Fellow Gambians, semi-Gambians, naturalised Gambians, Gambians by birth, Gambians by marriage, Gambians by cash, Gambians by kind, Gambians that get mistaken for Guineans or Sierra Leoneans or Nigerians or Ghanaians, diaspora Gambians…all Gambians, nangen deff? So I don’t want you to take my long opening greeting as a word-count manoeuvre because it isn’t. Ok, maybe it is but there’s a point to it as you’ll eventually figure out. So I’m calling this a puzzle because by the end of this write-up, I expect you to figure out why I started the way I did.
This edition of Red Black Nonsense should have been a diary of occurrences from Sunday to now. It should have started with the line, “So my wife and I rushed to the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital….” but alas someone’s marabout is on his A-game and I have allowed my initial plan to be thwarted by a facebook post I saw minutes ago. Let’s just call it a freestyle.
I saw a Facebook post from a Gambian socialite about a stabbing she witnessed at the Senegambia junction which allegedly led to the death of the victim. There was an outcry on social media. There was an outpour of deeply felt sentiments which I assume would evaporate after a day’s deliberation and the next hot topic hits a facebook page close to you. However, it would be fair to say that, where many things will disappear, the inherent human “quality” of fear will not go away overnight.
It is a strange thing to talk about in the “Smiling Coast”, this issue of crime. It is strange because there is such irony to it that we would either have to come up with a new pseudonym for Jollof or we should try to fix this current problem. I’ll be honest with you. For months now, I have been a lot more cautious with my surrounding. I double check that the doors are locked, never park my car outside the house; keep a couple of lights on etcetera. I even have a couple of anti-intruder mechanisms in place just in case all else fails. I am a man…goor piir, but I was also once a boy scout.
I was in my favourite taxi driver’s car a few weeks ago when he explained stories of drivers that get robbed on the Senegambia highway every Sunday and how he himself lost his towel to one of these thieves. I laughed, but my heart dropped for a second. You know…I had to be a man about it. So now, when I drive to an intersection on heavy traffic, I turn up my windows and ready a fist. I don’t want to have to do that. I mean, my car is unfortunately lacking of the basic amenities of a modern ride. In my house, as in many others, I own the ferrai (and please do not by any chance confuse ferrai for Ferrari – a ferrai is a piece of metal on wheels). When I turn on what is supposed to be the air-conditioner, a hairdryer gets turned on in its place. Now where that would have helped when I was sporting an afro, times have changed and the heat is not cool for my sensitive skin.
Now I implore on you to not focus on my car. This is no attempt at getting a go-fund-me started for a new car (even though it surely isn’t a bad idea for you beautiful people to have such nice consideration put forward). This is about the Audacity of Hope in people to Get Rich or Die Trying. So, to be honest, our new democracy has but a liiiiiiiiitle loophole. This loophole is so tiny that it would take an electronic microscope to see it. It is a democracy that everyone is adapting to. Meanwhile the most profitable and low-risk investment to make in this new situation is some guts.
So now some of my brothers and sisters who don’t want to wait another 6 years to get rich have decided that, in mirroring their people in high places, they will take from others. I mean freedom of expression right? No? Riiiiiight! So this is how they express themselves. This is their art and there is no way anyone can tell them any different.
My people, life used to be simple. When I was a child security was a simple issue. There was no Uncle Sam or Tiger Security and Wackenhut only served the United States Embassy. The affluent people had what they called a garden boy who doubled as a watchman…ok not even the affluent people. If you lived in Fajara, there was always some family that needed a place to stay and was ready to watch the house and take care of the cleanliness for that opportunity.
Every house help was called Fatou and she was usually like a second mother (in some cases she actually became a second mother…ask the Banjulians). But yeah, life was simple. You knew the safe word. The safe word was Saachay! All the thieves understood this. Saachay was like pirates’ code for Nice Try. No one got hurt…well except the thief of course. There were red zones – out of bounds to all thieves. Bakoteh was one of them. Life was so simple that we all knew the thieves. We lived with them. Every street had a notorious thief. He was usually the only one in the street that knew where to get Marijuana (then known as Jamba)…and these guys basically ruined the whole Jamba idea for everyone.
So we knew these people. They were our brothers and our cousins. Some of them couldn’t afford weed so they sniffed on some petrol or gasoil or kerosene and that was their fix. Then when they were normal they’d try to sell your own stuff back to you.
Don’t get me wrong. Every town had someone who was crazy enough to stab someone else…but that someone else was usually someone who was also crazy enough to stab someone else. These stories were told under candlelight like some urban legend…and we knew their names. They lived in the police cells but always seemed to find their way back into society. Every child avoided them. They were the kankurangs of our time…ok more like fambondis.
…and then things changed. Then things changed again…and again. Somehow we always found a way to run away from the realities. We found a way to pass on the blame and move on. This is no longer the time to pass on the blame and this shouldn’t even begin to be about the politics. Our country is changing and it is changing fast. I know if you loved the former President it is easy to say Bilai Yaya Jammeh su fi nekorn…and if you’re on the other side of the fence it is easy to feel offended enough to throw a fit by such a statement. However, we must all accept this new reality. This country has changed and will never again be what it used to be. I do not see this new generation of youth ever giving up this democracy that we now experience. It is a ship that has sailed, never to return to the harbour. However, regardless of the state of affairs or the politics at the top, this country deserves to be safe…for all its citizens and non-citizens.
It is no secret that the crime rate is increasing. It is no secret that armed men are going around towns and villages, attacking shopkeepers and taxi drivers and doing away with their monies. It is no secret that people are getting stabbed at the beach for mobile phones and fifty dalasis. It is no secret that many parents are afraid. I know I am…for my children. I once wrote an essay where I said, “perhaps our innocence is our beauty”. Well perhaps we have lost our innocence to the trials of a difficult political year.
The question remains…how do we fix this problem? I certainly do not have the answer to that. Otherwise I would have been serving in the currently vacant position of the Vice-President of the Republic of The Gambia. I do not know what the government and the people should do, but I do know what they….oops I meant we…SHOULD NOT do. We should not allow this to continue in silence.
You know, sometimes I feel sad for the new government. To work with a people that have a new found voice must be a pain! I remember once I complained on facebook about the rising crime rate…and the following week I complained about the number of checkpoints on the highway. Then again, back then the crimes were not being committed on our highways so that might not have been a contradiction. However, how do you satisfy a people that want zero crime, but lesser police presence in a country where the professionalism of the security apparatus has been brought to question many times? How do you eat your cake and…never mind!
I heard of a video yesterday of a thief that was stripped of any dignity he had left (like thieves have any) and the clothes he had on, and treated like a donkey. It was like some sort of vigilante justice. I saw many people scream foul on facebook and make some very sensible comments about human rights and rule of law. It made sense…a lot of sense actually. However, that is just an example of what could happen if we don’t fix this growing issue of rising crime. I can tell you for a fact that I keep a weapon close to me at all times, with every intention of using it on anyone that tries to harm me or my family. I can tell you that I am not alone.
Taxi drivers drive around with crowbars underneath their seats. Home owners keep hunting rifles in their closets. I know someone that actually built his own bow and arrow Arrow style without the hood though. If people do not feel safe, they will do all they can to protect themselves, their families and their belongings. It is not Gambian, or Nigerian or American. This is a human characteristic that has been with us since Adam.
Now I come empty-handed and without solutions. Fortunately I have the easy job…of identifying the problem and lashing out about it. The people that get the big names, titles and badges, they have the difficult job. If we have any love for the peace, security and love in this country, then this is not a topic to be left for facebook debates. This is an issue that must be tackled TODAY and not TOMORROW. If murderers, armed robbers, petty thieves, rapists etcetera continue to believe that this new democracy is one to be taken advantage of, and we give them every reason to continue believing that, then this once low-crime country of ours will certainly turn into one which encourages extrajudicial punishment as a deterrent to increasing crime in the Smiling Coast. Save us before we save ourselves.
Latirr Carr is a petroleum engineer at the Gambia National Petroleum Company and founder and executive director of Blaque Magique Company.