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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Tribute to Alkali James Gaye

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By Baba Galleh Jallow

Those who have read my small book, Childhood Days in Chaku Bantang have seen how I was pulled out of school over and over again by my father. Modi Mamadou Jallow of blessed memory was one of those Fulani elders who thought going to school had no benefit whatsoever, and in my case, that I loved school and reading so much simply because I wanted to become a tubaako (white man). He also believed that going to school was likely to turn me into a kafirr (a non-Muslim). And so at every possible opportunity, he pulled me out of school and had me stay home and help with his fish stall at Farafenni market. My frequent out of school episodes lasted from a few weeks to months, and on the last occasion, for more than two years.

By the grace of God, there were elders and teachers in our community who were my father’s friends and who always managed to convince him to let me go back to school, sometimes after several failed attempts. They included our next-door neighbors Pa Ablie Sowe and Pa Lamin Sallah, both of blessed memory. Another was the most tenacious of them, Pa Alhagie Alieu Touray, also of blessed memory. Pa Alhagie, as I fondly called him, was the father of current Ecowas Commission President Dr Omar Alieu Touray. Once these elders knew that my father had pulled me out of school, they would repeatedly come over to our compound or approach him at the market or in the streets and urge him to allow me to go back to school. I remember all three of them using a common phrase when appealing to my father. “Mod Jallow,” they would say, “let the child learn.” And my father would ultimately relent.

My class teachers and headmasters also intervened several times to persuade my father to let me go back to school. I would hear them say to him that I was an intelligent child and that he shouldn’t spoil my future. I very clearly remember when I was in Farafenni Primary School Master L. B. Jatta and Master Lamin Sarr, both of blessed memory, coming to our compound on many occasions to beg my father to let me go back to school.

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During the last and longest of my out of school episodes, my father resolutely refused to allow me back to school. The reason he pulled me out on that occasion was that for the second time in as many years, I fell down and fainted during morning assembly, and he believed that someone was out to kill me through black magic. So that day, after we visited a famous marabout, I remember him saying with a dreadful finality, “You will never go back to school. If you must die, die at home.” And so the weeks and months and eventually years passed by, and I became a permanent school dropout.

The good news was that I wasn’t about to lose my interest in reading or my dream of going back to school. I had also started writing short stories around that time. So I went to a bookstore opposite Chief Kebba Jammeh of blessed memory’s compound and bought a large blue notebook with a hard cover. I filled it out with short stories, and then, one day, I got an idea. I was going to show it to the new headmaster of Farafenni Secondary School and tell him I wanted to go back to school. That headmaster was Alkali James Gaye, to whom this short tribute is dedicated.

When I arrived at Farafenni Secondary School one early afternoon, Master Gaye welcomed me into his office and asked what he could do for me. I explained my situation to him, and told him that I really wanted to go back to school. I showed him my book of short stories, hand written in blue ink. He took the large note book, flipped through the pages, looked up at me and said, “Leave this with me and come back here on Monday.” I thanked him and left, eager to come see him again on Monday.

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However, before Monday, I think it was on a Saturday afternoon, I saw Alkali James Gaye and his close friend Demba Surrwaa of blessed memory walk into our compound. My heart missed a beat. They asked for my father and were ushered into his room. After some time, they left. That same evening, my father called me and said, “Since you want to go back to school, here’s some money. You can go get a uniform and go back to school. I don’t want you to say that I spoiled your life for you.” I don’t know what Alkali James Gaye said to my father. All I know is he irreversibly convinced him that school was where I belonged. The rest, as they say, is history.

Alkali James Gaye graciously admitted me back to Form Four at Farafenni Secondary School. I got down to copying notes, reading voraciously, and preparing for the Secondary School Leaving Certificate Exams for that same year. By the grace of God, I passed my exams and went to Armitage High School for my O’ Levels, Gambia High School for my A’ Levels, and Fourah Bay College for my BA. Then several years later while in exile in the United States, I went to Rutgers University for my MA, and to the University of California, Davis for my PhD.

Today, I am at Harvard University Law School as the Inaugural Roger D. Fisher Fellow in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. This journey started the day Alkali James Gaye walked into my father’s house many years ago and subsequently re-admitted me into his school, convinced that I could make it. I’m glad he was right.

I have said thank you to Master Gaye at every possible opportunity over the years. But I think at this point, and while he is still alive, I need to publicly tell all who cares to listen and to tell Alkali James Gaye yet again, that I am eternally grateful to God and to him for what he did for me many years ago: “Master Gaye, decades have passed since I first stepped into your office at Farafenni Secondary School that fateful day, a bright-eyed teenager with a dream, and since you convinced my father to send me back to school that fateful afternoon; but the memory and significance of your kind intervention will remain fresh in my mind for as long as I am alive. And here I record it for posterity on the pages of time. Thank you yet again, Sir. May God continue to abundantly bless you and your family.”

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