Although he died 28 years ago, Oustadh Umar Bun Jeng remains one of the most poignant voices on the airwaves in The Gambia in the propagation of the word of Allah.
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, was not petty and personal but never shied away from speaking the truth. And perhaps more endearingly, he refused to be boxed – socially, tribally or politically. For him, there was only one party, His’bullah, The Party of Allah!
Like the legendary kora avatar, Lalo Keba Drammeh, many attempted to appropriate Umar Bun Jeng. The Senegalese say he is theirs. Malians claim him from distant ancestry while Gambians say he is, in blood and spirit, a Gambian. Was he born near Sirimang in Senegal or Massembeh in Kiang? Was he a Wolof, Tukulorr or Mandinka? And was his surname in fact Dem, Jeng or Fofana?
According to his close family members and biographer Abu Abdu-Rahman Ceesay, Bun Jeng was born in 1946 in Kerr Bakary Camara, Sokone, Senegal. His father named him Bunannah after Cherif Bounannah Haidara of Choff Yorr in Senegal.
According to excerpts from his biography in the possession of his family in Gunjur, the ancestors of Umar Bun Jeng hailed from the ancient Malian city of Djenne. His great grandfather was Abdul Rahman Dem, a Tukulorr. He followed the Qadiriyyah sect and studied in the majlis of Kankan Musa in Timbuktu and in Nimsat, Mauritania before later settling in Ndiassane, Senegal where he died.
He had two sons, 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.
Lamin Timbuktu later left Binako intending to settle in Ndiassane but during a transit through the Kiang village of Massembeh, he saw young Binta Tabally, the daughter of the alkalo, fell in love with her and took 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 was called Saad Abihi corrupted by the locals into the name Sadidou.
Young 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 Massembeh with their mother. While in Kiang, their surname Dem, was changed to Demba and Demba-Jang by the Mandinkas. 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. Sadibou named his son Umar Bunannah, later shortened to Umar Bun.
Young Umar began his early tutelage in 1952, in Kerr Bakary Camara village under Moustapha Lo and his son Habib who 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 are 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 Oustadh Bun told The Standard in Gunjur during research for this article.
Bun Jeng also studied under Mbaye Dramé in Kerr Ngata and Moukhtarr Houlaye Turé of Niumbaato where he completed memorising the Qur’an and received the ijaazah. He then went on to study under other masters in the region including Sheikh Ali Saho at Medina Serign Mass.
Upon the completion of his studies in Senegal and The Gambia, he became a teacher. In 1981, he received a scholarship to attend King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. Upon his return, he was posted to Gunjur Primary School. The appointment to the Kombo coastal village pleased Bun because he was told by a clairvoyant as a young boy that that was the place where he would meet his destiny and realise self-fulfillment.
In Gunjur, 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 (Khadijah Ndour, Binta Camara, Fatima Saho, daughter of Qadi Alieu Saho, and Tida Cham from Sukuta) 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 16th September 1995 at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Banjul in the presence of his friend Dr Bolong Bojang of Brikama and his in-law Alieu Saho and one of the wives. Sheriff Kebba Hydara of Brufut led his janaazah and thousands of faithful converged at Gunjur to accompany him to his final resting which was beside that of Sheikh Hatab Bojang, that ever-lucent soul of Dabanani.