Monday, September 25, 2006
Ode to (the) Gambia
Several African countries hold a special emotional tug on my heart. Ghana, Cameroon, Somalia, Zambia, Gambia, are some of them, mainly because of friends I had in secondary school who were from those places. Most people who went to my school are armed to the teeth with teases for any of these countries. Nigerians bore the brunt of most of the teases, for reasons far too obvious and numerous to mention.
One of our favourites was the Gambia, or Gambia. The "the" was adopted in 1965, after independence, probably to aspire to some lofty African Kingdom. The "the" isn't used much anymore, a sign that men in cravattes are dying out. Gambia's in the news; Yahya Jammeh, or the Mosquito Soldier (or something similar) as we called him in school has won a third term in office.
Yahya Jammeh (pictured) is a fascinating character who became Gambian president in a military coup in 1994. Aged just 29, he was the world's youngest president. Before the elections, the man reportedly declared that he would rule Gambia for another four decades. I can't find a reference for it, but will put one up when I do. We called him Mosquito Soldier because he was as skinny as a mosquito, would probably cave under the weight of a rifle, and he wore those oversized aviator sunglasses so beloved of African military rulers. None of us could understand why a tiny country like Gambia should have a coup. What was there to control? At the time, the population was just over a million people.
Sir Dawda Jawara had been a sit-tight leader, having been president for 24 years when he was ousted. There was an attempted coup d'état in 1981, which was thwarted by the Gambia's neighbour, Senegal's army. It'd be interesting to find out the course of the 1981 coup, because the Gambia didn't have an army. So heaven knows how they planned to seize power.
That coup was the turning point in Gambia's modern history, because after that an army was established. And now the clincher, Nigeria had a hand in training their army. In the '80s, military assistance came from many countries, inlcuding the US, and the UK. But in the '90s, after some unrest in the newly formed army, Nigerian army officers were actually in charge of the Gambian army.
In school, it was our idea of playground intellectual talk, just like we'd debate about capital punishment, and the role of America as world police (how some things never change). For some of us, it was thoroughly amusing that the Gambia had never witnessed a successful coups d'etat. But put Nigeria in charge of the army, and voila! The Gambia was tiny, they didn't need an army, we'd mutter to ourselves. And when they get an army, the ask the land of Abacha, Babangida, Buhari to look after affairs - bad idea.
After the 1981 coup attempt, the confederation of Senegambia was established with Senegal. The union didn't last too long, but made a lot of sense. Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, a tiny strip of land around the River Gambia less than 50km wide. It is surrounded on all sides by Senegal, except in the west, where the River Gambia opens out into the Atlantic. Basically, they Gambia is almost like an autonomous part of the Senegal which speaks English.
Senegal and the Gambia are more or less the same. Same cultures, same languages, same religions. The reason for the split can be traced back to colonial times, and the so called Scramble for Africa (Thomas Pakenham's book, highly recommended). The French grabbed the land around the Senegal River, the British grabbed the land around the River Gambia. So post-colonial era some speak French, and some speak English.
Gambians are extremely warm and hospitable. Ever had a traditional Gambian meal? When I'd go to friends' for Eid, the food was normally an incredible rice dish, laced with healthy morsels of lamb. They'd serve it on a large tray, and everyone (I remember up to six of us) would sit around the tray and tuck in. We used our hands, scooped some rice, squeezed out the oil (it was always quite oily), and tossed the dollop in our mouths. Excuse me while I drool.
Being the smallest country in Africa, our Gambian friends faced jibes by the hundreds. Some of the ones I remember, and still make me chuckle: Gambia's so small that when I was flying over, I blinked and I missed it. My personal favourite was: Gambia's so small that if you leave the tap on for five minutes you'll cause a flood.
Here's to the Gambia.