Grand was everywhere, so the natives decided to call them ” grandngno-lu”. After a successful rainy season, most of these samalalu wouldl either return to Senegal or settle in other parts of The Gambia or go to the Kombos – Serekunda or Banjul. Today, the children of some – not all – of these samalalu, who settled in the Kombos, can insult Alhaji Kawsu Ceesay, his children, grandchildren and his whole lineage as village idiots. Today, some of these samalalu children, emboldened by Yaya Jammeh faux Talinding rally, can call us foreigners when in reality – oh well (I can’t say the obvious because unlike them, we have manners). Today, some of these samalalu children can call us and our parents as village idiots whose sisters give birth on donkey carts. You expect me to be cool with that? You expect me to be reasonable? There are “dankatolu” in every ethnicity, we saw them recently, oozing and acceding, even when the bar is so lowered.
I am not one, neither countless of UDP militants. We are not saying you can’t challenge or give your opinion about this government or UDP – that will be crazy of us. We are asking you to simply respect our parents at home, our ethnicity and our lineage. Is that enough to ask for? When Mai Fatty, Ousainou Darboe, Amadou Sanneh, unlike other ministers, came under constant attack for whatever reasons, you didn’t hear from us because we see them only as politicians even though some of the criticisms directed at them were unfair and disproportionate. We could defend them especially when one could read between lines that these three ministers were targeted because of their ethnicity. But maturity and strict adherence to political pluralism tells us to ignore it and we defend your rights to speaking your minds because that is the change we all fought for. But we can’t give a run-of-the mills when this paradigm has shifted from politicians to an entire ethnic group, including our parents at home. This is not 1965-94 era. Lessons were learnt. We survived a former president who promised a massacre. A former president who told our women to prepare for “furuya”. A former president who delivered on his promise to wipe out capable Mandinka servicemen from the national army. These were not empty threats; they were real!
About two weeks ago.
I rented a taxi to get some products for me from Amdalai. I would realised at every checkpoint, the taxi man will play one Jaliba Kuyateh song. As soon as we pass the checkpoint, he will change the song to another one different from Jaliba. He did these at three different checkpoints. I suspected he was doing it to get favors from traffic police officers as Jaliba will relate to the officer’s ethnicity thereby avoiding being subjected to the usual vigorous checks from officers. How he came to the conclusion that all traffic officers are Mandinkas, I don’t know but his driver’s licence was a Jaliba song. I asked him his reason and he said he is doing it for the officers. I got into my usual civic education mood and advised him that what he is doing is wrong. Tribalism is thrown into our faces as if it’s part of our lives.
Our feelings, emotions and anger – you will not understand these if you are not in our shoes. You cannot understand this extra vigilance and acuity emanating from this camp unless you come from a home like us who endured this tribalist tag since birth. These are real. They are facts. These are not jokes. But this is what justifies our acute and measured cognisant retort towards this whole issue. This is about our survival, respect and an end to humiliation and disdain that we have been facing for a long time. We want our support, political affiliations and social engagements not be misconstrued with the tribe we come from. We do not want to hear insults about nothing but because we are Mandinkas.
But there is a solution. We have to speak with one voice and take our parents and ethnicity out of politics. Majority of us can be cool, levelheaded and easy going, but we are not naive too. We know when and where a line must be drawn. We cannot see our honourable parents be insulted at home by our age mates just because of our ethnicity. Put yourselves in our shoes. It’s cruel. It’s evil. It’s uncouth. It is therefore a responsibility on every Gambian to always condemn and speak up against the likes of Pa Modou Jobe. The silent majority, when you get satisfaction from evil, you have a problem. It is a fact that when someone does evil and he gets condemned on any given attempt, he has no choice but to stop it. Your silence is feeding and emboldening these evil perpetrators. Resist the temptation to be satisfied with evil. Reject it. Let this end now! The Gambia can overcome this because The Gambia is better than this. To you the reader, it begins with you. While at it, be assured that we are all here to watch and guide this government. We will speak up against mismanagement, corruption or human rights abuses. But before some of these ugly malpractices show up, we can be supportive or perhaps encourage or simply pray for them… we can respect each other, develop this country together and listen to each other especially when we disagree. May God bless The Gambia and guide us through this difficult period in our history.
Lamin B Ceesay is an entrepreneur and writer based in Germany. He heads three companies, Smiling Coast TV, Smiling Coast Finance and Smiling Coast Airways.