Hassoum Ceesay: Preserving Gambia’s Historical and Cultural Heritage
Hassoum Ceesay, a Gambian historian, writer and museum curator at the Gambia National Museum has built a reputation as one Gambia’s most prolific historians. Among his publications are Gambian Women: An Introductory History and Patriots: Profiles of Eminent Gambians.
In this interview with The Chronicle’s Kebba Jeffang, Hassoum talks about his passion to trace and preserve Gambia’s lost historical and cultural heritage.
Q: Hassoum welcome to The Chronicle. Take us through your day to day activities as a curator, a historian.
A: Well it is always interesting. Firstly, the museum is always in need of updates because visitors come and they read some of our exhibits… the exhibitions, the captions, to reconfirm and adjust. Secondly, every day we look at the objects, photographs and maps to see if they are in good conditions because of the age, the dust etc. And the third and very important aspect is the research part. We are always in the archive looking for new materials and new historical data confirming dates. We go through old newspapers, historical photographs and videos. So basically it is a very interesting job.
In addition to these tasks, you have a busy life as history instructor and regular speaker at conferences etc. How do you cope with these tasks?
Yes, I try my best because you will realize that in most of the cases doing one thing complements the other. For example if I am invited to a symposium like on E.F. Small, you go and listen and take notes. We have so many materials on E.F. Small here in the forms of documents, exhibits as you have seen and we even have copies of his own newspaper. So there is always a complementary between what our duties in the museum are and a lot of things we do outside like debates, symposia, workshops and conferences.
Where did your life as a historian begin?
I developed interest very early like during my days at Armitage High School in 1980s. Then we had a very good library and there used to be all these magazines, including West Africa, News Week and Times. I got introduced to all these very reputable journals at a very early age of eleven, twelve. We had this Principal called Mr. Njie (now retired) who was a scientist but his house was full of reading materials and he would welcome me every evening for just reading. We had this other Principal called Mr. Sanneh… he was a history teacher who introduced me at a very early age to some aspects of Gambian history. After that, we went to Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College. That was in early 1990s to pursue a degree in history. And you know Fourah Bay is a very old institution founded in 1827. So you can imagine their library. Almost every book in that library had a history to tell because some of the books there were close to 200 years. I spent endless hours on anything particularly things concerning history because of the colonial relationship between The Gambia and Sierra Leone. You have a lot of Gambian materials there, a lot of reports by commissioners, reports by governors, census data, old Gambian newspapers etc. so that also introduced me at a very young age to Gambian history.
And what happened next?
Well, I came back and began to work in a museum. Now that also had certain impact in the sense that much of the work was history because we had an archive (both oral and paper archive). And as a curator, all these in addition to the museum came under my purview. As you can imagine, the amount of historical materials which I have access to are just overwhelming. These include photographs, old historical documents of all sorts and videos. And the more I go through them, the more I become curious about the history of my country. It’s so rich in the first place. Gambia has a very rich history even before the arrivals of the Europeans and our mansas (traditional kings/chiefs) from Musa Molloh and Foday Kabba to FodaySillah. It is very enticing to come across all those materials on these things. What I did afterwards apart from running the museum and doing the exhibition was to start writing and documenting the history. I took over the history column at Daily Observer in 1996. I was asked by the Editor, Baba Galleh Jallow to submit an article on Gambian history every week. It wasn’t a problem because I had access to the museum, archives and photographs. And I did it for close to seven or eight years. Why that was important is that it sets to popularize history to many Gambians because in most cases, history sometimes is too academic, either in big books or academic journals which are not accessible. But history in the newspaper was something very new and accessible, and of course other newspapers began to do the same. This inspired Gambians to be interested in Gambian history.
You talked about visitors coming to the museum. It must be very interesting sharing your knowledge with people all the time.
Yes what’s very important is the people you meet when you work in a museum. You meet everybody from anthropologists and archeologists to sociologists and historians. That also has helped us to build a wide network with these professionals in The Gambia, Senegal and in the West. We share information with all these people. You meet new people every day.
Growing up, what history books did you read?
Well everything before the arrival of the Europeans. I read about our glorious empires and the mansas of Kaabu, Nuimi, Saloum, Kiang, Wuropana and the great empires.
Is there any strong connection between that history and today’s Gambia.
Well I hope so. Even the arrival of colonial rule did not destroy these institutions fully. The Europeans ruled us through these institutions, like the chiefs. That also helped in the fight for the independence. This was why the chiefs became decisive factor in fighting for Gambia’s independence. So in all, I say this country has a glorious history. I always tell people that there is nothing new here. Everything had been tried before at one time or the other. Sometimes people think I am exaggerating but I am not exaggerating. Everything we are now grappling with had been tried before at a particular episode in our history – agriculture, food self-sufficiency, insecurity challenges, national reconciliation, coalition… everything had been tried before including youth, youth employment and jobs migration.
You mean the 2016 opposition coalition wasn’t the first of its kind here?
No! Maybe the tenth. Our early political leaders didn’t have degrees or diplomas in politics or any other area for that matter but they were excellent politicians. They experimented with everything possible with all kind of political ideologies – Marxism, Leninism, Socialism, social democrat, Christian democrat etc. Even anarchies were here in the fifties and sixties. They formed tactical alliances, short term alliances, electoral coalitions and governing coalitions in the sixties. In 1962, Pierre Njie was removed because the PPP who had the rural support combined with I.M Garba Jahumpa, who had support in Banjul. That’s why they were able to defeat the UP in the 1962 elections. It was a coalition. Sir Dawda came after the independence to calm the situation and bring about national reconciliation. He had a coalition government with the UP (Pierre Njie’s party). In 1968, the PPP and Jahumpa’s Congress Party merged. So we even had political mergers. There is nothing new because we had great politicians as founding fathers. Now what we should do is to work to make sure their heritage of peace, political tolerance, stability and democracy is maintained because it is on those pedestals that this country was built upon – tolerance and dialogue. That was why 1962, we had the 61 talks in London Lancaster House where all the political parties sat and discussed the way forward. Also in 1964 before the independence, all the political parties and civil societies sat in one room to chart the way forward. That is how it has been here in the Gambia – dialogue, consultation and consensus.
So dialogue has been a huge component of the Gambia’s political trajectory?
Whenever our political leaders had a major obstacle, that obstacle was conquered after they had come together. That was the case of the independence. It came later because PPP was even working with the Congress Party which was heavily based in Bathurst. Nobody thought it was possible because PPP was rural, with largely Mandinka following. The Congress Party was urban, with Aku and Wolof following. But they worked together because they knew that the only way they could remove the British from here was through political consensus. Now in 2016, the same thing happened. When Jammeh became a problem the opposition leaders decided to form an alliance and that was what removed him. You could see that working together and consensus has always brought about a win situation for this country.
And Hassoum Gambian history wasn’t documented enough for a long time and your task is to trace what was lost. What do you need to succeed?
Resources are required for example, to digitalize the history into data base for posterity. Secondly, we need capacity. We need a professional archivist. We need a museologist for museum conservation, exhibition design and museum education so that when school children come to our museums they can enjoy it. We need archeologist. Ninety percent of our history is still under the ground buried because there is no Gambian archaeologist up to now. So in that area we need capacity to have archeologists and we need anthropologists. We need all these if we want to maintain our history and culture for posterity because they give us identity and they are economic. Preserving our history and culture is going to boost our economy and restore our identity. We should encourage the study of our history. Gambian history is still there to be researched and written about. Every day we are ashamed and embarrassed, sometimes even humiliated because simple aspect of our history has been lost to us. And this commission (TRRC) is a good example because of dates. Something happened in 1994/95 and people are having problems remembering it. It is all lack of historical knowledge. So we should train historians so as to restore our identity as a nation because a country without a historical records is a country without identity and direction.
Could the lack of resources be linked to Gambians’ lack of interest in their history?
History and culture are everybody’s business because they are with us and they are our identity and our personality. It’s also important for people, even outside the government to support the sector so that we can develop our historic sites, give scholarships for people to study history and develop our museums and our archives for posterity. These are our identity and if we lost them then we have nothing to boast about as a people.
You’ve been the face of Gambian history in recent years and your passion for your job is quite visible. Are you replaceable?
Well yes. We have just recruited some new staff and they are very passionate. But of course sometimes the drive is internal. So it’s not everybody who can have the same passion as we do for history but I’m sure that there is new core of historians coming up. Everybody has sun, everybody has land and everybody has soil, but history and heritage are what make us stand out as great people. I’m happy that even at the university people are studying history at master’s level. It shows that at least increasingly there is a sort of priority in the study of history and the discipline is being given priority. I think it should continue like that.