Set in a village in Farafenni in the Northern Region of The Gambia, Childhood Days In Chaku Bantang is a collection of memories from the author’s early childhood and adolescence. Written in light-hearted, simple, almost child-like language, the book pieces together memories so vivid and vibrant, that the reader finds themselves stepping into Chaku Bantang, seeing through the eyes of the writer and feeling so intensely, the joys, the excitements, the fears and disappointments of Galleh, the child whose experiences it narrates. A plethora of emotions are stirred as the stories unfold, yet, there are two feelings which override all others and which are present from the beginning to the very end of the novel. They are feelings of the deepest fondness and amusement, which keep the reader smiling and chuckling through the entire book, even through the less joyful parts.
The novel also ignites feelings of nostalgia, of yearning and lamentation for an era and a way of life that has been lost. An era to which a Gambian reader will quickly cultivate a sense of belonging, even if they hadn’t yet been born. The descriptions project an image of Gambia of which not much remains. It speaks of peace, social cohesion, respect, kindness, and simple lives lived in full, intensely and genuinely. It speaks of the simple childhood pleasures and mischiefs; squirrel hunting; muddy pond diving; taunting mad men and sneaking out at night to go to the cinema. One can almost hear the sound of the catapult being stretched and released, one can see the fiery red eyes of the terrifying Gootoot bird and hear the song of the Kumba Tin Tin bird.
“Maam Biran ana Yassin?!”, a reader just might find themself chanting with the crowd of children, dancing around the legs of pleasant old Mam Biran. And it causes one to wonder where the elders; the Maam Birans, Grandma Jarrais and Maam Siras of our times are. Those good, wise elders who teach lessons, pinch cheeks fondly and tell stories that linger so clearly in the mind many decades later. The book brings to surface many times, just how important a role elders play in moulding the young ones, in sustaining a sense of community and simply adding colour to life, with their songs, with their stories and with their helpful interventions. In doing so, it brings awareness to a certain silence, a certain absence, a certain loss which one might not have noticed before. A void, where the stories, the songs and the proverbs should have been, where the wise words and wrinkled hands cutting the air in animated demonstration should have been.
The book also speaks of passion, persistence and hope. It is testimony that dreams do come true, when they come from a place of pure unadulterated passion, when you keep holding on, no matter how unlikely it seems that you will ever reach it, and when you dare to take that bold step. This is demonstrated in the story of little Galleh, whose dream of getting an education was dashed more times than he could count, until it seemed finally that it would never be achieved.
Many of the experiences which the author described, I have never lived. But I saw myself within the pages of the book many times. So will you, if you understand how intensely pleasurable it is to drown in a sea of words, to blur out reality and get lost in the worlds formed from ink. When little Galleh sits under his orange tree, disappearing into the pages of Treasure Island, God’s Bits Of Wood, The Beggars Strike, So Long A Letter, Kweku Anansi and The Hare And The hyena, you may find yourself travelling back in time, revisiting moments in your childhood when you too first stumbled upon these classic reads. These memories will certainly reignite an old fire, especially if you, like most in these times, have succumbed to the perils of social media and your love for reading has dwindled.
One cannot help but chuckle aloud at the seemingly silly, but very real terrors of the children of Chaku Bantang. From the more material terrors such as Pappa the madman and Pa Draman the watchman who got a kick out of brandishing his knife, making grabs at little boys’ pants and asking them “Is it ripe yet?”, to the other more abstract monsters and mythical creatures such as the mysterious Kukuru, Maam the swallower, “kick deh nyaka kick deh” the fatal football, strange fires which go on and off in the night, one legged horses who chase people in the night and a host of others. Life for the children of Chaku Bantang was much speckled by superstition. I dare say it made life even more thrilling and meaningful for the children, who never dared call a snake by its name at night or point a finger towards the cemetery.
It is said that the more one goes through life, the more losses one must endure. The child protagonist in this novel experiences his share of losses; the loss of friendship, the loss of treasured possession and the loss of love. But there is beauty in that despite the pains of loss, children always find a way to hold on to their fervour for life.
Childhood Days In Chaku Bantang will take you down a rabbithole of memory and emotion. It will fill the corners of your eyes with tears of laughter and ache your cheeks. It will ache your heart a bit too sometimes, in pity at the workings of a world which is far from fair. It is likely that you will finish reading the last line of the book, flip the cover to make sure that it is truly finished and then open the very first page again, to begin reading all over.