From a near school dropout from Farafenni to a doctorate degree in the USA, what a story of a determined scholar! Who is Baba Galleh Jallow?
Just an ordinary village boy from Farafenni who, as you rightly indicate, was a near school drop-out who managed to beat some formidable odds to finally land a Masters in Liberal Studies from Rutgers University, New Jersey in 2005 and a PhD in History from the University of California at Davis in 2011. I now teach African and World History at beautiful La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the US. Above all a top Gambia lover I must add.
How did you foray into journalism, by chance I hear?
Yes, we might say that it was by chance that I became a journalist. When I was doing my undergraduate studies at Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone, I was what you might call a student journalist. Upon graduation I worked briefly for the National Council for Arts and Culture as a research assistant then the West African Examinations Council as an Assistant Registrar. It was during my years at WAEC that I started running a short story column called “Story of the Week” for the Daily Observer. Exactly a week after the July 22, 1994 coup I left WAEC and was appointed assistant editor of the Observer by Mr Kenneth Best. That’s how my career as a professional journalist started.
Talking about the Daily Observer, you abruptly resigned from your post after the sale of that paper in 1999. Can you explain why?
Yes, I resigned as editor-in-chief of the Daily Observer shortly after it was bought by Amadou Samba. Following the sale Sarriang Ceesay was appointed the new managing director. He called me into his office and said that they would like me to stay on as editor-in-chief but that they were going to sack DA Jawo, current Minister of Information who was then our news editor. Mr Ceesay said Jawo’s sacking was part of a restructuring exercise by the new management, but I knew that his sacking had to do with the critical comments he made about the Jammeh regime in his weekly column.
So I told Mr Ceesay that if they sacked Jawo I was going to resign because I could not edit a paper that sacked journalists for their opinion. After that I had a series of meetings with Mr Ceesay and the proprietor at which we discussed the issue of Jawo’s sacking and my decision to resign if that were to happen. I was made a very attractive offer to stay on at least for a few months. I would be given a car, a hundred percent salary increase and even a house if I needed one. But I was adamant that I could not edit a paper that sacked journalists for their opinions and that if they sacked Jawo I would leave. They either did not have much say in the matter of Jawo’s sacking or they did not think I was serious. Jawo was handed his termination letter on a Sunday and the next day Monday I tendered my resignation to Sarriang Ceesay. That’s what happened.
The Independent was your next destination and it too had a turbulent history. Tell us about that and why you left for the US
Yes, about a year before the Observer was sold I knew that the paper was not going to survive as it was. In-house, I had to fight very hard to maintain the paper’s independent editorial policy. The then management was concerned that the paper was going to be closed or that the properties they tendered as sureties for the paper’s registration were going to be confiscated by the government. As editor-in-chief, I told that management that as long as I was editor-in-chief, I was going to maintain the independent editorial policy and professional integrity of the paper. I knew that their fears were well-founded because following Mr Best’s deportation the Jammeh regime intensified its repression of the paper. All foreign nationals were banned from working at or writing for the paper. Many of them were deported, including Ellicott Seade the Ghanaian editor-in-chief after Mr Best.
I was repeatedly arrested by the NIA and the Police Serious Crimes Unit sometimes alongside Mr Jawo, some reporters and other staff. Immigration officers were stationed at the paper’s gate 24/7 to check the papers of all who walked into the premises. So I knew that the paper was unlikely to survive. So even before the sale, I had put in place a Plan B, namely, to start a newspaper that would continue the tradition of independent journalism that would suffer at the Observer under a new management. That paper was The Independent. The rest as they say is history.
The Gambia obviously had other private newspapers aside from The Independent. What were you doing differently from others that Jammeh felt so uncomfortable as to burn its press and eventually close it down?
Well some of the private newspapers like The Point and Foroyaa also practiced a respectable level of independent journalism at the time. I think we were probably more reckless if you like in our brand of independent journalism. I could not tolerate self-censorship at all. And so perhaps our editorials were too hard-hitting sometimes. We really cannot claim any superiority at all over any other paper that existed in those days. But I know that we were uncompromisingly independent and had as our motto “Truth is our Principle”. Perhaps that rankled and rattled the government too.
Exile came next. How did you spend your 17 years outside The Gambia?
Yes, exile came next and I was in exile for 17 years. Apparently, Jammeh saw our starting of The Independent as a personal affront, a challenge to him personally. And so the repression followed us. Within three weeks of hitting the newsstands the paper was forced to close for alleged failure to register. We had to hire a lawyer to help us register because there were attempts to stop us from doing so by the government. When we resumed the NIA and Police Serious Crimes Unit arrests and detention continued; on one occasion all the paper’s staff including layout editors, accounts office personnel and all reporters present were herded into two vehicles and briefly detained at NIA headquarters in Banjul.
Following that the paper was petrol bombed twice and then our new Heidelberg press was burnt to ashes by agents of the Jammeh regime. We reported extensively on the April 10 and 11, 2000 student massacres and came out with a lot of hard-hitting editorials about the injustice of it all. When after the report of the commission of inquiry into the event Jammeh decided to arbitrarily close the case without any further action or justice for the victims, I remember us coming out with particularly hard-hitting editorials. Shortly after that the government claimed that I was not a Gambian. Immigration officers were sent to interrogate me at our offices, then located at Westfield. My parents were subsequently arrested in Farafenni and interrogated at length on where they came from, where I was born, etc. Their ID cards were permanently seized.
Around that time I also heard from a source at the Immigration department that the government was planning to deport me. Where to, I don’t know. My parents’ persistent worries about my safety and my own concerns caused me to tell the Consular Officer at the US Embassy that I needed a visa. I got it without any difficulty at all and left for the United States in September 2000.
Once I regularised my status in the US, I applied and was accepted into the Master’s Program in Liberal Studies at Rutgers University, Camden Campus. I graduated in May 2005 and was accepted into the doctoral program in African Studies at Howard University. A year later I transferred to the doctoral program in African History at the University of California at Davis. Upon graduation in 2011, I got a job teaching African history at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska where I spent four years. Two years ago I accepted an offer to transfer to La Salle University in Philadelphia where I currently teach. That’s how I spent my 17 years in exile; in addition of course to writing against dictatorship in The Gambia all the time.
Have you ever regretted leaving this country?
No. Not at all. I would do it all over again if conditions warranted. And thank God, my time in exile was not wasted at all. And let me just say that while I left this country physically, I have never left it mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I have always been right here, in a very real sense.
You seem to have a penchant for satire. How did you come to have an affinity for satire?
Well I started writing at a very early age, short stories, mostly adapted from films I watched at Chaku Bantang cinema or Odeon Cinema in Farafenni. Or sometimes they were based on folktales I heard from my grandma Jarrai and others in our community. I wrote my first book length collection of short stories during a three year period when my father had pulled me out of school. I was in form three. Hence my almost school dropout experience. You see my father did not like school as much as I did.
He thought that I liked reading so much because I wanted to be a Toubab, a white man; and for him being a Toubab was synonymous with being a kaffir, an infidel. So he pulled me out of school several times and the last time I was out for about three years. When I showed the collection to James Alkali Gaye, the former Tourism minister who was then headmaster of Farafenni Secondary School, he persuaded my father to allow me to return to school. In high school I came across a book titled The Satirist. I forget the author now but I read it over and over again because it was so interesting. My interest in satire grew directly out of that book. I first started writing satire after graduating from FBC and while working at WAEC. My first satires were carried in the Weekend Observer as “Story of the Week”.
Have you ever wished you never left The Gambia?
Well I would have loved to stay in The Gambia and continue contributing to the national project in my own little way. Exile is a very difficult experience. You are always at home yet you can’t go home. Your parents, relatives, friends get sick and pass away and you can’t come home. However, like I said I have no regrets whatsoever. It was a fair price to pay for the right to freely express my opinions and help end dictatorship in The Gambia.
No sooner you returned than you picked up lecturing at UTG. Do you wish to stay in academia or do you have other (bigger) plans?
Well I am just visiting this time around. The arrangement to serve as a Visiting Professor for the Masters in African History Program at UTG was made prior to my departure from the US. Let me just say that once a journalist, always a journalist and once an academic, always an academic. I’m not sure I have any bigger plans but I remain open to contributing in any way I can to the development of my country.
In your short interaction with students at the university, do you see hope for this county in those students?
Oh absolutely yes. I have had very brief interactions with them, a couple of class meetings; but I must say I am extremely impressed by their energy, interest and engagement. Yes I do I see hope for this country in them. And I must say I see hope for this country everywhere I look. The energy and youthfulness I see around is electrifying and very, very promising for this country. I think our collective national challenge is to tap that energy and channel it in the best possible directions.
You have formed the New Gambia Movement with the “primary objective of transforming The Gambia into a politically enlightened and empowered Family Nation”. How has that been going?
It has been going very well. This objective, of course, is not going to be actualized overnight. It is what you might call a revolving objective in that it represents an unfolding process that disappears into the future. We believe that one of the best ways if not the best way to prevent dictatorship in a country is to politically enlighten and empower the citizens. At the same time, we had to grapple with the challenge of finding a workable ideological framework for our work which we found in the concept of the Family Nation – the nation as one big Gambian family in which the people are the parents, the government the children.
What we are trying to do is transpose the values of a traditional Gambian family onto our public and political systems. In other words, we are not only repeating the common idea that Gambia is one big family. We are trying to help build a Gambia in which the relationships between government and people is in all practical respects a relationship between children and their parents at the national political level. And we plan to broadly pursue this objective through the agency of the nation as school, what we call the Nation School. That is, conceptualize and treat the entire country as one big school in which everyone is a student learning about things like our national constitution, the doctrine of the separation of powers, the rule of law, the United Nations, etc., in English but also in all our national languages. In that regard we envision the establishment of an Institute for Gambian Studies or a Gambian Studies Centre that will oversee and implement this aspect of our work.
We launched the NGM on January 2, 2017 and so far we have about 214 members all over the world. We have a Gambia Chapter, a UK Chapter, a Norway/EU Chapter and a US Chapter. We are registered as a civil society organization here in The Gambia and are in the process of registering in the U.S. and the UK. In line with our idea of The Gambia as a family nation, we have launched three projects so far: The Feed the Family Project, Heal the Family Project and Gambilondi Research Project. We have a very dynamic Gambia Chapter under the leadership of Dr Pierre Gomez and Mrs. Nahla Tambadou that has implemented several Feed the Family initiatives by contributing to a few religious and charitable institutions – both Muslim and Christian – around the Greater Banjul Area. We also contributed gloves, boots and other cleaning materials to a group of Banjul youths who started cleaning the gutters with their bare hands and with no nose masks or boots. This July we hope to formally launch the Heal the Family Project whose objective include contributing medical supplies, facilitating training and internships for Gambian medical workers, and encouraging international support for The Gambia’s health system and infrastructure among other things.
This is all part of our public engagement process on The Gambia as a Family Nation. Readers interested in learning more about the New Gambia Movement can visit our website at www.newgambia.org for more information about our mission and activities.
Now that you are back I am sure those who knew you back in the day as a journalist would ask themselves: are we going to see The Independent revived or are you going to establish a new paper?
Well let me just clarify that I am not back yet; I’m just visiting after a very long time in exile. But I do hope and pray to be back as soon as conditions permit, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. I’m not sure I want to revive The Independent. However, I’m not ruling out the possibility of starting another paper.
If the government comes calling, will you ditch UTG and accept the offer?
Like I said, my work at UTG is just as a temporary visiting professor teaching in their Master’s Program in African history. I love it and would love to do it again until such a time that I am home permanently. I’m not sure I would want to ditch the UTG at all, now or in the future. But if I am considered worthy of consideration for public service, I will certainly give it serious consideration.
Finally, if you could do things differently, what would you have done differently?
I’m not sure I would want to do anything differently even if I could. I’m just thankful to God that I have been contributing in my own little ways to the wellbeing of my country and that there is some general public recognition of my efforts. Going forward, I hope to be able to continue making similar and hopefully bigger contributions to the success of our national project.