By Jainaba Bah
This article is dedicated to Abdoulaye Wopa Krubally. Wopa, the abandoned one! May your soul rest in perfect peace! Amen!
“To speak of the struggle….simply does not work here.
Instead, we used a simple language….we had to avoid giving the peasants the impression that we were strangers who had come to teach them lessons.
We placed ourselves in the situation of someone who has come to learn and slowly the villagers discovered by themselves… that there is exploitation.”
Amilcar Cabral (Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War)
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 experience 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 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 through stronger men and women of muscles and weight to get 2kg 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 kung nyanbo dômo!” (translating as ‘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 taxpayers’ money into their own private enterprises, going full scale into the importation of building materials and other private businesses. It was the era when our Commercial Bank was emptied in broad daylight…think adu kalpé! The same happened with the GPMB and the Co-operative 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: RVH 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 for my Primary 6 CEE at Serekunda School, when Mrs Ndow was the headmistress. The Iron Lady of Learning, for whom “By Force Study, By Force Pass” was coined. My classmates were Mariam Hydara (Yama), Sukai Secka, Muhammed Faal, Isatou Ceesay (sister to Dr Ebrima Jogamai 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 piecemeal. 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 mum 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!
So coming from the country-side with Saiks and arriving in Banjul via Barra by ferry, I went straight to my friend Ndura Njie’s home at 11 Dobson Street: Family home to Mr ‘Fisco’ Conateh and Police Inspector Wally Njie. Wally is Ndura’s older brother and Ndura is like my elder sister. We were very close. She was married to Star Jallow (footballer) who was then in the US. Ndura’s place was always home. I took a quick bath, changed clothes and was ready to continue home to my Grandma in Brikama. As I started to distribute some of the groundnut gifts from the trip so walked in Musa Sey from Basse (RIP). ‘Father Mose’ as he was fondly known was teaching at Muslim High. There and then he told me there was a vacancy at the school as one of the teachers was going on maternity leave and I could apply to teach. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” But Musa Sey had confidence I could deliver. He gave me details as to where to send my application letter; in fact convinced me to write it right away and he would deliver it. I did. A week later I was in front of Muhammed Jah (Quantumnet) and his form three classmates as they raise their hands to ask questions or answer them.
They were calling me Miss Bah. That was my first salaried job. Thank You Father Mose! May Allah Subhanahu Wa ta’ala grant you Janaat-ul Firdaus! Amen!
I taught at Muslim at the same time as Alpha Robinson, but for a shorter period. As I mentioned earlier we were in our final year in high school when we were groomed to form the Organ of the Revolutionary Students (ORS); a paper that would be fighting for students’ rights. How we were to go about that became a major bone of contention. Was it going to be clandestine or overt? We finally moved the motion that due to fact of the low level of tolerance from the authorities we had no option but to go covert in addressing the issues at hand. Like teachers’ impregnating schoolgirls (Armitage High School was a classical example), abolition of corporal punishment, more GPTC bus services for students, affordable school fees, book bills for poor families, more study hours for students who need extra help to cover their syllabus, freedom of speech. We should be able to voice out our grievances without fear of being arrested…the list went on….
Alpha Robinson did not continue with the ORS, but he made history at Gambia High School (GHS). Alpha was the head boy. We are talking 1983 end of school year and the speech day is here. Alpha wrote his speech well prepared to stand on stage and address his public. When the Principal, Mr Jagne got wind of the contents he requested audience with his head boy. He put in red and omitted the “best” part of the well-written lines. I can still remember an agitated Alpha in front of the grounds of the National Library opposite Marina International School. We had an emergency meeting debating as whether to accept Jagne’s corrupted version or Alpha’s original.
You see the guest of honour was going to be His Excellency, the Vice President, Bakary Bunja Dabo. Jagne does not want to be embarrassed by one of his students. The reputation of the school was on the line. True to our sense of a higher call, we unanimously agreed that Alpha Robinson was going ahead and presenting the original masterpiece. And that was exactly what this fearless student activist did! The rest is history!
In 1999 when I met President Yahya Jammeh for the second time after he seized power, he reminded me exactly of this scene. The weird thing was I could not for the life of me remember Yahya Jammeh being a part of that discussion group. But he gave me a detailed description which only a person present could recall. For example, the route we took and ending up exactly at the beach in front of the State House. Yahya also took the occasion to ask me to ask Alpha Robinson to come back home and work with him. Alpha could easily have been appointed a minister or even the vice president.
He made the same appeal to me! Jammeh was like: “This is what we have been fighting for. Now that victory is here, why are you guys not coming home to take your responsibilities and play your quota?” I gave Yahya Jammeh a name and asked him to hire that person instead of me. It took him a couple of weeks and he appointed the guy as his Secretary of State for Communication, Information and Technology… When I extended Jammeh’s invitation to Alpha, he hit the roof. All he wanted was to go home right there and then, meet Jammeh face to face at the beach and kick the latter’s behind. He was so upset. This was before any student was murdered.
The ORS started going to print and its first publication/distribution was like a Tsunami! It shook the educational establishment to its core…
To be continued…