By Baba G. Jallow
Dear Mother Gambia,
May peace be upon you and your people and may you always be known as the smiling coast of West Africa. Even in times of hardship such as these corona days, may your smile dazzle the world and may your heart and the hearts of your people be soft on truth and justice and be hard on injustice and untruths. And may you and your people be always inclined towards kindness and mutual goodwill. And may you have ears to listen to my concerns Mother Gambia, the concerns of which I have undertaken to write this series of letters to you.
And may you know, Mother Gambia, that these concerns are many and complex. And they have been with us for so long that they now seem natural. But they are not natural. And they are not normal. And it is the normalization of these abnormal concerns in our society that inspires me, your son, to pick up the pen and write to you. So that we can chat, Mother Gambia. So that we can have a conversation on why these concerns exist, why they persist, and how best to address them. This conversation is urgent because all of these concerns are causing anything from embarrassment, discomfort, and often untold pain and suffering to your dear people Mother Gambia, your dear children who have no one else to look up to but you.
You must forgive me, Mother Gambia. We all know that things are not easy in this our small part of the world, not necessarily because we are fated to live uneasy lives, but because we have not done those things that will enable us to live easy lives, or at least that will help us relieve some of that pain and discomfort your people experience day in and day out, month in, month out, year in, year out as a result of difficult situations that in my humble opinion, you can easily resolve if only you put your mind to it. For these are difficult situations that you do not lack the resources to address Mother Gambia. And they are situations that degrade your beauty and the humanity of your people, your children.
For some time I did not know where to start, Mother Gambia. I did not know which concern to address with you first. This is because everywhere I look, there are concerns, all of them troubling, all of them inimical to your health and the health of your children, and all of them deserving of urgent and immediate attention from you. And then I had occasion to visit the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital and had occasion to visit the X-Ray Unit where the subject of this first letter to you presented itself in a finality that defied argument.
Let me tell you how it all happened. When I arrived at the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital Mother Gambia, the first thing I felt was the unbridled and unnecessary hostility of a security guard at the main door. A tall and slim fellow, the guard wore a mask due to Corona virus and held a small bottle on one hand and a small device with which he checked visitors’ temperature on the other. He spoke to me in a voice that was perhaps not angry, but that was clearly hostile and determined to prove that right that moment, at the gate of that hospital, he was the boss and that he had the power to deny me entry if he so chose, because “that’s what memo said. Everyone who come to hospital must go to emergency first.” It seemed futile to argue that I had an appointment and that my case was not an emergency. And when he finally decided to let me go for my appointment with the good doctor, the hostile security guard checked my temperature for Covid-19 with his small machine and from the bottle he had in his hand, sprayed a loose stream of soap and water into my palms. I noticed that he did not check to see what my temperature reading was. So I just had to have the machine pointed at my forehead and soap water sprayed on my hands to prevent the spread of Covid-19. And then I was good to go.
The hostile guard at the gate was just the first strange encounter I had at the hospital that day, Mother Gambia. My second strange encounter was with the X-Ray Unit where I was sent by the doctor. The small building housing the unit looks more like an old dilapidated chapel from the 1960s than a space for performing x-rays in 2020. Just outside on either side of its door were too long wooden benches packed with patients, most of them women. I noticed that one of the waiting women was repeatedly crying “woi” and obviously suffering from great pain.
The inside of the building was small and poorly lit, and in one of the rooms to which I was shown after about half an hour’s wait sat what I was told is the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital’s only x-ray machine, a machine that, like the brick room housing it, looks like a relic from the colonial era. When I asked if there weren’t any other x-ray machines, someone said that machine was in fact Gambia’s only publicly-owned x-ray machine in the entire country! Its sight and the way it is operated gave me the shock of my life and said to me, you must write to your Mother Gambia about this x-ray machine, and tell her what you saw!