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Saturday, March 2, 2024

The architects of our art

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It was about one of the oldest and perhaps the most   distinguished gifts given to humankind. Sheriff Bojang’s essay and musings on the formative years of his long and enviable career in the journalism realm highlighted a new trajectory that epitomises Gambian art.   

Innovation has since permeated the conscience of many budding writers which explains why over the years the number of published writers in the country has increased exponentially.  While every writer tries to harp on a particular genre based on the storyline and the characters involved, I suspect that most of the time, the writer is also conscious of the environment and the audience devouring whatever there is to be devoured. Having taken a good dose from some of the finest writers around the continent, Asia, Europe and the Americas, high school students such as Sheriff Bojang went into the newsroom with their precocious talent. The literary sophisication acquired at high school paid dividend for a writer who tried to live up to expectation by maintaining a sustained column which he coined as ‘Essay’. There is hardly any journalist or writer who accidently becomes one just like that; the individual has to be armed with the requisite tools to navigate the cosmos of writing and reading. As if he was soliloquying on stage, Sheriff Bojang eruditely retraced reminisced:

“The magic realism of writing essays became a lotus leaf for me. Sculpting a good essay became playing midwife to my imagination; a passageway to a sacral realm of my own derring-do flight of adventure.”

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The Lenrie Peters generation of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s had always been inured to obscurantism, for many young readers. Peters poetry exuded highfalutin language clothed in literary jargons that was very difficult for students who had not taken breakfast to understand.  It must have been tasking for someone like Sheriff Bojang who started journalism while a teenager to figure out how the best and the famous made names for themselves as writers. Here is a rich picking from his fertile mind:“In those halcyon days, when I was the poster boy of Gambian journalism and the toast of all – notably Deyda Hydara and Swaebou Conateh, when the essays come out well – as they often do – and I receive compliments from readers on the streets, I feel like an actor on a stage in a play which when it reaches its raucous climax, stands there bathed in glory, swamped in applause as he takes his sweaty bow, knackered but exhilarated.”

Peters is considered the father of Gambian literature in terms of his debut publication in 1967; the fact he was the first Gambian writer to do so shortly after the country gained independence, puts him on a firm pedestal.  Following on the footsteps of a great writer is never easy, however, for Sheriff Bojang, the issue is more or less simple: “The beauty of essay writing is the licence to thrill, which is almost impossible in the stern-structured news reportage.  Over the years, I have learnt that the writer is a product of a specific social background, personal history and education.”

What is apparently clear is that journalists have taken a huge chunk of the country’s literary space and are gradually moving away from “the stern-structured news reportage” to fiction. It is yet to blossom to that level of international fame and acclaim. Only time will tell, and only God, the Almighty knows if one day a Gambian will be included in that coveted world of learned men and women by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Outside the realm of journalism, in April 2005, a young Gambian scholar, a quiet and reticent man, shattered the country’s academic records by earning a Ph D in Gambian Literature. After the dust settled down, Dr Pierre Gomez set up a literary lab to share with academics his fountain of knowledge and years of painstaking   research on his new found genre – Gambian literature. 

Gambian literature? It sounds ridiculous for one to claim have found something which had been there since the age of enlightenment. However, the beauty of knowledge gathering is about emotive theories and counter-emotive strategies. 

After we earned our independence as a state, we tried to carve a niche in indigenous literature as Dr Gomez postulated. Today, as students study Gambian literature, they devour Baaba Silla, Ebou Dibba, Nana Grey Johnson, Fodeh Baldeh, Michael Hamadi Secka, Essa Colley, Samsideen Sarr, et cetera. 

If you doubt the authenticity or justification of Gambian literature, then the reader may be wallowing in Goethe’s world. For the German intellectual, literature is more or less the property of all civilisations. Marian Galik from Comenius University, Bratislava, argued that Goethe’s concept of world literature allowed for a wide variety of divergent interpretations resulting in the view that world literature cannot be identified either with the sum total of all literatures of the world or with the canon of sets of chef-d’ouevres. 


Great debate isn’t it, especially for those who hold that ‘Gambian literature’ does not have any academic standpoint when they analyse the critical canons of literature? A classic example is this: books published by writers do not usually reflect or arouse the sentiments of a particular society alone. However, having studied Gambian literature some in my first year at university, I have identified some notable themes that are uniquely Gambian and that the authors therefore want readers to identify the Gambian situation in the text. Even though Galik’s point could still be considered logically, let’s examine his argument in detail: “Literature of the entire world and thus history of world literature is an ensemble of the histories of individual national literatures alongside each other. World literature is a selection of the best created by the national literatures and thus a kind of synthesising view of what has been created; this is also termed classical literature and world literature as the product in some way mutually connected or alike, of all the individual literatures.”

It is almost a decade since Dr Gomez received his doctorate and the face of Gambian literature has dramatically changed with the unprecedented developments that recorded. Indeed, Dr Gomez is now in the same bloc with heavyweights like Dr Sylvie Coly of the UTG and Dr Cherno Omar Barry, permanent secretary. These Gambian scholars have gone beyond others in dissecting the endogenous and extogenous aspects of The Gambia’s literary sophisication.  It is not about their doctorates; the fact is they have become architects in their land – as native Gambians they studied French and wrote their thesis in French. 


The aura of society 


There are times when the writer, singer or the artist will try to structure the lines around the storyline in a bid to entertain the audience. In his study of Okigbo’s poetry, OR Dathorne described the Nigerian’s poetry as archetypal experience, emphasising that the poet’s view of the world is religious.  Let’s now examine the mood that drives this poem:


‘When you have finished

& done up my stitches

Wake me near the altar.

& This poem will be finished.


In his essay entitled, Things Without A Name, Sheriff Bojang magnified what was by and large a minor issue to a literary piece that could have been penned by nobody but Sheriff himself. Like in most of his writings, his source of reference is usually the classicists and obscurantists. But what made his piece a Gambian classic is his juxtaposition of thought-provoking and witty statements from Mandinka.  Having escaped a possible prison sentence after a journalist friend he stood for jumped bail and fled to America, the writer in Sheriff came out raw and emotive. He reminded me of a stuffy senior editor loaded with a degree in linguistics who once told me writing is synonymous to nakedness. How, I asked him, for he was a great admirer of beautifully-written essays and editorials.  I can still vividly visualise the professorial countenance he exuded when I pressed him to stop reading and explain. He said there was no way a writer could hide his intelligence or weakness. I don’t know if he is right – but one thing I know is every writer has to write on a naked surface, whether on personal computer or on paper – the object certainly has to be naked.  Coming back to Things Without A Name, Sheriff Bojang was very plaintive in revealing how the young man who jumped bail was connected to him and how the young man became a journalist under his watch. How did it all go awrly wrong? 

In the realm of penmanship, every writer has to coin some memorable phrase, concept or theory. Putting his arguments into context, Sheriff Bojang reminded us (Gambians) that we are all related – that’s what make the network of extended family system unique. When that family is torn apart because of intrigues, jealousy and backstabbing, and ‘teri dolo kumuta’ ‘the alcohol of friendship sours’ – the centre will not hold and therefore this “family state” will collapse. 

This proverb is pregnant with meaning, and a lesson in literature for those interested in the figurative meaning of Gambian languages, customs and cultures. In a society inured to Islamic beliefs and lifestyles, whenever alcohol is mentioned, it tends to evoke discord and fragments. 

As a native Gambian, I have come to the realisation that for us to make headway in our literature, our local languages have to be used from time to time to entertain us. If you study and digest the contents of intertextuality, Kristeva et al have given us food for thought on how writing has evolved and how writing is a collection of ideas from society repackaged for society in another creative and stylistic manner. The architects of our arts have laid the foundation for today’s generation and even the generations yet unborn. When the portrait artist Alex Calvalho presented his work to President Jammeh in 2006 in the countdown to the AU Summit in Banjul, it was a mark of respect and honour from the creative enterprise of Gambian artists. That historic event, a turning point in the history of The Gambia, was supposed to sell Gambian art to those who had money to spend. Indeed, our art is often intertwined with foreign elements – no wonder, people often accuse our artists of ‘copying’ Picasso… as if we are not talented. Why?

It’s time to embrace the spirit of Ngugi WaThiongo who since the 1980s stopped writing in a foreign language – he write consistently in his native Kenyan Kikuyu. Who’s going to be the next Gambian writer to publish in Mandinka, Jola, Fula, Wolof, Serahuli and Bambara? 

If you study intertextuality and digest the philosophical meaning of the theory, then you will understand that no writing is original. Kristeva and several academic heavyweights believe we all tend to draw from somewhere when we write, therefore, even for the architects of our arts, the proverbial well is out there. What they did is they have taken their big buckets and drew several gallons… which is why today, we have to refer to them each time we write about the past and the future… because they said it several years back.



Ebrima Baldeh is a career journalist at GRTS TV. He studies history at the University of The Gambia.


By Ebrima Baldeh


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