The new Gambian poets and their poetry

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Tijan Sallah on Gambian Writers

In the contemporary Gambian poetic scene — particularly in the post-2000 period — few poets have risen to merit critical attention. The body of Gambian literature is limited, and many of its significant accomplishments are by exiled writers such as the late Ebou Dibba, Sally Singhateh, and myself. Since there was no university in The Gambia until 1999, many of these writers had to go abroad for further education and eventually stayed in their host countries. The political climate in The Gambia also did not help. The advent of a Yahya Jammeh-led coup d’etat in 1994 brought in an authoritarian government that trampled on civil liberties, including the press and any critical writing. This dictatorship lasted until 2016, when Gambians mustered courage and mobilised for his peaceful ouster through the ballot box and elected President Adama Barrow. Over these years, there were few literary publications. With the exception of a short-lived literary magazine called Ndanaan in the seventies and Topic Magazine in the nineties, Gambian writers had few outlets.

 

The occasional poem appeared in newspapers like the Observer and Foroyaa, but none were trailblazers. In short, a combination of a lagging educational system, limited civil liberties, and an embryonic literary infrastructure resulted in a literary community largely amateur in its technical, stylistic, and thematic accomplishments. In spite of these challenges, the poets Mariama Khan, Momodou Sallah, and Bala Saho have emerged as promising new Gambian voices of this generation.
Mariama Khan was born in Brikama Newtown, The Gambia, to a Senegalese father and Gambian mother. Her father was a prolific writer, whether it was meticulously recording his everyday transactions or writing letters in French or in Ajami (Wolof written in Arabic script) to family back home. Her mother encouraged her to take on writing roles, having her act as the women’s group scribe and help keep records of their osusu (rotating credit association). These early experiences greatly influenced her intellectual and creative life. After graduating from St Joseph’s High School in The Gambia, Khan went on to receive a bachelor of arts, two master’s degrees, and is currently completing her Ph D in African studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. I met Khan for the first time at Timbooktoo Bookstore in 2003 during one of my visits back to The Gambia. By then, she had already received her master’s degree from Brandeis University and, as among the new Gambian literati, she was looking for new books to read.

Timbooktoo is the Gambia’s foremost literary establishment, something that did not exist when I left the country in the seventies. As a young man in The Gambia, my literary world was limited to the British classics — by William Shakespeare, James Joyce, WB Yeats, and George Orwell — at Saint Augustine’s High School, and later my writing-apprenticeship encounters with the great late Gambian writer, Lenrie Peters. Timbooktoo, however, removed this limitation. The store began as a small, canteen-like bookshop on Pipeline Road, located in the bustling, middle-class neighbourhood of Pipeline, near Banjul, the capital city. Before Timbooktoo, the only major bookstore in The Gambia was the Methodist Bookshop, which sold mostly textbooks, stationery, and other educational supplies. Timbooktoo was innovative in that it began stocking books of all kinds—poetry, fiction, memoir, history, and other reading meant for the general public. It has since grown and moved to a larger building, where it has a coffee shop upstairs, attracts young audiences, and even sponsors occasional readings. It is a haven for readers and connoisseurs of Gambian literature—a place where you can find Gambian writings, by Gambians and on The Gambia, published by international as well as local publishers, such as Fulladu.

Since our meeting in 2003, Khan and I have been corresponding by email. She has published two poetry collections, Futa Toro (2003) and Juffureh: Kissing You with Hurting Lips (2004), and I was particularly struck by the former. The title Futa Toro evokes a sense of place and ethnic heritage — the place where the Tukulor or Torodbe ethnic group originated. The Tukulor are culturally sedentary and by pigmentation black, but they share the same traditions and language as the nomadic “red” Fulani. The Tukulor also have a penchant for literacy and learning, and many of West Africa’s renowned clerical scholars in Islam are of Tukulor origin. In addition, several prominent West African writers in French and English are also of Tukulor origin, such as Hampate Ba, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Mariama Ba, Amina Sow Fall, and Amadou Lamine Sall, to name a few.
When I asked Khan why she chose the title Futa Toro for her book, she points to her syncretic ethnic heritage. Tukulor by ethnic origin, she was raised to pay attention to her family lineage and values as a Khan (sometimes spelled Kane in French) from Futa Toro. She grew up hearing about her ancestors’ past exploits, men and women who were notable in the Futa historiography as those “who served God, [and] led the fight for truth and justice for all.” Her poetry is also inspired by other roots—a paternal grandmother who belonged to Senegalese Wolof nobility, and a maternal grandmother, who belonged to a Gambian Mandinka clerical family. Together, the Tukulor, Wolof, and Mandinka values of nobility, valour, and love of knowledge greatly influence her worldview and her writing.

In the book’s poignant title poem, Futa Toro, Khan writes:
The shrine of my ancestors
Know when I become
A Fulani born-again
I may speak your tongue
Praise the acrobat decorum
Dance your dances
Sing your songs
This poem expresses one of the anxieties of the contemporary urbanised Tukulor: their loss of linguistic proficiency. Many Tukulor are raised in a predominantly Wolof cultural milieu and are therefore ipso facto “Wolofised,” neither speaking the Tukulor language nor having a mastery of Tukulor culture and traditions. The poet laments this sense of uprootedness and wishes to be a “Fulani born-again” so she can master the Fulani rituals of the reeti (Fulani violin) and the piti (acrobat dancer). But, for the urbanised Tukulor such as the poet, whose engagement with these rituals is only as a periodic observer during weddings or national celebrations, this generalised nostalgia may be wishful thinking. It may be harking back to an indiscrete cultural identity to which she does not necessarily belong either.

Another poem in the collection, 1981, describes the 1981 Gambian failed coup d’état launched by the adventurist Kukoi Samba Sanyang. The poet was only four years old at the time, but the cataclysmic political events made a lasting impression:
Memorable
Exciting
Awesome
A week of suffering
Hunger, no play
The roads taboo
The guns! Yes the Guns
Kukoi came
Jawara fled
People died, Gambians died
Senegalese came
And died
Jawara brought back
Kukoi escaped
Bad memory
I was so young!
The poem is a sparse recounting of that terrible period of Gambian history, and it expresses both childhood fear and the loss of innocence. Stylistically, it resembles Lenrie Peters’s poem, In the Beginning, with its conversational style, although the topic is more grim. The child’s mind is confused—“Jawara fled,” the poem’s persona claims. Of course, in reality, President Jawara, the legitimate leader at the time, did not flee; he was abroad, attending Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding, but returned to quell the coup with the Senegalese government’s help.

But, all the same, perhaps to this young persona, this distinction was not so obvious—indeed, the poet notes with that claim of innocence: “I was so young!”
Similar to Khan, Momodou Sallah too is a noteworthy, emerging Gambian poet. I have never met Momodou Sallah but have spoken to him several times over the phone. He reached out to me from Leicester, England, to write the preface to an anthology of poems by Gambian young adults titled A Harvest of Gambian Lines (Global Hands Publishing). I agreed, and we have become “phone and Internet” friends since then. Momodou Sallah spent his early years in Buckle Street, Banjul, but moved to Old Jeshwang, a town located between Banjul, the capital city, and Serekunda, The Gambia’s largest town just eight miles away. Similar to Khan, Sallah, too, is of syncretic ethnic lineage of Tukulor, Wolof, Bambara, and Jola. He describes his early life going to dara (local Qur’anic school), playing indoor soccer in people’s half-built houses, hunting hares, and swimming in nearby creeks against the wishes of his parents. His formative years were spent in Pipeline, where he became acting president of the Gambia Student Union and joined the Red Cross, eventually becoming the national youth director of the Gambia Red Cross.

In addition to Sallah’s early activism, he continued his education in the United Kingdom, receiving a master’s degree in applied social sciences from the University of Leicester and a doctorate in youth and community development from De Montfort University. Sallah is currently based in the UK, where he is a professor (Reader) at De Montfort University and is the CEO of Global Hands Publishing, which publishes fiction and non-fictional works by Gambians. Apart from being a promising poet, Sallah has demonstrated, from his early youth, a knack for a variety of entrepreneurial engagement, youth leadership, and community development skills. This passion for community and youth development also comes through in his body of work.
Sallah published a book of poems titled Innocent Questions (2012), which deals with a broad spectrum of personal and pan-African sentiments. One of the collection’s most moving poems is Barça or Berserk. It is a poem about the senseless, perilous journey that many African (and other Third World) youth make to get to Europe. It is a poem tied to what has come to be topically called “Europe’s migrant problem”, a pejorative term reflecting the anti-immigrant feelings among the nationalist segments in the receiving European nations. The poem describes the compulsion that drives many African youth to traverse odds into Europe:
I must go to Barça or Berserk
I must go
I must fly away
From this jail
And look for bail
I drink the Atlantic
And eat the Sahara
I swim with sharks
To escape the economic barks
I must go to Barça or Berserk
In addition to “push factors” — joblessness at home, hunger, civil conflict, climate change, limited political space, and above all, hopelessness — which the poet describes ominously as “jail,” this migration also has “pull factors” — the promise of economic security and a better life. However, the journey to Europe involves risky, unsafe stowaway boats over the shark-filled Atlantic or crossing the Sahara Desert, playing hide and seek with religious and tribal extremist militias, and transiting through the “failed state” of Libya to get to “Barça” or “Barcelona”. The poem has even more relevance and urgency now as we watch the news of desperate migrants being captured while on transit and sold as slaves in open auctions in Libya.

When I asked Sallah what inspired the Barça or Berserk poem, he noted that above all he wanted to subvert the dominant, erroneous narrative that those making these journeys are “idle and idiotic, aimless, young people”. To Sallah, a poet sensitive to the plight of young people, these push factors, which are only becoming worse, must be recognised. The poem’s title and refrain is a pun. “I must go to Barça or Berserk” demonstrates the unquenchable compulsion that drives the youth to get into Europe. “Barça” may be a reference to Barcelona, or an allusion to any of the migrant-receiving nations of Southern Europe. “Berserk” seems to play with multiple, though similar meanings — whether it means, as in English, “uncontrollable or destructive rage” or “going crazy”; or whether it is a play on the Wolof word, Barsak, which means “afterlife.” Either way, the choices are extreme: the persona in the poem must go to Europe or to craziness; must go to Europe or to death. It is a sinister, youthful calculus.

Bala SK Saho is another Gambian poet whose work commands attention. Saho published a book of poems titled Songs of a Foraging Bird (2000) and a novella, The Road to My Village (1994). He was born and raised in Baddibu Salikenni, a small town of several hamlets in a region with predominantly Mandinka and Sarahule influences. I first met him in 2016 at the African Studies Association Conference in Washington, DC. He was wearing a suit with no tie, bald headed, tall, and slim. He was affable — not a showman, and a good listener. In our interactions since, the poet described Baddibu Salikenni as an environment that emphasised family, discipline, and respect. His fascination with history, literature, and culture led him to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the Universities of Jyvaskyla and Helsinki, Finland. He continued on for another master’s degree in African studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a PhD. in African history from Michigan State University, where he teaches today.

When I interviewed Saho, he expressed his interest in cultural development and preservation. For years, he worked in the Gambian government’s Oral History and Antiquities Division, first working as a transcriber and translator of oral history texts, and later as a curator of the National Museum. By 2010 he was the museum’s director general. With these administrative experiences under his belt, the poet continues to capture his unique cultural experiences in his poetry.

One of the most poignant lines in his collection Songs of a Foraging Bird is the poem Dedication, written for his mother. In this poem, Saho praises the virtues and hard work of motherhood with grace and gratefulness:
As long as I live
I will sing my mother’s song
With her old broom
That kept our yard forever clean
And her long hoe
That kept our stomach full
Her mortar and pestle
That grinds our morning porridge
That bucket of water on her head
How it kept our minds clean
Her everyday chorus
Never mind
I will paint the world with her smile.
This poem is strung together by three beautiful lines, beginning from “I will sing my mother’s song,” which expresses the poet’s gratefulness to his mother. Then, in the line, “How it kept our minds clean,” the poet shows appreciation for his mother’s meticulous efforts to fulfill the foundational and biological needs—food, shelter, clothing, and hygiene—which are critical for the development and success of a child’s mind. Finally, in “I will paint the world with her smile,” the poet demonstrates how his mother’s patience and steadfastness, despite her endless toil, is an enduring inspiration for the poet to exercise his creative energies to build a better world. This poem leaves me wanting to see more from this poet.

 

These modern Gambian poets explore the contemporary challenges facing The Gambia and West Africa. Something immediate and palpable runs in the lines of these poets; they want to speak directly to the public, and communicate what they see and feel not through rinsed eyes and hearts. They don’t mind being prosy, like traditional Gambian oral poetry, for the message is it. Unlike the earlier generation of Gambian poets, such as Lenrie Peters, Gabriel Roberts, Suwaebou Conateh, and myself, who wrote poetry dense with imagery and indirect in their expressions, these poets want to communicate directly with the public by using the language of ordinary speech. The poets show deep sensitivity to their environments, and they pursue culturally relevant themes, which with the new democratic political dispensation, augur well for the future of Gambian poetry.

 

Tijan Sallah is a Gambian poet, short story writer, biographer, and critic, who has been described as one of the leading African poets and writers following the generation of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and novelist Chinua Achebe. Sallah’s most recent books include a poetry collection, Harrow: London Poems of Convalescence; a biography of Africa’s most famous novelist, Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light; and a short story collection, Before the New Earth. He recently guest-edited a “marathon” anthology of world poetry titled A World Assembly of Poets for the India-based journal RE-MARKINGS.