Writing Invisible Lives: Memory as History in Cherno Njie’s Sweat Is Invisible in The Rain
Before going into the chapter-by-chapter review, a glance at the acknowledgments given in the book introduces the reader to the individuals who were instrumental in the course of documenting the stories as well as the major players in the events who took center stage in the book. All these are carefully outlined and perfectly detailed within the confines of the acknowledgment page. The preface introduces the reader to the central event of the book: the failed coup attempt which involved the author and a handful of other patriots in the small West African nation, The Gambia. As with any proper preface, it gives a brief account of the reasons for the coup attempt as well as the aftermath of it, which saw some of the perpetrators killed, some captured, while some fortunately escaped but eventually made to pay for their actions on a foreign soil. The last set of the most fortunate who did not die includes the author. An attempt is also made in the following section to open the reader’s mind to the history of The Gambia, an effective step to equip the reader with some historical antecedents of the Gambian people concerning politics, governance, and leadership. This section traces Gambian history to centuries back. Also, credit should be given to the author for taking time to prepare the mind of the reader in advance to similarities of persons’ names who may or may not be related, but which is just a common occurrence among the Senegambian people. Without this, the reader would have been a bit lost in the maze of seemingly related nomenclatures of people who share no familial relationship.
The first chapter, as the title implies, ‘Close Quarters: Growing Up in Banjul’, details the city of Banjul where the author grew up, a careful comparison between the Banjul of old times and the one left behind by the evident antagonist of the book plot, Yahya Jammeh, the erstwhile dictator of The Gambia. Njie affirms that nothing seems to have changed in the 22 years of Yahya Jammeh’s rule, a common characteristic of most dictatorship governments in Africa. So that both the African and non-African reader can immerse themselves into the cultural settings of the first stage of the book’s plot, the author does justice to highlighting the various family settings that is ubiquitous in the capital of The Gambia; Christian homes having distinct attributes to Muslim homes with respect to composition and way of living.
The chapter also highlights the components of the Wolof caste system. Among the experiences of growing up in African communal settings is the issue of circumcision, which is also embedded in the book. Brought to the fore in this chapter is the disposition of Africans to hold on perpetually to superstitious beliefs, including beliefs in the existence of flesh-eating witches who are ultimately made to confess their sins, casting of spells, laying spiritual curses and the manifestation of evil spirits. For a book that details life in Africa, the absence of such a subplot would have led to the absence of a very pertinent aspect of African thought and mentality. Upholding some of these beliefs might be rational; however, as the book notes, there are times when these beliefs place more damage than good to the African people as became evident under the oppressive rule of Jammeh who exploited these beliefs to the people’s detriment. These beliefs, as the author notes, are in sharp contrast with the second stage of the book’s plot setting, the USA, a nation that is built on the ideology of secularism and scientific methods.
The second chapter sets the tone for the author’s transition from a small unpopular African nation to a massive and popular country far away in another continent, deep into Texas in furtherance of his formal education, which, as pointed out, was quite different in approach to what he was familiar with growing up in The Gambia. Affirming the frenzy that envelopes Africans moving to the western world for the first time, the book rightly captures the drama that goes with leaving one’s family in Africa for greener pastures, education inclusive. This practice has always been the norm for affluent families in Africa, as they held the belief that better and qualitative education abroad is a sure way to wealth and riches. This is not entirely a falsehood as later events in the book prove this assertion to be right. Settling down in a new country is not always going to be so easy, and the same was rightly captured by the author. True to the assertions, it took little effort for the migrant to afford a car, something that would have been close to impossible in an African student setting.
Making plans to go back to their home countries by African immigrants is a default disposition, but it is not always easy to go back, given the huge disparity that exists between African countries and the western world, economic, social, and developmental indices taken into consideration. Rather than go back, the norm is to stay and build up a better life. This is not lost within the context of the book, as the protagonist of the book demonstrates. While nurturing the ambition to return home initially, he ended up starting a new life upon finishing his tertiary education. The advancement of western economies seems to provide African migrants with a good foundation to build a better life; the author quite impressively infused this experience into the book, not fictionalized but in actuality. The American life is surely a dream for most Africans as they forever see a country that sets in motion the probability of a good life for its citizens as well as immigrants. This is an important context to understand African nations, and without it being captured, the book would have lost a great deal of credit.
In Chapter three, ‘The Jammeh Years: 1994 – 2016’, the story quickly moves to the central plot of the book wherein Njie brings to the reader’s awareness of the introduction of the antagonist by telling the story of how Jammeh came to power. As with every good book, it is always necessary to accord the antagonist a grand entry into the plot, more so in a story that revolves around military rulership, dictatorial tendencies and ultimately the subplot of military coups. The author, within the context of the book, exposed the reader to the events that necessitated the grand entrance of the major antagonist of the book, Jammeh. Years of misrule by the first president of The Gambia, Dawda Jawara (who passed away on August 27, 2019), served as an impetus for the emergence of Jammeh as the new head of the Gambian government, even though he rose to the exalted position illegitimately.
As with many African governments in the 1990s, the author captures the trend of military interference in politics and government, a ubiquitous experience in Africa. This was a period in Africa that was characterized by misrule, either by the civilian or military governments. Africans were not overly concerned with the attire of the person in power; all they cared for was improved infrastructure and development. Any government that cannot provide such services, be it a civilian or military government, will be unpopular amongst the populace. This, amongst others, necessitated a change in government in The Gambia, and the people never felt unease with the fact that a novice set of young military minds took over the reins of government from the democratically elected Jawara government which had been long due for substitution. Njie rightly affirms this as he notes that his moves to ascertain the mind of the people concerning the ousting of a democratic government by some ‘military boys’ confirmed that the people were in tune with giving the military a chance to set things right.
Another noticeable trend of military regimes in Africa that was rightly captured in the book is the propensity of military dictators to kill off the opposition and subsequently metamorphose into civilian regimes. Most of the times, the military head of such governments engage in acts to suppress potential political competitors before embarking on a transition to civilian leadership through smokescreen elections. This ultimately leads such leaders to perpetuate themselves in power for long periods, a fact that was highlighted in the book by Jammeh’s continual victory in subsequent reelection up to the 2014 elections. Just as it is often the case in various African countries, the opposition parties, no matter how strong or how united they are against the dictator in power, are often powerless to effect any serious challenge. In other cases, the tendency for African leaders that morphed from military to civilian leaders to experience increased coup attempts is a recurring factor in African political terrain. However, the failure of such coup attempts often shows that the purported civilian leader has a firm grip on the military leadership of the country by virtue of being a former military leader. The use of brute force to hold people to submission is never lost in such arrangements. This does not mean that such perpetuation in power will continue endlessly, as successive coup attempts only serve to embolden the agitators to try better in future.
The fourth chapter of the book is positioned as a connecting plot between the second and third stages of the author’s exploits; living in another country while his heart yearns for him to go back to his home country to be an agent of change. This fact is effectively magnified with the title of the chapter, ‘The Other Side Pulls’. The chapter tells the story of the inner struggle within Njie to go back to The Gambia despite having experienced better living in the USA. This coincided with the emergence of Jammeh into power. For someone who had stayed for some time in a democratic society, the author was concerned with understanding the views of his kinsmen concerning the regime change from democracy to the military. Having achieved this, there was a strong impulse to return to where his economic future lies, USA. The establishment of a business venture in the USA further highlighted the author’s impulse to keep staying in his newfound society. However, the political situation of his home country seems to have propelled him to be more useful in Africa. This resulted in him, just like any patriotic person would do, to start making plans for how he would be instrumental in dethroning the dictatorial civilian leader, Jammeh. This was not to succeed since the dictator could not be defeated despite the efforts of various stakeholders, including the author. This is reminiscent of just how monotonous the electoral process is in many African countries.
The hopelessness of the situation, having weighed down the freedom fighters, led the protagonist to seek alternative ways to topple the dictator—the possibility of another coup attempt! This plot is perfectly in line with what is obtainable in various African countries where rich and influential businessmen and civilians stand as fundraisers for coup attempts. This often comes in the form of extensive covert meetings with like minds in addition to building strategic and political connections with men with military connections within and outside the country. It is not always possible to get foreign countries to support such brazen attempts at overthrowing a government, but it is always important to understand the perception of neighboring governments with respect to a government that is about to be ousted. The book clearly showcases such a situation within the subplots of chapter four, where the author embarked on fact-finding missions to various neighboring countries to get first-hand information on their view about the legitimate but brutal government of Jammeh. Such missions took the author from Senegal to Burkina Faso and beyond.
Chapter five paves the way for the central plot of the book to be put in motion. It starts with detailing the movements of the major players in the planned coup from their various abodes to The Gambia. Njie and one of the major military planners of the coup met in neighboring Senegal in order to sneak into The Gambia. The major plot of the chapter gives us a full description of the various activities of the stakeholders in the planned coup as well as the minor players who were drafted into the plan. A major plot highlighted in the chapter is the fact that military strategists often withhold sensitive information from civilian partners in most operations. This is based on the concept of the military mind undervaluing the intellectual resources of their civilian counterparts in covert operations. As noted by the author, one of the major military strategists embarked on withholding information from him despite being a major financier of the planned operation. The reason for this, as given by the military strategist, Sanneh, was that it would have been counterproductive to alarm the financier with some of the sensitive information. Such information includes the fact that the Americans had knowledge about the whole plan and stood to warn any party to it that it was against the regulations of the country for individuals to plan such operations against friendly countries. On reaching The Gambia, the whole operation shifted to the brilliance of the military players involved in the plan while the civilian financiers were relegated to the bench. This is perhaps a normal occurrence given the intensity of such situations.
One important component of chapter five is the detailed documentation of the martial process involved in planning and executing a military expedition, be it a coup or an infiltration. The book effectively captures the basics of military planning, and the importance of developing contingency plans. As the author notes in the book, the personnel involved in the plan met various obstacles wherein it became expedient to develop and execute a contingency plan, contrary to the initial one. With various players within the plan acting based on their personal convictions rather than teamwork, it is not surprising to see the plan fail as the reader eventually gets to read in the later sections and chapters of the book.
The sixth chapter follows the travails of the protagonist in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt. Being an individual with dual citizenship, it is not surprising to see a plot whereby an individual is prosecuted on the crimes he committed in a foreign land. Irrespective of the fact that the crime had no bearing on his adopted country, crimes of such magnitude would have implicated the adopted country as being involved in the conspiracy. As it was clearly evident in the preceding chapter, USA intelligence had been aware of the plans of the perpetrators right from the planning stage, culminating in brief visitations to one of the key players who were in the process of being granted asylum. Thus before making the final move to leave the USA, the particular character, Sanneh, was questioned while about to board a plane on suspicion of being involved in a possible plot to overthrow a foreign government. Unfortunately, he did not survive the mission. But the major financier, also being an American citizen by naturalization, was picked up upon escaping back into the country after the failed attempt.
The subplot of chapter six thus follows his prosecution processes as well as movement from various court jurisdictions and correctional facilities. The chapter effectively captures some basic attributes and characteristics of the American correctional facilities with respect to the norms and cultures that are at play in such facilities. Among the notable ones is the seeming compartmentalization of living spaces according to race, a situation that pitches individuals in a particular category which, as the author noted is done, not as a regulation but as an unwritten rule to keep inmates secured against racially induced violence. As the author also notes, he was able to get a first-hand view of the functioning of the US Prison systems and its problems that are never transmitted on the media.
The chapter also highlights a basic content of the American Prison System which is not present in that of African countries: the prospect of being given substantial freedom to still coordinate work engagements, albeit in a limited fashion while still awaiting trial. In defense of his case, the protagonist and his counsel made a case of entrapment by estoppel which indicates the misleading action of the US intelligence community of deciding against stopping the plan, giving the perpetrators a false sense of legitimacy. The fact that the FBI contacted Sanneh on two occasions with respect to his involvement in planning a coup, and Sanneh not disputing the assertion was enough reason to have intervened and nipped the plan at the bud. It all seemed as though the US government were indifferent to the event as it represents a win-win situation for them. Despite having various reasons to reasonably present a case of clear entrapment by estoppel, the defense could not hold water as some trusted people whose testimonies would have validated such were not ready to help the case, signifying a case of betrayal. However, getting convicted within the US Justice System seemed favorable to being extradited, to be summarily sentenced to death by the Jammeh government.
In the seventh chapter, the book describes the protagonist’s time within the walls of the United States Prison System. With the initial incarceration still within the concept of being apprehended under trial, chapter seven goes on to detail his actual prison term. As expected, getting acquainted with the new abode is never going to be quite easy, but ultimately the reality of the fact that the prison is going to be his new home sunk in gradually, with the protagonist engaging in acquiring knowledge by reading books, a common practice of the educated and knowledgeable convicted persons. It also documents his meeting with other important personalities within the correctional facility he found himself. However, despite the gravity of his crime, the author was able to affirm that his prison sentence was quite short in relation to other lesser criminals who were unfortunate to be hammered relatively longer periods of incarceration. The aspect of racial segregation is also highlighted to give the reader the awareness of the reasons for such unwritten, yet important rules of thumb.
As with any other personal experiences of jail term, the author rightly points it out that time, within the confines of the prison walls seem to be at a standstill, despite serving a very short jail term. Perhaps this is the reason for inmates finding a particular routine to engage in (in the case of the author, reading) so as to take the mind away from the purported slow-moving time. It was within the time of restricted movement that the essence of the protagonist’s travail came to fruition, the dictator, Jammeh had lost the 2016 election. This, at least as the book notes, made Njie self-vindicated, when the news reached him in prison that the dictator, having lost the election and conceded, subsequently felt reluctant to leave until international organizations (ECOWAS at the forefront) finally exploited the use of some degree of force to make the dictator abdicate. Interestingly, some members of those who covertly participated in the failed coup attempt were also instrumental in the electoral defeat of the dictator.
The chapter also reveals that the convicted protagonist also played the part of a financier through his brother, towards the cause. An important detail is also given in the seventh chapter, the stigma associated with convicted felons, which negatively impacts on the individual, the manner of felony notwithstanding. It clearly indicates that the US correctional system does not limit the convict’s punishment to the prison term alone; subsequently, such individuals are made to pay for their crimes after the end of the jail term through a series of restrictions and regulations that limit and affect their social standing.
Chapter eight attempts to recreate the central plot of the book in a manner that will afford the reader to understand in clear perspectives the sequence of the coup attempt, the justification for the personnel involved and ultimately the unknown reasons for the failure of the whole mission. While the coup attempt had been discussed at length in earlier chapters, the account in chapter eight is necessary as it details the event from the accounts of other key players in the mission (as they were given to the author after the period of incarceration). As the author notes in the beginning, a lot of the happenings on the night of the failed mission puzzled him so much that he, on his release from jail, embarked on meeting the survivors and other participants that have also completed their punishments.
Among the useful sources of information, the author collected, are the records of the court-martial of those believed to have been involved in the failed coup within The Gambia. However, Njie is quick to note that all that is contained in the record cannot be said to be entirely factual or overly true as there are possibilities of half-truths and outright falsehoods from the testimonies of the witnesses as well as the confessions of the accused. Amongst other things, the court-martial records bring to light various flaws, inconsistencies, and mistakes made by those contacted by Sanneh, a major player in the planning and execution of the failed coup. From the mistake of contacting various army commanders in the Gambian Army (who, as records, show were either not loyal to the cause or decided to betray the perpetrators), to erroneously compartmentalizing the involvement of various military personnel within the Gambian Army, the planned coup seemed to be destined for failure from the onset. This set the stage for double-playing by those expected to lend a hand from within the Gambian Army, just in case the coup eventually failed. The intrigues that followed the planning can better be described as overly disjointed as it contains claims and counter-claims of misinformation, disinformation, outright withholding of information and all sorts by the inside contacts of the coup planners.
In the very last segment, the book evidently captures the major essence of any postscript work, an additional remark at the end of such a major book. The contents here indicate the state of affairs of the Gambian nation in the aftermath of Jammeh’s exit from the leadership of the country. Given the fact that Njie, as well as others who were involved in the struggle to oust Jammeh, owe the duty of evaluating the current state of the nation, this section provides details on a return to their country of birth to assess any noticeable difference or progress. As the author notes, while there seems to be palpable relief with the departure of Jammeh, there is little progress in the area of reforms which would have moved the country forward. The present president of the country, Adama Barrow, seems to have reneged on the agreement made during the time the coalition was coming together to defeat Jammeh. The evidence from observations of financial misconduct and cronyism have enveloped the Barrow government while the allegations of non-accountability and lack of transparency are rife. Also, Barrow has begun to trample on press freedom using the same state paramilitary apparatus that his predecessor used. However, all these are concerns that Njie believes can be quenched by the Gambian people through the wits and resolve they employed to remove Jammeh from his 22 years of misrule.
Another noteworthy section of the book is the appendix that delivers a historical repertoire of the Gambian nation from the days of Portuguese engagements to the slave trade era and ultimately the colonization era. This is necessary to give the reader additional detailed information regarding the history of the Gambian people. It also contains the presumptuous speech that was to be broadcast by the coup plotters, had the coup been a success. The speech contains the commitments, concerns, and resolve of the major players of the failed coup as well as a charter that delineates the process of transition back to civilian rule. The document highlights, as the title implies, the justification for regime change, an archival piece worthy of being kept as a memorabilia of the 2014 failed coup. The last aspect of the appendix eulogizes the fallen heroes of the failed coup, a statement that makes the book truly captivating. The eulogy is very touching as the reader will come to see. It tells the story of worthy Gambian patriots who laid down their lives in the process of freeing their people from the stranglehold of a tyrant. As Njie states, “if I must die in the forest, let it be a lion that kills me,” this Wolof maxim is really a mantra for those venturing into dangerous missions, the kind that the author and his group of brave men embarked on in 2014.
Writing Invisible Lives: Memory as History in Cherno Njie’s Sweat Is Invisible in The Rain is a three-part series.