I had absolutely no desire to ramble this Friday. I have been a broke guy all week and the last thing I wanted to do was to cheer people up while I suffered in silence. Hell no! I am not that generous. The days of the week passed interminably and I had already received dozens of messages asking if there would be Gibramble. I would always say no, as I had a more pressing issue to handle. I am stranded and stranded in this country. Then on Wednesday, our annoying layout editor Saha also walked into my office with the same inquiry. He suggested I should write about being broke. The problem with that suggestion is that a broke Talib is an uninspired Talib. I struggle to write when I don’t have money and I didn’t know staying away from rice for a month would multiply my expenditure. I do not subscribe to the idea that money is the root of all evils. It is the root of my writing. Few minutes after conversing with Saha, I thought of finally, and publicly, paying tribute to a special chap who could have been a mansa if he so desired, for he is a mansa by heritage.
Back in senior school, I thought there were no good Gambian writers. The syllabus was littered with foreign literature, from Africa to Europe. I didn’t appreciate Gambian literature because I didn’t see enough until I read The Magic Calabash, an immortal book written by the venerable Nana Grey-Johnson. In that book, I read with undivided attention, as Erubami wrestled a gnome for an hour just to steal his hat. The fight was wearing both down but Erubami, determined and resilient, headbutted and kicked the gnome, finally going away with his hat and becoming noticeably very rich until the police suspected his sudden affluence emanated from stealing Grandma Lucy’s valuables and not from stealing the gnome’s hat. Immaculately and with striking penmanship, Nana Grey-Johnson painted a vivid picture of the economic situation of the country at the time. That novel is still relevant in 2023 as I continue to fight poverty and I am losing the battle. Right there, holding The Magic Calabash after reading it, I decided he is the best writer in the country. The creativity was beyond my level. I have since read lots of works by Gambian writers but my concept of who was the best completely changed when I started reading essays by Baba. Not the political Baba, who told the young ones sniffing his seat to step back like ANC officials did for Mandela. I only hope there is no Jacob Zuma in the names he mentioned. I mean the literary Baba Sheriff Bojang.
I first saw Sheriff in 2013 when I joined TODAY Newspaper as a cub reporter. I was being trained how to write news when he pulled over in his red convertible. Tall, thick Socratic hair (or should I say Soyinka hair?) neatly afroed, black shades and a commanding voice. He walked in and went straight to my boss, Hamid Adiamoh, and the two geniuses engaged in a long conversation with gales of laughter bellowing from the office. If you know Sheriff, you know he has a unique laughter and he would almost unconsciously caress his soul patch while laughing. Prior to seeing him for the first time, I had read dozens of his essays, which felt like reading Finnegans Wake. Even that took the author nearly two decades to write, as I belaboured to understand his idiosyncratic style. Indeed, he was not writing for me. Sheriff was like a bully in Gambian literature. The kind of bully who makes you pretend you’re gay in front of girls and only pursue your desires when you could stand up to him. Each time I wrote something, I had to bin it because of the bar he set. He was a literary bully. Fortunately for the young writers now, that BAR got on the plane with Jammeh to the Obiang land. But, unfortunately for the young writers, we no longer have anyone to police our writings, except the great Fodeh Baldeh, who is apparently tired now because there is no improvement in those he devotedly corrects through social media. Creative writing, which every young Gambian writer is strangely an expert in now, was Sheriff’s forte and he held the fort for decades. He writes like no other. His ability to blend humour with horror and still make it hypnotic was unmatched.
That same year, 2013, I got enrolled at the GPU School of Journalism. Sang Mendy has now renamed the school after his tribe Manjag. Oops, I mean Majac. Sheriff was then introduced to us as our advanced English Language teacher. I thought I would struggle to understand a teacher whose writings confused me but he went down to the basics with us. I remember during one of our spelling tests, he asked us to spell Edward Singhatey, the cute former junta vice. That was easy, I thought. Then I spelled the surname as ‘Singhateh’. It was the only way I believed the surname should be spelled and the only way I knew how. The lesson was, as journalists, we have no right to decide how people’s names should be spelled. We must spell them as they are and if we don’t know how, we must ask them the right spelling. That lecture room was where Sheriff and I built a strong bond and he unsuccessfully tried to poach me from TODAY Newspaper. We however got closer and he was the first minister whose office I visited just to chat with him. I ended up working at Standard Newspaper but when he was already deep in the Jammeh holy water.
Sheriff is not only popular because people love his writings. The writings are for readers. He is popular because of his generosity, both with knowledge and means. He has trained, groomed, employed countless people who are earning their living thanks to him. I am not exaggerating when I said countless. He doesn’t even know the number. If everyone who benefitted from Sheriff does what the beneficiaries of Turo Darboe do—tell the world about it—then he will run into hiding because others will seek him like Gina Bass. I mean the drug, not the sprinter. For the past eight years at his company, I have basked in his generosity and demanded hadiya from him. He is named after a Sheriff. I am a Sheriff. He has given me all kinds of things; from hats to prayer beads. Now he has given me a hair cream. I am happy he did not find out what the DAX made me do with my hair.
Sheriff was nationally loved for his astonishing writings and Jammeh, being both an admirer and a killer of talent, absorbed him into the system. Like many of Jammeh’s disciples, Sheriff too graduated with a few of his traits. He’s become a real Sufist—doing regular zikr and fasting on Mondays and Thursday—and will always begin a speech with alhamdulillahi rabbil alameen three times. A typical Jammeh protégé is either very dangerous or very religious. Maybe protégé is a strong word and unfair to some who sprouted on their own but Jammeh has a weird way of siring. The very dangerous one is Baitulai al-mahrus, who is now silenced in the prisons of Senegal. The very religious one is Sabs, who is now a political commando, KanaSong.
There was quiet excitement among his King Appai followers when he returned from a short exile in Senegal that the essays also gained freedom. But he has since only managed to write STFU and a moving news article from my grandma Asombi’s burial. Okay, that is harsh. He did more. Instead of writing, he has been indiscriminately reading books with the potential to make him the next Dona Beatriz or Simon Kimbangu, creating his own religion and he would numerically rival Bahai. We waited to be fed with proper essays but even HUBRIS, which we all thought would guide us into the mind of a dictator who fell in love with him, was shorter than SK Njie’s stint as information minister.
I am tempted to say we lost Sheriff but, like Paulo Coelho said, no one loses anyone because no one owns anyone and, in the end, the most interesting people always leave. I think Sheriff has left but we still await his re-emergence in the literary scene because the country needs it or is it going to be Jammeh’s protracted return to power? Belated happy birthday, Baba Sheriff Bojang Sankaranka, the bard from Brikama. Aside from Landing Kintiba, none is truly more deserving of this Shakespearean word. There is no one, born on this land or of this land, who has a more fertile brain than you. We are all your clones. You’re the original; the GOAT.