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Friday, October 30, 2020

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In a recent speech I did at the Islamic Online University, I said “in the beginning, there was the word, and the word was Iqra,” i.e “Read”; but then when I posted that line on social media, a former professor of mine put his own witty spin to it and said, the word was “Kun” (meaning the command word “Be” in Arabic).

 

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In a recent conversation I had with an Islamic scholar along the lines of the importance of words and stories, he gave me further insight by telling me that God’s work itself is based on ‘the word’, message…

So words, speaking, public speech, debate; these things are of utmost importance in the building and maintenance of all civilizations, present and past…

 

I want to encourage you to take this event that you are about to commence very seriously…

Last year when I came here to do a keynote speech for Debate Gambia, my arguments in making the case for public speaking ran along these lines, quoting American philosopher Orison Swet Marden:

 

 

“It does not matter whether you want to be a public speaker or not, everybody should have such complete control of himself, should be so self-centred and self-posed that he can get up in any audience, no matter how large or formidable, and express his thoughts clearly and distinctly.
“Self-expression in some manner is the only means of developing mental power. It may be in music; it may be on canvas; it may be through oratory; it may come through selling goods or writing a book; but it must come through self-expression.

 

“Self-expression in any legitimate form tends to call out what is in a man, his resourcefulness, inventiveness; but no other form of Self-expression develops a man so thoroughly and so effectively, and so quickly unfolds all of his powers, as expression before an audience.
“It is doubtful whether anyone can reach the highest standard of culture without studying the art of expression, especially public vocal expression. In all ages oratory has been regarded as the highest expression of human achievement. Young people, no matter what they intend to be, whether blacksmith or farmer, merchant or physician, should make it a study.”

 

Now just as I was about to get ready to come here for this speech, a few Quranic verse sprung to mind, and I wish to share them with you…

In Surah Baqarah verse 263 Allah tells us “kind speech and forgiveness are better than charity followed by injury…”

 

So as Gambians, young, smart energetic, and influential, we need to keep in mind that our words/utterances are of tremendous importance and therefore we need to treat public speaking/debate as sacred matter, worthy of our care and cultivation. What is the rise to power of Barack Obama other than the triumph of the art of oratory/debate?

 

 

A couple of years I started a series of essays in the Standard dubbed “Epistolatory”, where I penned epistles addressed to the. Editor-In-Chief and M.D, Sheriff Bojang. One of these pieces was centered on debate. I deem it fitting to share with you the content of that articles published, circa 2012.

 

 

Distinguished listeners, since this piece was addressed to Sheriff Bojang, I urge you to assume that you are a Prince from Brikama with ‘Afro hair’ and keen and sharp intellect of the highest order….

 

Room for debate?
Dear Sheriff,
I write to you on the above subject with great concern. I have observed over the years that our society is not very friendly to entertaining opposing thoughts on issues. Yet debate is very essential for the evolution of a healthy social system. Ours is a society well adept in censoring speech and thought and this is no recipe for innovation and meaningful change.

 

 

The degree of undue self-censorship in our society is astounding. I know something about the need for caution in public forums if one does not want to be misunderstood or misquoted but I see no crime/danger in asking the right questions or sharing your thoughts on matters of relevance to one’s field of expertise/responsibility in public office. I know of numerous technicians in high offices in government and the private sector who would not voice their opinion without censoring themselves for fear of reprisals from their superiors. Bring it down to the family level where kids are not supposed to have opinions on anything. How about wives who are just supposed to nod to whatever their husbands decree even if it be to the detriment of the entire family?

 

My friend, Why are our people so keen on constraining the expression of thought? Now how many beautiful and change-inspiring ideas do we crush daily because of this? Is it not the case, my good friend that the human mind was made to soar, to think to challenge tradition and to chart new courses for progress? It was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “towering genius disdains a beaten path, it seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” But how do we produce geniuses when our young ones are yoked to the old ways of thinking and doing. I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of the elderly telling you how they lived their lives and conducted the affairs of their society as if the scripts they narrated to you were gospel, cast in the hardest marble ever produced. We are not encouraged to think anew in this fast evolving world. We are coaxed and cajoled to stick to the ways of our ancestors but I do believe that if you want to live the scripts of a nineteenth century world in this day and time, you are doomed to failure and confusion.

 

 

My favourite columnist, David Brooks of the New York Times, once wrote “there is no idea so true and no movement so pure that it doesn’t require scrutiny. There was no position in this fallen world without flaws.” This statement had a profound impact on me as I reflected on our professional and social forums in The Gambia and my experience in regional conferences.

Now why are our people so averse to debate? Why can’t we stomach decent dissent? I remember Baba Galleh Jallow alluding to what he called “the ruthless objectivity” of intellectual discourse; but why can’t we embrace this kind of engagement for better policy.

 

 

Now I am not oblivious of the dangers of excessive freedom and I do know of the venom that is sometimes spewed from unruly loud mouths that have no regard for decency and decorum in dialogue but should this be reason enough to stifle debate?
Can’t we check the vice of unbridled utterances while avoiding stifling debate? I believe this can be done for as my eloquent mother would say in Mandinka “nyo kaanaa soso faa soso kaanaa nyo faa”.
I will not torture this beautiful proverb into any English rendition of it but for your non-Mandinka audience it simply calls for balance. We should discourage indecent dissent but as another of my mum’s favourite proverbs would put it “ning ye kaaba tey jusola ikaa ning bangkoe le domo” (if you break the kaba fruit with anger, you will eat it with sand.)

 

 

Sheriff, censorship has a long history but what purpose has it served and what benefit has it generated for societies. I would not be so presumptuous as to assume that your answer will tell me that censorship is totally bad for I do know that it does serve well someone, somewhere, somehow. But are the benefits commensurate with what malady and stagnation that it visits on the mind/society whose freedom of expression is held hostage?

 

 

If old roads lead to old cities then old thoughts and ways of thinking lead to states of mind and being devoid of progress. Let our young generation be encouraged to tread new mental paths leading to progressive states of mind and being. It was Henry David Thoreau who once said “if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Let us step to our own drums then. Why should I do your mbalah when my music is salsa?

 

And now my good friend, enough said/asked on this matter. Shall I not stop here so I can leave you with some room, for debate?
Your Friend in thought
Momodou Sabally

 

 

I hope you learned something from my epistle to Sheriff Bojang? On this note I hereby declare the Banjul Open Debate Tournament, 2017, officially launched.

Thank you for your kind attention.

This was a keynote speech at the official launch of the Banjul “Open Debate Tournament”, held at the University of The Gambia Faculty of Law, July 2, 2017.

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