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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Independence Day

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By Berkeley Rice

By five o’clock, Gambians began gathering at MacCarthy Square cricket grounds for the Independence Eve flag-raising ceremonies, high point of the week’s festivities.  Several thousands had come from up-river districts by truck, bus, taxi, boat and foot. By nine o’clock the square and surrounding streets were filled with crowds later estimated at 10,000 to 20,000. A Royal Marines drill team from the HMS Lion opened the evening’s programme with a display of precision marching. They were followed by more lively, if less precise, tribal dancing by Mandinkas, Wolofs, Yorubas, Fulas, Sereres, Jolas, Sussus, Bambaras, Sarahules, and Tukulors. The dancers performed such diversions as the kumpo, agoogoo, makalo, kankurang, bolor, piti, and the Bambara debool.

After the dancers came a gymnastics display by Bathurst schoolchildren. Then the Gambia Police Force and Field Force marched by the reviewing stand in slow and quick time, giving the Royal Salute. A detachment of Royal Marines took up a position across from the Field Force.

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At 11:57, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time in The Gambia, while the band played “God Save the Queen”. The crowd was silent. There were tears in the eyes of some British officials. At midnight, the new red, green and blue Gambian flag was unfurled atop the pole, lit by a single spotlight. It hung limp in the breezeless night. The crowd broke into a long cheer, church bells rang, and the band struck up the Gambian National Anthem. This time there were tears in Gambian eyes. The delegate from Mali turned to his neighbour and said, “Well, now the real problems begin”. The reporter from the New Gambia felt stirred to a more dramatic outburst:

This was the most sensational and pathetic moment in all the ceremonies, when we, at last, come to realise that the shackles were not only about the wrists, and ankles, but also round our necks, waist and everywhere, but have by God’s grace been broken and shattered, and we now are as God intended us to be in the continent in which He had placed us.

The evening ended with a fireworks display. This caused some concern among officials, since a few years ago a similar festive evening was spoiled when all the fireworks went up at once, burning a few attendants. This evening’s fireworks went off without any serious mishaps. A few misdirected roman candles headed for Government House, with no apparent ill effects, and one landed still sputtering next to the Captain of the Marine Guards from the Lion. He did not budge. The fireworks ended with a fixed display at the far end of the field. Its glowing sparklers portrayed the features of Prime Minister Jawara, complete with a cap and spectacles. As the sparklers fizzed out, the face slowly disintegrated.

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The next morning was February 18, Independence Day, and the crowds gathered again at MacCarthy Square. The Chief Justice swore in Sir John Paul as the first Governor-General of The Gambia. The Duke of Kent read a message from the Queen in which she looked back with pleasure to her visit to The Gambia in 1961, and then read a speech of his own. He said that this day “marks the culmination of the peaceful and ordered evolution of The Gambia to full nationhood, ending Britain’s colonial responsibilities in West Africa… The Gambia may not be large, but its people are renowned for their ability to live together, for their natural friendliness and dignity and for their inmate common sense and good humour. These are attributes which many large and more prosperous countries have good reason to envy.”

The Duke presented Prime Minister Jawara with something called the “Constitutional Instruments” formally marking The Gambia’s independence. In reply, the Prime Minister said that Gambians were honoured that Her Majesty the Queen had been graciously pleased to mark this great and historic occasion by appointing the Duke as Her representative.  Mr Jawara was also pleased to her that Her Majesty could look back with pleasure to her visit to The Gambia:

We are very conscious that the task which lies before us is formidable; and, this being so, we are the more determined to strive relentlessly to overcome the difficulties that make the task so considerable… We are a small nation, who like to think that the orderly nature of our people can contribute something to the peace and stability of this Continent… with the Gambia’s characteristics tolerance, understanding and friendliness, we intend to align ourselves on the side of the world’s peaceful forces.

“Thank heaven for that,” commented one foreign reporter. The P.M then addressed the crowd in both Mandinka and Wolof. Prayers were offered by the Imam of Bathurst, the General Superintendent of the Methodist Mission, the Vicar-General of the Anglican Mission, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Bathurst and the head of the Ahmaddiyaa Movement of Islam.

The schoolchildren sang traditional songs and everyone joined in on the Gambian National Anthem. The Duke and Duchess closed the ceremony with a drive around the field in an open Land Rover, leaving the car to walk among some of the children. That evening, a glittering State Ball took place on the grounds of Government House. The tennis court served as a dance floor, and music was supplied by the Royal Marine Band from the Lion and the Eagles Jazz Band from Bathurst. 

Friday morning there were some more speeches, as the Duke formally opened The Gambia’s first parliament. This is a complex traditional ceremony, the significance of which was lost on most of the audience and the press. The high point of the affair was the Duke’s reading of the “Speech from the Throne” similar to a state of the Union Message. Though read by the Duke, the speech was actually written by the Prime Minister and his advisers. The speech professed The Gambia’s intention to “maintain close links of friendship and good will” with England, the United Nations, Senegal and other African nations. While assuring the world that “The Gambia has quarrels with no one,” it mentioned a defence treaty with Senegal. It told of the government’s desire to improve the economy and the general efficiency of the country, and to mobilise and exploit all resources. The speech did not include any specific proposals designed to achieve these goals.

The Prime Minister thanked the Duke for reading the speech and promised that “the parliamentary democracy that has been bequeathed to us by our British friends shall be maintained by tolerance, goodwill, and the common goal of the common good.”

Speaker of the House A Sam Jack announced: “It is His Royal Highness’ pleasure to take his leave,” which ended The Gambia’s first independent parliament. Everyone then marched over to Clifton Road where the PM made a speech, cut a ribbon, unveiled a commemorative stone and renamed the street “Independence Drive”. This brought the week’s official celebrations to a close.

Culled from Enter Gambia: Birth of an improbable nation, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, in Boston, 1967.

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