It was on a Saturday in 2007. I had been looking forward to it the whole week. I wanted to go to Brikama to watch the mother of all club football rivalries: the El Clasico. I was still young to travel without a guardian’s permission but, as luck would have it, I was raised by my grandma, which means I could violate those norms without consequence. I could have gone to Kanilai or Bwiam but the fun part has always been the noisy post-match analysis in the streets. I had to watch the mesmerising skills of Ronaldinho, the true god and GOAT of football; anything the contrary is a buffet of lies.
I spent the night before at the river with my Jola uncle and we caught a big fish. The same fish was sold to my Hydara uncle in whose compound I stayed. I got to enjoy my little share of the money from the sales and also ate the same fish at lunch. It is killing two birds with one big fish! The house used to be full of boys and when you walked in on us sleeping, the only difference between us and canned sardines is the smell. But one by one, all the boys finished junior school and moved to town while others moved to other compounds. The community was such that you could just move in with anyone. I ended up staying alone in a room-and-parlour and eating alone as well. That morning when we brought the big fish, I was so thrilled because I knew I would have money to travel to town. The fare was around 15 dalasi but it was still unaffordable for a rural student who hardly went to school with money. If I wanted to travel to town without the consent of my grandma, I wouldn’t ask for money because she would flatly refuse in order to keep me there. So, I would put a few trousers and shirts in my backpack and be on the look for a ride to Brikama; any ride, as long as it was faster than me.
The lunch was delicious. The fish was dipped in a spicy stew and I ate to my throat. After lunch, at around 5pm when no ride was forthcoming, I set out to the highway 5km away. I wore my favourite grey strap sandals, khaki jeans and oversized T-shirt. The road was tiny with branches of trees drooping from either side. It was quiet and still. Even the squeaky sound of insects could set your heart racing and set your feet racing. That particular snaky road was my path to education for nine years. I used to trek it to and from school, mostly on empty stomach because there was no money to take to school. My grandma or my de facto mother Mama Beyai would wake up early morning to either heat a leftover rice for us to eat before going to school or boil cassava, pumpkin or potato, which we would put in our bags and eat during lunch break. It was a childhood riddled with insufficiencies but it shaped strong characters and survivors. I walked and walked, thinking about life and how unfair those in the urban areas had everything and we didn’t, including a video club to watch football.
When I reached the highway—which took me about 45mins—I sat under a tree waiting for a commercial vehicle. A family friend then arrived with a pick-up truck and I jumped at the back because the seats were all taken. The distance between Sangajorr and Brikama is roughly 70 miles. By the time we reached half, my stomach started grumbling. The gods had started punishing me for greed; selling a fish and then eating it. I ate my fish and had it. The fish, or whatever it eventually turned into my stomach, started to push hard to come out through the backdoor. The vehicle was running at break-neck speed with early evening breeze blowing but I started sweating because the battle to cage an animal that wanted to break free had just begun. A running stomach is a bitch and the pothole road didn’t help either. I would squeeze myself and hold my breath. Each time the vehicle ran over a pot hole, I thought my resistance would be broken and I would turn the car into a moving toilet. My resistance had never been that tested. When I couldn’t hold on any more as I started feeling like something was leaking, I knocked the vehicle and communicated to the driver that I wanted to ease myself. He said he was in a hurry and gave me a choice; keep it until we reached Brikama which was at least 35km away or he wouldn’t wait if I decided to drop. In that moment, both choices were terrible. If I continued, I would mess up myself and that would be a huge embarrassment. If I dropped, I would miss the El Clasico and that was exactly why I was going to Brikama in the first place. I took a deep breath and hesitantly alighted from the vehicle. He left me there and I almost crawled into the bush to open the floodgates. Until today, I do not know how much faeces I dropped in that roadside bush, apologies to whoever owned the land. The faeces came out faster and sneakier than a super-kanja slipping into the throat. It was slick. It couldn’t stop coming. I didn’t eat all that but I blamed the gods. I thought I would be the new Sir Isaac Newton, dying a virgin and what a waste it would have been! I spent hours squatting and shifting spots when the faeces on the floor snaked towards my feet. By the time I was done and got back on the road to get another vehicle, the game was done. I am still silently mad at that family friend.
Last week, the whole country paused to talk about a dead animal in Mankamang Kunda, a settlement rapidly becoming the new Kanilai; meat, meat and meat. I wish I live there or even nearby. A hippo was gifted to PAB and he took it. I would take it too without thinking because rejecting a meat gift is a sin in my book. Ballooned like an inflatable boat, lifted by a truck crane and lowered as though a bowl of rice on to the ground, the scene caused an uproar. Two views stood out; an endangered animal, and not slaughtered the Islamic way. As for me, it reminded me of eating a big fish and how I nearly shit myself at the back of a moving truck. Big things can cause rebellion in the stomach. Big fish or big ram, camel or hippo; such have the potential to get you excited and get you to eat beyond the limit. On that hippo issue, here is my imaginary conversation with PAB:
Talib: Do you know that a hippo is an endangered species?
PAB: Yes, very dangerous. These animals have consistently invaded the swamps and eaten all the rice and threatened the lives of our women rice growers.
Talib: I don’t mean the danger the hippos pose to us. I mean, do you know that these animals are rare and that they could go into extinction pretty soon?
PAB: No, they are not rare. We have lots of them here. If hippos are rare in any country, let them come here and we will supply them. We can have our own hippo diplomacy like China’s panda.
Talib: But why would anyone kill a hippo?
PAB: For meat, of course. Didn’t you see how huge it was? The entire region cannot finish it. I have made an announcement to the country that if you can get to Mankamang Kunda fast enough, you will have a heap of hippo meat. This is also some sort of eat what you grow. You remember the phrase by AJJ? The chicken we eat every day here are imported, even the beef. These hippos are not imported so eating them is answering to that AJJ clarion call.
Talib: But you are asking the whole country to come for meat and hippo meat contains lots of fat. Do you want to have another Tujereng incident?
PAB: Remind me again what happened in Tujereng?
Talib: The whole village was invited to eat a huge fish that washed ashore and it ended up causing diarrhoea.
PAB: Are you sure that Tujereng fish was as big as this hippo?
Talib: That is not the point.
PAB: Remind me again what the point is.
Talib: The point is if you invite the entire country to eat this, what if there is a national diarrhoea and half of us die?
PAB: I thought you said the Tujereng incident. Now you are talking about Half Die in Banjul
Talib: I did not say Half Die in Banjul; I said half of us could die.
PAB: Come on, don’t exaggerate. The best cure for diarrhoea is a good toilet. I will build lots of toilets across the country.
Talib: People said it was not even slaughtered like Muslims do it.
PAB: Tell me who slaughters a hippo. It is a wild animal. You don’t go near it until it stops breathing. If you go near and it touches you while it wriggles, then you die first before the animal. Even in Islam, before a hunter shoots, he says ‘Bismillah’. That is the Islamic slaughter in words. Besides, the only thing I care about is the meat.
Talib: Who even killed that hippo?
PAB: I don’t know, Abu Khan.
Talib: He died long time ago.
PAB: I don’t care about the hunter or who killed it. Did you see how I moved around the carcass like I was in Kaaba?
Talib: Yes, I saw it. You were smiling.
PAB: I was beaming, my friend. Meat makes me happy, and ‘kong’ too.
Talib: What is ‘kong’ again?
PAB: It is another type of fish. Very delicious. You should try it.
Talib: I hope it is not a big fish because I don’t want to have a running stomach.
PAB: It is very similar to a big fish but it doesn’t upset the stomach.
Talib: Okay, I will try ‘kong’. But do you know people are not happy with you regarding this hippo feast?
PAB: Which people? All those who were dished the meat are happy. The only ones who are not happy are the ones who didn’t have a share.
Talib: I mean the environment activists. They said it is illegal to kill endangered species like hippos.
PAB: First, I didn’t dish them the meat that is why they are bitter. Second, I don’t remember a law in the constitution that forbids us from killing dangerous animals. I am president of humans, not hippos. If a hippo threatens people who voted for me, I will kill it and enjoy the meat with them because if it kills them, who will vote for me?
Talib: Even if you will eat the meat later, many people argued you should have stayed in your house and not celebrate the killing of an endangered species.
PAB: Tell me, what is the difference between staying in the house and coming out to see the hippo, if in the end you will eat it anyway?
Talib: There is no difference. I must admit I am angry my village didn’t get our share from the meat.
PAB: Do not worry. Like I said, we have lots of hippos here.
Talib: How about the Banjul Declaration?
PAB: Those words in the declaration are not mine. Jawara made them in 1977 and circumstances have changed. With respect to the old man, he only had 600,000 population to feed in 1977. I have nearly three million. I will make my own Mankamang Kunda Declaration.
Talib: People are claiming that the hippo was a spiritual charity for you to stay in power.
PAB: I won two elections without a hippo charity. It is too easy for me. This one is purely for consumption.
Talib: When AJJ was here, he gave my village a camel. The meat was so much that even relatives in the urban areas got their share.
PAB: I hope there was no Tujereng incident in your village, hahaha.
Talib: Haha, no. Even if there was such incident, we wouldn’t have needed many toilets like you suggested. We had enough land to germinate.
PAB: You gave me an idea. We should do a Frederick Burnham style.
Talib: Who is that again?
PAB: The one and only Frederick Russell Burnham, who wanted to introduce hippo meat into the American diet.
Talib: Oh, that Frederick Burnham.
PAB: Yes, I have to solve this meat crisis. The only meat we have here is beef which costs D350 a kilogram.
Talib: We also have mutton and pork.
PAB: Yes, but I will ask the nation we eat hippos and leave goats and sheep as endangered animals.
Talib: Why would people abandon mutton to eat hippo meat?
PAB: Because the hippo is ten times bigger and will solve our meat problem in the market.
Talib: That actually makes sense.
PAB: So, we are going to kill more hippos and sell the meat; each kilogram will be D10. How about that for cheap?
Talib: That is almost free. But people are saying it is barbaric.
PAB: How is eating meat barbaric?
Talib: Eating meat is not barbaric. I love meat.
PAB: Exactly. This makes me miss the good old days when kings used to brag about killing wild animals or be presented a wild animal. Imagine if this was 200 years ago; the whole country would sing my praise.
Talib: Unfortunately, it is 2023 and hardly anyone would sing your praise for eating a hippo.
PAB: The leaders in the west who most of us are emulating are timid. They are scared of even cockroaches and they pretend like killing them is inhumane. We are the brave ones.
Talib: I agree. But you need to leave a good legacy behind, one that doesn’t involve killing hippos.
PAB: Abu Khan was a hero and we were all forced to read it in our history books. The only heroic thing he did was killing hippos. But we get surprised at seeing a dead hippo in Mankamang Kunda.
Talib: So you want people to remember you for this?
PAB: I choose to feed people with quality meat and I believe those people will remember me well.
Talib: If you give me meat, I will remember you fondly too.