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City of Banjul
Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Letters to my daughters: I was here, I lived… I did…

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With Rohey Samba

When the former managing director of the Daily Observer, Mr Momodou Sabally, asked me to contribute to a literary column he created to showcase Gambian writers some few years ago, I accepted the request without a grain of hesitation. This was going to complement the work of erudite Gambian writer, Hassoum Ceesay, who had previously hosted the column. It was therefore an absolute honour for me. Hassoum Ceesay is a well-respected historian who has done a lot for writing in The Gambia.

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It has been a long hiatus since the late ’90s, early 2000s, when I wrote the column, Lullaby, for the Daily Observer while attending high school. That was a big achievement for me before I got my dream job at the Ports of course, when I completed school, and turned my back on writing. I became some sort of a celebrity among my peers at N’dow’s, where I was stopped often and asked about the continuation of a story I had written on the paper. The monetary benefits again, were not too bad for a teenager.

Sometimes I would overstep boundaries and touch on issues that were beyond my limits, especially on politics. Then I would get nudged some way, mostly by family, and told in no courteous terms to desist from writing about such and such issue. Naturally, the censorship was terrifying. Whenever I was told I had crossed certain boundaries, my natural impulse was to feel panic. In a Yahya Jammeh era of authoritarian rule, anything could happen to one or ones family, if you offended the powers that be. Often, advice ended with, “Haleh defaa em plasi haleh”. This was no doubt caution enough.

Under the mentorship and guidance of erudite Gambian writers such as Baba Galleh Jallow, Sheriff Bojang, the proprietor of The Standard newspaper and Pascal Eze I honed my writing skills and benefited from a lot of trainings on journalism and writing in general, especially from the defunct Independent newspaper…

I hail from a family of storytellers. My mother, my aunties and my maternal grandmother before her competed on who told the best original fables. Most were culled straight from the heart to espouse stories of humility and dignity, that I cannot relate with the same level of authenticity, even if I try my damnedest. My sisters also hold their own when it comes to writing and story telling.

I forced myself to read at a very early age. And to write at about the same age. And to draw… Everything art beckoned to me. To date, when I see a beautiful painting, I cry. The depiction sears through my emotions and taps at a well that is reached only through art. And I bow to its richness.

When I read a beautiful piece of writing, I do the same. My mother is an excellent calligrapher who writes beautifully. Before I knew how to hold a pencil right, I was already scribbling everywhere, trying to write just like her. Imagine my frustration when I could not write in a straight line on a blank sheet at age 5! I still believe my mother writes better than I do.

My first books were Ladybird books of mainly Peter and Jane stories. I scrambled to understand and repeat the magical words, ‘This is Peter.’ ‘This is Jane.’ ‘Here is Peter.’ ‘And here is Jane.’ I was fascinated by words. They came to life once they shot through my eyes. My greatest book of all time was Heidi. I first read the book at the age of 9 or 10 years old. I have read and reread the book many times over the years.

I have always wanted to be a writer. I have watched people fight, and have written about the altercation. I have seen people get married and have written about it. I have seen grief, joy and excitement and have written about it all. Moreso, I have gone to places of ill repute, immersed myself in the midst of the outcasts and written about them. All through these experiences I have come to learn that we cannot write what we do not know. It would be too mechanical. You have to know it, to narrate it well.

The first time I went out with my colleagueon night duties with the G/D Samo was to dredge the Banjul-Barra ferry crossing sometime back in 2002. Suddenly, I left everything and started searching furiously for a piece of paper to write. The darkness of the night had become one with the waves of the sea, and as the wind and tides rocked the boat from side to side, words started to fly all around me. The impulse to write became so strong I could not resist it. Unable to find any paper, I tore off a leaf from the vessel’s logbook and started writing the poem I later entitled, Maiden Pilot.

Amazed, my colleague came over and when he saw what I was doing, he simply burst out laughing. “What do you think we are here for?”he asked mildly. Fact of the matter is, he was just being very kind. The weather and state of the sea that night was no child’s play. I needed to concentrate on the logs of dredged material, nothing else.

“Well, I don’t know for you, Moses, but I am recording history,” I remembered saying. “I write when I am inspired. And this weather, this state and this junction in history, appeals to my artistic muse. Besides, I write better when I am sad. Everything here, makes me feel sad,” I concluded. My colleague looked at me like I had some bolts missing from my head. He thought better of it when I finished scribbling and read out my poem to him. He thought it was amazing, how I managed to tally words to describe where we were.

To this day, Moses, who has bought every book I have ever written, reminds me about this encounter every time we meet. As if by premonition, we both left the sea job to pursue different interests in later life. He now holds a Ph D and shuttles around the world trying to make change in his own way.

My encounter with Baba Galleh Jallow was much more circumstantial. He had been invited to speak about journalism in one of the Open Days we organised at Ndow’s Senior School to prepare students for probable future careers. At the last minute, I decided to join the Journalism Club in spite of being a science student because somehow the doctor who was invited to speak by the Science Club recruited the attention of most of the students. To be different, and also to join the group which was least populated by students, I ventured to attend the Journalism Club, where I met Baba Galleh for the first time.

Following his speech, of which I cannot remember a word, the Principal of Ndow’s High School, Mrs Renner, asked me to give a vote of thanks. Apparently, I did a good job. Later, Mrs Renner who knew my flare for writing, as I had won many writing competitions for the school by then, chipped in a kind word with Baba Galleh on my behalf, which got me writing poems and short stories for The Independent newspaper, while still attending the eleventh grade at Ndow’s High School. Without uppity, writing invited me to its incandescent projectile.

The gods of writing had begun to take notice of my persistence and had presented me with opportunity. I was going to seize the opportunity!
When I was able to establish myself in the defunct newspaper thanks to Baba Galleh Jallow, I could not contain my flare to exploit other avenues for my creative inclinations. I headed one day with a copy of one of my articles in The Independent to the Daily Observer where I requested to be accorded a column to write weekly for them; the audacity and actual ambition of yuouth buoying me along!
In spite of my youth and because of it perhaps, the people at the Daily Observer newspaper gave me the opportunity to showcase my talent as well. Thus my writing in the print media started with Baba’s perceptiveness, more than 20 years ago, and culminated in Sabally’s invitation more than 18 years afterwards. The snag being there were no monetary benefits this time around, only pure passion to guide that atavistic pull to have a voice in the world.

With Sabally, I thought I was better prepared and much more mature to tackle the issues that are prevalent in our society. Everybody can write a good piece once in a while, if only they put their mind to it. I decided to contribute by showcasing gender issues and gender relationships in our society that I am passionate about. More and more, I have come to align myself with the cause gender equality and equity.
Why?

The answer is simple. We can all effect change, we the peoples of the world. Whatever our calling is, in our respective endeavors, we can contribute to make the world a better place. By digging a well, by helping educate a child, who isn’t ours by blood; by empowering a woman in the neighborhood to sell roasted groundnuts in order to contribute to her household needs and so forth. The world does not lack the economic muscle to effect change. What it lacks is the political will and public engagement to make change happen at the very doorsteps of the needy people of the world.

Too often, I have woken up in the middle of the night and asked myself what I can do to help people. Little me, from little Gambia. For indeed, I don’t want to merely exist and die, I want to live. And in order to live, I have to be part of the world’s people who contribute to make this earth favorable for all human beings. There is too much ignorance, bullying, misrepresentation and pain happening around us. The question is, how do we assist to alleviate these human failings?

Many movements have existed in the world since the beginning of creation to alleviate human suffering, the anti Slavery movements, civil rights movements, the feminist movement and so forth. Religion has been the greatest tool that has helped us to realise and right injustice, whether it is Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. Yet, whatever religion we belong to, if it does not serve to make us conscientious human beings, then the role of that religion is null and void. Too often, we see people covered from head to toe in the name of morality for the sake of a certain religion. But morality is not to be found in dressing. Morality is attitudinal.

Morality is nothing without
conscientiousness.
Whether it is by watching Abdoulie Kanteh, a self-employed youth, and his group of volunteers clear waste in the streets and residential compounds as aired over GRTS a few years ago, or my former in-law Reme Jagne, who helped two impoverished teen boys at Peel Street get circumcised because their dad could not afford it, we can all effect change in our small ways.

Increasingly, we hear people say politics is not an occupation. I disagree. Politics is a calling, a noble profession if entered into for all the right reasons. Baa Tambadou, the Minister of Justice, is a shining example illuminating the way to strengthen democracy and human rights in this country. So is Halifa Sallah, who has been politicking all of his life in order to enlighten the youth and peoples of The Gambia in general.
To effect change, we don’t have to start big. But we must start with what we know best. We must find our calling to implement change. For me my calling is writing.
What is yours?

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