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Dabbali Gi by Baaba Sillah mu Sabel (Part 1)

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

Excerpt

Chapter 3 – Bakaw Depot

The Noor season has come upon us. It is the month of Digi. There is a stiff, cool harmattan wind blowing. The air is bereft of moisture, and the skins are dreary. Business is brisk for the vendors of flannels, blankets, incense and other fragrances. Shear butter and creams are allies in this war against that dryness and seasonal greys. Fashion and weather now dictate the dress and the ambience of the day. Tailors are in demand. In the early morning and evenings, old men are in their Jingang coats and woolly hats. Young girls are dressed in full-length, high-waisted, long-sleeved frilled frocks. Young boys and toddlers have their morning and evening slip-over wear tailored in flannel or thick cotton. From inside their suitcases, women retrieve rabal wrappers and shawls that reek of camphor! The entire garb is in aid of fending off night and morning chill. The nights are cool, breezy, dark and long, so children gather around the burning logs and glowing embers while the porridge is cooking in cast-iron cauldrons.

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After the rainy season, the last traces of the perennial vegetation around the clearing at the Depot’s fields are turfs of toasted, sharp, soli? grass, stunted baano and thorn bushes. Among the remnants of the scanty vegetation are ornamental plants and hardwood trees dotted around the area in an almost predictable order, casting shady coolness around the field. This is where conscripts sit during the sweltering afternoon heat, in between drills, schismatic acts and war games and talk about their lives, their loved ones, their homes, their animals and their farms. They ponder over the war and why they are going to it! Their versions are many, and options few.

At the Depot’s eastern edge, towards Bakaw Kungku, large tropical shrubs and trees, mangoes, black plums, oil and rhun palms thrive, forming a perimeter that skirts the multi-purpose track which is used for running, marching, football and rugby.  A distance away, on its western edge, across the dirt road and beyond the perimeter fence, it’s possible to catch glimpses of the shimmering great, big, blue Atlantic Ocean through the thickly wooded strip by the sea. In the midst of this thicket, standing at the edge of the steep and rugged cliffs is the massive, domineering baobab tree – the home of the goddess Ndebaan! Here the ancestors warn of her sanctity and of her being the safest bet for retribution – especially in times of war. She is the pantheon of divine legends.  She is a guardian goddess, a protector of the meek and humble, an incarnate deity to rescue thousands from the ravages of war.

The Yard is enclosed – defined by a high and secure chain-link fence, laced at the middle and the top with three rows of barbed wire, supported by pillars of angle iron, anchored to the ground by reinforced concrete. A well-manicured thorny bougainvillea hedge interspersed with sisal runs parallel with the fence as an additional thick, thorny, towering wall of foliage. Watch towers manned by alert, armed guards look out onto this enormous compound. The entrance of the yard has two sentry boxes, where an armed guard with a rifle sits, occupying each of these dark green hideouts. The guard is changed every eight hours with plush military pageantry of bugle blowing, marching and flag hoisting or lowering.

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This is the temporary home of the war-raised battalion of Kataminaland. The soldiers have been told that they will be visited by the Brigadier in charge of all the soldiers in West Africa before their departure to Burma. There is an atmosphere of nervous expectancy throughout the land. Wives, mothers, children and relatives are anxious and distressed by the fate of their young and able-bodied men in the prime of their youth. The sons of the soil are being sent to war in distant lands across the seas with a scanty – if not de facto – brief! Rumours are lush; the whole country is gripped by an ever-increasing number of rumours about the war and attendant upheaval. The oracles, the handmaidens of nature, sorcerers, leather scribes and even diviners are summoned to whisper incantations in order to invoke the stolid deities. Sacrifices are plentiful!  Tears and sorrow deluge the earth! Radio Kang Kang is in her element.

The big man will be here at the camp at 10 a.m. Lance Corporal Bajaan blasts the siren at 5 a.m. so that the conscripts can assume their general duties in addition to doing some extra cleaning in and around the complex in preparation for the big man’s visit. By 8 a.m, the camp is pristine. At precisely 10 a.m., the big man arrives in a jeep with the Battalion Commander and his second in command. The jeep is driven by an official from Government House.

Tang tankarang

Tang tang tangkarang!

The drums beat, the commands echo, the bugles blare and the troops march.

Dagaraka dagaraka dang

Dakaraka dagaraka dang.

Upon completion of their training, they will be shipped off to war to join the contingents from the other British territories in West Africa as part of the 6th West Africa Infantry Brigade under the command of Brigadier Hayes. All the possessions will bcontributeto the war effort. They have done so before in other foreign theatres of war. In the Ethiopian Campaign, they fought the Italians to restore Emperor Haile Selassie to power. They served with British forces in Palestine, Morocco and Sicily. Now they are to be drafted yet again, to join in the Arakan campaign in Burma. Troops from the East African Kings Rifles, Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda, will all converge in India for more training and refitting before their final deployment to the war zones.

It is three months since these particular troops commenced their training at the Bakaw Barracks during the month of Ndeiyi Koor. Hayes flew in from Nigeria on the regular, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) scheduled weekly flight in order to see for himself and assess first-hand the Kataminaland contingent’s combat readiness. Special arrangements had been laid out and Hayes is to take the salute at the parade and inspect the Guard of Honour. It’s a clear blue day. There, sunshine is dazzlingly sharp and a dusty haze floats in the air.

— Bulubaa maraaa! Bulubaa maraa! commands Bajaan.

— Buloolu finjang heiy heiy!

— Santo jubee heiy heiy!

— Bulubaa maraa! Bulubaa maraa!

— Buloolu finjang heiy heiy!

— Santo jubee heiy heiy!

– Buluabaa maraa! Bulubaa maraa!

— Left, right! Left, right!

— Sagarr bu xonxa sagarr bu weex!

— Dagaraka! Dagaraka dang!

— Witcha len loxo yi! Witcha len loxo yi!

— Tein len chi kow! Teinlen chi kow waaw waaw!

— De joor chamong! Ndeiy joor chamony!

— Waaw! waaw!

— Geneleen denayi! Geneleen denayi! 

— Bulubaa maraa! Buloolu finjang hey hey!

— Sisi bondi! sisi bondi!

— Dagaraka! Dagaraka dang!

— Troops – stand attention! orders Lance Corporal Bajaan. Kroop! 

— Troops – stand at ease! Commands Bajaan! 

Krapp! The troops click their boots in unison. This has already become a well-rehearsed foot drill.

Bajaan marches on to Brigadier Hayes to request him to inspect the Guard of Honour and Hayes accedes to his request. Hayes is a man of immense height and girth, a bespectacled man with a chubby face grooved with wrinkles, probably in his late forties. He has an impressive tan – and fine beading of sweat stands out on his brow. He scurries forward towards the troops, flanked on his right by Jaabelo Jaata, the interpreter, and by LC Bajaan. The band plays a slow march rhythm and Hayes proceeds to inspect his troops. To his left are the Commander of the Royal Artillery, Brigadier Hurst, and his 2 IC Lieutenant Colonel O. Hollywell.  With all the marching and troop inspection formalities smoothly completed, Hayes is now poised to deliver his address.

— You have all come a long way since being bare-footed! Now you are kitted out with boots, trousers, shirts and shorts in place of your khaki tunics and fez caps. You all look very smart in your uniforms, says Brigadier Hayes.

— I will now go through a couple of very important things that you need to hear before you leave. Unlike your peers in Nigeria, the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, you are a war-raised army. However, we expect the same standards of professionalism and dedication as we do with your counterparts in our other possessions. Your Non- Commissioned Officers and other senior officers in charge will have told you why we are going to war with the …

He pauses for a few seconds for interpretation – and to ascertain whether the troops before him have acquired the right attitude and whether appropriate, matching lingo have been instilled in them. As he pauses, a collective roar comes from the troops …

— … the enemy Sir! The enemy Sir! They shout with corporate alacrity.

— As you yourselves have just confirmed, we are going to war with a vicious enemy. In the next four weeks, your training will continue in physical fitness, that is to say – your daily two-mile run in the morning will be stepped up to four miles. You will be doing a two-mile run in addition in the evening and a lot of weight lifting and training. These exercises will come in handy at the war front, as you will later find out.

By now you realise that you are no longer civilians. You are soldiers and this is your new identity! This is why we will give you all the same treatment – whether you come from the Colony or the Protectorate, whether you come from Fulladu or from Tamanna, from Bournemouth or from the Highlands of Scotland. You are all members of the same family – the British family – and each one of you is his brother’s keeper. When we go to the war front, you will be fighting side by side with our other allies from the peace-loving nations of the world – to defend our democracy, freedom and civilisation. Consider yourselves privileged to be fighting for King and Country! After the war, you will all have better jobs, and you will be considerably better paid.

— Left, left, left, right, left, right!

— Troops-forward march! Commands Lance Corporal Baabu Bajaan, a tall, affable man from Jokaadu who exudes excellent leadership qualities and good humour. The soldiers of all ranks like him. For an African to rise to the rank of Lance Corporal, he has to be an able soldier. Bajaan is a typical mesomorph. He has strong, broad shoulders and a confident carriage. LC Bajaan speaks several African languages. His voice can move crowds to both tears and laughter. He is an easy-going man, an asset for both the NCOs and his Commanding Officer.

— You have all received the same supplies- uniforms, mess tins, cups, blankets, mosquito nets and an identification number. We have even given you the same low, round haircut! Your military numbers have also been issued to you. It is important that you remember this number at all times. When we get to the war front, it will become clearer why we insist upon your keeping your numbers!

Hayes pauses and then checks on whether the soldiers have any further grasp of the military discipline already drummed into them.

— You there, number 5 in the rear rank, step forward!

He points a swagger stick at Private Jaako and asks:

— What is your identification number?

Private Jaako scampers forward rather clumsily and uneasily. He stands to attention, his back erect, chest and buttocks jutting out in opposite directions, and stutters:

— 00122 Pt. Jaako Sir!

The Commanding Officer quickly looks Jaako up and down, from his head to his toes. Suddenly, an expression of astonishment contorts his face! He stares hard enough at Jaako to wilt a jacaranda tree, when he discovers that Jaako has his boots on the wrong feet.

— Is there anything the matter with your feet to make you wear your boots in this extraordinary manner? Hayes asks. His anger resounds in the crisp sharpness of his voice.

Since Jaako did not understand the officer’s message, he turns to the interpreter Jaabelo Jaata for help and says:

— Tell the officer that I polished the boots this morning, Sir.

Brigadier Hayes, looking flustered, breathes a sickened sigh and turns to Lance Corporal Bajaan.  Before Hayes utters a word, Bajaan intervenes in order to take some of the heat from Hayes’ wrath, barking:

— Yes Sir, Officer! I tell am every day but this an im Jikko, Sir. Him do this all the time!

By now everybody was shaking – trying to maintain an expression of composure.

— Jaabelo, I want you to tell him that part of his training includes the appropriate use of military outfits, including his boots!

Jaako had the look of a man who had been browbeaten, coupled with a tremendous sense of offended exasperation, the sweat pouring in cascades down his face.

Upon mentioning the word boots the second time, swagger stick pointing at Jaako’s oddity, a collective quiver of mirth runs along the front row of his parade and spreads to the back rows. The men keep their mouths shut tight against these convulsions, but the tighter their lips, the more the little gusts of humour escape through their noses. A burst of bird song comes through at this moment, like an enormous chorus of a Daira when the Imam reaches that point where the Prophet Mohammed sets off at the Ranyaan.

— I ko tell am Sir and I ko shave him head for indiscipline Sir! Reassures Bajaan.

— Could you dismiss them Bajaan – and send them over to the soldiers’ canteen immediately. The sun is getting rather hot and I need to get to the Officers’ Mess to quench my thirst, cool down and get some lunch and a little rest before leaving for Sierra Leone. I leave here at 5 p.m. for Freetown

— Yes, Sir. Consider it done! Bajaan says.

Hayes prattles on incessantly about the heat to the Battalion Commander and his 2 IC, warning that Burma is worse.

— The rainy season is unbearable, especially with humidity as high as 100 per cent.

The hot weather, coupled with fear of what is to come in Burma, seems to have infected him with what seemed to the others like dreadful skittishness.

— He does not in any way measure up to the popular estimation of what he is said to be! mutters Bajaan to Jaata.

The fast, jerkily moving file of bodies trembles with life as it hurries along the broad, neat gravel path to the canteen. It’s like an elongated dragon – the Ninkinanka’s body – whose seemingly intractable head is caught out by the break of dawn when she least expects it.

Just then, the sound of a huge explosion comes from the direction of the Depot’s strong room. Hayes leaps up, takes a few steps away towards the jeep and stops abruptly. Holleywell and Regimental Sergeant Major Sneddon rush towards the strong room while Brigadier Hurst tries to keep everyone calm.

— It is okay, Sir! It was only the gunpowder, shouted Sneddon.

Author

I am a Gambian, resident of Norway, educated in part in Britain in the fields of psychology, education and management. I have taught all my life, both in the Gambia and in Britain. In Norway, my teaching has taken the form of mentoring and support for individual students. Teaching is basically my life! 1 have worked as a consultant in different fields, especially in development work (training for development, performance development, organisational development, as well as rural and economic development). I have been a part of pioneering the alternative tourism movement in The Gambia.

Being a creature of several worlds gives me multiple perspectives of distance and local insight and knowledge. Not an accident in history, sometimes we have to move out to know ourselves, move out of Africa to know Africa and yet I bear with me the insight of the African and the pride in and respect for what we have been are and can be.

Writing has been an alternative expression for my need to communicate my ideas and to share them. I came to writing many years ago, first as a freelance essayist for magazines such as the West Africa weekly, then in the authorship of Supplementary Readers in Science for schools in The Gambia and thereafter as a commentator on topical issues in the press. —after losing my sight some years ago and thus some of my occupational mobility and flexibility, writing has been a way of doing my part as a citizen of the world.

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