By FATOU JAW MANNEH
Originally written and published in 2015
I was sitting in the ground-floor library of a friend’s house in Senegal when her husband gave me a copy of Kairaba, the memoir of The First President of The Gambia Alhagie Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, to read. Her ten year old son had a precocious advice for me. The book is boring, he warned me. He couldn’t read past the first few pages. I thanked him for trying to spare me the trouble, but I’m glad that I didn’t listen to him.
I wanted to do a serious review of the book, but considering the current chaotic situation in the Gambia, I have been dragging my feet. Gambians are too exhausted from the daily body blows of the brutal dictator in the name of Yahya Jammeh. So hardly anyone is interested in fingers pointing at Jawara. After all, he is a genius compared to the dangerous and delusional buffoon we have in the State House.
At the risk of sounding uncritical, Kairaba is the most interesting book I have ever read by a Gambian. It is none other than D. K. Jawara, the President of the first Republic. I am always curious about our capital Banjul, and the history of the Gambia in general. Jawara gives me all the necessary details I need to know. Especially during the colonial times, including World War II period. I always knew that Gambians participated in that war. We had our war veterans who always spoke about Burma. But I never knew it was that close to home until my reading of Jawara’s account of its impact on the colony during his school years there. Unbelievable! It was all scary for the young Jawara. Blackouts and war news, mostly being caught on the radio by few men who could afford such luxuries of the time. A. M. R. Fowlis in Banjul was one of them.
Where are all the Christian girls who had been behind the beautiful legacy of girls education in The Gambia? I am going to find out about all of them. Though I am afraid most are not alive now, I will definitely research their contribution to bring the Whiteman’s education, as my Dad would say, to all Gambians, especially girls, from Banjul to the farthest district. I am proud of Miss Mary Owens, Mrs. Mary Cole and Miss Cecilia Rendall and others. Jawara calls them legends in teaching, I call them the pioneers. Growing up, the most famous women educators I knew of were Mrs. Ndow, Mrs. Satang Jow, and Mrs. Auber. To learn from Jawara’s memoir that they followed in the footsteps of brilliant girls in Banjul who taught in our schools in the 1940s was an unbelievably pleasant revelation for me. So much for a boring book!
Jawara was among the most brilliant boys of his time, if not the most. Thanks to this book, I have a great insight to this great man I didn’t have much respect for and his government when I was coming of age. Like so many of our generation back then, my brother and I never passed up the opportunity to dismiss Jawara as a naive leader. His fellow PPP members and elected representatives were as a whole selfish, nepotistic and corrupt to the core. Omar Jallow (OJ) was the amicable Brad Pitt of the party — easygoing, popular and likable. We considered Bakary Darboe (BB) the serious one, who was shy, strict and hard working. Saihou Sabally was the arrogant one. This is how they were perceived, wrongly or rightly. The perception of Saihou Sabally as the arrogant Vice President, according to some sources, brought about the revolt of the army that brought the brutal and criminal dictator Yahya Jammeh to power. I belong to the view that the ineptitude of the PPP government brought Jammeh on us. The other names, Abou Denton, M. C. Cham, Sara Janha were perceived to be the embodiments of corruption within the government. (Never met any of them) But that was the word on the street.
Read the book and meet president Jawara. Thoughtful, well-educated, and long before that, a serious boy who loved his mom, father and siblings. He wanted to make a difference but was in no hurry. Left all decisions as normal of kids to mainly his dad and his dad’s friend Pa Yuma Jallow. My two most favorites in the book are definitely Pa Yuma Jallow and Augusta Mahoney Jawara, the author’s first wife who would become the first First Lady. Jawara was raised in an era that put the premium on honor, politeness, religion, loyalty and true friendship. He was the son of his father: humble, kind and hardworking.
But his father’s friend Pa Yuma Jallow was his hero. Pa Yuma was as tough and savvy a businessman as he was fierce a brawler. Despite being pious in that religiously conservative society, Pa Yuma was a modern man who foresaw a great future in the young Jawara. He discerned in Jawara what neither the boy nor his Dad could at the time. He succeeded in persuading Jawara’s dad to send the boy off to Banjul to acquire Western education. Among the countless sequential and consequential events and chances in Jawara’s life, that decision probably ranked as the most momentous for the converging destinies of both the boy and the country he would lead to Independence.
One day in Banjul, the young Jawara witnessed Pa Yuma wrestling a rowdy passerby to the ground. The scene served as a teachable moment for him that his guardian wasn’t one to mess with. No one had to tell him to study hard and run his errands well before he got on the side of his dad’s friend. He would excel in school and go on to college in Ghana and university in the United Kingdom. He wanted to be a medical doctor but the scholarship he was banking his hopes on was awarded to a less brighter students whose parents had connections in the colonial government. He had to settle for the one available for a degree in veterinary science. By default. He accepted it in good faith and worked hard to attain his degrees.
Jawara in his book Kairaba introduced us to all the happenings in the capital, especially during the time when all important decisions are made by Britain, our colonial masters. Plus the hinterlands which was then called the protectorate. He loved and missed his mom so much during his school years in Banjul. It’s quite touching to read that that at the tender age of 14, he had to trek on foot from Banjul to Barajally to see his mom. Yes, on foot! No kidding! Rugged, dangerous and far too long for a teenager. Simply unbelievable how he made the trip over so long a distance with no good roads while the likelihood of wild animals snatching him was so great. That part brought me to tears. The poor boy, on FOOT, from Banjul to Barajally to visit his mom. What a journey! Along the way, he dropped by his mother’s family in Dankunku to meet them for the first time.
Jawara was a great listener and thoughtful person from childhood to adulthood. His genius came to the fore during high stakes negotiations with the colonial masters for Independence. His leadership skills and patience proved invaluable in steering the poor nation with ease to Independence and without poisoning relations with Britain whose support was still indispensable for the viability of the fledging new country. Had the British abandoned The Gambia at that crucial hour, who knew what disaster would ensue or unfold.
He hired the best students, Gambians coming from advanced studies, into government. He never encroached on any one’s liberty. He was no control freak, and aggression wasn’t in his DNA. All of which, among other good qualities, made the country enviably peaceful. His dealings with Senegal were very interesting. He made sure little Gambia cooperated with them in areas that would benefit the country without compromising or endangering our sovereignty as a republic. And he surely resisted all attempts by the British and the French to annex the nation as the 8th region of Senegal. Interesting times that make for interesting reading.
Jawara is the father of the Nation. He brought Gambia into Independence. He hired the best, made no enemies, signed meaningful and beneficial treaties, with the modern world and our neighbors. He was a Pan Africanist, but soft mannered. Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and the Civil Rights Movement all gave him a broader perspective of this complicated world. He was loved by the country. He was never a hardliner or tribalist. He had respect for all. Now that he was succeeded by a brutal dictator, we realize his value and worth as a head of state. His successor is everything that he wasn’t. Jawara was good natured, smart, tolerant, communal, simple, humble, diplomatic, patient, inclusive. Above all, he had no tribalist bones in him.
Even when the political movers and shakers in Banjul hadn’t been his fellow mandinkas, he stayed the course with patience, learning from his opponents and preparing to mount a progressive political party. What shocked and irritated Jawara most was belittling remarks from political opponents. Especially from his own tribe the mandinkas. Jawara came from the “karanke” (leather smith) lineage. The condescending remarks during campaigns about his lineage was disappointing to him. He did not elaborate but we could sense that he found them hurtful. He believed that all human beings should be evaluated on merit, hard work and uprightness. A man’s lineage has no place in politics or bears nothing on his competence to be a leader. The disparaging statements also made Jawara realize the vindictiveness and cruelty of some of his fellow tribesmen, so he very well balanced his party membership to be inclusive of all tribes. In fact, I think that was what motivated him to change the name of his party from The Protectorate People’s Party to the People’s Progressive Party. Politics for him must be about ability and not tribe. That was so beautiful and wise of him.
Jawara was well-respected at home, and even more abroad. This country boy who left his remote village at the age of 8 became a city boy. In addition to being well-educated and well-travelled, he loved music, particularly classical musical, and learned to play the flute. He also earned his way up the elevated elite culture of Banjul and England to be regarded as proper gentleman.
In reading the book, however, one meets Jawara the betrayer, Jawara the betrayed, and Jawara the opportunist. Will it suffice to hear his apologists contend that the man just evolved with the times when he turned his back on any person or situation he had found an inconvenience or liability to his political ambitions? Should we lower the standards even further for him to exonerate him on absolving cliche that politics is a dirty game?
As I indicated earlier, I love Jawara now more than when I was growing up. My brother and I never had a positive perspective about Jawara and his government. We could not stand him in our own little world and experience. We could not understand why our dad and uncle were obsessed with him and so loyal to his party. All that came into perspective now that I’m older and wiser; and reading his book played no small part in my growing understanding of the dynamics of Gambian politics and society during his time in office. Hence this is ABOUT COUNTRY, it is only fair to analyze both Jawara the person and Jawara the politician in his contemporary moment.
I would be remiss not to point out that some of his family members are now my family by marriage and connections. Gambia is one and we are all related after all. I have no urge to offend anyone. I certainly intended no disrespect toward Jawara or anyone else mentioned in this write-up. Except Yahya Jammeh, of course.
Jawara decided to marry a Christian girl, which was very unusual during that time. Especially in the strict mandinka culture. Not just that, Jawara converted to Christianity so he could marry her. For a Muslim, that wasn’t a blasphemy, but an act of apostasy. Her name was Augusta Mahoney, the daughter of first Speaker of Parliament. Even today, such a leap of faith, or rather conversion of faith, is still unheard of in our communities. So imagine how his dad or Pa Yuma would feel about it some 50years ago. Jawara smashed the taboo to the smithereens. Not that I cared. I wish I have the courage he had. Jawara was in love and captivated by the girl from a prestigious, elite family in the country. Heck! In two weeks, Jawara converted to a Christian and married Augusta in a church without his dad or Pa Yuma even knowing about it. A Romeo, indeed!
When Pa Yuma was persuading Jawara’s dad to send him to school in the capital, the father lamented that village boys who got Western education or lived in the city end up taking to the White man’s ways. Pa Yuma assured him that little Jawara would be under his watch and nothing of the sort would come to pass. When Jawara married into Christianity, Pa Yuma’s wife made it very well known to him that his former guardian was outraged shocked and disappointed by the decision. Jawara never elaborated on how his relationship with Pa Yuma fared afterward.
Oh my God, I love Augusta Mahoney. Why in the world I haven’t learned more about this wonderful woman. She is the perfect First Lady! Educated and modern, she cared about the country especially in the field of education. She was a politician in her own right. Actually, the first woman to stand for political office. She lost to the opposition in a ward election in Banjul. She was also a columnist, playwright, author, and a staunch feminist. She reminded me of another woman in American politics, Eleanor Roosevelt. Probably that was her time, too. Augusta and Jawara were the perfect modern couple. She was humble, and because of her policymakers put women education at the forefront. And from the capital to the hinterlands, Augusta rooted for the emancipation of the Gambian woman. God bless her!
But after two kids with Augusta, I don’t know what happened to their relationship. Jawara was even more reticent about his next two wives. He suddenly dropped in the memoir that the third First Lady Njemeh having a baby. Was it me who was lost in the book about what happened to Augusta or how the second First Lady Chilel or Njemeh came into his life? I couldn’t help wondering that Jawara probably did to Augusta what he had done to his father and Pa Yuma. Although that’s his personal life, it is almost impossible to separate a man’s personal conducts from his political actions. I had wished Jawara stayed to the end with Pa Yuma Jallow and Augusta Mahoney Jawara. God bless their souls. Great people surrounded Jawara. If for reasons of my own consolation, Jawara is a doting father to his children.
After his overthrow by the military, he surprisingly fought tooth and nail in the West to undo the coup that brought the heartless leader Yahya Jammeh to power. For four years, he knocked on every door he could to either unseat the dictator or force him to abide by the democratic principles that so many honorable men and women had fought for in The Gambia.
But his thirty year rule in power left too many Gambians too hopeless. Yes, the country was peaceful, but there were no jobs for the poor masses. School graduates were left with little to no opportunities unless their parents had influential government jobs. Forget about scholarships. They were simply out of the reach for those with no connection no matter how brilliant they were. That was for the privileged sons and daughters of the Jawara government. Or so we thought. The country felt like it was only the one percent of the privileged folks are living. The rest were just existing. Wasn’t it ironic that Jawara, whose dream to become a doctor had been thwarted by nepotism, wouldn’t redress that problem for others who later found themselves in that same situation?
Jawara was naive and selfish to some extend. All the political upheavals, in Ghana, Guinea Sekou Toure, the USA, and even Senegal, did not make him prepare for an exit. Jawara was at some point out of touch with the life of the ordinary Gambian I thought. He tried to step down once and according to sources, his party leaders from the hinterlands refused to accept his proposals and pleaded with him to carry on. To his detriment of course.
He still argues that it was not all corruption. Rather, the new Republic was trying to grapple with the challenges of self-government. After thirty years, however, we refused to be convinced and the coup never let the majority think harder. We thought we had enough of the PPP. Anything but the PPP. Well, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. We got change to our detriment. The country is now engulfed in misery under the vampire state of Yahya Jammeh.
Ironically, in spite of all Jawara’s apprehensions about his successor, he brokered peace with Yahya Jammeh. He is now living in great comfort in The Gambia under the largesse of the dictator. Jawara’s son is now an advocate for the brute. Cowardice? Selfishness? Opportunism? I don’t know. Let history be the judge. The man who brought democracy and took the name of the country to distant lands is now a cowering supplicant for the benevolence of a mad dictator. His legacy is carried by only one, Omar Jallow (OJ), who has been arrested over 22 times for refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the dictatorship.
Then again, I don’t know if Jawara should be blamed for abandoning ship. From personal experience, do not count on a majority of Gambians when things go awry. You might be disappointed to death. The ones you love and trust the most will throw you to the wolves. If they couldn’t do that, they will go to sleep without any remorse when you are in trouble or giggle behind your back.All the while quoting the Quran and acting all godly. Jawara was left with no one to work with. His top men all deserted him at the hour of need. Saihou Sabally, B. B. Darboe to name just a few. Only O. J. Jallow was left standing. M. C. Cham did not only desert Jawara, but scammed him into selling and losing his only retirement home in London. That was the most criminal act of them all considering Jawara’s age and vulnerability at that time. Jawara travelled with his long-time Secretary General Sara Janha to Atlanta from London. Before boarding the plane back, Janha told him that he wasn’t retuning to London with him. Jawara arrived in London to suffer the humiliating indignity of carrying his own suitcases at the ripe age of over 80. He swallowed his pride and pushed all his luggage until a Sierra Leonean doctor I believe recognized him and came to his aid at the busy London airport.
The historic part/perspective regarding Banjul and The Gambia in world affairs will blow your mind. I wish serious writers can do a serious review of this book by Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. I really really enjoyed reading the book. It is educative, evocative, funny, and full of wisdom. I hope all students of history and politics, if not all Gambians, will read this epic story. All in all, a well deserved salute to Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara!