By Guest Editor
Reminiscences Of Bathurst The Lost
The Gambia, the West African sub-region, the entire African continent and indeed the whole world seems to be on the brink of an apocalyptic end as feared by Richard Huttington in his Clash of Civilizations perspective. To understand mine a little better, do take note that I for one left The Gambia just a year after independence. Along with a Gambian friend, one Seedia, we left Bathurst on a ferry called Meta to cross over to Kung, now more popularly known as Barra. As the ferry slowly drifted away from the wharf, made of sliced-off planks of the stems of ancient palm-kernel trees I remember looking at the crowded fleet of tug boats, cutters, small local canoes fully loaded with the neatly cut sticks of swamp – wood used as firewood, all preparing for the coming groundnut marketing season that was to start in earnest only about seven weeks away. There was an air of business, feverish over-activity with everyone appearing to be ordering the other about. And there were naked boys swimming in between boats and shouting out loud to no one in particularly.
The ferry drifted pass the hut where the town’s bad boys gathered to swim and pick up items thrown from ships anchored on Government Wharf by partners up in the ships working as dockworkers; pass the thatch hut where Saikouba, the leper, presided over the sale of all sellable goods from pumpkin, cannabis, porcupines to writs watches. Then came the small knots of people, most of them women, pieces of cloth, tied around waist, with various knots on the cloth with coins and bank notes with the face of Queen Elizabeth printed on them; all standing and negotiating around freshly dock canoes and coming out of the knots of people with basin-full loads of various species of fish. Then came the rear of the Albert Market, with squatters of net and boat repairers, most of them of Serere-speaking stock; then came the rear side of Bodafel, or board of health compound where vaccinations are done, birth and death certificates issued, rodenticides were sold and even dogs are injected and had dated labels worn around their necks to show they were disease-free or vaccinated to be free from such diseases, I really didn’t know, and in fact still don’t know.
Any way after this Meta, a yellow-painted ferry-boat, cruised past the government printer’s backyard and the skies were turning to a cooler but darker affair and breeze began to cool and then I turned to Seedia, my companion, who sat on a sack of sugar or flour and looked like he was already asleep.
Seedia was a neighbor, about two or three years older who went to the Adult School, on Leman Street, at the corner with Orange Street. The school was for under-performing pupils, over-aged or just missed-outs who failed to be around at the time of their coming of age for entrance to the normal schools. The school was housed at the same building where, in the day, it was a primary school for about a hundred pupils between the ages of five and nine years old, and they closed at 14.00 before the Adult School group started at 16.00 hours.
I attended Roman School, about three blocks of compounds away, but my aunt, Aunty Rose, worked at the Leman Street School as one of the women, dressed in neat white hospital-like frocks, and preparing and serving mandatory glasses of milk which I was never able to meet a pupil who liked the milk due to its sterile and clinical taste Almost all the boys I used to know considered the mandatory as a punitive exercise as the beatings and other punishments regularly meted out to all children by all adults working in the schools whether as teachers, cleaners or janitors. Spare the rod and spoil the child, they say, but teachers, whether in Roman or Leman schools beat up children in their care regularly.
It must have been this that made Seedia so bent against the world of the adults. I remember him telling me that, “After leaving this country I will never return, here, never.”
To me Seedia’s take on things was like one of total denunciation of all, first of all his family and parents, their fellows, neighbors, and of course against all adults in or outside schools. At the time I could entertain talks, and even at times flashed some encouraging smiles as he went on, but I didn’t share his opinions and sentiments that far. That I knew that I myself often did things that were clearly forbidden by parents, teachers, other elders or those in authority. I think violating rules, laws or other codes are in our nature as creatures but the more and earlier enough spirit of complying with them the better it is for our chance of succeeding in life or all other legitimate pursuits.
I also knew that the part of Banjul both Roman and Leman schools were in the most notorious neighborhood of Bathurst. Most of them were descendants of low-caste and domestic servants and liberated slaves who followed the British back to their colony of The Gambia after Saint Louis was returned to the French as part of a deal that exchanged territories between the two European colonial powers. But though many of the people of Half-Die, as the neighborhood came to be called after an epidemic of typhoid left over a thousand inhabitants dead, were of low caste and of low social status, most of them came with skills badly needed in the colony’s river transport economy. River transport was the colony’s reason of being as well as its name, so the people of Half Die could hold on a unique sub-culture of their own, consisting of a blend of Wallo Wollof cultural traits, a Gourmet Manjago flare of seafarers from Portuguese Guinea and the mestizo touch of Ndar and Goree.
The island of Bathurst was small and with a population that never grew above 10 000 before 1901. But though small, how its population distributed itself upon the tiny island had little spontaneous in its making. The island was strictly segregated, into Akubi, Dinguirai, Jollof and Portuguese town, Soldier Town, etc, etc. Close to the Governor’s residence settled the Anglo-phonic Krio, most of them Christianized and liberated enslaved Africans originally from the tumultuous Bights of Benin and Biafrain the Akubi neighborhood. Then down south of the city were another settlement of liberated Africans, but these Wollof or Manago-speaking Africans were Franco-oriented and Catholic, if Christians unlike the Krio of the Akubi section who were by and large Christians of Protestant persuasion.
North of Akubi was Soldier-town, bordering the shortest thoroughfare in and out of the island via the Saaro crossing site. Because the Kingdom of Kombo posed more of a threat to the colonialists in Bathurst than that of Nuimi, lying farther across the mouth of the ocean, soldiers of the Royal African Force, RAF, were settled in Bathurst North, that later came to be known as Soldier Town. As soon as these soldiers started to be shipped back to a base in Freetown, signs stated appearing of fresh trouble erupted on the north bank of the Gambia River. The big and strong kingdom of Saloum, started its fall with frenzied dying kicks that brought palace coups and armed clashes among parties of the Guellwarr ruling class, the rise of jihadist warriors, the beginning of Maaba’s jihadi wars that overthrew the kingdom of Badibbou and even threatened Niumi, Jokadu and surrounding settlements.
Refugees from these conflicts, most Baol-Wollof-speaking, unlike Waalo-Wollof-speaking of Half Die, were settled in the now evacuated Soldier Town area. But perhaps I should have written “allowed to settle,”since no help was given to the refugees for re-settling by the colonial authorities. Most were just let to fend for a suitable site on a swampy stretch and reclaim it to themselves, forever, freely calling it their own.
By the north bank area of the country became growingly restless and less habitable and farming activities were largely abandoned, villages and settlements dispersed and depopulated as Lat Dior, Albury, Sandende Ndow, Amadou Masina, Lamin Drammeh, Fode Kaaba and others battle it out against the colonialists, against those unconverted to Islam and against each other.
But peace eventually returned and prevailed for about a forty years between June 1867, when Maaba was beheaded in Somm by fighters of the Bur of Sinn and 1904, when Fode Kaaba and thousands of his men blew themselves up with gun powder in the face of defeat by a coalition of French, British and Musa Molloh forces.
This four decades of peace, however illegitimately imposed, gave the people of Bathurst, the peace and respite needed to flee from horrors of slavery, endless incessant wars between the three ideologies of European colonialism, Arabo-Islamic jihadism and dying indigenous African self-rule. In Bathurst, this respite was used as if the little island was under siege. A siege mentality began to grow in the mind of its people providing a pressure that tended to forge out a new unique culture different from any else in the whole sub-region, making the people there inward looking, and less interested in things outside. For the average person of Bathurst it was us, of the island, and the rest, outsiders. But while this attitude to outsiders, was much disliked by others, it helped formed a new-found bond that could demolish all cultural, ethnic, social and even socio-economic divides. The ndongo Banjul was a new hybrid man different from country cousins, or relatives from Freetown, Ndarr or Njogone.
For him European colonialism was not only acceptable but even laudable. It was not a matter of whether colonialism was right or wrong but of what other better options or alternatives were available at the time of choice-making if indeed there ever was any such time. It was not a matter of how to fight it but how to condone it, how to behave properly before it, apply it, mimic it so much so as to leave the farthest distance with the way of the country cousin. In Bathurst of my time English football star, Bobby Charlton mattered more than Amilcar Cabral, Mamadou Dia or Shiekh Ibraima Niass. Elvis Presley, Allan Lad or Jim Reeves felt closer than Pitty Jallow, Biri or P. S. Njie. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 the whole island was in the grip of almost a week of collective grief, but when Senegalese political leader Lamin Gueye died in Dakar, it was a non-event in Bathurst.
The people of Bathurst followed world events or “News of the Outside World” over radio waves as if from a detached outpost. Perhaps it was the Second World War, a generation earlier that had made them so, but so they remained till the time of my departure, together with Seedia, from the island, the island village capital, claiming to be a city, when not truly even yet really a town in 1967.
But 1967 was about ten years since Herald Macmillan’s thrilling cry of the Wind of Change blew over the colonial structures of state all over the continent. But by the time wind touched Bathurst in 1963, 1964 and 1965, its strength had reduced dramatically into a cool harmless wind, leaving all permanent structures intact, only the transient and the ephemeral was slightly touched. The politics of envy whipped up by self-seeking politicians turned some country cousins jealous, fooling them into believing that independence carried with it the mandatory that will banish town’s people into the countryside and those there to the capital, Bathurst. How the tiny island Gambian countryside was to accommodate all the people of the countryside. More than ten times its population was never even considered. Even if the population could fit what was going to be done with the order of redistribution or resettlement.
But the politicians of the countryside who then peddled such envy-based platitudes were not worse than mates in Bathurst. In fact those of Bathurst had displayed twenty-years of the politics of sectarianism for individual selfish purposes. The likes of J.C. Fye, Garba Jahumpa and P.S. Njie have demonstrated enough evidence of this between the years1943 to 1963, in contests for political or public representational offices, between the highly personalized and de-structured political groupings called parties in Bathurst. The new breed of countryside self-seekers, cum politicians ,had all their mentoring, tutoring and apprenticeship from their older urban peers, so in the Gambia the wind of change brought no illusions of liberation elsewhere.
But in The Gambia the wind also brought with it little illusion of liberation as elsewhere in Africa, Asia or Latin America. But despite this, it scared a whole number of foreigners out. The Kings Way people, Palmine Co. Ltd, Vezea, teams of Yoruba retail women, installed on special stalls, Hausa dibbi sellers from Niger or northern Nigeria, all packed up and left in the wake of self-black rule as if on a small-scale exodus.
It was perhaps that same air of exodus which unknowingly pushed Seedia and myself on that mad venture out of the country .But perhaps it was mad only in my case, not that of Seedia’s. Seedia was in a desperate mood so his was of urgent haste out but I had neither reason nor purpose out of the newly independent country. Unlike him I did well in school and was now in a relatively prestigious position in the private sector and had no reason to quit either job or country. All I thought I had was good opportunities and bright prospects in the new and upcoming Gambia. I had no picture in mind of a better place in my mind. For me the Gambia, or rather Bathurst, little it might have been, was the be-all and end-all of life on this planet. But out I wanted, joining Seedia, younger but more determined and knowledgeable about the journey presently at hand. These circumstances helped hasten my fall out with Seedia as soon as we arrived in Dakar. Perhaps due to my semi-feudal background, with the essential trade of the ethics age-tyranny I started to accumulate an increasing resentment of what I then considered to be Seedia’s bossiness.
We went our separate ways just three days after arrival in Dakar though we passed each other during the next couple of months several times around the Mall 8th section of the Free Port of Dakar. I have since then never met anyone who had any information on his fate or whereabouts. But for me he was out of-sight but not out of mind. I did not return to Bathurst until two decades later. Bathurst had kept some of its grace, its thrills and attraction though it looked enormously tasked and tried.
But this was child-play compared to the state of things, decades later when I finally returned to Bathurst. In fact I soon discovered that there was no more any Bathurst to return to, its name long changed, its population dispersed into tiny shreds of migrant settlers, almost all foreign not only to the island, but to the country itself, and the original people of Bathurst resettled in estates, new suburbs and sprawling shanties around Serre Kunda.
Then I came to realize that both Seedia and I lost Bathurst, Banjul, in our different ways, none of us winner or loser of this fate. But the loss was not only one a loss for the citizens of Bathurst but of the whole of Gambia and even the rest of the continent, since Bathurst became the birthplace for the “Gambian Way Of Life,” the first field of durable and successful experimentation with the Westminster model on the African continent.The loss that perhaps became the forerunner to the our loss of the First Republic. Two boys of the Gambia of the sixties, both losers, one voluntarily, the other regrettably.