My dear Yama Ada, Best Beloved,
I leave these words imprinted in the sand now, in the hopes that they will get to you before they are washed away by the incoming tide…
First, let me tell you about my Gambia.
It can be a cruel place: on Kairaba Avenue – the business heart of the Greater Banjul Area, filled with towering multi-storey buildings and packed full to bursting with commerce from one end to the other – kids carry trays selling snacks, while others beg strangers for food and money. We still get daily blackouts, times when the heat hangs so heavy in the air it almost hums, and the humidity works its way deep into your skin, so that the irritation wells out of you… Yet you can’t even shower because the water is off too.
It can be a difficult place to spend a life, a place that makes you angry and frustrated to the point of swearing you’ll go into self-exile and never ever come back.
Yet it can be a kind place too, filled with beauty. There is nothing like walking through a Gambian evening, the Sun almost set and the weather just right, kids running around playing football, women selling “mboha” on small stoves by the side of the road, the final “aparanti” headed home in almost-empty vans, their cries for passengers now muted and languorous; the housewives sitting together in the compounds sharing gossip, the work of the day finished with; while, in the vous on every street corner, the boys do the same over attaya, calling out greetings and nicknames as you pass; the day done and everything settled, a deep contentment in the air, the Sun about to set the sky alight in colorful splendor, as it fades away and the timis comes in like a soft fog over the land…
This is the Gambia I want you to know about when you are grown, The Gambia I live in now. But I dream of another Gambia for you, a better one.
A place where the State could no more seize your rights unjustly than you could walk into State House and imprison the President. Where you will be free to express yourself politically in whatever way you see fit, without risk to your life or liberty.
A place where rapists don’t walk free, embraced and protected by our society. A place that completely rejects sexual harassment in all its forms. A place where you can go out at night with your friends and I won’t have to stay up worrying, because I know Gambia herself is looking out for you, and all her children: watchful, just, fair.
A place where the security services work hand in hand with communities to keep Gambia safe for everyone, and are not merely the violent instruments of whoever is in power.
A place that is kinder and gentler to her children, that you’ll be proud to call your home and return to always, no matter what far-flung parts of the world your life takes you.
They say you copy seven traits from your tormaa. I’m sure you’ll wonder why I gave you two.
I took Ada from Lady Ada Lovelace: she created one of the first computer programs ever made, long before there were computers as we know them now, for a machine called the Analytical Engine, an ancient ancestor of the device you will read this on.
She was a poet and a scientist, and the marriage of the two within her set her imagination alight, allowing her to be the first to see what the new machines would become, how each of them would be like a blank slate tuned to our desires, able to express anything we can encode and teach them how to express: music, moving pictures, mathematical equations, art, memories, social connections…
From her I wanted you to take boundless imagination and intellectual curiosity, to guide you all your life and give your life purpose and momentum.
I took Yama from your grandmother, my mother and the woman who gave me form, and then shaped me. I could fill reams writing about her many fine qualities: her instinctive kindness and consideration; her gentle nature; her infinite patience. Of all the people I know she’s the one I would be happiest for you to turn out like. You will know her, and grow up under her protection – and you will come to understand why.
You will read about the pandemic, you will wonder at all the numbers that died, and what it felt like to be alive now. I will tell you.
We are forbidden from gathering in numbers, or being out without masks. We are not allowed to shake hands, or hug. So there is a distance, an absence of physical touch that you never thought about before but that keens now, like a phantom limb.
But everyone is also hyper-real – you can feel them all around you, in their distant places, souls glowing in a fog, uncertain as to which one will be snuffed out next, who will be lost, left behind in these desolate years. We open our social media apps with trepidation: there is always an obituary now, in between the posts about politics and the latest hashtag challenge.
Death seems to have become emboldened, so that even people without the virus are dying in larger numbers than before. We lost your grandfather this year, my father, present at your ngayntay just the previous month.
You would have liked him – he was always good with grandchildren, and looked forward to meeting you. The grief of his passing is like a small stone lodged in the throat that refuses to be spit out, able to be ignored for longer and longer periods, but still irritating whenever you swallow something, making you remember, explore the wound afresh and marvel at its scar.
All the cliches and platitudes people repeat to you are true: it gets easier with time. You still have his memories, which you can cherish. Give out sarahh and pray for him – he is in better hands now, he is home. Yet none of them matter when grief strikes, when your mood darkens and your eyes grow moist as you once more come to a realization: you will never talk to this person in your Earthly life again.
He brought a Quran to your ngayntay, as his gift. I hope, whenever you come across one in your life, you pause for a moment to remember him, the man who made your father and so made you.
Everything is in flux, Yama, in these years of the pandemic. It is a point in our history when many things will be decided, about what kind of country we want to be, and where we want to head next with our national project. Our last President harnessed the country to his ego: he forced us all to speak only in praise of him, or be silent, to devastating effect.
Now he is gone and there is a roar of previously-suppressed conversation rushing in to fill the void. Ideas flow, thick and fast, some good, some terrible…
But we can none of us see what lies ahead. The future’s horizon dips, just below our field of vision. And you cannot report back to us either, where you sit in the future reading this – so all I can do is hope: that we got it right, that in the end we left you and your generation a Gambia better than the one we inherited…
I loved you, Ada, before you arrived, when you were only an indistinct pulse on an obgyn’s monitor; and I loved you even more once you did: your delicate, perfectly-formed hands and feet; the snore you got from your mother, your version like a tiny battery-powered engine; the way you sometimes flash a toothless smile at us, all gums, all cute.
And unlike anyone I’ve ever loved before you did something else: you deepened my other loves: of Gambia, of your mother and grandmother and all the other women who have supported my life. You made me see all of them as if with new eyes, deepened my appreciation of them and all that they’ve sacrificed so I could be me, now.
And now: you. As I write this I look over at you sleeping in your cot, a separate entity, of me and from me but your own self entirely, with your own developing moods and ways of experiencing the world. Your new life is so full of promise, your future not narrowing and closing up yet; it takes my breath away imagining what you will do with it, all the possibilities within you, just waiting for you to reach out and choose…
My most fervent wish is that, by the time you are old enough to read and understand this, you will also have accumulated a treasure of memories with me: your first love, your guide, your sword, and your shield. I will do my best – I do not know if it will be enough.
I pray it will be enough