THINGS THAT MATTER: THE GAMBIANS – OUR CLOSEST AFRICAN BROTHERS
BY SIR HENRY FRASER
For my special tribute to Black History month, I want to take a look at The Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa, and a country close to my heart.
I first heard about The Gambia when our mother encouraged us to become pen pals with children in many countries across the world, to encourage our letter writing, and for us to learn about other countries and other cultures. Searching the Pen Pal pages of The Boys Own Magazine at age 10, I acquired pen pals in Britain, the USA, New Zealand, Kenya, Sri Lanka and The Gambia. My Gambian friend and I exchanged several letters, exchanged stamps, and one day, to my excitement, I received a parcel of the major export of The Gambia – peanuts, or as he called them “ground nuts”. They travelled well. Sadly, we lost touch – letters just stopped coming.
Twenty years later, I spent two weeks in The Gambia, doing part of the research for my PhD thesis. I was looking at the variation in metabolism of drugs in different populations – Asians and Caucasians (whites) in an urban environment (London) and Africans in The Gambia. The Medical Research Council had a research unit up-river in The Gambia, at a village called Keneba. Dr. Ian MacGregor led a research unit working on malaria.
A word about this brilliant Scotsman, later Sir Ian. He graduated in medicine in Glasgow in 1945, winning most of the prizes, and was conscripted into the army in 1946. He was told in Jerusalem that he would be trained as a malariologist – that was how things worked in those days! In 1949 he was sent to The Gambia, to the Medical Research Council’s Fajara Station, to join the Nutrition Research team, to investigate the possible role of parasitic infections on protein malnutrition. When he got there, there were no data on the prevalence of diseases like malaria, filariasis, or trypanosomiasis, and nothing was known about the vectors of malaria or filariasis, so Ian set about the task. He selected the remote village of Keneba with two nearby villages of Jali and Manduar as potential control villages. Armed with a medical phrase book, he was taken by lorry and deposited in Keneba in May 1950, to be collected five months later, as the roads in West Kiang were impassable in the rainy season! This isolation led to great love for the country and his work.
His research supported the view that humans repeatedly exposed to malaria infection could develop immunity that restricted clinical illness and parasite numbers, and that this acquired immunity could be transferred to non-immunes with a specific fraction of immune serum. Thus, vaccination against malaria was theoretically possible. Sir Ian’s work serves as the foundation for the global research effort for an effective vaccine.
I reported to this amazing, dedicated researcher in the summer of 1975, stayed in his modest bungalow, and studied the rate of metabolism of two drugs (one was paracetamol, best known by the trade name Panadol) in some sixty local villagers, led by the village chief, Alkali Minte. In return for his friendly collaboration I painted two portraits of him in his Jacob’s coat of many colours, and gave him one.
But an important part of these reminiscences was my arrival at the airport. The party meeting me all looked like Barbadians! I was simply blown away by the physical resemblance of so many people to Bajan friends back home … the facial features were quite unlike those of the many other West Africans I knew in London, most of whom came from much further East – Nigeria and Ghana. Coupled with the warmth and friendliness of everyone, I felt I’d come home.
The Gambia is a country carved out of Senegal – “A sword thrust into its side!”. It’s essentially the River Gambia and its banks, 250 miles long and 30 miles wide at its widest near the coast. It’s on exactly the same latitude, 13 degrees, as Barbados, so it’s due East. It’s the same size as Jamaica, with a population of 1.8 million.
It was involved in the widespread African slave trade from as far back as the tenth century, when it was part of the Mali Empire. Some three million slaves may have been taken from here during the three centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s not known how many were taken by intertribal wars or Muslim traders before the transatlantic slave trade began. Most were sold by other Africans to Europeans: some were prisoners of intertribal wars; some were victims sold because of unpaid debts; and many were simply victims of kidnapping.
The Portuguese took possession of the coastal area and dominated the slave trade from the 15th century, but with competition from French and English the Gambia River was ceded to the British by the First Treaty of Versailles in 1783. The trade between The Gambia and Barbados is illustrated by a ship named Gambia, which on one trip in 1789 sold 200 slaves in Barbados. After the UK abolished the slave trade they would block slave ships leaving The Gambia and return captured slaves up-river to start new lives. They established the fort of Bathurst (now the capital Banjul) to stop the slave trade.
It was chiefly governed by Sierra Leone, but in 1886 it became a separate colony. It achieved independence within the British Commonwealth on February 18th, 1965, with Sir Dawda Jawara as Prime Minister. In 1970 it became a republic, with him as executive President. He was re-elected five times, but in 1981, following allegations of corruption in government, there was an attempted coup, foiled with the aid of the Senegalese government. In 1994 a successful coup was led by 29 year old Yahya Jammeh. He assumed the presidency and banned opposition political activity, although this eventually re-emerged. Jammeh ruled as an autocrat of the worst kind for 22 years.
As everyone now knows, Adama Barrow defeated Jammeh in elections of December 1, 2016, but Jammeh refused to concede defeat and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened militarily to resolve the crisis. They set January 19th, 2017 as the date the troops would move in if Jammeh continued to refuse to step down. The operation was code-named “Operation Restore Democracy”.
ECOWAS forces were amassed around the borders, and the president of ECOWAS said, “By land, sea and air, Gambia is surrounded. A total of 7,000 men will participate in the mission to re-establish democracy in Gambia.”
On January 19th, Adama Barrow, who was in Senegal due to fear for his safety, was sworn in as President in the Gambian embassy there. The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 2337 on the same day, expressing support for ECOWAS efforts to negotiate transition of the presidency. Senegalese armed forces entered The Gambia on the same day, along with forces from Ghana, with air and sea support from Nigeria, and the port placed under naval blockade.
Jammeh finally agreed to step down, and departed on January 21st, going to Guinea and then to Equatorial Guinea, and President Barrow returned to take up office to tumultuous celebration. Jammeh has allegedly bled the country to bankruptcy but was allowed to leave with a fleet of luxury cars!
We in the Caribbean have a lot to learn from The Gambian experience. The corruption of rulers in power for long periods is well known: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The salvation of The Gambia last month is reminiscent of the “Rescue-Invasion” of Grenada by US and Caribbean troops after the heinous execution of Maurice Bishops and members of his cabinet by the Bernard Coard faction. But the equally heinous corruption and autocracy of Jammeh is also reminiscent of the regimes of Burnham in Guyana and Gairy in Grenada, whose corruption and despoiling of their countries was tolerated by by silent leaders in the Caribbean, who turned a blind eye.
With the apparent infelicities in governance across our region, increasing tolerance, increasing fear of speaking out and the hypocrisy of governments in failing to keep their promises of stamping out corruption, we should be mindful of the sad example of the victimisation of our brothers and sisters in The Gambia, and equally mindful of the need for friends to assist in times of need. Let us hope that Mr. Barrow will be as successful as his namesake our own National Hero, and that his people have learnt their lesson, and will be watchful. But is Jammeh’s extraordinary plundering going to go to international court?
Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website:profhenryfraser.com