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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Gambia in the 1950s

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A Journey Through West Africa by Elspeth Huxley in 1954 was a defining moment in the history of The Gambia. Having enjoyed an enviable career in her native Kenya, the writer, a polymath, was anxious to embark on a journey of a lifetime. Her inspiration to travel and write about African nations that were under the colonial yoke was striking and enlightening.  It was also a trip that exposed the writer to new frontiers that connected her to people she never met. Save for Liberia, the region was under colonial rule and development in terms of the economy and infrastructure was virtually non-existent. By traveling to The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, the author had a distinct framework which was by and large centred on the raging colonial question and how colonialism impacted on the lives of the natives.  The motivation to embark on this journey did not just come as a surprise to Huxley whose father was posted in Kenya as a colonial officer. It certainly must have dawned on Huxley to espouse the situation that was prevailing in other British colonies far away from Kenya from the vantage point of a writer, an agriculturist and a feminist. Even though, the author could be applauded for not aligning to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which denigrated Africans. However, Huxley’s observations and discreet opinions on The Gambia and Gambian people should not be slighted.  On page 26 and 27, Huxley writes: ‘These people have, indeed, great charm. Their manners are delightful, their friendliness uncorroded by racial spite. It is pleasant to find oneself in an African country not choked by politics. Of course that is not to say that everyone is contented with things as they are; but The Gambia still lies outside the vortex of nationalism.’  While Huxley tried to paint the story as she saw it, the author cannot be forgiven for under estimating the Gambian people by drawing conclusions:

‘Perhaps it will be sucked in, perhaps even a country of a quarter of a million people will embrace with bitter passion the notion of self-government’

When he stormed the literary world years later, The Gambia’s celebrated poet Lenrie Peters used poetry to explain some of the major challenges the continent was experiencing. Peters was not only angry with the way Africans were chained and carted off into slavery, ‘his verbal lash’, in the words of Dr Gomez was also directed at African politicians of the post-independence era. His poem entitled, Where Are the Banners Now? highlights a concern that reared its head in several African countries: ‘Where are the banners now/which once we carried high/when we led the people/To the shrine of freedom/Banners stained for all time/Like this chocolate skin/With blood from the lacerated womb/The slogans we threw about like fireworks /which disfigured the alien face/ are reflected from outer space/and have like Meteorites/in the crowded squares/the children are cut in pieces/and their cries will still be heard tomorrow.

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Like a tourist navigating into pristine places, armed with a pen and a book, Huxley had ample time to compare and contrast beautiful scenes: 

‘The Gambia’s capital has the unpretentious, intimate air of an English market town. At one end lie the wharves, jetties and workshops that keep afloat the boats on which the whole Gambia depends; for this curious thrust into the great hulk of French Senegal consists merely of 300 miles of river frontage never more than ten miles deep. Here, on a narrow beach between street and water, are men shaping old timbers into cutters of a design introduced two centuries ago by the Portuguese and still unchanged. These cutters go up-river to bring down the groundnuts which are the beginning and the end of Gambian trade.’

From time immemorial, agriculture had always been the main engine of the economy, farmers around the country tilled the soil all-year round, however, this do not in anyway prevent the dreaded ‘hunger season’ from pervading several households. In rural areas where poverty has the face of a farmer, district commissioners usually become the last hope for an extended family whenever the food store is empty. Huxley also dived into homes and families that kept little granaries, heads of guinea corn and millet, a little rice, a few pumpkins; that is all:

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‘What will you do when this is gone?’ Huxley quoted a young commissioner, who asked a poor farmer, who replied fittingly: ‘come to you, sir to feed us’. ‘The Government can’t feed anyone’ said the Commissioner.


The place of women 

A native writer in The Gambia may not want to revel into some aspects of our lifestyles lest he or she is seen as an individual trying to look down or debase traditions and cultures. To Huxley, who is a stranger in a British colony, her observations on some crucial issues should also not be taken for granted. For example, as a writer and a woman for that matter, she may be a stranger; however, it doesn’t mean that her eyes are not seeing reality. If this country is to develop and move to the next level, it means that both men and women have to work. Was this the case in The Gambia? 

Huxley states that peasant families could not cultivate a larger acreage partly because there is not enough land, partly because Gambian women could not cope with a bigger acreage than they handle already. One may be tempted to ask what’s wrong with the men. 

Huxley says: ‘The men? They are lying on the bantaba. This is a platform of woven mats, about waist-high, erected in every village under the largest tree, generally one of the handsome, buttressed, thick-foliaged kapok or silk-cottons. On it the men recline like Romans in their full cotton robes, chewing kola nuts if they have them, playing the complicated form of draughts found all over Africa and subjecting to the closest imaginable analysis every event, situation and anticipation germane to the village and its inhabitants. Like the Carlton or the Travellers’, it is a club for men only. The women are out on the sweltering farms hoeing or reaping, carrying firewood, pounding grain or spinning cotton.’


The demise of history  

The Gambia cannot be detached from the rest of the continent since history teaches us that there is something that binds us together, if anything the colonial conquest, slavery and the infamous wars that were waged to conquer territories left an indelible mark in our history. Huxley did not only stop at describing the people, their concerns and constraints, she however, admonished the authorities before it’s too late.  The situation is deplorable indeed when one takes into account the vestiges of slavery disappearing into the dustbins of history, as a historian, Huxley hoped that one day, something will be done to salvage the situation:

‘The ruins of the fort occupy almost the whole of James Island, one is appalled to think of a garrison of soldiers and several hundred slaves boxed up on this scrap of land- camped, roasted, bored to death and rotten with sickness. Not even their graves remain, for the river is encroaching on the island; the chapel and the slave quarters vanished altogether under the estuary. Nothing remains of the generations of younger men who suffered here and died, not their names, nor their memories, nor any legend: only a few regimental buttons, some Georgian coins and broken bits of wine-flagons’.

Around the continent, communities are expanding in size and scope, as a matter of fact; people are beginning to forget about the past. In Africa, the picture is not encouraging. Which is why Huxley states:  it has been said that Africa is the only continent without a history. Not because history has not been made here: because Africa devours its history as it goes along, eats up its monument, and destroys its artifacts absorbs its invaders, like a boa-constrictor that swallows a kid. On this island, only baobabs survive: queer, ugly, pale, almost leafless trees, their thick, stubby trunks as grey and glistening as a sick man’s face. Their elongated fruits hang down on pendants like the weight of a grandfather clock, and their roots undermine old walls. In fact the whole fort is crumbling away. Africa is after it with sun and rain, tree-root and termite, and the fort is doomed. A pity, for it is the oldest British settlement in West Africa. The first man to be buried on the island was a Venetian sailor called Andrew, under the command of Alvise da Cadamosto, who, in the service of Henry the Navigator, discovered the mouth of the Gambia river in 1455.’


Idealistic Gambia 

One fundamental issue that had an obstacle during British colonial rule was the disparity between rural and urban areas (Colony and the protectorate).  It is common to hear people in urban areas describing people from the hinterland as ‘wa kaw kaw’ and to this day, there were some people in the city who have never traveled outside Banjul to the village. Huxley captured the story of a teacher from Banjul who refused a good post up-river:  ‘All down the West Coast; civilisation is in the seaboard cities which the hem of Europe has brushed. Their citizens, however, poor, give themselves the air of initiates. In Bathurst and Freetown they spring from homeless people –repatriated slaves-without social anchorage, and fear the lustier folk of the hinterland. So they affect to despise them, and would sooner than half-starve in the capital than go inland to isolation, hard work and good pay. There is more idealism in the Gambia than in the Gold Coast’.

She is not the first writer to write about The Gambia but Elspeth Huxley’s 1954 book was preceded by Richard Jobson, the explorer. The floodgates were later opened after the publication of the now famous Birth of An Improbable Nation by Berkeley Rice in 1967. Lenrie Peters stole the limelight that year with the publication of Poems by Mbari publishers in Nigeria.


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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