A Conversation With The Man (By Alagie Barrow)
The man calls me AB. We were sitting by one of the piers of the River Gambia. A short distance away, a few women, singing haunting songs that yearn for better washed clothes a few steps into the river.
Some men, who hid their faces in the shame of doing what they consider to be a woman’s chore, were also washing clothes that belong to other men who fare better than they do in life. An occasional argument would flare among the men, eager to showcase their machismo which they feel is stolen by the hardships of Gambian life, forcing them to engage in a chore reserved for women. The women washed clothes for a living; clothes that they can never afford to wear. Some children, carefree and full of joy, played in the shoals of the river, while some other young men sat under a tree partaking in the herb while others sniffed glue to escape the harsh realities of Gambian life. In the serene waters of the river, a fisherman sat in his dugout boat, with a pipe dangling between his lips, contemplating the pain and shame of going home empty handed. I looked at the children playing in a moment of joie de vivre, wondering what kind of Gambia we will be bequeathing them. I was lost in thoughts of my own childhood, playing by the banks of River Gambia at Jips in Tallinding, and in Basse. The Man’s melancholic voice woke me from the beautiful memories of my Gambian childhood only to bring me back to the harsh realities of a Gambia we both struggle to recognize anymore.
“AB”, he called me. “AB, I love Gambia. Or rather I should say I loved Gambia. I say “loved” because I’m not sure if The Gambia I so love with all my heart exists anymore. Or, may be that Gambia only existed in the memory of my soul. Or maybe, that Gambia traveled with me from the unsteady steps of infancy, to the memorable struggles of adolescence, before abandoning me to the forlorn life of adulthood. AB, I long for a Gambia that seemed stuck in years gone by; auld lang syne. AB, it was a Gambia of joy. Nowadays, the joy of being Gambian stops the day you assume adulthood. That’s why some never grow up continue to maintain that they’re youths, and speak for the youths, deep into their 30s and 40s”
Then The Man looked down, looked back up and said:
“AB, I visited Gambia and could not recognize myself and could not recognize my Gambia. The dawn of my excitement at being home painfully and quickly gave way to the twilight of my disappointment at my eagerness to leave home. My hopes transformed to despair. My smile turned into a frown. My tap water tasted like mud. The abiding darkness of the night, cheered on by NAWEC and smog from the poisonous fumes we emit, refuse to yield to the moon that once shined bright, allowing us to play manyow, daydayte. The joy of being home soon gave way to an eagerness to pack up and leave. AB, Gambia is not Gambia anymore. Our Gambia is long gone. Sana said to create the old Gambia. I tried to create the old Gambia, but all around me was greed, selfishness, duplicity and corruption, all of which connived to choke the life out of the old Gambia I wished to create. Some of the people simply try to hide from the pain of it all by looking away because by looking away, they can salvage what little is left of their battered conscience! And when I look around, all I see are perfect Gambians; for everyone is just perfect!”
“AB, many have given up on home because it stopped being home. My friend, Mmajiki, told me he’s tired, he’s exhausted, he does not have the strength to fight anymore. Sadly, I can understand him because no one wants to keep fighting a losing battle. AB, our people yearn for a better Gambia but insist on a system that promotes greed and getting to the top by all means. Sadly, that system, grounded in a cesspool fenced in inertia, does exactly what’s it’s supposed to do: Promote greed, thievery, selfishness, betrayal, duplicity and inertia. Military Junglers are hated, but financial Junglers are embraced! Yet, everyone claims to hate corruption, conveniently forgetting that financial Junglers kill many more Gambians! Betrayal is seen as a mark of outsmarting others. Duplicity gets you up there, so you can be cheered and congratulated. Shame has since died and written its own epitaph, longing for the days of yore when the elders would rather pick death than embrace shame.”
“AB, when I visit Gambia, or what’s left of it, I do so only for family reasons. Most of my friends have left and some don’t ever want to come back home. The Smiling Coast has since adopted an eternal frown of despair, sadness and hunger at seeing how its once vibrant marine life has been sold to the highest bidders. The people yearn for conscientious leadership that is focused on the interest of Gambians but the people seemed to have forgotten that the system in place is inimical for people of conscience. How ironic eh AB?”
The Man man looked down again for about two minutes as I sat there looking at him. When he looked up, I saw tears in his eyes.
“AB, I cry for my beloved Gambia. I cry for the porter that my father once was at Gambia Ports Authority. I saw women sometimes climb on the shoulders of unknown men to be carried to overloaded boats for crossing the crying waters to the decrepit city of what was once Banjul. I cry for the woman selling her wares on dangerous roadsides plied by rude drivers and inconsiderate men and women of power. I cry for the infant whose life was snuffed by ineptitude before she had a chance to breathe the foul smells of the public hospital. I cry for the woman who bore the baby for nine months struggling to breathe through the betrayal of a health sector besieged by corruption of men and women of religion. She died giving life. I cry for the workers who cannot find transportation to get home to their children on time. I cry for the victims of government abuse. I cry for Gambian history which lost its way centuries ago because it is so mired and wired to colonial narratives. I cry for the unborn child and the type of Gambia I’ll bequeath to them. AB, I cry for a Gambia that once was!”
I looked at The Man with mouth agape. I don’t know what to say to The Man! Do you?