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Comments on ‘Kairaba’, the autobiography

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“Kairaba” starts with young Kairaba scurrying behind his father, Mawdo, to answer to the calls of the early morning prayer at the Mosque in Barajally. This can be the opening of any Gambian story – the setting and the voice becoming instantly plausible. 

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The narrated experiences in Half-Die are equally real, for some of us who are from that beach front; some of us grew up with the waifs, the urchins, and the bullies, and therefore immediately empathises with young Kairaba’s dilemma with his own name being the source of ridicule – a name which sounds good to the ear and means “peace”. Even though some of us lived in Half-Die a generation or so after Sir Dawda, the place still had a sinister culture, name calling being only one of its many mischiefs.  The place boasted of incivility; if people were not vilifying each other, they were fighting in the streets. Everybody had a nick name. But for young Kairaba, the taunting from “kairaba, kairabe…,” becomes a burden which he associates with his Protectorate background – but it did not matter where he could have come from. 

Sir Dawda’s story is in a setting of his own generation, and therefore it’s crucial to put its events in the context of the values, practices, and the challenges of those times. Even though under the persistent help of his benefactor, Pa Momar Jallow, a trader from Bathurst, Sir Dawda was a self-made man, surmounting the key challenges of his time, by graduating from University of Glasgow as a veterinary doctor at a time when this achievement was as rare as a midday star in the sky. He became a senior civil servant in the colonial administration; he married into one of the most prominent Creole families in Bathurst, to Augusta Mahoney, the daughter of Sir John Mahoney; he converted from the Muslim faith into the Christian faith, a practice not uncommon with the educated elite of his generation, but must have taken considerable courage, given his rural, Mandingo, and Muslim background.

Therefore, one of the key observations one can make, especially in the context of Sir Dawda’s political rise and protracted stay in power, is that he was already a successful man, well before he was approached to lead the Protectorate People’s Party. He was already part of the urban elite, well connected by marriage, and with no axe to grind with the colonial administration. He probably neither needed nor desired the aggravation of the politics of those times; it was the political vanguard of the PPP who needed him, and wooed him into politics, facts which cannot be overlooked in the overall play of his political life, as the first president of the country.

It is equally interesting to note that the first prominent local protest against the colonialists, as “Kairaba” reveals, grew out of discordance between top local civil servants and the colonial administration, which did not involve Sir Dawda, resulting into a slogan “we want bread and butter” and a march to the governor’s house, which brought an assault on the protesters by the local Field Force, the closest thing to an army at the time. Political personalities of this period were Rev JC Fye,  PS Njie, IM. Garba Jahumpa, and trade unionist Jallow Jallow, but if these politicians had any concern about change, it was more about “butter on bread” rather than about the conditions of their brethren in the Bathurst slums and in the protectorate, even though the latter would become the central issue, as the decolonization process unfolded, most probably starting with the creation of the Protectorate People’s Party (PPP) in 1959. 

The pre-existing political condition of the country prior to 1959 was the glaring dichotomy between colony and protectorate, maintained by colonialist policy of indirect rule, which translated into many forms of neglect of the protectorate. In the colony area, the Governor was assisted by an Executive Council: the governor, his immediate British and local assistants, and a Legislative Council: the governor, the representatives of the business community, and the local residents of Bathurst. This representation did not apply anywhere in the protectorate.

 Even though rudimentary, this scanty franchise was extended to the protectorate only in 1960, two years before the general election of 1962, when the PPP emerged victorious. The politicians of the time, on both sides of the divide, played on the internal schism, but the vanguard elements of the PPP had the upper hand,  by pointing to the deplorable state of the protectorate, marred by years of neglect by the colonial administration. They easily fanned the fire of the apparent inequality between the living conditions of a largely peasant population in the rural areas and those of their urban brethren in the slums of the colonial capital of Bathurst, languishing under an insular mentality, like the town they lived, as if they were any better-off in enjoying the colonial crumbs of modernization. An anti-people-of-Bathurst movement furtively became one of the drumbeats of politics in the Gambia, coming from a vanguard closely associated with the protectorate.  

Even if for reasons that may be self-serving, “Kairaba” is a laudable attempt by Sir Dawda, assisted by Gambian writers like Suwaebou Conateh and Nana Grey-Johnson, to highlight the important events in his life, events holding significant clues to the country’s political story, central to which , as noted above, was the social, economic, and political dichotomy of colony and the protectorate, a legacy of colonial rule, but which shaped the political trajectory of the country in the three decades of Sir Dawda’s presidency, undermining meaningful evolution of the country as one people, and which may be on-going up to the present day. 

Many say that Sir Dawda left behind no memorable speeches, that his presidency lacked any lustre, was ceremonial and peaceful, was passive and neo-colonialist, up to that last frivolous moment when he took the advices of his vice president, Saihou Sabally, and the American ambassador, Winter, to take refuge in an American war ship in the face of what started as a mutiny by a group of army officers. 

Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, aka Saihou Almami Jawara, aka David Kwesi Jawara, finally crowns the end of his public service to his country with an autobiography, completed in the peace and quite of his Caribbean-style villa on Atlantic Boulevard, while receiving from the government that ousted him a monthly pension in addition to state paid servants, driver, and security.

“Kairaba” is a Gambian story, concerning a particular generation, in a particular time of our country’s history. We (Gambians) are grateful that the ex-president decided to share his memoirs; we are also delighted that “Kairaba” was graciously launched by the ex-president during better times, after almost a decade in exile.


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