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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Political camouflage – Part 1

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 I’ve had many strange messages the last few years, very few of them euphonic, but this one was special. It was special in the sense that it made me further realise how torn the fabric of our society has become. The message which bore a simple yet extremely hateful threat promised to ‘expose me’ with invaluable information that would not only ‘diminish my character’ but bring me to my knees. However, I must say that I have developed a certain sense of asthenia for that sort of politicking. I saw it as a follow-up to a rather interesting Facebook conversation I had the other day where a ‘royal nincompoop’ decided to choose the wrong fight on the wrong day.

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After reading through the message, which clearly stated that “since you have failed to realise what time it is, we will help you figure it out”. The message went further to reference former Secretary General Momodou Sabally and promised that when the day comes, I would ‘rot’ like a ‘maggot in a jail cell’. I smiled at his/her prophecy because that is what messages like that do to me. My even broader smile came at his proclamation of ‘digging up my past’ and spreading it for the world to see.

Two weeks ago Friday, reading through Sherrif Bojang’s essay, I found myself lost in a world of literary brilliance and went to the extent of sending a short SMS message in acknowledgement. The gesture was kindly returned and humbly received. It was an honest opinion on things not so pleasant and received my utmost respect and admiration. The “opinionated” Sheriff Bojang had made a statement of obvious intent!

The inspiration was not just in the way he wove his diction together to produce a short but sweet masterpiece but also with the topic he had chosen to address. I never for once imagined Sheriff would mention Momodou Sabally in an essay during such turbulent times for a man whose articles had been featured regularly on The Standard but he had done it and in such simplicity that only a Sheriff’s pen could muster.

So during a week where discussions had centered on Sufism and religious doctrine, I was left mostly pondering on a statement that had been thrown my way a million times in the past by a number of diaspora Gambians involved in what they like to call “The Struggle” and as recent as a year ago by “The Gambia’s Pen”…PICK A SIDE”.  This whole “pick a side” issue creates a serious imbroglio of sorts for my kind. The argument from the other side was that if I didn’t choose a side (more like their side), I would live to regret it. They say to truly play serious chess with a man, we must know the man…or wait…is it, to truly know a man, one must play chess with him?

Their message was simple. If ever they came to power, they would ‘pick out’ people like me who refused to side with ‘the struggle’ and would ‘make us suffer’. Now as scary as that sounds (I mean I am not one for physical torture…it would ruin my awesome features), I “do not negotiate with terrorists”. Many would argue that a “smart young man like me” should desist from rash generalisations. However, this is more of a “who the cap fits” type of essay.

I have a favourite tyrants in history list of my own and at the top of my list lies Gaius Cassius Longinus. If you’ve never heard of the man, google him! 

 

“Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” – Shakespeare’s depiction of Julius Caesar

 

I told a friend of mine once that the reasons for my distance from ‘the struggle’ are too many to mention. However, the most pertinent is my disdain for the lazy journalism that accompanies the few that have taken the stead to attack and humiliate their foes. If you’re going to come swinging, it’s best to bring your A-game, wala? I told her if only they dug a little deeper, their threats of exposing me would be extremely realistic. So after a few days of thought, I decided to do the unthinkable! I decided to pen my FIRST ‘almost’ political piece. I assume this will be Gambia’s first also!

So talking of Cassius, he happens to by my favourite because even though a lot of books herald him as smart, I believe him to have been the most unimpressive tyrant of all time. He sided with Pompey to defeat Caesar; fled for dear life when Caesar defeated Pompey; was captured by Caesar but shown mercy when he was appointed legate; plotted to assassinate Caesar after that; committed suicide after Caesar’s demise and entered Dante’s inferno as “one of the three people disgraceful enough to occupy one of Satan’s mouth. Well, I am no Cassius! But I have met a few Cassiuses in my time.

But maybe Judas fits the description. Was it not he who dined with Christ yet sold him off with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver? But no, I was never one of 12 disciples…or maybe I was? 

I think at the end of these series I will give “the people” for whom my choice is important an opportunity of choice; that they will decide my fate and how history remembers me. Their most common phrase is that “we should be on the right side of history” and I assume they know the future enough to know which side that is.

At the end of these series I will either be seen as Antony, whose wittiness and loyalty made him undeserving of my list, or as Brutus to whom the line is dedicated “Et tu Brute? Then Fall Caesar”. It seems this has been the most obvious of quagmires from the very beginning and I failed to realise this! Ah well…never too late is it…and you assume I never picked a side?

So, back to where I began this whole bag of red black nonsense. Over the years I have received similar threats and sometimes funny ‘revelations’ and I have always been advised to ignore them but for once my attention was piqued enough to warrant a recollection of my journey and why I have stood by certain decisions I currently live by.

This is in no way a justification of the person I am, or an attempt to appease ‘lost souls’ that have no singular bearing on my direction, course or destination. It is more of a desire to write; to rise from the ashes that a ‘stupid few’ have decided to lay on my doorstep. This is not for the ‘detractors’ but for the lovers of honest literature for whom a moment spent in solitude with words on a page are worth a million years on a white beach somewhere in the Caribbean. There can be no clearer ‘testimony’ or ‘revelation’ on my life than has been here presented.

I can still remember the first time I met His Excellency, The President. It was also the first time I walked into State House. I was a young man, sixteen years of age, in some white Puma high-top kicks and my Gambia Senior Secondary School uniform. This was also my first official engagement with the school prefectorial council with the assistance of my brother and friend, the late Baboucarr Ann. The topic of discussion was the deploring state of some of the school structures and the necessity to upgrade them. Here began my journey of ‘fixing’ stuff – not like Olivia Pope would have things fixed, but in my own special way. Suffice it to say, a promise was made to renovate the structures and invest in a more protective wall for the school. As the discussion continued, the teenager I was, forgetting in whose presence I sat, complained of the government, through the Ministry of Education (then under the erudite Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta and the lovely Satang Jaw before her) non-commitment to living up to their promises. In as calm a response as anyone could summon under such allegations, The President requested an explanation to which I responded accordingly for even after my performance at the grade 6 national exams, a scholarship due me from the government had not been fulfilled. It was there that an enquiry was made in haste and confirmed and the scholarship commitment was fulfilled.

A few months later, I was on a bus to Basse for the National Youth Conference on the invitation of The President with colleagues from various schools and even as a 16 year old then, I saw how beautiful we were together as a group and how well we got along. That trip made me realise just how much potential our young nation had but also made me see how much work needed to be done to achieve the goals and ambitions we hold so dear as a nation.

Since then I have heard many theories as to how NAPSA came to be; some of them ridiculous and others well thought through. My knowledge of proceedings was that just before we left for the Kombos, I had a private meeting with Mr. Besenty Gomez and Mr. Andrew Sylva, both students – UTG and Saint Augustine’s respectively – on the need to create something special with the fire we had found within us during the entire trip. Weeks of meetings with stakeholders including one with the President asking for his patronage led to what still today, is named NAPSA.

The NAPSA journey still remains one of my most interesting journeys yet. As we strove to be recognized by different bodies including the Ministry of Education and the Gambia Conference of Principals (yes we had to go through a rather rigorous process to be recognised) we continued to meet on the many possibilities that were at our disposal should we ever become a legal body of ‘high school student heads’.

A year on, we were legally registered, I had made at least 10 trips to various parts of rural Gambia and we had revitalised high school scholarship programs and reintroduced food support and renovation at Armitage High School. It is a journey I will forever be proud of and an accomplishment I will always hold dear to my heart. Amidst the controversy surrounding NAPSA and the mistrust for student bodies from both government and private sector, we were able to do things that were seemingly impossible. 

Throughout this period, the one message that resonated was one from The President advising that we stay clear of politics and focus on the reasons why we decided to come together as a body. We stuck to those ideals even as we received fire from very surprising corners. For me personally, it was a phase of my life’s journey and one that gave me strength, experience and understanding of a system I had only always seen from a distance.

I continued my role in the Association even after we handed over to a new executive 1 and half years after the Association was formed, as Chief Technical Adviser (a role which was created at an interesting meeting where the new executive insisted that I remain an integral person until they could steer things on their own). My interactions before and during my time at the Association were not only eye opening but brought me to the closest possible proximity with the highest office in The Gambia and it’s Leader. There were so many evenings spent in his presence, both private and public that the name ‘dormi Yaya Jammeh’ was born. In a country where young people are seen as ‘mere kids’ and given very little respect, here was a man who was supposed to be our nation’s highest authority showing me such respect that is hard to find anywhere. 

In a little less than 3 years I had become a ‘ruralite’ and had more knowledge of rural Gambia than I could ever have imagined growing up in the comforts of Fajara. I saw villagers who had smiles on their faces even as they contemplated if they would ever afford the next meal. I visited a Fula village where their hope of urbanisation lay in the hands of a young jean clad girl who was as beautiful as she was smart and her beautiful mother had chosen me as a suitor for her daughter. I got to be part of ‘Education For All’ campaigns which took me to the darkest corners of my country. I helped raise money for schools and prided myself in joining a vehicle every other weekend to see my country as it was in reality and grew my passion for ‘lending a hand’. Together we began a campaign to end child marriage and to ensure that the girl child was allowed to complete basic-cycle education before any thoughts of marriage were entertained. By the time we started the campaign, most rural girls were forced out of school at the primary level. 

I was a part of the change that I wanted to see in my country and I had become a new person. I was discussing serious politics, friends with senior-most officials of our military, slept in a bedroom next to a room full of living snakes, experienced a life threatening car accident which was a miracle to survive and received respect from everyone I encountered. I was there when a humbled Kuru Konjira ran behind the Presidential convoy with a multitude of ‘kids’. I was at Soma when a humiliated Momodou Soma Jobe wept for mercy and was helped back up. I was there when Amadou Scattred Janneh sang Jammeh’s praises at a “meet the people tour” at his native coastal village. I remember the first time I met Manlafi Jarju in his “elegant ride” and smoky cigar and tried to remember if he and Scattred Janneh were the same people of Gambia L fame. I remember how Manlafi Jarju regained my respect when he spoke at a meeting I witnessed. I remember a lot. Some things are better left to memory and will be too much for The Standard but others will do a reading population some good. Through it all I remembered where I hailed from and tried as much as I could to keep my head down and to appreciate every second of it as a learning experience. I’d had a gun ‘cocked’ to my face for the silliest reason, called to the NIA for a reason I still cannot figure out amongst other things, but through it all, I kept my poise, earned my respect and continued to love this country I call home and to want to do everything I could to help it become a better place.

It was in Sindola that I first met Baba Jobe as he and a number of his friends entertained us with a swimming contest which he won. I remember very well my interactions with him which were always cordial and to the point. There were no friendly visits; no introductions to family; strictly business. Those were the days of the infamous Money Shop and the days of the Babanding Cissokhos, when Gambians would line up for solutions to their problems; a trait which has always been a part of our culture with our wealthy and one which I always found confusing.

Throughout this period I was an observant ‘student’ without notes enjoying the dynamics of a very vibrant political structure which many do not see. From the outside it seems dull and grey but within you see the colors that create a fanfare of sorts. This was The Gambia I came to see in those 2 to 3 years. It was a Gambia I came to understand and respect. If I took anything home with me, it was the fact that humility was the key to a proper education and I tried to the best of my ability to stay true to just that.

By age 20 I was off for university studies and believed the world would come calling. I was to learn my first bitter lesson in Gambian politics during my first few months of University. Again, this is another story I would leave for another day but it was truly a turning point in my life and an important pillar of the person I have now become. I chose to stay away from the politics and to focus on the causes. We must realise that active politics is not for everyone. Where some of us have grown a thick skin for the confusing realities it comes with, some of us are not ‘born ready’.

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