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Pierre Sarr Njie (1909-1993): A Moral Biography The Gambia National Museum Publications, 2018, 2021 by Hassoum Ceesay

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

Excerpt.

P.S was a distinguished son of the land who played a significant role in the politics of his country. (Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, in condolences to the family of Pierre Sarr Njie, December 1993).

P.S nurtured The Gambia’s political scene with his vast knowldge and expeience.. he was a veteran politicain who has always worked for the development of his country,  (President Abdou Diouf of Senegal, in condolence message to the family of Pierre Sarr Njie).

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Upon his death on 7 December 1993, at the age of 84 years, the accolades poured on Pierre Sarr Njie (hereafter refered to as  ‘P.S’), the man who for the decade, from 1951 to 1962, epitomised the hopes of thounsands of Gambians; they saw in him qualities of a saviour from colonial rule who would lead them to self-rule in dignity.Yet, readers of these economiums may not have known, perhaps, that for over two decades before 1993, P.S was the person the powers that be, including the Gambian government media, loved to pillory, mock and then forget.

The preparation of this biography has involved going through archival copies of  the newsheet of the colonial government, The Gambia News Bulletin (1946-1992). Also, it has meant raiding the sound archives of Radio Gambia for the period between 1962- 1972 – when P.S. left parliament – until his demise in 1993. Neither exercise  produced a single inch of news item or commentary related to P.S. Despite his role in the political and social evolution of The Gambia, and his brief stint as Chief Minister, the country succeded in forgetting him until when he died. Only then did anybody consider it fitiing to pay tribute to him. This was indeed a great diservice to his patriotic zeal and achievments at the personal level because he has rose to become one of the most successful lawyers in Bathurst, a star nationalist leader, and leader of the opposition.

Among the quintet of Gambian political leaders in the decolonization era – Small, Faye, Jahumpa, P. S., and Jawara – P.S is the least written about. In fact, aside from passing references in history books, there is almost nothing published on him. Thus, as he was ignored by state and private media for over two decades, a large part of his life in retirement remains hidden. The archives in Banjul are mainly silent on him; the material available is mainly from the recenlty released migrated files which had been kept in London since independence because rhey were considered too sensitive to decalssify or deposited in the archives in Banjul.

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Partly to fill this lacunna this chapter examines the life of P.S in chronology order starting from his early years through to his demise, paying particualr attention to sepcific episodes which marked his life of service.

The early years

P.S was born in Bathurst, The Gambia, in June 1909. His father,  a rich trader named Daour Kodou Begay Njie,  died at the age of 77 and his mother, Jainaba Njie, was born in 1878. P. S. was named after Monsieur Pierre Sarr, a Catholic priest who was a close friend of his father’s and was based in the Casamance, Senegal; even though both father and mother were Muslims the family had close relations with Catholics and Catholicism. Daour Njie traded at many river ports along the River Gambia, River Cacheu in present day Guinea Bissau, and in Casamance. He spent a particularly long time managing a trading post at Karantaba Salikenni in Baddibu. His father’s wealth was devoted to keeping the famliy well catered for and well educated. P.S mother brought up the children (including his brothers, Ebrima and his sister Yadicone) as the itinerant father was away most of the time. P.S admitted in an interview in his twilight years that he was nurtured in a ‘protected’ home where the ‘first law was discipline and order’.

As for most Bathurst children of the 1910s and 1920s, cricket at school or the MacCarthy Square was the main sporting game; football was to become popular only in the 1930s. Lesiure time was limited as he had to work hard at school. This spartan childhood and his lineage had a tremendous impact on his life and career. P.S was a bright student at the Roman Catholic Primary school where he won first prize in the Standard Seven exams in 1924. One of his teachers, J.H Joof, and the school principal, Father Haegy, were among the strict disciplinarians who, it so happened, were highly respected in Bathurst circles.

P. S.’s Wollof ancestry – of which he was profoundly proud and on which he depended for moral upliftment – could be traced to the Saloum kingdom of pre-colonial Senegambia. Saloum, Cayorr, Baol, Walo, Jollof were among the Senegambian states with majority Wollof populations, segmented as they were into castes of nobility, free borns, warriors, artisans and slaves. P.S’s claimed descent from a Saloum royal house from which came Semou Mboge, the last powerful Saloum monarch. His grandmother, on his mother’s side, was Kodou Mboge, sister to Semou Mboge. As, among the Wollof succession was matrilineal, the king’s sister’s son, P.S, was indeed a heir to the Saloum throne! His royal name, by which only a few among his friends addressed  him, was Jimmit.7

As the boy maketh the man, these basic details about his background  show that P. S had a childhood steeped in discipline and hard work, which virtues were to serve him well later in life.

Work experience: Teaching

P.S first work experience was as a teacher at St. Augustine’s School, from January 1925 to December 1928. At the time, the teaching profession was one of the few opened to Africans and it was one of the least attractive. A. S Thakur asserts that:

Teaching in The Gambia at this time was not carried out by individuals who were professionally trained in any modern sense; the status of the teacher depended on a status achieved or more probably acquired for quite other functional purpose – social and tribal or religious and institutional.

Indeed, an early school inspector in The Gambia called it ‘the last refuge of the incompetent’ or else ‘the stepping stone to a more lucrative career’.  As for P.S, it appears that he joined the teaching profession largely for the latter reason; shorn of possibilities for any employment, most secondary school graduates would hold on to anything while awaiting other results from other job applications or a passage abroad for further studies.

It was the Board of Education, which was created in 1886, that recruited, examined and certificated teachers: ‘They received salaries which were partly calculated in accordance with the results of the pupils’; the Board, which was chaired by the Governor, had the powers to punish teachers through forfeiture of a teacher’s diploma on account of misconduct or order its revocation. To add insult to injury, teachers like P.S were under the control of the school managers for their routine work. Teachers at a  school like St. Augustine’s therefore suffered what Thakur calls a ‘triple’ tyranny – by Government, managers and indirectly by the pupils. Under such circumstances, only the really desperate or extremely determined could have wanted to make teaching a career.

Another fact the young P.S had to be contending with was that he was one of a chosen few engaged in moulding the minds of a favoured few. By 1925 there were only seven schools in the country-three run by the Methodists, two by the Catholics, one by the Anglicans, and the Mohammedan School; they had a total of  only 1, 637 pupils. There were fewer than 50 teachers between these schools; many of them were one teacher schools where a single teacher taught all the subjects.

Teaching was unattractive in terms of remuneration but enjoyed a high status in society. St. Augustine’s was a notable Roman Catholic school whose main constituency were the Roman Catholic boys whilst the girls went to the Convent School. The fact that as a Muslim P. S. attended a noted Catholic school and taught there for four years was reflective of the open mindedness of Bathurst Christians and Muslims. Most Bathurst Muslims had no qualms about sending their children to mission schools; on their part the missions welcomed Muslim pupils and staff.

The main worry about the school system in the mid-1920s was that it offered little choice in terms of syllabus and accessibility. This was reflected in the very limited scope of the syllabus and the even more limited scope of available education. At St. Augustine’s, for example, P.S was taught reading, writing, arithmetic and religious devotion. Thus, when he was recruited as a pupil teacher he could only teach within the parameters of these few disciplines. Moreover, as there was no high school education available at the time, he had to stop at Standard Seven at the tender age of 16 to become a pupil teacher.

P. S. took summer refresher courses organised by the Education Department; other young teachers who also took these courses at the time included Wallace Cole of the Methodist Boys High School, Mr/. H.N Hunter of St. Mary’s school and  Mr. N.J. During of the Dobson street school. P.S. graduated with a First Class certificate.

Among the British West African colonies only in the Gambia was there a lack of educational opportunities; this was comparable only to a country like Portuguese Guinea. Of course, this was attributed to the poor financial situation in the colony: that is, that the Gambia was unable to produce surplus revenue to be ploughed back into sectors like education. But Ceesay and Thakur have argued that colonial prejudices also mattered. The early Travelling Commissioners, like Sitwell, argued in their correspondence with London that their subjects were averse to sending their children to school because that would mean a loss of labour in the farm. Also, these officials expressed the fear that educating young people in Banjul would expose them to ‘civilising influences’ and make them ungovernable. The colonialists trained a few Gambians to be clerks, priests and teachers, and not skilled workers and professionals. A missionary survey in 1931 quoted by Thakur found the Jolas ‘unresponsive’, the Mandingo ‘impenetrable’ and the Aku ‘unpromising’ to western education. Such derogatory attitudes deterred even the very few who were ready to enrol their wards in western schools; it also gave the government an excuse for not spending on the sector.

P.S’s teaching career was relatively short, but, with hindsight, it was important for his future careers in law and politics. For example, it was whilst a teacher that he imbibed Catholic teachings that were to lay the foundations for his conversion from Islam in 1939. Moreover, like all teachers, he must have built a network of former pupils and colleagues whom he found very useful in his political battles in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, it was thanks to his experience in teaching that he was able to enter the civil service at the unusually senior rank of clerk first at the Public Works Department (PWD), then at the Department of Education and at the Post Office.

(Footnotes have been deleted to conform to the space allocated. Hwevr, upon purchasing the book, these footnotes are available for further references)

Author

Hassoum Ceesay, a noted historian and museum Curator, is currently Director-General of the National Centre for Arts and Culture, Banjul. He has published widely on Gambian history in reputable journals like the Journal of Mande Studies (Indiana University Press); Journal of African Economic History (University of Wisconsin Press); African Studies Quarterly (University of Florida Press), among others. This is his fifth book on Gambian history.  

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