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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Remembering Koro Ceesay

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By Sheriff Bojang

If he had been born a son of Kombo like my native Brikama, they would have been called Jung. Jung indeed, although he did not live in the early 1900s or write a book called Dreams. Nor was the best known quote he left the world: “In the superstition of all times and races, the dream has been regarded as a truth telling oracle. The occurrence of prospective dreams cannot be denied…” That was from another Jung… Carl Gustav. Indeed, the only thing I read which our Jung wrote was some dissection of the Gambian economy on the pages of the Daily Observer in early 1994. As for a quote he’d left the world? I don’t know, perhaps: ‘Why are you trying to kill me?’ Only my guess, since, come up to say, no one was there when he was dying. Or supposedly, we are meant to believe.

Our Jung has now morphed, existing only in our torturous dreams and fading pained memories. But 22 years ago this week, he was real. He had bones and flesh with hot blood running in his body – handsome, young, black and proud – every mother’s dream son.
But let me explain lest you do not understand why I call him Jung. You see in Mandinka, or at least in Kombo Mandinka lores, almost every name has an appendage called Jindiragn’o: Bakary becomes Dembo, Kaddy becomes Siroh, Alaji becomes Bambo, Musa becomes Bala, Mbemba becomes Kemo and so forth. So, if I doff my peacock hat and want to impress you that I am some cultured young Mandinka bloke, I’d say, Jung instead of the more common Ousman, for that was Koro Ceesay’s name.

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His father was a teacher who was known as plain ‘Master Ceesay’, a man belonging to the pedantic orthodox school of Kekoto Maane who insisted on spelling his name ‘Sise’. His mother was a more interesting woman of sorts called Fatmatta Sanyang. She once served as a nominated Member of Parliament in Jawara’s House of Representatives.
“Ousman loved and lived for Africa. He always told me that Africa is on the threshold of a golden era. He believed so much in the vitality of Africa’s youth. I think that was why he accepted to join the ranks of AFPRC,” Fatmatta told me when I interviewed her during one of those days of grief after losing her son.

He was born on 10 March 1962. His grandmother gave him the name ‘Koro’ a corruption of the classical Mandinka term nkoro (nkoto) meaning my elder sibling. Koro was a toddler when the Sises were transferred from Brikama to Pakalinding School. His mother remembered how she would put him in a cardboard box at the back of her class with a feeding bottle of glucose water tilted by his mouth. “He was active then, and when we had our end-of-term drama shows, he would hop on stage and sing ‘Ayo toti, toti wo toti…’ she recalled with lachrymose, tears welling in her eyes. He grew up into a brawny lad, an admirable wrestler and loved hunting small game.

After years of crisscrossing the rugged terrain of provincial Gambia with his roving teacher parents, in 1974, Jung took his Common Entrance Examinations at Serekunda Primary School and was admitted to Gambia High School. “One thing he was emphatic about was that this country needed good agriculturist more than anything,” Fatmatta recalled. After two years at the Soil and Water Management Unit – where he probably met Baba Jobe and was introduced to his brand of Libyan inspired revolutionary African socialism – he went on a Gambia Government award to the University of Legon, Ghana and despite a lost semester, graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics entitling him to a scholarship for a master’s degree programme at the University of New South Wales, Armidale, Australia.

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Upon his return, Koro was made economic adviser to the National Investment Board chief executive. Unimpressed with government service, after 36 weeks, he left to set up an IT firm with Muhammed Jah and others. After the ouster of then Finance minister Bakary Dabo in the wake of the bloody November 11 putsch, he was appointed Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs and appointed honorary member of the all-powerful inner cabal military council. He quickly became a star of the cabinet and Chairman Jammeh’s favourite.

Months after Jawara, his Boeatian ministers and Dan Quayle-ish vice president fled and a few weeks after Koro was made minister, Chairman Jammeh made a ceremonial visit to the new Village Royale of Kanilai. I was there and I saw how Jammeh would turn to him, whisper something in his ear and both would beam as if in a mischievous conspiracy to lace babyfaced Ebou Jallow’s morning croissant with ricin!
During the one-hour-odd dance spectacle that was laid out for Jammeh that afternoon by his people, not even the then First Lady, Tuti Faal, commanded the greater attention of the head of state than Koro. Later that day, as the visitors with the Chairman in the lead were showing the tourists around Kanilai, I bumped into Koro sitting in a white Nissan pick-up listening to his favourite Indian music on the car stereo. It was not a classical composition by the sitar-playing Ravi Shankar. It was not cassette of a soundtrack from the Amitabh Bachchan 1983 epic film Andha Kanoon about the struggles of Jan Nissar Akhtar Khan (Bachchan), a forest officer, with poachers illegally cutting sandal wood trees. He probably bought the CD from VP Records on Sayerr Jobe Avenue.

It was not until later that I understood why Koro would be listening to such music – music I’d deem too sissified for an iron-pumping alpha male like him. But that was Koro, he was himself. And what he wanted to listen to, he would listen to. He was comfortable with himself. Yes, he was not so modest as to declare like one of the urban dervishes in the PDOIS triumvirate that he will only wear one pair of khaki trousers, one shirt and one brown flip-flops for one year, but he was humble enough to refuse being chauffeured around town in the posh ministerial Merc seized from Jawara’s ministers and shared among Jammeh’s civilian ministers.
That day in the Village Royale was the first of many interactions I was to have with Koro. He gave me the impression he was a patriot – not the scoundrel type now mushrooming all over the town – who thought he could contribute positively towards the promised ‘African Renaissance’.

I could vividly remember on 18 June 1995 when I called Koro at his bachelor’s pad in London Corner, Serekunda and I was told he wasn’t in. I tried his mother’s house behind Aisha Marie Cinema and he was not in either. Finally, I got him at his office at The Quadrangle late that evening, to get a story on the preview of the 1995/96 fiscal year budget he was to deliver the following week. “I am sorry, I am doing the final vettings at the moment, call me later,” he told me, replacing the handset. I didn’t know it would be the last time I would talk with him.

Three days later, on a Sunday morning, I left Brikama for our Bakau offices when I heard the news that Koro had died the previous night. Like many who heard the news that sun-shy wet morning, it came as a rude shock. ‘It is impossible,’ I told myself. ‘How could this man, a taekwondo fighter of some merit, healthy and fit as a fiddle the last time I saw him, possibly have died so suddenly?’ I went to his family house and there were the mad, frenzied crowds of wailing women and men. I talked to Koro’s father, a brave man. I went to see his mother. What could she tell me? Her dripping tears just thud, thud down, creating a pool in my notebook. Koro was her only son. How I pray that I never again see the agony of a mother grieving for her only dead son!
Leaving the dolour of the Sise residence, I hitchhiked to Jambur, an offbeat village 33km somewhere southwest of Banjul. A few hundred metres south of the laidback village, a gravel paved trunk road runs from Serekunda towards Gunjur. Taking the path that snakes out of the village, one arrives at a culvert on the road. And there it was; the sedan Benz in which Koro supposedly died, standing against the metal railings of the culvert; incinerated, reduced to a macabre burnt grey chassis against a red sea of wet gravel and green woodlands populated by chirruping insects.

Did the car slam into the little bridge causing an explosion leading to the death of Koro? Perhaps the front bumpers would have shown if they were not burnt. But certainly, there was no dent on the metal frame of the Benz nor on the metal rods of the culvert, which would have been manifest in the event of such an impact. The charred remains of Koro had been removed earlier and taken to Banjul’s Royal Victoria Hospital. As I scurried around and inside the car, all I found were small human bones, broken glasses and pieces of metal. The police forensic scientists or whoever had been there before me had left. So I helped myself to a sample of my findings in a canvas bag as ‘editorial evidence’ in my overzealousness (my editor, Kenneth Best, later returned the bones to Koro’s parents, I guess with much apologies).

While I was there playing the intrepid reporter, the women of the village, on their way to the paddy fields, would stop, gaze at the burnt car, put their hands over their gasping mouths and suddenly hurry on. I wondered, was there a superstition attached to burnt cars and dead unmarried sons among the villagers? Carl Gustav Jung’s Dreams could not tell, not even the Chinese Ching or Book of Changes.

A short while later, a police long vehicle came and towed the charred Benz away. I followed it to the Serekunda traffic police garage, then returned to the Sise residence again. A sea of people. Tears. And glum faces! The grief and pain was so thick in the air, you could smell it and cut it with Ba Fadinding’s knife. I couldn’t help but make a mental comparison with the scene in Mariam Ba’s Une si longue lettre. How many of the tears were genuine? How many were there because the bug of curiosity was biting them?
But analysis of such effete social mannerisms would find no place in my Monday report for Best’s Daily Observer, so I went to the Royal Victoria Hospital to learn something about the autopsy. After the hours of waiting and running between the autopsy and X-ray rooms, all the pithy quote I heard was a loud pained ‘Aaagh!’ from a Dr Sana Ceesay, a cousin of Koro’s who is a medical doctor at the MRC, when the X-ray film was developed. I later asked him why he aaaghed. For a reply, he gave me a blank look, as if he was neither conscious of my presence nor my question or that it was too painfully forbidden to speak about.

A few days later, Koro’s remains were given back to his people and they covered it in seven pieces of white linen, lowered it two feet into a hole in the ground and hurriedly filled it up with black earth. The AFPRC government promised to investigate and tell us the circumstances under which Koro died. They did not. So, the turbo wheels of Radio Kankang, that ever-verdant rumour mill, went into hyperdrive.
I had written 17 articles on Koro’s mysterious death in the ensuring five years and interviewed two secretaries of state for the Interior, Sadibou Haidara and his successor. Both told me they found nothing, arguing the onus was on the people who knew something about Koro’s death to come forward.

Who would know anything if not for the unanswered questions: Was Koro’s death a suicide? Why would he want to kill himself? Why was he driving – if he was – alone on that deserted back road that rain-soaked night after seeing off President Jammeh at the airport? Harrowing questions, but one day, indeed one day, the linen shall be washed clean. As Winston Churchill said 56 years ago, this case is, at least by public knowledge, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

Jammeh honourably and publicly apportioned himself blame for Koro’s death in one statement. But how much more honourable would it be if he goes beyond the rhetoric, translate the sentiment into deeds and make sure the Sise family and the country get a satisfactory explanation of the mysterious death. I find it pathetic, almost ironical when the head of state promised to leave no stone unturned in finding out the circumstances leading to the death of an alleged mentally deranged Gambian in the UK while Koro, an AFPRC council and cabinet member, died under the most mysterious of circumstances and no such fuss has been made over it!
Indeed, if the government could investigate the burning of Jato, a small naval boat, then it can surely investigate the burning of Koro, a sitting minister of state. I hope it is not a case of the drummer sitting on the drumstick. Then, as the Mandinkas say, the drumbeat will never be heard. Hmmm! The government is under a strong moral obligation to act and tell us what they really know about the death. It would be sad, wouldn’t it be, if despite all the good things they’ve done, the military government would allow one ugly incident to obfuscate their image and haunt their legacy. Let these words ring in their ears as they take to their pillows tonight, remember there’s a place:
There, earth’s tears are dried
There, its hidden things are clear
There, the work of life is tried
By a Juster Judge than here.
This article was first published in the Daily Observer on 25th June 2000.

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