By Omar Jabang
According to excerpts from his biography being kept by his son in his homestead in Gunjur, the ancestors of Omar Bun Jeng hailed from the ancient Malian city of Djenne. His great grandfather was Abdul Rahman Dem who studied in Timbuktu and Mauritania before settling in Ndiassane, Senegal where he married and sired Muhammad Saibani and Muhammad Lamin Timbuktu. The two boys were sent to study in Mauritania and upon completion, Saibani returned to his ancestral Djenne while Lamin Timbuktu was advised by his teacher to settle in the Casamance village of Binako with his brother Sheikh Mahfouz. Lamin Timbuktu later left Binako intending to settle in Ndiassane but during a transit through the Kiang village of Masembeh, he saw young Binta Tabally, the daughter of the alkalo, fell in love with her and married her as his second wife. He later proceeded on the journey and upon reaching Mbour, Senegal, settled there, naming his home Mali Kunda. Binta Tabally had four sons and a daughter. Her first son, Sheikh Sadibou was to father Bun Jeng.
Young Sheikh Sadibou was sent with his brothers to study in Mauritania and shortly upon the completion of their studies, their father died and their uncles talked them into returning to Masembeh with their mother. While in Kiang, their surname was changed to Demba and Demba-jang by the Mandinkas. Sheikh Sadibou was given Anjula Tabally as a wife. Later he decided to visit his father’s home in Mali Kunda, in Senegal, but while passing through the Niumi village of Kerr Bakary Camara, the alkalo enticed him to stay, gave him land and his sister’s hand in marriage. This woman, Fatou Camara, was to give birth to Bun Jeng and another son and a daughter, in the village.
Sheikh Sadibou named his son Omar Bunama, later shortened to Bun. Young Omar got his early tutelage from Habib Lo who also trained him to memorise the Qur’an and inducted him into wide ranging Islamic lores and mores. “While he was studying with the Wolof, his surname was again changed from Demba-jang to Dieng or Jeng. They used to tell him, ‘Jang moii Jeng’!
“But I would be really pleased that the whole world knows that we are ‘Dem’ and they started calling us so because we not Jeng. There is no crime calling us Jeng, because we all belong to the human family, but we should respect our origins,” Samsideen, a son of Oustass Omar Bun Jeng told The Standard in Gunjur during research for this article.
After completing his studies in Senegal, Bun Jeng studied at Riyadh University, Saudi Arabia and upon his return, started teaching Islam in Essau Primary School before being posted to Gunjur Primary School. The appointment to the Kombo coastal village pleased Bun because he was told by a seer as a young boy that that was the place where he would meet his destiny and realise self-fulfillment.
Bun first stayed in Jobe Kunda, then transferred to Barrow Kunda and then Darboe Kunda. He was later allocated a home and farmland. He married four wives and sired 12 sons and four daughters. He built an Islamic centre and attracted students from across the sub-region. In the latter years of his life, his lucidity of mind, mastery of the Qur’an and deep and powerful voice made him the most sought-after Islamic preacher in The Gambia.
He died on Friday, 16 September 1995 and thousands of faithfuls converged on Gunjur to accompany him to his final resting.
Part of Bun Jeng’s enduring appeal is his matter-of-fact style of preaching and his lack of pretension. He did not over-embellish, attack people directly or shy away from speaking the truth. And perhaps more endearingly, he refused to be boxed – socially, tribally or politically. He belonged to only one group: His’bullah!
First published in The Standard on 30 June 2014.