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Close Your Eyes and See (What Gambia Could Be)

I’m an idealist. It has been said many times. By those who merely want to point out the fact, as well as those who make it sound like it is something to be ashamed of. But being an idealist, a dreamer, an utopian, is one of the greatest gifts I’ve received from the universe. I look at a wretched situation and see wretchedness. Then my imagination covers the wretchedness with a film of glorious goodness. I don’t forget that there is wretchedness, but I can see what else it could be. I can picture how wonderful it could be if something was done a little differently. It is usually something within human capacity, something within someone’s control.

This gift is both a blessing and a curse. It intensifies my awareness of suffering; of wrong; of injustice, because my mind creates the contrast, always, when my eyes fall upon it. The two scenarios play out simultaneously, one real, the other ‘utopian’. The utopian scene is never far-fetched — well, perhaps the entire essence of being utopian is thinking that the alternate possibility isn’t far-fetched, when it actually is. But no, the pictures of alternative possibility that come to my head are not always far-fetched. I do have those moments, when I let my imagination run wild, but those are different, those are deliberate, those are for fun and for writing stories.

Because of this blessing—and perhaps, curse—whereas other people might identify with and fight a cause because they had been victims, they had lived and experienced a suffering, I would fight the cause, whether or not I’ve been directly affected, because I know how much better it can be, I know it could be different. I would fight because other people deserve to experience the alternative, which is very possible and within human control.

This is why I refuse to lose hope. This is why, as exasperated as I may be with Gambia, I hold on, I dare to believe. Because I have seen what is possible and I cannot unsee it.

In public schools, I see the gloomy, windowless classrooms with dirty walls and broken furniture – the children with their torn uniforms and scrawny limbs. But I can also see well-fed children sitting in their clean, colorful clothes, bending over colorful learning materials – knobs, balls, water paint and colored sand. The classrooms are well lit, spacious and well ventilated. Sunlight falls through a high, large glass window and forms a rainbow on the floor. Teachers observe children from a distance, intervening affectionately now and then. The teachers too look well-fed and satisfied.  In a particular classroom, several students are poring over a wide mahogany plank. They are carving intricate patterns onto the wood with delicate tools.  In that reality, our education system is painstakingly tailored to mirror our needs, our challenges and our aspirations. It is meaningful and driven not entirely by the desire for wealth but also by a hunger for knowledge; for emancipation; for enlightenment; the desire to leave a better world for our descendants, than that which was left to us. In that reality, the process of unlearning—shedding off the lies and the negative conditioning that had come to define us—is given due regard and inculcated into the pedagogy;

The markets, they are colorful, and bustling as usual. The fruits and vegetables are abundant, all homegrown, organic and beautiful. The smiles are abundant too. A middle aged vendor gives another woman a bag of tomatoes and cucumbers but shakes her head when she’s offered money for it. She made a gift to her customer, one of many gifts she makes to many clients, just as the other vendors around her did, because they can afford it, because they have more than enough. In that possibility, our farmers are supported and farmlands produce bountifully. Because farming is easy, we have more farmers – happier farmers, and we can rely on our good earth to produce all that we need;

Several meters away, the fish vendor is sitting. A variety of freshly caught fishes are displayed behind a cold glass encasement.  A child draws circles on the glass with one finger, holding her father’s hand with the other. The fishes are big, sparkly, plentiful and affordable. When a client picks two, the monger takes them to the big sink at the back of the stall to clean and package them. He cracks a joke about how nice today’s lunch will be as he hands the package over. In that alternate possibility, there are no trawlers overfishing in our seas. Our marine resources are ours; protected, respected, accessible by our people and providing more than is needed to groom a healthy, vibrant nation;

Outside a public hospital building there are many trees, there is grass under the trees. Doctors walk with recovering patients under these trees. Friends and families sit under these trees, laughing in relief, hugging and occasionally crying. There are no houseflies, only butterflies and bees. Inside the hospital, the walls and the floors are spotlessly clean. There are cushioned waiting chairs in the hall. A woman runs down the hall laughing, she is met by a man, an older woman and two children. They hug her long and hard – she is cancer free and she still has both breasts. A physiotherapist walks past them, guiding a man with a shiny, mechanical prosthetic leg. He smiles and congratulates the woman, calling her by name. In that alternate reality, the hospital doesn’t reek of disease and death and decay, it also has enough dialysis machines. It has enough beds, enough medication and enough equipment. People do not die when they’re not supposed to. The air thrums with hope, not despair. The staff has space in their hearts for kindness and more patience because they’re not stressed and underpaid;

The streets outside are clean and wide, lined with shrubs in some places, and with trees in others. The pedestrian walkways are spacious, evened out and cobbled. There is not a single beggar in sight. There is not a single mentally ill person in sight. There is not a single homeless person in sight. There are no crowds lined along the roads waiting for vehicles that would be a long time coming. No mothers holding babies stranded in the drizzle and pregnant women scorching in the sun. No little children fighting with a crowd of adults for a place in an overloaded minibus. No old women bent over, their hands grasping their knees in exhaustion. There are enough buses to shuttle people back and forth, and good roads too. There is less hassle, less anger, less fights in public spaces and hurtful words hurled. There is more space in the hearts of the people, for kindness and patience.

I could sit an entire day to write about ways in which our reality could be better. I haven’t talked about the women, the youth, clean and sustainable energy, the flora and fauna, old people and retirement pensions, housing and social benefits, justice and equity, international trade, the political system, borders and economic policies etc.

The question is, these thoughts that I’ve expressed, are they utopian, really? Are they not achievable? Are they not within human control? Do we not need only to reach out an arm? As soon we find a way to cut off these ropes that bind the arm to the body. As soon as we find the knife with which to cut it and snatch it away from the wicked, self-serving grip which has held it for so long.

Perhaps I’m too much of an idealist. But I’m glad I am. Because I dare to dream of better… I dare to imagine and I dare to believe. We don’t have to accept what currently is, it doesn’t have to be this way, and as long as we can imagine better, there is a possibility of achieving better. There always have been people who thought those who nurse the possibility of a different reality are dreamers, with their heads in the clouds. But minorities become the majority and the farfetched becomes the existent.  It is the idealists who change the world, whenever they take a step to make their visions into reality.

Maqtoob! It is written. It is destined. With time and effort, it will come to pass. So here, dream with me!

*I’ve been dying to use the word Maqtoob in a piece for years. This is it! Whether it fits or not! Maqtoob – it is written. 

But you know what, I think I’ll dedicate an entire piece of writing to the word and the idea it conveys – at least, in the context within which it was used in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Destiny and all that. Yhep, that’d be nice.

“Thoughts and dreams are the foundation of our being” nigerian proverb.

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