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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Video Documentary: The Emergence of Gambian Literature

In this 37 minute video documentary, we are given a diachronic view of Gambian literature from its genesis in the 18th century to present day, featuring statements made by various stakeholders which include writers, dramatists, literary critics, educationists, librarians, book sellers and publishers as well as video clip images to back the statements. 

The documentary begins with Mr Hassoum Ceesay, the historian and writer, who gives us a picture of the situation in early Gambian literature which was mainly oral and undocumented. It took the form of songs, parables, proverbs and dirges in the local languages. According to him, the earliest documented evidence of Gambian literature emerged in the 18th century when a Gambian slave woman, Phyllis Whitley, wrote a collection of poems published in the United   States in which she expressed her nostalgia for the beautiful landscape of The Gambia, her homeland. Since then, there was no documented evidence till 1875 when the silence was broken with the advent of the first set of newspapers- The Gambia Echo published by Mr Edward Francis Small, the nationalist; The Gambia Weekly News by Mr James Senegal among a few others. It is important to note that these made no provision for a literary page through which Gambians could have sharpened their literary skills. In the first half of the 20th century, however, some newspapers started literary pages but on a small scale. The second first half of the 20th century then saw the emergence of the first female pioneers of Gambian literature who were members of a group made up of educated Aku ladies called the Gambian Ladies Guild of Grace. This association played a vital role in nurturing the literary skills of many female Gambian writers including Mrs Augusta Jawara and Mrs Florence Mahoney. In 1957, the veteran educationist and writer Mr William Conton, a Sierra Leonean, born in The Gambia published his novel, The African, in the African Writers Series even before writers like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.  

Moving closer to our era, Mr Ceesay, the historian, mentions the advent of Dr Lenrie Peters often referred to as the doyen of Gambian literature who emerged as a poet and writer in 1964 and the publication of the Ndaanan literary magazine. Though short-lived, it marked a significant milestone in the history of Gambian literature as it gave an opportunity to many Gambians to sharpen their literary skills. The documentary then proceeds to feature a new breed of writers like Mr Nana Grey-Johnson, Dr Tijan Sallah and Mr Baba Sillah who emerged in the 1980s. Speaking on the change of themes in his works, Mr Nana Grey-Johnson gives the rationale behind the change of themes from the nationalism of Edward Francis Small in pre-Independence Gambia to economic issues such as IMF conditions and structural adjustment programmes of post-Indepedence Gambia, as reflected in one of his works, The Magic Calabash, one of the texts prescribed by WAEC to be studied as a literary text in The Gambia Basic Education Certificate Exams. This is a step in the right direction as literature deals with people, their history and their culture. Students studying well-written texts by Gambians will learn more about various aspects of their culture, their history, different human responses to situations as well as see and experience language in use. 

A few years later when the Daily Observer emerged in 1992, another major milestone was registered as it was the first newspaper with a well-organised literary page thus giving more opportunities to both veteran and budding writers to show their writing talents.

This documentary would not have been complete without featuring the part played by female writers in the emergence of Gambian literature, for as I’ve already mentioned, the first documented evidence of written Gambian literature are the poems of a Gambian slave girl, Phyllis Whitley who did not allow her circumstances to stop her realising her dreams but made full use of her opportunities. I see her as an inspiration to the Gambian girl-child of present-day Gambia for whom the sky is the limit. Thus in this video documentary, we see gender activist and educationist Madam Isatou Ndow commending Ms Sally Singhateh, one of the young emerging female writers, for the positive portrayal of women as people with great potentials as opposed to the former stereotyping of women as weak and indecisive by male writers who originally dominated the Gambian literary space.  In the documentary, Sally says she allows her female characters to speak her mind as she writes more on women’s rights and other women’s issues. Also featured in this documentary, is a very young and prolific female Gambian writer, Miss Mary Gomez, who, at the age of twenty-nine, has written five short stories and just last Friday launched her sixth, which is a collection of fifty poems. Her stories and poems focus on the challenges of youth and children’s issues. These women can be seen as role models and an inspiration not just to the girl child but the Gambian youth in general.

Another very important feature captured in this documentary is the role of the theatre in national development. As the director of the Ebujang Performing Arts Association, Mrs Janet Badjan-Young speaks on this topic, you’ll watch spectacular performances of the group. Mrs Young emphasises the need for the government and the private sector to support theatre as it plays a vital role in the socio-economic development of the nation because there are lots of talents in The Gambia but there’s need for them to be properly harnessed and organised in order to bring them out in full. She therefore suggests the inclusion of theatre as a subject in the school curriculum. Mrs Young’s statement in this documentary is an eye-opener as well as a wake-up call to all concerned as many are not very much aware of the importance of theatre in national development. Even the interest of children is aroused when they see other children performing and are motivated to be a part.

In the area of literary criticism, The Gambia can now boast of literary critics in the persons of Dr Pierre Gomez and Dr Cherno Omar Barry who have taken literary criticism to another level. Thus Dr Barry suggests that in order to encourage Gambian writers to write more, as well as ensure quality, government should review and recommend the use of well-written Gambian texts at all levels in the school curriculum. He suggests the introduction of writing clubs in schools to promote writing competition among schools.

Even though the Gambian literary space is gradually expanding, it is not without its challenges as highlighted in this documentary. With the advent of the internet in the 21st century, literary critics like Dr Barry have made positive moves to facilitate the efforts of writers by setting up a website gamwriters.com which has encouraged online publishing. This, however, has resulted in a drop in standards as most of the works published lack proper editing and proofreading. 

This video documentary also features different stakeholders expressing their take on the challenges posed by the lack of a reading culture in The Gambia. Speaking on this major challenge, Mr Abdou Mbye, the chief librarian, highlighted the drop in readership in recent times as many who use the National Library now are mainly students who do so for study purposes, the general public for browsing the Internet but very few read for pleasure. Mr Ousainou Jagne, the proprietor of Timbookto Bookshop, in turn lamented the ironic situation of the proliferation of books written by Gambians but very few readers, especially among the adult population.  Giving his take on the relevance of libraries in this Internet age,   Mr Latir Carr, another writer, commented on the advantage of the abundance of reading material available on the Internet but with limited accessibility, as not all reading material can be accessed free of cost. Consequently, libraries are still very relevant in our part of the world.

This video documentary would not have been complete if the producer had not featured   stakeholders giving their take on the publishing business. Commenting on the reasons for the poor quality of many locally-published books, Mr Nana Grey–Johnson recommends that private businesses set up quality printing and publishing facilities to support the growing writing industry in The Gambia. Dr Barry, in turn, attributes this to the lack of standard publishing houses with trained editors and proofreaders in The Gambia, the only standard one being Fulladu Publishers, though they also have their limitations. He therefore makes some tangible recommendations to remedy the situation as he concludes the documentary.

As I conclude this review, I must say that in this documentary, the producer, Dr Pierre Gomez, has gone to great lengths to throw light on certain aspects of Gambian literature which before now were obscured, either intentionally or otherwise and thus unknown. Through the colourful video clips of and statements by the various stakeholders, we see and hear about real life experiences which portray how much work has been done. We also see the challenges faced by each sector in the Gambian literary space as well as suggestions on how they could be remedied. Thus, I feel it is a must-watch especially for the young, who are motivated to do the same, when they see their peers exercise their creative abilities in order to take their rightful places in national development. Once more, thanks Dr Gomez for work well done.


Mrs Juliette C Lawson is a lecturer, English Department, School of Arts and Sciences, University of The Gambia


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