Wahtaani Aajuma with Amran Gaye: Episode #1 – “Monkey Dance”: How School in the Gambia Prepared Us for Dictatorship
It began in the morning, with the teacher at the gate, waiting with a hose pipe. Arrive late? fatt. Skirt an inch too short? fatt Shirt untucked? fatt Over and over, hard rubber against scrubbed, flinching skin.
The first act of the day’s violence.
All-day long it continued. They hit us for speaking up. They hit us for NOT speaking up. They hit us for forgetting facts. They hit us for interacting when they left the class, electing “prefects” to snitch on the rest. They hit us for asking too many questions, for talking back, for dawdling.
They had their reasons, of course. They called it “disciplining”, reduced the brutality to a separate score on our report cards, something to discuss with our parents. They told us it was central to a moral character, that our lives would be ruined if we did not become the compliant boys and girls they wanted us to be.
And all the while they never even noticed the pernicious effect the violence was having on us, and on Gambian democracy.
School ended. We grew up, entered adult life. It contained many revelations. That adults don’t have a plan, after all. That everyone is just figuring it out as they go along. That bills are a thing, and you need to work hard to pay them.
But the things we learnt in school stayed with us. The arts and sciences, of course; but also our relation to the authority figures who, after all, ruled over our lives for the greater part of every week.
And the lessons we learnt were not good ones.
We learnt that authority figures are always right, even when they are wrong. We learnt that the power they hold over us is absolute, and our obedience to it governed by violent reprisal. That this access to violence is the authority figure’s natural right; the best we can do is try to stay in their good graces.
It is not so much that discipline itself is a bad thing. The Gambian work ethic is notoriously laidback and lackadaisical – we make jokes about government workers watching Nigerian DVDs on their work machines and taking two-hour breakfast and lunch breaks. A great number of our youth simply refuse to work, spending their days dreaming of going to Babylan.
Good customer service is non-existent almost everywhere. We treat shared public resources with complete disregard for others using them – just visit the stadium bathrooms during any event there for example.
All of these areas could do with an injection of discipline, the kind that means self-control and dedication to the task at hand, fayida and jomm; the kind the Olof mean when they say any money you make must be leww, earned fairly and honestly and without cheating anyone else.
But this is not the kind of discipline our teachers mean on our school reports, or when they hit us for its lack. The discipline they mean is something entirely different. It is a fear of authority, rather than an understanding and acceptance of authority’s legitimacy; it compels instead of convincing. It bends us to its will using pain. It is also completely transactional: do something bad, get caught, get hurt. The logical lesson to learn from this isn’t “don’t do bad things”. It is “don’t get caught”.
And school is just the beginning. This complete self-negation before authority follows us into adulthood. It works its way deep into our subconscious, so we come to accept it without question as just the way of things.
The correct response to authority, we are trained to understand from an early age, is to dogo dogo after it, to flatter it so it can choose and favour you. When it is angry shrink from its violent attention and hope you are not chosen for vengeful punishment. If others are thus chosen flee from them as if their shame is contagious.
But this leaves no room for the truth. And it sets up a vicious feedback loop: the authority figure because she is never questioned or called out by the people under her, gradually comes to dwell in an echo chamber containing nothing but her own praise. And soon she starts to think that she is better than everyone else, that she has the best ideas. That she is never wrong, and people who call her wrong deserve to be punished because they’re lying or filled with hatred for her and jealous of her achievements.
We saw this play out spectacularly at a national level with ex-President Jammeh. We all watched his transformation over 22 years, from the junior lieutenant who promised us an end to corruption, to the cantankerous autocrat of his later years, self-proclaimed bridge builder, Jinay vanquisher, and disease curer.
At each stage, he essayed with expanding the bounds of his power. And at each stage, we accepted and were cowed.
Because we were ready and primed for it, had been trained since we were young, since before we came to an understanding of the State and its central position in our lives.
After the way we had been prepared, It was trivial for Jammeh to convert the country into a military version of high school, the police and army brutal teachers ever ready to mete out punishment, the NIA his prefects, taking names and snitching on people, and he himself the capricious headmaster at the centre of it all, enriching himself and his posse, laying waste to what remained of our democracy.
It was trivial because we had already arrived at a point where we accept violence as a necessary part of our national conversation, a natural right of the State and its head and, more fundamentally, of people in positions of power and the ones they wield authority over.
The problem, though, with allowing the language of violence to enter our political discourse is that it is spoken only one-way. We cannot slap the police back; we cannot send soldiers into State House to beat up the President when he “misbehaves”.
One-way speech cannot undergird a democracy: it benefits only the individuals who run the State instead of the ones who elect them, and so it is useless for national development.
Yet it still takes up space, that could have been filled with useful conversation that would move the country forward.
It is time to challenge this assumption and erase violence from our national conversation. And it begins at home, with our children, teaching them both that they have no right to ever hit anyone and that no one has any right to ever hit them, including us, their parents.
And as we abhor violence in the home so we must in our schools. Yes, our teachers carry out what is largely a thankless job, underpaid and overworked even as they prepare the future of the nation.
But we all remember our favourite teachers, the ones who inspired us, pushed us to our limits, taught us in ways that made us value knowledge itself, like urus of great worth, to be acquired for its own sake – things that could not be nurtured after the infliction of violence. There are other ways to maintain order in the classroom without resorting to physical abuse. Ways that are harder and will take more patience, certainly; but ways that will also not corrupt our youth into an acceptance of the boundless power of authority to commit acts of violence on their bodies.
And from our schools and homes upwards into our workplaces. And then extending to our affairs of State.
The fundamental relationship between us and our elected officials must change. We are long past the time of kings, buur and mansa. We elect our leaders, now, and pay them from the fruits of our labour. In every sense of the word, they serve us, doing the work we set them for a limited time before handing over to others we choose after them.
Every Gambian must understand this from childhood, coming across the idea in school civics classes, in conversations at home, in the speeches of politicians. We must insist on it as a culture, an inviolable article in the agreement between us and the ones we choose to give authority to.
Only then will we truly become New Gambia.
[Next Friday: Episode 2: “Dayka bi maa ko moom”: Dismantling the System that Jammeh built]