When the smile became a smirk


With Aisha Jallow

Adolf Hitler was the leader of the Nazi party in Germany. He was the one behind the genocide, the brain behind the killing of 55 to 60 million people. Imagine that number! Many of them were civilians who were killed in the bombing of cities, but a huge number were people handpicked by the Nazis. Jews, gypsies, the handicapped and the mentally retarded people, homosexuals, free thinkers, religious leaders, political activists – these were groups that were killed either immediately or in concentration camps. Some years ago, I visited one of the concentration camps in Germany. All these places are nowadays museums and a lot of people visit them every year. It is crucial that we never forget what happened.

The camp I visited was in the outskirts of Berlin, the capital of Germany. It is located in a beautiful detached area. If you didn’t know what was behind the high brick walls you could believe that you had come to a nice middle class residential area. Nice villas, beautiful gardens with apple trees and flowers. Kids on bikes, playgrounds with swings and so forth. Hidden behind the high brick walls lay a camp where people – men, women and children – were tortured and killed. Scientific experiments were executed on people, no anaesthesia was ever used. The prisoners were not considered as human beings so the pain and suffering didn’t matter to the executioners.


Newborn babies were starved to death in experiments as the doctors and scientists wanted to see how long a baby can live without food, clothing and the tender care of a mother.
Surgeries were performed without anaesthesia as the doctors wanted to see if the inner organs of a Jew looked the same as those of an Aryan. The Aryans, white people with blond hair and blue eyes – were the ideal kind. Jews had mostly brown eyes so some of them put drops in their eyes to change the eye colour. The fact that this also made them blind didn’t matter to the scientists as the people were going to be killed anyway.

Photos can be seen even today of women and children standing in line, stripped naked, waiting to enter a large building. It was said that they were going to have a shower, but it wasn’t water that came out of the pipes. It was lethal gas that took a while before it had done its purpose. During that time, the victims suffered excruciating pain. People have narrated that the gas chambers had to be rebuilt because it was possible to hear the sounds from people panicked in the face of death.

At the beginning of the war not many civilians knew what was going on. The Internet was yet to be invented and there were no mass broadcast television networks or channel. Radio broadcasts didn’t give news that were critical to the state, so most German citizens didn’t have a clue of the horror that was going on.

As the war spread out more people became affected. The crimes against the Jews and other groups became more known. People who had been your friends and neighbours suddenly became pariah. Jews were forced to stitch a yellow star on their coats to show their inherency. If they were found on the streets without the yellow star they were immediately thrown in jail.

Silence killed too many during the Second World War. People were too afraid to speak out because they knew they could get in trouble and even killed. The people who lived in the nice villas surrounding the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, Germany, were terrified that they would end up in this hellish place themselves if they complained. The citizens kept their mouths shut and turned the music on the radio louder when screams were heard from the inside the camp.

Keeping silent, minding one’s own business kept German citizens alive- at least for a while. The rules could suddenly change and you could be in trouble even if you only had 25% Jewish blood in you.

Does this story feel a bit familiar to you? I could just as well have been telling about The Gambia instead, and the 22 years when people suffered under the tyranny of a maniac leader. During these years people were abducted, tortured, killed, jailed without a trial, shot openly in the streets when they dared to protest. A lot of people praised the leader, sang songs about him, called him a lot of pet names – one more awkward than the other. At the beginning not many knew what was happening, but words spread. It was hard to pretend that it wasn’t true when you had heard the banging in the night on your neighbour’s door.

You had heard the terrified screams from the residents of the compound and the shouting from those who came and disturbed the peace. You couldn’t have helped to wonder what happened to your nice neighbour who you had greeted every day for as long as you can remember. Would you ever see him or her again?
What about the youth who dared to protest and were shot? Some of them injured for life, others killed? Did you pretend like nothing had happened and at the same time praise God that it wasn’t your kids?
What about those who lost their businesses and their livelihood because the former president had decided that he wanted to take over? When someone had been struggling to build something up, and had made it successful, suddenly it was snatched away in front of your eyes.

All this and so much more could go on because too many kept quiet. You hid under your bed covers at night and hoped that the nightly visitors with their rifles and trucks wouldn’t stop outside your compound. You decided to praise the president a bit extra, a bit more loudly than the others, so that it would please the president. You thought that if you didn’t say anything bad about the president he would turn away his eyes from you and terrorise someone else.

Times have changed, the dictator is out the country and everything could be lovely. So why isn’t life in The Gambia beaming with hope for the future?
Well, as I have said before – after the Election 2016, the bright new future was like a beautiful shiny balloon in the sky. Everyone could see it and rejoiced. The sight gave you new hope but it didn’t take long before the balloon lost height and slowly, slowly shrunk. It doesn’t matter how you look for it, because it’s not there anymore. Those who are in charge for encouraging the citizens of The Gambia are the only ones who smile. They smile all the way to the bank, but that smile is not genuine – it’s a smirk.
We are all familiar with this great way of describing the Gambia: “The smiling coast of Africa”. Is it a true smile, or is it a smirk?
Let us look at the difference:

a smile can show your happiness and gratefulness
a smile can hide your tears and your pain
a smile can hide your sorrows for a while
a smile can comfort someone’s grief
a smile can make you feel welcome and seen for the one you are
a smirk shows that you are happy because someone else is unhappy
a smirk shows that you enjoy that someone is sad and/or in pain
a smirk shows no true emotions because you don’t care about anyone else but yourself
a smirk is cold and gloating in other’s grief
a smirk is keeping others on a distance, they fear your cold.

I often speak about listening to what someone doesn’t say, and looking at what someone doesn’t show. With this I mean that we shouldn’t just look at the obvious, but also what is hiding behind it. I don’t mean that we should do that in every situation when we are interacting with others, but if you think back I am sure that you have experienced moments when it feels a bit awkward. Moments when you are speaking to someone but you can almost read between the lines that the other person is not genuine. The person is smiling at you, and saying the right things but something doesn’t sound right. That person can be very charming, very persuasive and has the right manners. If you would take a step back, and listen to the conversation without being involved in it I am sure you would be questioning the agenda.

When you look into someone’s eyes you can almost every time see if that person is genuine or not. Not many people are that good actors that they are able to fake convincingly. Trust your gut feeling when you interact with others, especially those you don’t know well. Are they telling you something they believe you want to hear, or are they genuine? What about the people who are members of the APRC? They still live among you and they wished to make you believe that they knew nothing about the atrocities that kept on for 22 years. Is it possible to believe them? Is it possible that people had been that blind and deaf during all that time? The Gambia is a very small country and you can be sure that if someone sneezes in Basse the sound will be heard in Banjul together with the rumour of the sneezer’s bad health.

It is not possible to hide anything of substance because Gambians love to talk. During the era of the despot it was dangerous to talk as it was hard to know who was a friend and who was an enemy. Despite that fact words spread from one person to the other. How is it then possible to avoid hearing about all the atrocities? Is it possible to avoid listening if you set your mind to it? You meet your neighbours, you speak to them but you know that they have been involved in all the awful things that happened only some years ago. How is it possible to live with that thought?
When the Second World War ended the German Nazi party was banned. How come the APRC is still alive and kicking? How is that possible?
You even have members of the APRC in the current government. How is THAT possible? Why hasn’t the current government banned the APRC? Why is this party allowed to hold a large demonstration where they demanded the government to allow Yahya Jammeh to come back to The Gambia? A while ago I listened to a long audio with Jammeh and another guy. The one who spoke to Jammeh had such a soft voice and he crawled and fussed all the time, turning himself inside out to please the former president. It was disgusting to hear!
Jammeh felt sorry for himself and he was homesick. What about all those who fled The Gambia to save their lives? They were homesick too. Gambian citizens who lived abroad were not even allowed to be buried in their motherland because of Jammeh.
The Gambia has a lot of dust in the corners. The only way to heal is to clean it all up, fight the corruption, ban the APRC and make a fresh start. Then, and only then we can see genuine smiles in The Gambia again.