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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Lady Fatou Sanyang-Singhateh, CRG, aka FantaBasse (1929-2023): First Gambian First Lady

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By Hassoum Ceesay, Historian

Lady Fanta Basse who died last week at the age of 94 was a woman of substance, who embodied tradition, modernity and philanthropy. She was the relict of Alhaji Sir Farimang Singhateh (1912-1977), Governor-General from 1966-1970.

Lady Fanta Singhateh was born on 13 July 1929 at Georgetown, got married in 1945, performed the hajj in 1964, and widowed in 1977. As the wife of Governor General Alhaji Sir Farimang Singhateh, Lady Fanta was the first Gambian First Lady. She is remembered for using her exalted position to help improve the lives of the poor, especially children and women.

As First Lady, she showed a keen interest in the welfare of the needy by engaging in philanthropic work throughout the country and supporting women acquire skills.

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In 1966, she took up the leadership of a charitable organisation, the Women’s Corona Society, that provided clothing and food to the poor, and paid the school fees of pupils from poor homes. She made regular tours of the provinces distributing gifts to the needy.

Through the Women’s Corona Society, Lady Fanta encouraged vegetable gardening and skills training for female school dropouts. In 1968, she opened a Sewing Centre at Sukuta for girls. She was an avid lover of children and, held regular garden parties for them at the Government House lawns, and brought up many children together with her own. In fact, so large was her retinue of adopted children and own sons and daughters, that while she lived at No 1 Marina, the place had the feel of a typical Gambian compound.

Widely travelled with her husband, she always portrayed the caring and sharing image of Gambian womanhood abroad. She was a worthy ambassador for Gambian values and culture, dressed in traditional attire even while being received by the Queen of England, who she had the honour to dine with in 1967 when her husband was being knighted, and other world leaders such as King Hassan of Morocco and President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal. Her frequent appearances in the provinces helped to disabuse the minds of women about their abilities and roles in society.

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Although she did not wield any political power, her steadfast support for her husband during the very early and critical period after independence should be counted among the efforts that gave the new state a sound start despite the widely held view of The Gambia as an “improbable nation”. She and her husband were however, pioneer supported of the PPP. Indeed, it was the People’s Progressive Society (PPS) that Sir Farimang created which morphed into the People’s Progressive Party in 1959. Lady Fanta was in fact an early PPP yaï compin, who helped to implant the party in Bathurst. The position of governor general and first lady meant she and her husband had to be seen to be above politics. Nonetheless, by adopting the children of PPP ministers like Sheriff Sisay (1934-1989), she kept a close tab on the PPP leadership.

The Gambia became a republic in 1970, and Lady Fanta and Sir Farimang left Government House to their villa in the new suburb of Pipeline. They maintained a strict silence on political matters such that even when Sheriff Dibba left the PPP in 1975 and formed his opposition NCP, the couple declined entreats to talk Dibba back into the PPP. They also declined to intervene during the five days impasse between Matarr Sarr and the Gambian State in 1973, which ended in bloodbath. In 2012, President Jammeh accorded her the Commander of the Republic of The Gambia (CRG) in recognition of her philanthropy.

I interviewed Lady Fanta several times at her home in 2004 for my book Gambian Women: An Introductory History (Fulladu Publishers, 2007), and found her to be of photographic memory and a meticulous keeper of the family heirloom such as the photo albums that show the First Couple at the height of their highly ceremonial powers. She told me of how quickly she learnt the tricks of the protocol and the finesse needed in meeting and dining with Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, which was required of her from 1966 to 1970.

She will be remembered as a role model for Gambian women and a supporter of the underprivileged in society. I convey my sincere condolences to her family and pray for her soul to rest in perfect peace.

(Lady Fanta Basse Singhateh, CRG, First Gambian First Lady, born 13 July 1926 Georgetown, died 11 May, 2023).

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