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Thursday, July 25, 2024

Truly, a Niuminka is deserving of the title ‘Baa Bili Mansa’

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With Dembo Fatty


Years ago, while sitting in the public gallery of the National Assembly (as I was a regular), it so happened that there was a question asked in parliament from a member from Baddibu. I cannot recall the name of the MP but I am leaning on Majanko Samusa. The question was asked whether the government had any plans to bridge the Mini Mini Yang Bolong. In response, the late Mathew Yaya Baldeh, who was the Minister for Works and Communication responded: “I think the Honourable Member is the Mini Mini Yang himself”. This was followed by a thunderous laughter from the government side. Some of us left the public gallery in protest including some opposition members.

I was a budding civil servant by then under the Office of the Vice President, something that I would have regretted had that been during Jammeh’s time. The political tolerance of the 1990s, made it easy for many civil servants to attend political nominations at the Court House in Banjul around the police headquarters. It was an open secret that The Quadrangle was almost certain to be understaffed during presidential nomination sessions at the courts in Banjul around Buckle Street especially when the opposition candidates were completing the formalities.

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Why am I bringing this up in my article? Yes, it may sound unrelated, but let’s continue.

Years later, President Jammeh would build a bridge over this very Mini Mini Yang Bolong (a creek), and the people of Baddibu were happy and a nation not used to great engineering works, would earn Jammeh the title of “Baa Bili Mansa” which in Mandinka means the “The Ruler Who Built A Bridge” or “The Bridge Builder Ruler”. A song was crafted in the far flung region of Guinea Conakry and many danced their hearts out in celebration. I still try to understand why such a small bridge would attract so much attention even thousands of miles across our border. Certainly there are bigger bridges in our region that never made headlines. I have seen many in Guinea Bissau far more complex. I later realised that we were a nation in dire need of infrastructural development and any project, despite its size, was bound to attract attention.

We were a nation hungry for development and I can perfectly understand because at independence, we were poorly positioned to even trudge let alone walk upright. Only 20 taxis in Banjul and the Kombos, Radio Gambia was only on air for two hours a day because there was no money to hire staff and no skilled labour available; Public Works Department had only one professional painter who despite stealing paint supposed for uplifting the face of Banjul, had to be released by the police because if he went to jail no one was available to paint the streets of Banjul; our recurrent budget was partly financed by the British; file jackets at State House still had the words “In Her Majesty’s Service” hand-crossed off by civil servants and replaced with the words “ In the Service of The Gambia Government” because we could not print our file covers and many others beyond the scope of this topic. And so a nation was up in jubilation because the last engineering project was sometime in 1984 when the stadium was built if I recall correctly.

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Kingdom of Niumi

The Kingdom of Niumi is one of the most written about states partly because of it being the first point of contact from outsiders, mostly Europeans. Niumi has no shortage of great men in history from the Manneh, to the Jammeh and finally the Sonko, who have kept a closed grip on power rotating mainly between these three families for centuries. It is said that the Jammeh clan were the first Mandinka group to move in the area from Manding and were later joined by the Manneh from the Kingdom of Kaabu. The Jammeh founded the settlements of Bakendiki first and later Sitanunku.  The Manneh founded Kanuma first then later Bunyadu.

One account had it that the Sonko were later arrivals from the east and were initially tax collectors for Burr Saloum from the Wolof and Serere communities and first settled in Bankiri (near Saloum border) a Mandinka word meaning “by force”. When they fell out with Burr Saloum, they joined the Jammeh and Manneh and fought the King of Saloum and won. Thus, started the three-rotating kingship system between the three families of seven towns as follows: Bakindiki (Jammeh), Kanuma (Manneh), Sitanunku (Jammeh) Essau Jelenkunda (Sonko), Bunyadu (Manneh), Esau Mansaring Su (Sonko), and Berending {Sonko). (Quinn, A. Charlotte; Mandingo Kingdoms of the Senegambia, 1972.  pp38-39). This Sonko origin story is based on the mythical Fulani leader in the person of Kolli Tengella from Futa Toro. Another version is based on an entirely different figure called Amari Sonko from what was the Kaabu Empire and from the settlement called Berekolong, the heartland of the Sonko clan if you believe in that migration story as well. Either way, the Sonko arrived in Niumi and the rest is history.

There are no shortages of controversies as well including many firsts in Gambian history as far as Niumi is concerned.

The first recorded suicide of a pre-colonial king in The Gambia while in jail in British territory would come from Niumi. Enter the year 1881 and location Berwick Town, date January 12, 1881. Mansa Wali Jammeh would pursue his wife with 40 men into Berwick Town to get his wife back who ran away from him and was hosted by the wife of Constable Nbye Buss (most likely Mbye Busso) responsible for the new settlement of Berwick Town. Berwick town was inside the Ceded Mile around Fort Bullen. It was set up to resettle refugees from Saloum especially those running away from religious wars between the Soninke and the Marabouts under Maba Jahou but also freed slaves from the high seas.

Maba Jahou at the time was busy in the area and his encounter with Lat Dior Ngoneh is no secret leading to the latter’s conversion to Islam. Maba would eventually die in 1867 at the Battle of Somb. This migration from Saloum would give us figures like Masamba Koki Jobe and Sayerr Jobe. Ma Samba was the brother of Sayerr Jobe but was not a Muslim by then. Masamba stayed in Niumi and was given land by the king of Niumi which later would be the cause of the War of Tubab Kolong when the people asked Masamba to return their land to them and the British helped Masamba when Amer Faal, a supporter of Maba Jahou’s crusade attacked Masamba under the pretext of jihad but at the core was land. Three hundred and fifty people died at Tuba Kolong as a result.

Masamba’s brother, Sayerr Jobe crossed the river and was settled in present day Serekunda. Oral history has it that the land belonged to Sabiji and the name Serekunda is a corrupted Mandinka word for “Serere Kunda” as the Jobe were believed to be Serere and so the people of Sabiji would say “mbitala Serere Kunda” and thus the name SereKunda for short. (For further reading see Islam, Power, and Dependency in the Gambia River Basin: The Politics of Land Control, 1790-1940 by Assan Sarr).

We are digressing.

So when Mansa Wali aimed his gun at Nbye Buss, Nbye deflected the gun away from him with his word and the gun discharged killing a bystander. Mansa Wali Jammeh left and an inquiry was set up by Gilbert A Carter, Gambia’s nominal Administrator since the death occurred on British land and a coroner’s jury found Mansa Wali guilty but Gilbert asked his men not to pursue Jammeh in his territory but that if Jammeh ever stepped foot on British land, he was to be arrested.

And so on 9 June, 1883, Jammeh visited Bathurst despite warnings, but it appeared that Mansa Wali Jammeh knew his fate as he was said to have slipped a penknife in his clothes and prior to leaving for Bathurst, he had left instructions with his close confidant with directions for the care of his children. In jail, Jammeh cut his own arteries in his neck and “…cut a deep gash in his abdomen. He lay back on the bed in the cell and quietly bled to death” (GT Carter to Administrator of Sierra Leone, Bathurst, June 14, 1883, CO1/68 and Francis Pinkett to Early of Derby, Sierra Leone, June 30 1883, CO, 87/120). Mansa Wali Jammeh was replaced by Maranta Sonko.

Another important personality in Niumi was Signora Belinguere, daughter of one of the Sonko kings of Niumi married to Portuguese merchants and who inherited considerable wealth when her husbands died. She was literate in Portuguese, French and English according to the Director of Compangnie du Senegal who met her in Juffureh in 1700. According to another Frenchman, she was “… the reef upon which many whites of several nations have foundered”.      (See Labat Nouvelle Relation 5:377-78; Prosper Cultur, Premiere Voyage de Sieur de la Courbe fait a la Coste d’Afrique en 1685 (n Paris: Emile Larose, 1913), 196.

Another strong LusoAfrican lady was Sinora Llena who lived in Juffureh and was married to Haly Sonko, a brother to the king of Niumi and who owned slaves whom she hired to work as linguists and boatmen on European ships. (See Accounts and Charges, James Fort 1733-8 and Gambia Castle Charge Books T 70/1451-3)

There are several kings of Niumi worth mentioning but we must summarise and move on to the subject of this posting.

Africans did not readily create slave markets for Europeans to come and buy

We have been overdosed with information that Africans captured their own and sold them willingly to Europeans but evidence has shown that not all Africans did and it probably did not start that way. I am not holding brief that slavery never existed in Africa prior to the coming of the Europeans and Arabs. As a matter of fact slavery is as old as man. Slavery is nothing but the domination of one by another simply because in my opinion, one has greater power over the other. Just the same way the concept of policing started with strong men of communities providing security for recognition and respect because not many dared challenged them. The community in turn showered them with gifts, tax exemptions while they provided their own weapons. Power was always a variable as societies evolved from hunting and gathering stage to more sedentary lives.

Summer of 1446 and the repulsion of Nuno Tristao from Niumi

One such recorded history that slavery to Europe started as raids by Europeans especially the Portuguese would be recorded in the accounts of Gomes Eanes de Azurara, a Portuguese court chronicler.

A Portuguese sailor by the name of Nuno Tristao arrived on the Gambian shores nine years before Cadamosto and it is inaccurate history to assume that the Portuguese came to The Gambia in 1455. Raiding of settlements especially on the northern bank along the coastal villages was common when Portuguese raiders would snatch and round up Africans and sell them in slave markets in Portugal.

Map of the River Gambra now the Gambia 1732

Unfortunately, upon arrival Nuno Tristao launched two boats with 12 armed men and according to Azurara “…made for some habitations that they espied on the right hand…” (which most likely would have been the island of Banjul, a proof that Banjul was inhabited before 1816).  Their concentration to the right of the bank of the Gambia river must have been intense because they did not realise that there were 12 boats filled with warriors heading towards them and they discharged their poisoned arrows on them.  “…There would be as many as seventy or eighty Guineans, all Negroes, with bows in their hands…discharged that accursed ammunition of theirs all full of poison upon the bodies of our countrymen… That poison was so artfully composed that a slight wound, if it only let blood, brought men to their last end.”

As the Portuguese rushed back to Portugal, 21 bodies of the sailors were thrown overboard. They succumbed to their wounds. The few who arrived in Lagos (Portugal), informed Prince Henry their ordeal who “…had great displeasure at the loss of the men… like a lord who felt their deaths had come to pass in his service, he afterward had an especial care of their wives and children…” (See Gomes Eanes de Azura, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, ed CR Beazley and E Prestage, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896-99), 2: 252-57.

What happened to the brave men from the Niumi side of the river are not known or which king they represented but certainly, they must have been handsomely rewarded by their community for protecting their people and territory.

1760: Enter the real Gambian Baa Bili Mansa and drumrolls please

Partly because of his attempts at curbing the slave trade and also to stamp his authority on his territory in so far as the Europeans were concerned, an ingenious king of Niumi in the person of Mansa Nandanko Suntu Sonko, the fifth king of Niumi from the Sonko lineage devised a plan. His plan was to try to stop the flow of the River Gambia by throwing rocks into the river, more or less trying to build a dam or make navigation difficult for ships passing with their cargo of slaves.  “…The king…is on a scheme of stopping some part of the river, in order to prevent large vessels from passing his country and of course to bring the [slave] coffels down. We look upon it as chimerical and what cannot be effected…”( Joseph Debat and Robert Coulton to the Committee, James Fort, December 8, 1760, T 70/30, 358)

He gained fame among the European merchants and even his subjects as embarking on a project that was futile because the engineering techniques that could stop the flow of the River Gambia were not available to him. In fact, according to records, the point on the river where this project was attempted was estimated to be about three miles wide. That dwarfs the bridge in Baddibu and certainly will dwarf the bridge being contemplated between Banjul and Barra as I read in some article that the bridge may be further inland from the current ferry route to reduce the length of the bridge and costs.

But here is where I beg to differ. In all my research on Gambian history, I have never come across any account of any of our pre-colonial kings who took an ambitious project as big as damming a river and more so in the fight against slavery and protecting their territories. It is a feat and character that has eluded us since 1760. He is definitely my candidate for foresight and grandiose ideas. He stood up for his people despite the odds. He had a problem and tried to do something about it. That is why he stands out in my view.

There is this believe even today that the rocks that were thrown in the river in 1760, still affect the ferry service especially around Barra point. How true it is I cannot establish; but I believe it is a confirmation of the existence of the event of years gone by and stilled ingrained in the memories of Nandanko’s grateful subjects and their successive generations. The story and event survived for 261 years this year.

The second Gambian Baa Bili Mansa in my opinion was Cherno Kaddy Baldeh and perhaps, I should deal with that episode under separate cover. 

And so, it is my hope and prayer that the bridge being contemplated between Barra and Banjul be named after Nandanko Suntu Sonko in memory of his efforts to protect the Africans from slave raiders and for being so ahead of his time in terms of engineering and constructions. He was a leader who did not sit and complain but did something. History will be unkind to those who despite the challenges they faced, decided to look the other way.

Perhaps a petition will not be out of place to approach the government and rename the Farafenni Bridge after him. He should have a place in our national history and his name should be revived not only for historical reasons but as a source of inspiration to generations unborn that yes, there once lived a Gambian king and an engineer who was light years ahead of his time.

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