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City of Banjul
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The old canard

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When I wrote Queer As Clock Work Oranges, I was amazed by the unimprovable beauty of Nderry Mbai as a journalist. On retrospect, I know I should have listened to my grandfather for you cannot keep the baying hound from the new moon. One day soon he will reap the harvest of his idle incompetence. 

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I have not written an essay for quite a while and as expected I got a full trough of mails complaining that my writing was obscurantist – oops, there I go again – that it was too difficult to understand, “full of big words” and the usual dribble!  Buba Baldeh, while he was the managing director of the Daily Observer, sacked one Debo Oriku on the grounds that the Nigerian writes for the jinns and the spirits and not for ordinary human beings. And Debo, he was the finest literary essayist to have written for any Gambian paper in the last 100 years!  Apologies to my master Nana Grey-Johnson and my friend Sabally, ‘The Gambia’s Pen’ at the penn.

But in fact who told you an essay in a weekend paper should read like the elemental, Spartan news article on Page No. 5 of a Monday edition of the The Standard? If you can’t understand what I am writing, then I am not writing for you, so said the bel spirit himself, Soyinka. Go find an Interpreter!

Yes, talk about obscurantism. Read Interpreters. One of my readers who certainly don’t need an interpreter to read Queer As Clock Work Oranges, is George Christensen, a most cultured and debonair Gambian. He wrote me a private mail: “One of my most seminal memories – and I don’t use the word lightly – is watching Ein Uhwerk Orange in a Berlin cinema in 1971 eating the most delicious chawarma while Alex and The Droogies were Razrocking and Tolchoking to the strains of Beethoven’s 9th [Symphony?]…”   Ha. Ha. ha!

Talking about quotidian mails, the next day, I got one from my friend Dida Halake in London in which he called me a “dangerous marabout”!  Probably he meant my namesake, the Venerable Sheikh Mohammed Fadil Hydara of Brikama Salandingto. He is the fetisheur and he even knows how to commune with the jinns!  I wish I could, for then, like Shakespeare’s Puck did to Bottom, I would, with glee, change Pa Nderry Mbai’s head into an ass.

I am beginning to worry myself. There was a time I had a skin as thick as a rhino’s. Nothing fazed me. Nothing bothered me. A Zen Buddhist in everything. Now, I find myself cursing and swearing and even relishing mischievous thoughts of turning a man’s head into a pig’s!  I have been in Bakau for too long. 

Or maybe I am human after all. My wife of yore, Rohey, used to scold me for being ’emotionally unintelligent’. Whatever that meant. But now I do have feelings; feelings of joy and of sadness. The news has been sad this week. It has not been a good week for my friends. One of them, highly elevated has caromed from his high iron seat in most spectacular fashion. My heart bleeds for him because I love him and I would give two limbs for his friendship despite what many say and think about him. Yet his fate is better than my other friend for he is dead; dead in a foreign country, well away from the rolling hills and the meandering brooks of his native Fula Kunda. And his remains could not even be interred in the soil of his birth. I had a name for him: The Bull.

He was magnificent. As magnificent as Mr Pecksniff in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit.  Many many rains back, we were living in our little town peacefully when we woke up one morning and saw this Bull atop the hill looking down at us with eyes red like the stones of hell and pounding his hind legs like an enraged minotaur. By noon he came down and we dutifully opened our doors and our hearts and lit the hearth for him for we regarded him as a stranger from the cold. But as the day morphed into the night, we grew weary limbed, yawned and yielded to the wings of Hypnos – that strange god of sleep. But not so the Bull. He sat wide awake like the sultan in the Thousand And One Nights and while we slept, he burnt our toes with the dying embers from the hearth.

I don’t know about others, but I hate pain and unable to bear it any longer, I blew the last reveille on my trumpet and quit. I wanted to leave the heartache of the little town, fly over the desert and the ocean and go live in the Land of Bodicea, but I couldn’t.  So I stayed.

I had all the time in hand but nothing to do, so I raced in my little red chariot till all the horses dropped dead. Then I played checkers till all my playing mates died. A young man used to working 20 hours a day suddenly found himself an idle upstate Kombo town wallah.

If you really wanted to know, some days I wished I were rather not born or that there is a time warp machine. But there was no such thing and the age of the Great Sleepers when one could just duck into a cave and doze off for the next three decades was long gone.

So I began writing.  I had always thought that my first book would be an autobiog with a title like ‘Portrait Of A Journalist As A Young Man’. Instead I ended up writing a writing manual for journalists. You see, journalists are forever telling others of the people’s right to know, yet the majority of us write so badly as if reporting a simple story equates to building a bonfire of bromides and hackneyed clichés. 

So I thought it was about time someone reminds them about the people’s right to understand and appreciate simple news stories and so I began writing my book, a protest against clutter and journalese. Within two weeks, it was ready.

Yes, I know it. I am good! In fact if you ask me for one word to describe myself, I will ask for two. ‘Good’, definitely, but ‘Sinful’.  Yes, we are all, since the Adamaic days, so said the Christian Bible.  I tried to be good but there are too many temptations in this lumpen material world and I get easily girded by them. I try to be as good as Robert Bellarmine who would not even disturb the fleas in his clothes. Or Pap Touray. We all know that like happy Lothario, the Ifangbondi frontman has sowed his seed in every hamlet in Kombo. And yes this son of Gunjur was the most naturally gifted singer ever to be born on our shores. But perhaps you do not know that the heart of a god beats in his chest.

Pap was so good that once while retiring on his bed in the night, a thief broke into his house. Realising he knew the man, he turned his head the other way, too shy to look the scoundrel stealing from him in the eye. For those who say goodness is as dead as the ancient elephants called mastodons, good people still breathe the air.

So I tried to forgive the Bull. But he refused redemption. The evil in him grew like a gorgon’s head.  He never ceased to amaze me.  And what amazed me most about him was not how he tilted his massive forehead and lock you in his gaze, or on some days make a point of saluting the gardener with both hands or make an elegant show of going down on both knees for even a Buba of Buiba. What amazed me most was how he could blow hot and cold from the same mouth in the same breath.

When he took his ease among his flatterers, he would say he was a Trinitarian and his godheads were: God, Rice, Jammeh. But then Jammeh, that King of Kings of Gambia, espied the heathen in his court and he cut his tongue with the nylon strings of his rosary beads. And we all cried hallelujah! And there was no more going around and giving tinnitus to everyone in our little town. And now, now he is dead. El Diablo, but they call him Holy Saint. And the chorus, led by The Idiot from Niamina! 

Sheriff Bojang! Perhaps I should add a third word, ‘Mean’, to my self-description. Don’t they say, thou shall not speak ill of the dead?

Yeah, sorry. You know, sometimes, I feel like doing what the Bull did. Pack up and leave town. But I will miss somethings too much: being on the ringside seat, watching Jammeh spin his roulette and constantly shuffling his cards and like the famed poker of Brikama, dealing an ace here and a jack there against his opponents. A chess metaphor would have been more suited but things are not as subtle in Imperium Gambianum. 

I’d miss the scenic views of Bakau Cape Road dotted with the baobabs, the trees they say were planted upside down. I’d miss racing against the burnish glow of the sunset to the Tanji pier and watching the matrix of the seagulls, fishmongers and the sun-kissed beachcombers as the idle pirogues laze about above the gentle ripples of the Atlantic.

Here’s my libation! Rest in peace the Bull. 

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