By Lawrence Jabang
Kindness and weakness are never the same and will never be the same. Unfortunately, they are too often confused. It’s a known fact that there is always comes a time when each would need to paddle his/her own canoe. Therefore, it is long overdue for Gambian Christians to demonstrate that their ‘kindness’ as far as domestic politics and social issues are concerned, is never a weakness on their part. So time is ripe for us to send President Jammeh a clear, concrete message that games are over with and we are ready for mouth for an ‘eye for an eye’ and tooth for tooth principle of dealing with him and his regime. To manifest our intention and position that we, as a Christian constituent of our country, mean business with APRC Government. It is time to speak up come what may!
Gambians all over, especially those in this noble struggle have entered a rare and a very uncomfortable zone. Many are caught up in some type of ambivalence, confused and not knowing what to say. However, with sincere dialogue and active engagement, Gambians could easily walk out of this rare zone. I indulge you all to take a deep breath, relax and walk with me on this personal story of mine:
I am Alorn, known as Karoninka to many Gambians. Our forefathers originated from Islands in Southern Casamance, Senegal. To this day we still have strong ties with people who live there and every Karoninka (Alorn) who dies is also mourned at their home origin in Kalon, Casamance. Ancient Alorn have the idea of Supreme God but they have worshipped idols; different idols, even within the same clan. This has been a long standing tradition, though many are doing away with it as they strictly adhere to their respective monolithic religious teachings.
Despite the above background, I was parented by my aunt and her husband who were both Muslims since the age of six. Nonetheless, I was never far from my Christian folks some of whom were parented with me in the same Muslim dominated compound. When I enlisted in The Gambia National Army I befriended a Mandinka from Jarra Sukuta. A guy who’s gentleness would be very rare. During Christmas, his younger brother would join us, together with my cousins to the village, Darsilami, where we celebrate Christian festivities like Christmas, Easter and Sang Marie and other major celebrations like weddings. We will be drinking while they sit and watch us have our fun but they have never attempted to eat pork or drink alcohol, nor were they finicky about sharing other foods with us. We also went to Jarra Sukuta for the recitation of the Holy Qur’an (Gamo). It was very easy for us to adopt. There was no bar to drink, so we were sober the entire time and our names were very adjustable. The initial introductory greetings in Mandinka went as follows:
‘Ba Sue molu lay? Eto deema?’ ‘Ebrima Jabang’, I answered. This wasn’t fake as Ebrima indeed is the real name my parents named me and still call me that. Lawrence was adopted when I got baptized, which doesn’t make sense to me today. The same greetings to my cousin who answered that his name was, Sulayman! And again, that is his name my cousin’s Christian name is Solomon replied. The third one was my other cousin Michael. We whispered to him to say ‘Kawusu’ is my name’ but he would fall for it as there wasn’t time to. ‘My name is Michael’, we answered. “Makel” will be his name, as the old folks couldn’t get it the first time “Michael” was pronounced. That was not bad as it didn’t sound Christian nor typical Muslim neither. We bought our white candles and sat among the congregation of Muslims, where we repeatedly say ‘Amen Amen Amen’ as we tapped to our foreheads, even when they were praying for us to become Muslims. This is to underscore the level of interrelatedness and religious tolerance within Gambians. We had fun with family and people in Jarra Sukuta.
The only funny side of this visit was that my ‘soninkay’ cousins (jokes), wanted to go bush pig hunting. How crazy was that after the recitation of the Holy Qu’ran? Well, I guess our evil intentions couldn’t withstand the waves of the gracious prayers and the Quranic recitations, so the pig hunting failed woefully. But to this day, we remained a family; a close family. We bonded well and every single one of us is here in the United States. Again, a manifestation of the tribal and religious harmony that had existed within Gambians from time immemorial.
In 2001, I was an officer Cadet of the Gambia Armed Forces; it was also an Inaugural year after the Presidential Elections. Many Heads of State were to attend the ceremony but the officer core was overstretched at this time so the command resorted to Officer Cadets. They decorated us with ceremonial ranks, 1st Lieutenants, to fill the roles of ADCs [aide de camp] – closest bodyguards to visiting presidents. I was assigned to the late Ahmad Tejan Kaba (RIP) of Sierra Leone, a decent man with a quiet and soft-spoken personality. This will be the first time I will have to work with a President and it will also give me an opportunity to encounter President Yaya Jammeh closely, even if briefly. On this particular day at the Airport it was my President, Tijan Kaba who first arrived. I advanced close to the steps of his Jet, saluted him as he touched the ground and majestically walked behind him as he greeted other dignitaries and finally made his way to president Jammeh where his Mercedes Benz with a Libyan driver was waiting. As I open the door for President Tijan Kaba, before I turned my back, a skinny Hispanic-looking guy had already opened the passenger side door to occupy it. I gripped him quickly and aggressively threw him out in the presence of Jammeh. I guess he understood I was doing my job because he didn’t remark. This Caucasian ‘security’ officer later came to be known as Francisco Casso, an Italian national attached to the president’s security detail.
The following day was the Inauguration day, coinciding with the commissioning of the much politically propaganda 18 megawatts generators. After the inaugural ceremony at the independence stadium, we drove to Kotu Power station for the commissioning of the Generator. Upon arrival, we stopped just some meters away from the entrance of the generators. It was my convoy, the late Tijan Kaba of Sierra Leone, the late Kumba Yalla of Guinea Bissau (RIP), and President Yaya Jammeh. I believe presidents Alpha Oumar Konare and John Kuffour of Mali and Ghana respectively, where in attendance. Then were representatives of Roman Catholic Church, Father Irk, a Priest from Sierra Leone and also an Imam, I couldn’t recollect exactly who, ministers and other dignitaries. I did recall Nai Ceesay, then minister, probably of lands and local government and a former immigration director, was in my convoy of Tijan Kaba. Just at the entrance of the generators was a robin tied across. Where President Kaba and I stood, were a group of women of the Manjago tribe, dressed in their traditional/ritual dresses of short skirts with beads all over their bodies. They started to chant ritual songs and incantations, while they danced back and forth along the lining of the robin that was barricading the entrance to the generator. They finally sprinkled locally tapped palm wine around. I could tell from the smell that the wine was highly concentrated in alcoholic content, meaning it has been fermented for a while. ‘That was a familiar smell’, I thought to myself. When they had finished sprinkling the alcohol, a pair of scissors was handed to Father Irk of Roman Catholic Church who then cut the robin allowing the delegation to move into the generator compartment, started it marking the official launching of the generator. Ambassador Sey of HelloGambia once made reference to this Idol worshiping at Kotu Power Station.
What happened at this national event was an invitation of an Idol as a watchdog for this generator, because President Jammeh believes that the frequent and unexplained power cuts of electricity were a result of sabotage by some staffers who didn’t like him. The idol was gonna throw a terrible misfortune and even death at any one who intentionally messed with the smooth flow of energy. Some days after the ceremony I asked a friend who worked at the State House and frequently went to Kanilai about this idol business and he confided in me that he did sometimes run errands of providing palm wine for President Jammeh’s Idol in Kanilai. ‘What?!’ I asked in dismay. ‘Yes! The man has his own and they use our regular palm wine’, he said. I was not surprised. An old man and one teacher Henry Jammeh from Kanilai once resided in our home in Darsilami. They were Christians. The old man would fix fractures and dislocated joints, although blind. They drank palm wine. These folks where Christians on the whole no wonder palm wine didn’t appear to be anything of a big deal.
Fast forward this month, the same Muslim President who entertained and celebrated an idol on a national event has invited an Islamic Scholar, Dr Zakir Naik. Knowingly or not, Zakir, among other clerics and a Methodist Bishop hailed Jammeh as a good leader and an exemplary Muslim. Beside the unconstitutionality of the invitation of Dr. Zakir, this provides an opportunity for all Gambians, especially Muslims to take a pause and sincerely ask these rhetoric questions: Was the invitation of Dr. Zakir really out of Jammeh’s faith or something more to that? What is the real motive or rationale behind the invitation of a famous but controversial Scholar? Was it not the same Yaya who ironically terrorized Gambian Islamic leaders in the persons Imam Karamo Touray, Imam Baba Leigh and Ba Kawsu Fofana for simply preaching Islam? When Baba Leigh made his remarks regarding the killing of the 9 prisoners, he wasn’t basing it on the Bible, was he? If this invitation was not a classic example of Yaya’s hypocrisy, then the meaning of hypocrisy must have changed. Do we really need to be intellectuals to outline this logic as presented here? What are we confused about?
To be categorically clear, this is not an issue between Muslims and Christians but with President Jammeh. And it’s not even Dr. Zakir. The Dr. has not in any way wronged any Gambian Christian. He is a missionary who was only preaching his faith. He’s is not going to come and talk about religious tolerance and equality but promote one and berates the other. He reads comparative religion. He is indeed a Muslim and not an independent scholar who would independently compare religions —he is a Muslim first and a scholar second. His controversy is surely known by many including President Jammeh. Perhaps his invitation was calculated as Jammeh loves to play sects, tribes, regions and families against each other just like egoistic, power-hungry dictators of his kind do. Period!
Interestingly, we all know that Gambia is a Secular State. “A secular state is a concept of secularism, whereby a state or country purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion.” These are not my own words. The key word here is “NEUTRAL”. In light of this definition of our State, we should all agree that inviting an Islamic Scholar on our government dimes to a state function to promote one religion at the expense of other religions grossly violates the constitution of our country. How neutral is that supposedly secular state, was this another way of saying to Gambian Christians not to attend these national events or is he telling Christians go and get offended, psychologically tortured with no questions to ask as seen in the case of Christina Jatta? Christina was escorted home on this day due to threats from an angry group who perceived her rude. This was not the first time Christians have been marginalized by this administration. If you’d recalled Deeper Life School was shut down because they failed to teach Islamic studies even when it was a 100% Christian school. How neutral is it to mandate certain schools teach a particular religion and not the other? Why are Muslim, Nusrat and Nasir High School not teaching Bible Knowledge? How neutral is it to for a State to build a Mosque at State House so that a certain religious group who work there can easily attend to their prayers and not the others? Are all these biases enshrined in our Constitution that we are yet to know about while pretending that the Gambia is indeed a Secular State? Would Gambia Government invite a Christian fundamentalist on Independence Day, at the independence stadium, to bombard and berate Islam and Muslims?
Religion is a very touchy area that needs special attention, because, unlike the social sciences, there isn’t much to prove but Faith; accepting and believing what you have never seen and you will never see. Believing what you didn’t know and you will never know. Even people who are not devoted to their religious doctrines will be seriously offended with a simple misrepresentation and they may even resent you for good. Lately people who love and admire Pa. Nderry have expressed dismay at him, because he was critical about Dr Naik and his invitation to Gambia. Similar sentiments of reprisal were also thrown at Demba Baldeh of Gainako Radio. Demba Baldeh’s point was there shouldn’t have been a mosque at the State House and if there is one, there should have been a Church too, and chapels in hospitals. Some people were outraged by Demba’s statement calling him very disappointing to the point of claiming to have lost respect for him. They rationalized saying that if we have a Christian president he can build a church if he wants, arguing that Christians don’t often go to church but Sundays. Very poor and weak argument! Why don’t we forget about Jammeh’s unconstitutional acts and wait for another President who may do what is constitutionally right if he wishes? Were these not the same Gambian journalists who we love so much for holding Jammeh accountable on injustices? Now all of a sudden they have become enemies of Islam for challenging the same unconstitutionality of the same administration.
As rights fighters, you don’t pick and choose which piece of legislation favors you and neglect the other because it does not pertain to you. We are not in this long and tedious struggle only to start thinking backwards. So far, some have failed the litmus test. This is not a debate about religion but of principle. Facts are usually those big doses that are hard to swallow. We have a long way to go even after Jammeh. Facts have to be facts even if they are unfavorable. What is constitutionally wrong or right is not what necessarily favors or goes against your religion, tribe region or you in person but that what violates a matter of principle. After all, I really didn’t think having a church at the State house necessarily crossed the mind of Christians and if it does, it didn’t bother them. Having a Mosque at the state house was mutually accepted by Christians or better say, reasonably understood, given the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Gambia. Thus, Christians are not expecting equality but some degree of fairness and respect as had been the case until in recent times of this confused regime. So, what has happened now is that this visit of Dr. Naik is gonna change the Status quo for good. What had previously been a non-issue will become issues now. Christians will now be paying close attention to little things including usual ones because some consciousness has been triggered. It’s also an eye opener that Christians have in indeed been systematically marginalized over the years by this satanic administration. This burden will even become more obvious in new Gambia where, freedom of speech and expression will be relatively tolerant. And this, in my view is not going to be society-friendly as religious issues are very fragile, which often instigate flares of emotions.
We have also seen these dirty games before, where Yaya profiled a particular tribe and party. He labeled Mandikas and UDP as tribalist which in my opinion is nothing but slanderous. Yaya have been claiming that he has been consecutively and legitimately winning elections over these 20 years. How could he have ever won elections without the Mandinka votes that constitute over 42% of Gambia’s population? Perhaps, that might have just eluded my imagination. On the other hand one can comfortably say over 85% of Jolas support APRC, which is not the case with UDP to Mandinkas. So the man is simply a hypocrite.
Again, no gay right advocates ever existed in the Gambia and it was a non issue. However, antigay laws and sentiments made headlines on international media pertinent to Gambia prompting more restriction on Gambia’s ability to secure usual funding as well as threatening our declining tourism industry.
So what all these have revealed is the continuous trend and dirty tactics of Yaya Jammeh’s DIVIDE and RULE and NOT Christianity vs. Islam as some may be inclined to think. This type of tactics is employed anytime Yaya figures out Gambians are making progress. He throws a missile to disperse people in the struggle and regrouping becomes a problem. Evidently, people in struggle have been divided over the invitation of Dr. Zakir as some viewed it as a noble gesture to Islam but the motive/intention clearly isn’t. If we understand this we will sharply reduce the production of adrenaline in our systems which will reduce our blood pressure, thereby putting us at ease. Yaya has lost faith in the conventional democratically structured platform and the only means to sustain support and stay in power is to incite division but most importantly, to hide behind the dominant religion which may not open to quest of the unknown.
Regardless of how sensitive religious issue maybe, this particular incident has evoked real concern and addressing it is a necessity at this time. Hopefully, it will open the doors among various faiths in the Gambia to start dialoguing which will be very assuring to the peace and tranquility of our people and the Gambia. My relationship with the Mandinka family from Jarra Sukuta, is also the reality of many in the Gambia, thus, we, as Gambians have lived and cohabitated in many respects regardless of religion, ethnicity and even relation. And this shall be maintained by the grace of God.
It’s therefore imperative that Gambian Christians come out of their hiding places and demand justice before things get out of hand. If Christians allow this to continue it will become a traditional thing as the killing, torture and arbitrary arrests with impunity which has now become normal business in the Gambia. Let us now have churches and chapels where there are mosques, built by the government. Let all schools teach both Bible and Islamic studies or simply allow private schools follow guidelines of a secular state and no mandatory religious lectures of any sort in state functions or institution. Let’s separate State and Church/Mosque. If these demands could not be met, then it’s better we change the definition of Gambia to anything other than “SECULAR STATE.”
Despite these cloudy and clumsy circumstances, majority of Gambians, especially the Muslim communities have demonstrated a degree of maturity and sense of hope, that we Gambians are ready to work together, foster and establish a relationship for a new Gambia regardless of our various faiths. This is very assuring. However Christians will henceforth continue to watch out for flaws of the constitution of our beloved nation in relation to them without compromising our existing and fraternal relationship.
Long live the Gambia! Alabaraka! Jere gen Jeff! Timpatimpa!