Sheriffo, the bard becomes minister for words


But the first task of the new minister for Words is to tell Appai that he doesn’t have to use let-me-make-one-thing-very-clear a dozen times in one speech. And to inform Aja Dr Madam Indeed that she no longer has monopoly over the word Indeed. Yea, I too, can use it, indeed. And to tell the minister for Back-to-the-land that the thing that he caresses on his wrist is called watch. But if it is a Rolex, he should remove it and wear Casio. Appai dictated that no minister should know the word Rolex until the year of the Vision. 

Ndeisan, I have lost my Sheriffo to the village council. I call him Sheriffo because I don’t know his name. He’s called Sheriff but etymologically, Sheriff refers to descendants of Muhammed Mustapha. He’s indeed named after one, but does that make him one? Perhaps, Sheriffo, yes, and that’s a compromise, given that my fellow ‘Nko’ people have the easiest rule in borrowing words from other languages. That is, simply add letter O after the last letter of every borrowed word. Such that the Wolof word ‘benachin’ (shh) becomes ‘benachino’ and the English word book becomes ‘booko’. Smile I often do whenever I am called ‘journalisho’. 

But why am I making much ado over what his name is or is not? After all, what’s in a name? Belie, if I ever am asked, I would make one thing very clear! Yes, I would say ‘a Rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, but the trouble is, human beings are not flowers. And, according to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, ‘its identity would no longer be expressed in terms of roses but instead would assume that of the new name’. The writer himself has abrogated his baptised name James Thiong’o because it was ‘colonialist’ and embraced the name given to him at birth by his Giguyu parents, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. 


Then, what’s in a name? When the 16 century king of Congo, Nzinga Mbemba – baptised Dom Alfonso – sent appeals for modern doctors from Portugal, they sent him Portuguese names. New names were forced onto slaves from Africa and the story was told of how our own Kunta Kinteh was persecuted for refusing to accept to be called who he was not. Moreover, when Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe landed on the Island of Guinea, he soon gave the man whose life he saved a new name.  

“And first I let him know that his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. Likewise I taught him how to say master and then let him know that was to be my name.” 

Crusoe did not know the name of the man and didn’t bother to ask. This man he named Friday no longer carries any memory of previous identity. 

Not just Africans, other people too suffer similar onslaught on their institution of names. Japanese names were imposed on Koreans when Japan occupied them in 1906. In fact, all seemed to be reading from the script of the 16 century British poet and colonial administrator, Edmund Spenser, whose deliberate policy of obliterating the Irish memory and identity through interference with their naming system is vividly captured in the following lines of his: 

“That from thenceforth each one should take unto himself several surnames, either of his trade or faculty of some quality of his body or mind… whereby they shall not only depend upon the head of their sept as now they do, but shall also in short time learn quite to forget his Irish nation. And therewithal would I also wish all the Oes and Macs, which the heads of the septs have taken to their names to be utterly forbidden and extinguished.”

The question persists: What’s in a name? From the foregoing, it appears that names have everything to do with how we identify, classify, and remember nouns and pronouns? If so, how would Sheriffo, called by any other name, be identified, classified and remembered? I wonder. Would he still be the bard with the word? I doubt not!

When 17 century British poet and essayist, John Milton, scolded the British Monarch to grant greater space for the exercise of the right to freedom of speech, his fellow Gambian essayist, Sheriffo, got his drift. For when he told a church leader to be mindful that the truth he was standing on might break under his feet, he was simply telling that man of God that his thought that he thought was the Gospel truth, must have the power to get itself accepted by the shoppers in the competition of Milton’s metaphoric marketplace of ideas. 

For 20 plus years, he has fought against any attempt to monopolise the truth, allowing everyone, from ‘kings to crocodiles’, to bring their views to the table. And, in what was to be his last essay before joining the village council, he even told Mansa Appai that he had to say what had to be said, and he feared his head could be cut. But Appai is a smart man. He did not cut his head for that will be too much blood. But by making him minister responsible for all his words in the village, will Appai not cut Sheriffo’s tongue? Or, was that not the message Madam Indeed put across to him when he told him that ‘you were in the private sector, now you’re in the government’ and these are two different working spaces. And then, the minister for the promotion of girls’ education did not even mince her words when she told him that he must use all the words he knows to launder the damaged image of the country. Since Sheriffo accepts to be called Honourable This and Honourable That, there’s not much option for him.  

Ndeisan, I have lost my Sheriffo to the village council. Who will now tell Mansa Appai that the gods are angry with him whenever he offends them? Will I ever see him polishing the shoes of his employees or cleaning the dishes and glasses after lunch or brunch? Yes, he was that humble! Oh, Sheriffo has a new name: Minister Bojang. What’s in this new name? Will Sheriffo called by this name still be the bard? The last time I met him, I saw him eating using the same spoon he’d been using before assuming his new name. He still walks and laughs in his styles. But he also has something that was not there before he assumed his new name: a policeman. When I wrote the fiction ‘Bachelors By Choice’ he averred that I was referring to him and threatened me that he would send his policeman after me. I would have chickened out had he not laughed it of. Names, therefore, have everything to do with how we identify, remember and classify nouns and pronouns. 

Ndeisan, I have lost my Sheriffo to the village council. Baffled I was when his phone was inundated with telephone calls and SMSs. I know some of the congratulators believed that life in the village council is not for someone like him, yet they congratulated him. Not that they had been the devil’s advocate, but they’ve learned so much lessons from others who’d been there before him. Appai keeps very few of his yesterday’s friends. Whether the congratulations were typical Gambian courtesy or genuine expression of happiness for him, I don’t know. I was tempted to betray my instinct and jump and join the chorus and tell him how happy I was for him, but I could not. 

I stood at a distance, the feeling of happiness and anxiety simultaneously running through. I was like a woman who watches her man leave for a battlefield, hoping that he returns with every flesh in his body intact. Obviously, like Achebe said of dictatorship, you like a martyr only when he’s not your husband, for no woman wants to deal with the loneliness. If only you know what occupied my thought, then you’ll understand why I felt so. Death, they say, causes loneliness and for us journalists, not all of our members are leaving us the way Lalo Samated did. Baboucarr Gaye and Sanna Manneh have regrettably gone. The Swaebous have done their bit and the Sheriffos who have taken from them are in acute shortage. Most of them have been forced to go to ‘Woula’. We’re suffering from loneliness! The ‘Bantangbas’ are falling and when they all did, the birds will likely be disarrayed. 

After many sleepless nights, my oracle finally arrived with this message:


Fear not, my child 

Born he was

In the royal house of Suma Kunda

Raised he was

In the glass house of Amadou Samba

And educated he was

In the knowledge house of Kenneth Best


I don’t need the power of clairvoyance to fathom the message. Sheriffo was born with everything handed to him. Neither money nor reputation motivated him to serve in the village council. But the oracle also asked me to remind him that:


Listen not, Sheriffo 

To those who say

My CV I will decorate

Yours is a task to fulfil 

Envy not, Sheriffo 

Those who say

My pocket I will fill

Yours is for others

Follow not, Sheriffo

To those who say 

Obey and complain

Yours is to do right


The following morning, I went to buy a TV only for the vendor to confront me: “We the people of Bakau love Sheriffo. If you want to have problem with us, just have problem with Sheriffo.” I wonder to whom this threat was directed. Then it occurred to me that it was not a threat, it was a simple message that came to me in my dream; to remind Sheriffo that anyone who knows him knows that he has nothing but the people. Now that he is with Mansa Appai, he also should still be with those people. There’s life after Mansa Appai and when that time comes, he will still be with the people. 

In fact, none could be more fitting than how  Sheriffo himself poetically put it in his Dr Owl’s Song: 


“Arise and warn and fear not a soul 

For you have the Word

And the Word is Truth!

In the beginning,

In the hour of Dikay,

There was the Word.

In the hour of Appai,

There is still the word.

And in the hour of The One

Who will come after Appai,

There will still be the Word.”