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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Breaking the omerta: One woman’s recount of her MOJA activism (part 3)

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I have asked Koro to give me a personal account of exactly what expired in his life during those fateful days between July 30th and August 6th 1981. But he gently declined, giving security reasons. I sent him the notes written here: to confirm or reject. His comments read:

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Greetings,

 

I have seen the information and issues raised. Yes it is important that issues and events raised are discussed.  The nature of the crisis of Moja demands that a disciplined environment and condition is created before a responsible dialogue of our common past, possible present and future. My advice at this stage is to start with developing a code of conduct that will guide the internal and external dialogue.

The nature of the crisis at home, the increasing fragmentation of the political opposition at home, the Diaspora and the Gambian masses requires self critical analysis of the positive and negative experiences of our past and a way forward.

 

Best 

regards

 Koro

 

 

When I insisted that I want his okay before I could dispatch the article and he knew I really wanted to send away the piece he told me “it’s okay,” that he will take what ever price comes with that! I was laughing with him on the phone, but when we finished, I sat down and wept! The moment of truth is here….am I jeopardizing his life? Should duty to country be a higher call than staying faithful to our avowed bonding? Time will tell! He knows, (like any other MOJA-G militant or non-member mentioned here) he has the freedom to come out plain and set the record straight.

Koro Sallah gave his first born son the twin names of his fallen comrade and younger brother. I held the baby in my arms as the imam recited The Fatiha, whispered in his cute ears and later announced to the gathering the name of such a bundle of joy: Mustapha-Nyanga: after the late Mustapha Danso and the late Nyanga Sallah.

In the articles to follow I will give you a brief description of who Tijan Koro Sallah is. The man: I have had the fortune to live with him in a collective and seen him at very close quarters; a view that very few individuals have had access to.

Yes, after that fourth arrest, my trip with Dumo for a country tour is yet to take place, but I immediately hit the road with Comrade Saikou Samateh. We call him Saiks or Shakes for Shakespeare because he loves writing poetry;  poetry depicting struggle. Here is one of them with his courtesy:

 

Be Firm

Be firm

Brother be firm

Be firm sister

The hurricane is blowing, be firm

The wind is blowing, be firm brother

He who is firm shall never perish.

Be firm to your beliefs sister

Hold firm to your beliefs brother

She who is firm shall never perish.

Be firm

Sister be firm

Be firm brother

For he who is firm shall never perish.

 

Later we renamed Saiks ‘Comrade Ho’ after the Vietnamese hero and icon Ho Chi Minh. Reasons:Clandestine work, he is tall and very skinny, likes to smoke, works very hard, is dedicated and never complains. The trek with Saiks took us less than a week and we covered only a fraction of the original plan. We traveled from Barra to Berending, to Darsilami (North Bank), where we met Sister Fatou Banja. She was also a MOJA-G member working with the Community Development Programme. If I remember correctly, her project involved salt-making. She was very reserved and we used to visit her when she comes home in Dippakunda, west of Serekunda marketplace. From Darsilami we traveled to Kerewan, crossed the bridge and took another transport which dropped us on the highway. We started walking to Baddibu Mandori, where Saiks’s maternal grandmother hails from. We convened a meeting with the Mandori cell and then continued by foot to Baddibu Salikenni (home to both Saiks’s parents and the late Sheriff Mustapha Dibba). There too we had a meeting with the existing group. Our journey took us through many tiny hamlets and villages around that area. Meeting different cells of able-bodied young men with much hope: the hope for a better tomorrow; one that would transform their communities and improve their lives for the better. We addressed the need for their full participation in the work at hand. I remember being inspired by Cabral, his epic Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories, was resonating in my head all the time! And I delivered my lines to every cell gathering as if I was standing with Amilcar Cabral when he was addressing his comrades in arms in Baafata. Saiks being a “son of the place” made our work much easier than anticipated. He connected with everybody and the most remarkable observation I made on that trip was the mutual trust we shared with the people. That experience later made better sense to me when I got a book from Nana Grey Johnson: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

On our return leg we dropped off at Kuntaya. Had a meeting and continued to Sambakala on a van. From Sambakala it was by foot through Kerr Cherno (Sare Cherno Alhaji Baaba), Kerr Mam’Ma (Sare Mam’Ma) and to Sika. We spent a night in Sika where we had a meeting with the village cell members. But first we were treated to a sumptuous dinner. It was chicken “janing’dõ” and a very tasty one with bara maano (chicken stew with home-grown rice). As I sat eating with the women I could imagine Saiks taking epicurean pleasure in each spoonful. We’ve been eating raw groundnuts, corned beef and tapalapa most of the time. Throughout the journey, we were accommodated with a lot of hospitality at what our hosts could afford. When we ate a hot meal it was mostly futô/chéré/lachiri with salt and hot water or simple plain rice and some watery domoda. That was the best they could afford, the little they had, and they shared everything with us. That evening in Sika, after a long bath with Astral (my favourite soap of all times), it was like heaven putting my head on a pillow and closing my eyes on a bed.

The next morning we were on track again, by foot to Jufureh, Albreda and Sitanungku. My feet had blisters and the Bata sandals I was wearing had aged a century. Throughout the journey we were given lots of groundnuts as gifts. I remember telling Saiks I was going to either dump some on the way for passers-by, for hares, rabbits, monkeys and any other animal caring to nibble or just drop the whole lot in the next village. The weight was working my nerves. But delicious fantasy images of plasas, mbaxali gërrté with okra and or jaxatu and domoda flooding my mind, hunger gnawing at my intestines I endured, heavily suppressing the urge to plead with Saiks to carry me on his back. On the outskirts of Sitanungku when an old truck offered to take us all the way to Barra it was like living in a dream. We were exhausted, dehydrated and very dirty covered with red dust. As the driver slowed down, we mustered our last energies, scrambled and flung ourselves and our backpacks in the rear….

The countryside became an eye-opener for me. It was a face-to-face contact with crushing poverty in remote rural Gambia. Ordinary people were living as if in another planet: another space, another time. I was overwhelmed. That experienced to a great extent spurred my political convictions. The reality is etched in my memory and I live with it to this second. And one would ask why the struggle, why the sacrifice? What was there to struggle for, what was there worth sacrificing for? Legitimate questions! The countryside was the place where everything was related to the simple life of farming; a life dependent on natural phenomenon; the yearly rains for sustenance. A life that has stood still for centuries gone by and shattered hopes of any meaningful transformation. A sedentary life accentuated by toiling and sweating; one which you have to choose which of your children to send to school. A life of making crucial life impact decisions and priorities in the day to day survival of one’s household. The women and girls were in the rice fields with babies tied to their backs under the scorching sun. The men and boys in the groundnut fields breaking sweat as images of a successful trade season make dancing mirages in their minds’ eyes. It was the era when we had high maternal mortality rates (mothers dying during child-birth of one complication or the other, mostly due to the lack of a trained birth attendant), high infant mortality rates (babies dying at birth or never reaching the age of five) and the resulting low life expectancy. 

You see, life expectancy does not mean we do not have people reaching the ages of one hundred years or that most of us are to die by age 46. Life expectancy is very much defined by infant mortality. The higher the infant mortality rate, the lower our life expectancy and vice versa. It is of simple mathematical averages! This is the age when farmers took their produce to the Co-operatives Union and they were rewarded a fraction of the worth of their labour by cheating clerks and trading companies; the era of the very hungry seasons, of fuel shortages and rice shortages. A mother had her baby tied on her back as she fought her way though stronger men and women of muscles and weight to get 2 kilos of rice from the shopkeeper. When she finally got her rice and reached home, to her horror her baby had died on her back during the struggle. This scene has occurred not once, not twice. It was also the year when the president, DK Jawara told his audiences as he toured the country on his yearly ”meet the farmers” : “ maano daasaamo, maano kontong’o, maano simang’o…ali kuu nyanbo dômo”! (rice at breakfast, rice at lunch, rice at dinner…eat wild cassava (from the bush)!”. Jawara, who claims to be born in times of plenty, who was born in a relatively affluent family, who never went to bed hungry in his life, could not walk in the shoes of his people for a day! And this quote comes to mind:

“Those who live in a palace do not think about the same things, nor in the same way, as those who live in a hut.” Thomas Sankara, murdered former president of Burkina Faso, quoting Karl Marx in justification of his decision to live in a modest house.

It was the era when the National Trading Corporations (NTC) managers went fully corrupt, emptying state coffers. They siphoned tax payers’ money into their own private enterprises, going full scale into the importation of building materials and other private businesses. It was the era when Gambia Commercial & Development Bank was emptied in broad day light….Think adu kalpé!  The same happened with the GPMB and the Co-operatives Union going bankrupt. Parastatals like the Gambia National Insurance Company (GNIC) and the Gambia Ports Authority (GPA) were the major lifelines of the government. People will tell you Jawara was mindful of the human rights situation but he neglected the development aspect of the country. Only two hospitals existed: Royal Victoria Hospital and Bansang. One teachers training college at Yundum and six high schools. None built by the government of the day. Under Jawara’s rule the ministerial portfolios were stable. A person would head a department until it looked like his children would inherit the place.

It was also an era when scoring a high mark in your Common Entrance Examination (CEE) does not necessarily earn you a well-deserved government scholarship. I remember I sat to my Primary Six CEE at Serekunda School, when Mrs Ndow was the headmistress. The Iron Lady of Learning, who “By Force Study, By Force Pass” was coined for. My classmates were Mariam Hydara (Yama), Sukai Secka, Muhammed Faal, Isatou Ceesay and a boy called Abdoulie Ceesay among others. That year it was claimed Mrs Ndow’s Serekunda School excelled in securing first and second in The Gambia. Abdoulie Ceesay was first in Serekunda School and I came trailing after him at second place. He was 3 points ahead of me.

When the results were announced at assembly for the first time it was simply surrealistic for our small heads to absorb. We came in class and the euphoria for all those who’ve made the pass mark was max factor! Not until after school when going home and the crowd of students followed us cheering our names did our achievement start to sink in piece meal. I guess it was there and then when I decided the rest of my school career was going to be “By Force Study, By Force Pass!”, and I was not going to settle for second place. Yes, that was some achievement in those days. Yet when the scholarship was to be awarded, it became an area council push and pull. I was denied what I rightfully earned. Why? It ended with someone else who surely was not Jainaba Bah, second in The Gambia from Serekunda Primary School. My parents, especially my mom was very proud of me and decided they will happily foot the school bills. Fortunately, with much hard work at Saint Joseph’s High School, Sister Theresa, the principal called me into her office at the end of the school year in form one. As she handed me my exam report, she told me the school has decided to award me a scholarship from a Swedish couple. The bills during the rest of my years in high school were paid by the generosity and kindness of strangers from Sweden, in Swedish Kronor. Not in my wildest dreams did it occur to me then, I would be living the greater part of my adult life in Sweden and even attending Swedish university (free of charge) for my professional qualifications. ALLAHU, Tabaraka Wa’Tala!

But for me, that was a non-issue compared to what the country was going through in economic terms. Joining forces with others to bring some balance was to be the most rewarding of experiences!

 

Author: Jainaba Bah, Sweden

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