The emergence of Gambian Literature: 1970-2000

The emergence of Gambian Literature: 1970-2000

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Storytelling in Africa presents a richer tradition and a more meaningful purpose. First, it is a means of passing on traditions and codes of behaviour and maintaining social harm. Second, in some villages, it provides the appropriate environment to discuss matters as storytelling gathers all the community together. Chinua Achebe wrote in his book Anthills of The Savannah, 

“… [I]t is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story […] that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather, it is the story that owns us and directs us.”

Therefore, the story, as Achebe puts it, is how writers translate their worries, narrate their concerns and woes, and express their joy. Gambian writers found it much more convenient to use this simple medium for the purpose. Among the published books in the last two decades, collections of stories constitute the largest number. Several of these delve into small lives or the marginal people, as Hassoum Ceesay, a literary critic, rightly puts it. Several of these stories were first published in the local papers and began to motivate others into creative writing. Hassoum said in an interview conducted with Dr Pierre Gomez:

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“There is, therefore, a cut in the plot, few characters, less flashback and scanty language. Such astringencies is far from being a drawback – it is an asset; it shows how writers have adjusted their style to suit their medium.”

The effect of the short stories lies mainly on how much they can be captivating and how they can persuade the reader to continue reading. Most Gambian writers have produced very short novels that can best be categorised as novellas. This is the case for Ebou Dibba (Alhaji and Olu and The Smugglers), Ebou Gaye (Patience is Accompanied by a Smile), Essa Colley (If I am Right or Wrong), Musa Jallow (Across the Scenes) and Sally Sadie Singhateh (Christie’s Crises, Baby Trouble and The Sun Will Soon Rise). All these works deal with everyday issues revolving around school, crime, sexuality, women affairs, city life and travel.

Some writers published collections of stories based entirely on Gambian folklore. The first to publish a collection of stories is Hassoum Ceesay Sr with his Seeking to Please in 1976. Seeking to Please was, however, a generic name used for all his collections, some of which were poetry and others short sketches. Nana Grey-Johnson published two collections: the first in 1987 entitled A Krio Engagement and Other Stories and the second in 1989 entitled The Children of the Spyglass and Other Stories. In 1988 Dr Tijan Sallah came out with a collection entitled Before The New Earth. Among the collection of short stories, it is important to include Emil Magel’s Folktales From The Gambia published in 1984, David P Gamble’s two publications, Gambian Fula Stories told by Mary Umah Baldeh and Thoughts on Gambian Folktales, both published in August 1981 in San Francisco and in May 2005 in Brisbane, California respectively.

In 1968, Lady Augustus Jawara published her play, Rebellion. The play explores a very sensitive issue at the time, which promotes girls’ education. Being the first Gambian woman to publish a book of that importance, she opened a debate that will continue to challenge the First Republic throughout its reign. However, the emergence of Gambian literature can be said to begin with Ndaanan. It was unquestionably a springboard in literary production in The Gambia. Soon after it ceased to exist, the euphoria did not die, for the desire to keep writing was already instilled in some of these budding writers and poets. Several of these writers published their works in books in the three decades that followed.

Among the successful writers is Gabriel Roberts, who published in 1973 The Trial of Busumbala in a collection of plays aired on BBC. He later wrote his play A Coup is Planned in prose form in 1988 and entitled it The Goosieganderan Myth. The most successfully published is perhaps Dr Tijan Sallah, who published in Ndaanan a short folktale in volume 2 issue 2 in 1973 when he was in the sixth form at the Gambia High School. Today he is credited with more publications than any Gambian writer, most of which are collections of poems. Sallah can be considered today as an accomplished poet and a pillar of West African poetry. He has also published a collection of short stories, Before the New Earth, and a couple of books on the cultural practices of the Wolof. Hassoum Ceesay Sr continued to write and published Seeking to Please in several volumes since 1981. As the poet explained in his maiden edition, Seeking To Please is made of a selection of the best of the author’s works. Some of the editions carried only poetry, while others carried short stories. He was strongly attached to our African values as a writer and had vividly manifested this in his early works published in Ndaanan. His last published book, The Power of Ngewel, is a novella on marriage within the fana fana community. Swaebou Conateh, Juka Fanta Jabang and Ralphina Da Almeida are other examples of published authors. Among the contributors to Ndaanan, the most successful self-published author is certainly Nana Grey-Johnson, who has undoubtedly more than nine books under his belt. Some are collections of short stories, novels, historical and biographies. He continues to publish.

Ndaanan: The First Gambian Literary Magazine

In 1971, several writers decided to come together and initiate a literary magazine to stimulate “literary activities of all kinds and to provide an outlet […] for the seething Gambian talents”. Dr Peters also noted in his forward that “[…] it is a tribute to Mr (Swaebou) Conateh and his colleagues that they have now given us something very worthwhile in which both the accomplished and the initiate can participate alike”. The magazine was called Ndaanan. 

Dr Peters wrote: “Ndaanan, I am told, is the Wolof word for ‘an accomplished griot’ and as the griot is in a sense a total artist embracing music and dancing, poetry and history, I think Ndaanan eminently expresses the aims of a literary publication with which I am proud to be associated.”

This title will create quite an interesting debate in the attempt to define its meaning. An interesting exchange was recorded under mail between His Excellency James Benoit, Senegalese High Commissioner to The Gambia in 1972, the Reverend JC Faye and Robert Cobb from the University of Kansas exchanged correspondence while each expressed an understanding of Ndaanan. James Benoit wrote to explain that, “Ndaanan comes from the Joloff word Daan and is of the same family as daanu: to fall down.”  In his reaction, the Reverend JC Faye argued that Ndaanan has quite a special meaning as its significance can only de associated closely with the griots. He further stated that like a soothsayer or a marabout in our African terms. Dr Peters still cautioned that sustaining the magazine needed readership and money.

In our attempt to expose the successes and the challenges of Ndaanan, we will first give a brief overview of the literary terrain before Ndaanan began. We will then explore the six years of Ndaanan’s existence by discovering who the creators and the editors were, who the contributors were, what the content was, and the challenges faced. In our conclusion, we will try to explain the consequences of the existence of such a literary magazine in the post Ndaanan era by revealing how those contributors finished up in their literary careers and then express our opinion on the present state of literary production.

When Ndaanan published its inaugural issue in March 1971, the editorial board was composed of Swaebou Conateh as the editor, Dr Lenrie Peters, Gabriel Roberts and Hassan Jagne as the editorial members and Charles Jow, Esther Sowe and Dr Wally Ndow served as editorial assistants. The advertisement circulation manager was Hassoum Ceesay. In March 1973, a little modification was effected on the editorial board. Swaebou remained the editor, but Hassoum Ceesay, Charles Jow and Esther Sowe were incorporated as members. Hassan Jagne took the helms of advertising and circulation manager, and two new members, Marcel Thomasi and Margaret Jallow joined Dr Wally Ndow as assistants. This will remain on the editorial board until 1976.

The Gambia writers’ club, the first writers’ association, started in 1971 (confirmed by Hassan Jagne), and soon after the publication of the inaugural issue, it will be clearly stated on the first page thus: ‘Ndaanan: A Gambian literary publication by The Gambia Writers’ Club to provide an outlet for all creative Gambian writing’. The club shall be referred to on several occasions and by its name. Due to the club’s recognition and its name, Dr Lenrie Peters attended an international conference organised by the Afro-Asian writers in Kazakhstan. Hassan Jagne attended another conference where he laboured on the plights of literary production in The Gambia.

Ndaanan existed for seven years and produced seven volumes during this period. The first volume came out in March 1971, and two volumes were published in 1972 and 1973: in both years, it will release an issue biannually in March and September. However, in 1974 only one volume was produced due to several difficulties, including financial and lack of readership. Ndaanan will not release any publication in 1975, but in 1976, a bulky and final publication will be published.

Contributors

Contribution to the magazine was opened to everybody: students and teachers; civil servants and private employees; Gambians and non-Gambians; men and women alike. There were 69 contributors to the magazine, and of these ten were women, nine of whom were Gambians. Of the nine women, three were studying at the local high schools, two were housewives, and the rest were composed of a student at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, an ex-school teacher, a government civil servant and a senior clerk at the Central Bank. The non-Gambian, Kwela Robinson, was a housewife living in The Gambia. Her nationality was not established.

As some of the information on the contributors was scanty, we were unable to establish every contributor’s profession and nationality. There were ten non-Gambians, including Americans, Russians, Senegalese, Sierra Leoneans and Trinidadians. Some of these contributors forwarded articles, letters and reflections, while others contributed literary productions.

In general, it was established that several students, teachers, civil servants, and private individuals contributed to Ndaanan. The largest number of contributors was government civil servants and students. Students include the seven from high schools, the four attending university education abroad and the three in either Yundum College or Milton Margai in Sierra Leone.

Lest we forget, it is worth mentioning that there were radio operators, broadcasters, and businesspersons.

There are a little above 191 contributions in Ndaanan, counting all poems, short stories and folktales, plays, book reviews, articles, and letters. 

There are 123 poems, and of the 42 contributors, Swaebou Conateh contributed the most with 17 poems closely followed by Hassan Jagne with ten poems. 

There were four non-Gambian contributors. Some of the poems were in the local languages, and others were entitled in the local languages and written in English.

Examples are Lydia Forster’s Aku poem Wonderful World Wickit People, and EM Ngum’s Mandinka poems Sama Sita and Taka Bota. Poems in local languages include Omar Bah’s Fula title Janjarri, Medoum Jobe’s Wolof title Nhapati Nyololi and Hassoum Ceesay’s Mandinka title Manifa Muso.