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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Breaking the omerta: One woman’s recount of her MOJA activism (part 5)

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 The theme of my days and fashion was Black Consciousness. No make-up, no lipstick, no nail-polish. I report to work in high couture “afro” à la Angela Davies. My friend, Lauretta Sowe was not impressed. She was like, “Grow up! We have graduated from high school. You are now working as a professional. For Christ sake, get a grip on yourself and behave normal!” She was worried about the ridicule my dress code was creating among the company staff. Then one day Nana Grey-Johnson (one of The Gambia’s finest intellectuals) called me to his office. He was next to the managing director, Mr Dibba if I assume right. He too was not happy. Nana told me I have to change my ward-robe, especially my shoes. His exact words were: “Jainaba, you cannot report to work wearing beach-slippers. Look at the company you are working for, look at everybody, look at the ladies around here!” I told him: “I wear what I can afford” and promised to improve. Little of that happened.

I was assigned to the marine department. A guy by the name Kawsu was the head. His assistant, Mr Mballow was the easy-going type. Kawsu, I can recall was very competent and very hardworking. He was also very sociable. Never played boss and treated everyone under him as an equal. I was the only female and three of us worked at the marine department. We connected like family. Here I learnt about premiums, bills of laden, Lloyds, hull, tonners and chinamen, legal definitions of wreckage, FOB (free on board) , CIF, (cost, insurance and freight), barratry, affreightment, cesse, protection and indemnity insurance, warehouse-to-warehouse and a lot more on marine insurance.

A month later, the GNIC decided they were to introduce life insurance into the company. A Ghanaian, Mr, Ofori, was given the job. Ghana has already been light years ahead when it comes to the insurance business. I was to be among the first employees to learn life insurance at the GNIC. On a fateful Tuesday morning, I was attending classes at the deserted Gambia Commercial Bank Building when three men knocked at the classroom door. Our Ghanaian instructor was in the middle of explaining the meaning behind taking a life insurance. Mr Ofori answered their knock. He came back and told me that the gentlemen were looking for me. I went out and closed the door behind me. I have never before seen these men and I was wondering why would they be asking for me, all three. The men turned out to be Daba Marena, Abou Njie and Secka Bai of the then Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Before I could say hi, their spokesman, Daba Marena, told me I was under arrest and that I should follow them to the police station. I asked what for and he replied that he’d give me the details at the police station. I asked if they could show me their IDs and an arrest warrant or order. That did not please Daba Marena. Putting on a stern face he told me I would be able to see those at the police station. When I asked if I could go in and get my bag, books and files he refused at first but immediately changed his mind, ordering me to do that quick. I was standing with my back to the door of the classroom facing them. I turned around, got hold of the door knob and walked straight to my place, packed all my stuff, excused myself and walked back through the door closing it behind me. Daba Marena was in front followed by Abou Njie. I walked after the latter and Secka Bai came after me. We walked in single file. They had a Land Rover packed just at the entrance. Inside sat the driver, Sowe, whom I later learnt was living at Busumbala. He too was a stranger to me at the time. When we reached the car, Daba Marena sat in front with the driver. I was made to sit in the middle flanked by Abou Njie on my left and Secka Bai on my right. We left the Commercial Bank grounds on Leman Street opposite Deloitte & Touche Accountants office and headed towards Cameroon Street. We turned right and branched off on Hagan. I was thinking: isn’t the police station at Buckle Street and we should be turning left? But I was quiet. We drove through Independence Drive, passed Gambia High School and the car took off speed. We sped through Saaro, Denton Bridge, the two Jeshwangs, Churchill’s Town, Latrikunda Saabiji, Tabokoto and I thought they were taking me to the Yundum Police Station. We passed St Peter’s High School and I saw no slowing down of the vehicle, instead it raced full speed past the Yundum police barracks without the usual stop. Daba Marena just waved at the officer on duty.  No one has uttered a single word since we left my class. Then I thought ok, they are taking me to the Brikama Police Station.

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At Nyambai Forest, Abu Njie broke the silence. He said in Mandinka: “Jainaba, nlafitalé yeng samba aliyaa” (Jainaba, we want you to take us to your home). I was quiet. Then when we arrived at the Gambia College, he said, “Can you instruct him (pointing to Sowe) as to how to get to your compound”.  I asked Sowe if he is familiar with Brikama. He said he is. So I told him to drive towards the Salanding’to to. He did. The thought of what I have done that warrants four police officers to come pick me up needed less math. But how did they know I was working at the GNIC, how did they know I was attending classes, how did they know I lived in Brikama? Later, I understood it was their duty to know; that too by any means necessary. The questions were many rushing through my head. It was like I slipped through their hands at Dumo’s house, now is my time to face the music for whatever I was involved in. The day of reckoning is here!

We reached my grandma’s place but no one was home. My grandma has gone to the market. I was told to open the door, which I did as the key was placed on a palm rod under the verandah. We entered the house and they requested seeing my room. The house had three bedrooms with one very long living room. Each room has its own backyard with a bathroom separated by corrugated fencing. I showed them my bedroom which was in the middle. As I stood with my back resting on the wall, they started opening drawers, looking under the bed, taking out the bed sheets, turning the madras upside down. A suitcase with my clothes was flung on the floor and all the contents emptied. The whole room was made such a mess of. I was quiet but very upset. Truly, as Victor Serge posited in the opening lines of this article, the police must know everything. I mean how can supposedly trained professionals behave in such repressive and threatening manner? They did not care for my integrity nor did they show any sign of respect. All these law enforcement officers wanted was to come to my premises and display their real arrogant and repressive nature. I could see images of Dumo Sarho’s repeated arrests over the years unfolding right there in front of my eyes. He must have been subjected to the same humiliation, the same callousness, the same arrogance.

My room was clean and neatly in order. It was my refuge, my sanctuary. There was nothing more relaxing than coming home after working hours, eating a well-cooked lunch and lying down on my bed with a book in my hand to read eventually falling asleep; my evening siesta, as I had to rise very early in the mornings to make it to work on time. I kept looking on at the intruders and at one point became a detached spectator. They took a look at my collection of “Mills & Boons”, “James Hadley Chase”, Reader’s Digest booklets (stuff that was there serving more as decoration than a library) and a bundle of The Nation newspaper by Mr Dixon Colley, the dean of Gambian journalism at its finest!

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There was nothing of interest for them. I was confident this was going to lead no where. I was at ease. But then Daba Marena asked who lived in the bedroom to the left, I answered: “My grandmother”. Daba, walked past me and went to the bedroom, followed by Abu Njie, and on his heels Secka Ba. Sowe did not leave the car parked at the gate. Before I could bat an eye they were all over my grandma’s room, emptying everything that was in suitcases and boxes. Her bed was also turned upside down. This was entering the room of a person who was not present without any legal authority. There was no search warrant, no court order. Simply put, it was just crude violation. I started getting upset and could feel the anger rise. But I contained my fury. They continued their search and all of a sudden Daba Marena gave a shrill shout. I can still remember that shout. He had laid hands on a copy of the ORS (Organ of the Revolutionary Students). Inside were a couple of edited manuscripts with my handwritten commentary. Daba flashed the paper in front of my eyes and asked: “Whose copy is this?”To which I answered: “I have no idea!”

The Organ of the Revolutionary Students (ORS) had gone to print over a time by now and it was distributed in all the major secondary and high schools. Its impact was like a tsunami in the body polity of the Gambian educational system. Before, we used to have “Sunu Kibaaro” from Saint Augustine’s High School (SAHS) with the head boy Karamo Sonko as editor-in-chief and later Henry Paul Batchi Baldeh. This was a school bulletin that updates events in SAHS, sports events (the principal, Father Gough championed sports) and academic excellence. It had very good reportage and a simple layout. The language was exemplary as both Karamo and Batchi were distinction students and head boys.

But the ORS was a complete new journal. It was striving to be the mouthpiece of all Gambian students. Addressing pertinent questions as to wither our educational system? The rains had failed. Drought had become a normal phenomenon. The government had shifted priority to the tourism industry. We posed a question to the Gambian government and specifically the Ministry of Education as to how they could justify hotel rooms having two beds for a single tourist whereas parents had to buy tables and chairs for their children and carry the furniture to and from school Monday to Friday?

Can one person sleep on two beds at the same time? What were they thinking? Where was our development heading? Articles were coming from all over the country as to what conditions prevail in different schools. That info was compiled, edited and published, with a most fitting editorial for each publication.


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