26 November 2004

History of Gambian literary writing

“...you also have the story teller who recounts the event - and this is one who survives, who outlines all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.”

Achebe, interview with Bill Moyers (Gikandi,125)


Storytelling has held and still holds quite a significant position in African culture. It serves to translate historical facts, to transfer moral issues, to explain the mystic world surrounding us and particularly to share past experiences. The storyteller, like the griot, has a lot to preserve. Oral literature has been very helpful, not only in helping discover our human selves, but equally in creating amusement as we are transported in the narration and we feel involved in an adventure we would not want to exit from. At the end of each story, we are sad it ended. We are unhappy even after the “and they live happily ever after” or the end of the wicked and the triumph of the good. Written literature has become the inadequate replacement to those glorifying nights around burning firewood under a full moon when grandma or grandpa, with deliberate slowness full of suspense, narrates captivating stories.
Written literature started in the Gambia as early as the late 20s. History has proven that the emergence of literature is closely related to colonialism and the British penetration along the river Gambia. The first traces of British contact with the Gambia came at the dawn of the British invasion of James Island in 1662. A hundred and eighty one years la
ter, in 1843, The Gambia became a colony of Her Majesty the Queen. The first newspapers published by Gambians will start as early as 1929 with the advent of The Gambia Outlook by Sir Edward Francis Small. Some years later, another newspaper will see the day: Gambia Echo. Until in the sixties, there would be no trace of any Gambian literary work produced by Gambians as such. There is however, an excellent literary work traced in the 18th century, that has with ample evidence proven to be written by someone of senegambian origin. That someone is an African slave, caught and sold in New England at the age of seven or eight, in 1761. that someone is Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley is born in 1753. She was sold to Mr and Mrs John Wheatley. Her master named her Phyllis Wheatley. Sixteen months after she arrived in New England, between 1762 and 1763, She was sent to school where she quickly learnt how to read and write English. Every historian knows how difficult conditions were for slaves. Education was almost impossible for many Americans, not mentioning blacks. More over, Phillis was a woman and imagine a female black student excelling in school. She also acquired knowledge in Latin and Theology. In 1772, she published her collection of poems entitled Poems On Various Subjects, Religious And Moral. The publication of the book was welcomed with lots of scepticism. The publisher had to give guarantee to dispel all clouds of doubt surrounding the authenticity of Phyllis Wheatley’s literary work. The Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his deputy Andrew Oliver as well as General Washington sent her letters of felicitations. In 1773, Phyllis Wheatley was invited to England to read her poems and face British literary critics. She was received by the Lord Mayor of London. She died in poverty at the age of 31 in 1784. At that time, there was no country called The Gambia or Senegal. But in her poems Phyllis Wheatley made reference to the River Gambia and Gambia’s beautiful landscape which is a clear indication that she was from a village around this river.

The emergence of Gambian literature

Until Gambia became independent, there was no existing literary work produced by Gambians. Its African counterparts were already exploring the literary domain in different forms. For Anglophone Africa, poets and prose writers have started denouncing colonialism and fighting it through the pen. Themes on religion, race and social castigation were the priority. When Africa started seeing its states attaining independence, the wave of change equally affected the African writers. Negritude was a strong weapon used by francophone Africa to denounce colonialism and call for independence. The coming of independence, however, turn out to bring a different form of colonialism which basically disappointed those writers who struggled to attain it. This is where Gambia came in with the denunciation of the existing African regimes that have brought corruption and political and social ills. In 1965, the year Gambia got its independence, Dr Lenrie Peters published his first, and Gambia’s first, novel, The Second Round.

Dr Lenrie Peters

Dr Lenrie Peters was born in 1932 in Banjul (The Gambia). In 1956 he graduated with a BSc. from the TRINITY College of Cambridge. From 1956 to 1959, he worked with the University College Hospital of London. In 1959, he received a Medical and Surgery diploma from Cambridge. He holds a Master’s degree in Arts.
From 1954 to1955 he was the president of African Students’ Society of Cambridge. He worked as journalist of African programs with the BBC from 1955 to 1968. He was the president of the Historic Commission of Monuments of the Gambia and President of FESTAC comity in 1977.
Dr Peters was the President of the board of directors of the National library of the Gambia and Gambia Co
llege from 1979 to 1987. From 1985 to 1991, he was a member and President of the West African Examination Council (WAEC). He was member of the jury for the Literary prize of the Commonwealth in 1995.
His first novel, The Second Round was published in 1965 by the publishers Heinemann. It is 193 pages long
and the story is preceded by a poem on Freetown.
The novel is about a young physician, Dr Kawa, who settles down in Freetown at
the morrow of independence after completing his studies in England. He falls in love with a young girl only to discover how unfaithful she is. He is seduced by the wife of his neighbour. His passionate love affairs ends up in dismal failure. Dr Kawa is so traumatised that his sentimental life is plagued by disorder. In an attempt to escape from this situation he moves to the country side. The whole story intends to show how complex a society can be. Dr Kawa, someone who sees life to be simple, or too simple, sees himself involved in the complex problems of other people which will eventually affect his own.
In 1967, Dr Peters published Satellites, a collection of 55 poems where intimate emotion is combined with a deep meditation on human dignity and justice. Four years later, in 1971 Katchikali, another collection of 69 poems was published. Katchikali is a sacred crocodile pool in Bakau, in the Greater Banjul Area. It is also the title of one of the poems (n°56). In 1981 he published his Selected Poetry. This collection is very much similar to a personal anthology. It is composed of 104 poems: 28 extracted from Satellites, 28 f
rom Katchikali and 48 new poems. This work is the fruit of 14 years of poetic creativity.
After Dr Peters, the next person to publish shortly after independence is Lady H. Augusta D. Jawara.

Lady H. Augusta D. Mahoney

Daughter of Sir John Mahoney, she was a nurse who actively participated in political life. She was a strong advocate of Women’s Rights and created in 1962, The Women’s Contemporary Society. She was married and became the first wife to Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, first president of Republic of The Gambia in 1955. They will be separated in 1967. She wrote several plays among which Rebellion published in 1968 and The African King, which she later presented, in 1966, at the Black Arts Festival of Dakar.

Rebellion is a play of three acts written under the pseudonym of Ramatoulie Kinteh. It describes the struggle of a young woman, Nysata, against retrograde traditions in a patriarchal society : the fight for girls’ education, the right to choose a husband, the establishment of a new parent-child relationship, etc. Nysata ended up obtaining her father’s consent to let her go to Great Britain to pursue medical studies. Interestingly, Lady Jawara used quite frequently words in the local languages especially mandinka, such as: daba-kruto, dundiko, fonto laro, fano etc.

NDAANAN (1971-1976)

After the first publications of Lenrie Peters, NDANAAN can be considered as the collective birth
of Gambian Literature. All the great pens of the period contributed to this literary magazine: Lenrie Peters, Gabriel Roberts, Swaebou Conateh, Hassum Ceesay, Nana Grey Johnson, Tijan Sallah, Deyda Hydara….to name but a few. The magazine was published twice in the year: March and September. The number of pages in each issue was between 50 and 60 pages. The objective of this Association of writers was to encourage production both on literature and literary criticism. Only five issues were published but overall the track record was positive: 66 authors, among them 57 Gambians, contributed to the success of the magazine and 9 women participated actively in making NDANAAN a reference in Gambian literary history.

Hassum Ceesay

Hassum Ceesay is one of the co-founders of Ndaanan, 8 of his poems and a short story were published in the review. He has also written several articles on Gambian Literature in the Daily Observer. In parallel with his diplomatic career, Mr Ceesay developed a keen interest for litera
ry production.

Seeking to Please, published at the end of the seventies in Banjul, deals with a variety of subj
ects: beauty, settling of scores, the dirty tricks of a prostitute, inflation of prices… It is made of five short stories and twelve poems.

Swaebou Conateh

Swaebou Conateh was born in 1944 in Dippakunda. He holds a first degree in Journalism from Kansas University received in 1968. Before obtaining his Master’s degree in Communication in Nigeria at Lagos University in 1987, he studied Resource Management in Radio broadcasting in London in 1972. A seasoned journalist, Mr Conateh has an invaluable experience as a media specialist in broadcasting and print media. From 1976-1986, he was appointed Director of Information. He is presently the Editor in Chief of the Gambia News and Report. From 1991 to date he is the founder and head of The Gambia Communications Agency.

Mr Conateh has published 17 poems, 1 short
story, a play for Radio broadcasting and 5 essays. His Great Wrinkles Up The sky’s Sleeves is a collection of 25 poems published in 1981, though some of them were written in 1965. The poems talk about the nitty-gritty of life in the village. In 1982, his second collection of 30 poems, Blind Destiny is published in Banjul in 1982. The poems deal mainly with the theme of liberty in post independent Africa.

Gabriel J. Roberts (1929- )

Gabriel J. Roberts was born in 1926 in Bathurst (Banjul). He studied in Great Britain where he obtained a Masters’ Degree and a Post-graduate Diploma in Education. A renowned educationist, he rose to the position of Director of Education. From 1995 to 1997 and from 2000 to date he occupied and is still occupying very important positions among which we can cite the presidency of the Independent Electoral Commission (I.E.C.).
Gambian Drama was introduced to an Anglophone audience thanks to Gabriel J. Roberts. He was awarded a Literary Prize by the BBC for his play entitled The Trial of Busumbala which was aired for the great joy of listeners. Mr Roberts is also a poet and a novelist.

The Trial of Busumbala is a piece of drama written in 1971. We are in 1962, Maxwell Armitage, principal of Armitage School and a Member of the House of Representatives, is suing Marafan Busumbala for the theft of his radio set. The investigation will soon show that the plaintiff’s hands are far from clean. This piece of drama is a satyr
also shows campus life. This is precisely what the play is all about: a principal either abusing his privilege as principal and turns on his radio very loud with no care for the welfare of the neighbouring teachers, or blindly selfish. Marafan Busumbala’s theft is justified as the court will rule out that it was done in the interest of the general public.

The Goosieganderan Myth, written in 1988 is a novel of 163 pages. The novel takes up the theme of his play A Coup is Planned written in 1971 and rewritten always as a play and entitlede The Senegambian Myth. The union between The Gambia and Senegal is transposed to two imaginary countries known as Goosie, depicting the Gambia, under the leadership of Lady Sabrina, and Gandera depicting Senegal headed by Dynamic. The two are united by the deep love they have for each other at a personal level. Politically, however, their relationship will be complicated especially with the army trying to convince Dynamic that Goosie is a small country that does not deserve to be an independent state but a part of Gandera. The army will take advantage of the amorous relationship between the two Heads of State to discreetly invade Goosie. For, according to Major General Kaba, a close ally and trusted friend of Lady Sabrina, the Ganderan army has claimed that the politicians have failed to take into account the military heads of the two countries.

Ebou Dibba

May his soul rest in peace. The late Ebou Dibba, who passed away in England, has played a significant role in depicting Gambian life in his books. He is equally the first Gambian author to make a continuation of his first story into a second book. The late Ebou Dibba’s first novel, Chaff on the Wind, is set in The Gambia. Some of the characters are found in his second novel Fafa creating thus an apparent link between the two. His novel Alhaji marks the inauguration of a literary genre targeting above all the youths. It should not be forgotten however that Ebou equally wrote Olu and the Smugglers.

Chaff on the Wind is a novel of 203 pages, written in 1986, and published by Macmillan Education. The novel is about two young men, Dingding and Pateh, who came from the countryside on board of a ship in the thirties. The latter is ambitious and enterprising. He quickly finds himself a job and seduces a young girl called Isatou. Dingding is the opposite of Pateh. He is shy and reserved. But he is luckier than Pateh. Isatou is married to Charles, the old cousin of a Signare. She hates this relationship. She ends up carrying the baby of …Pateh. Both of them have to flee to Senegal. Dingding becomes a successful businessman. Pateh is of his employees. Pateh finally dies following his numerous encounters with the French colonial police.

Fafa is a novel of 118 pages published in 1989 by Macmillan Education. Four friends are the main characters of this novel set in the fifties: Sisi Massod, the shopkeeper from Morocco, “Guerre Quatorze” who fought the first World War, “Professor” a teacher and Fafa, the watchman. Fafa wants to marry Kombeh (who is also found in Chaff on
the Wind) who is not ready to engage herself in any form of relationship with him. He is not the type of man she is looking for. The three friends will crack their brains to map out strategies to resolve the problems.

Alhaji, a novel meant for young readers, has 72 pages. It was published in 1992 by Macmillan. Alhaji, 16, receives a horse as a present from a tourist. He name
s the horse after himself. One day, on his way to school he is taken on a ride. Kebba, the driver and proprietor of the vehicle, invites Alhaji to his hotel where, in order to seduce him into selling his horse, he is offered a prostitute. He realises that Kebba has an eye on his horse. As he is adamant to even borrow his horse not mentioning selling it to Kebba, Alhaji, the horse, is stolen. Kebba will use the horse to smuggle diamonds into Senegal, and eventually to Scandinavia. Fortunately, indirectly assisting the Sierra Leonian Police, Alhaji the horse is found by Alhaji the hero. Quasi the maths teacher com detective and Johnson the Policeman from Sierra Leone will provide the helicopter by which they will travel in pursuit of the criminal Kebba, who will be intercepted after Kaolack and around Fattick in Senegal. The smugglers find themselves behind bars.

Nana Grey-Johnson (1951- )

Nana Grey-Johnson was born in 1951 in Banjul. He obtained his BA in Communication and his MA in Journalism in 1979 from the University of Stanford in USA. He contributed in many newspapers and reviews before establishing his own Agency of Media and Communication and having a publication of his own. He is a member of many associations one of which is the Gambian branch of Defence and Protection of Children (Geneva, Suisse).
He will be soon be publishing his History of the Gambian Press.

A Krio Engagement and other stories, is the first Gambian collection of novels published in 1987 in Banjul by BPMRU, under the pen name Nana Humasi. It is a book of 103 pages with illustration for each novel. This collection is composed of nine novels of which seven have already been published in the magazine West Africa. The novels deal with different subjects most of which depicting some of our Gambian social believes and culture. The viltali
ty and daily excitement of the daily life of residents of Bathust (Banjul) in their everyday life can be discovered in many of the stories. The first story, The Man Who Came To His Own Requiem, sets the story in December 1946. The freighter and passenger steamer, HMCS Lady Denham (named after the wife of Governor of the Gambia from 1928 to 1930, Sir E. Denham), will sink after colliding with another steamer, HMCS Vic 20 three miles above Nianimaru. There were no deaths but one of the passengers, Pa Alaba Roberts, was thought drowned when he was not found after three days and therefore his family offered the customary three day charity. It’s at this moment that Pa Alaba, who was not death, arrived in Bathust when the people were at the requiem. The reaction of those who saw him was of fear and dread instead of joy, because as they were convinced Pa Alaba was death, what they believed they were seeing was his ghost. How will he arrive at being accepted by these peaople and especially his family who share the same sentiments with the others? The last story, Week-end in July recalls the attempted coup d’├ętat of July 1981 and the fear, destruction, senseless deaths and the economic disaster it brought along.

Nana Grey-Johnson equally wrote other plays and another collection of short storie
s. King Pass King, is a play in Krio published in 1988. The Hare and the Tortoise, is a musical drama accompanied by choreography. It has two versions: Wolof and English. Children of the Spyglass, a collection of three short stories (75pages) was published in Banjul in 1995. The first story, The Snake Man, has been produced by BBC in 1988; the third one, Children of the Spyglass won a prize in USA in 1994. The second story of the collection, Kumelo, ship’s Chandler written in 1993, was inspired by a story narrated by A. Auber.

The Magic Calabash, a novel of 161 pages was published in 1998 in Banjul. This novel narrates the misfortunes of Erubani, an office boy at the Land Registry, who is sacked because of the pressure of the World Bank on the government of the country. Unemployed, living with a young woman he has not yet married, accused of theft by his aunt, Erubani is just accumulating problems. Nevertheless, one comes to realize that he can find money with the help of an object…..a magic object. But he will face one disaster after the other like in a nightmare.

I of Ebony, is a novel of 292 pages and it was published in 1999 in Banjul. In 1834, Simanga is captured in his village to be taken as a slave with other men and women from different regions along the river Gambia. This situation was one of forced cohabitation of populations who were satisfied to coe
xist. On the island where the “prisoners” were herded, a cruel slave-merchant reigned. But Simanga will be able to rebel against him and escape from the island. He was forced somehow to take refuge in Bathurst as at that time the British forbade slavery in their colonies and housed refugees, because they did not have the means to prevent and forbid the slave trade. This book can be considered a response, from within, to the odyssey of slaves taken to the USA (Alex Haley’s book Roots portrays the story).

Tijan M. Sallah (1958- )

Tijan M. Sallah was born in 1958 in The Gambia. He studied in the US where he obtained a Bachelor of Economics in 1982, an M.A 1984 and a PhD in Economics three years later. From 1981 to 1989 he delivered lectures in many American Universities. He joined the World Bank in 1989 and he is the Bank’s Senior Economist in charge of Egypt, Jordan and Yemen at the Water, Natural Resources and Environment Division. In addition to his numerous publications in reviews and his literary works, he has published a book entitled Wollof (New york,1996).

When Africa was A Young Woman published by Calcutta in 1980, is a collection of 36 poems. The work is divided into two parts: The first, On Africa, is made up of 9 poems and the second, On People, Places and Things, has 27 poems. A spirited response of a young man aged 22.

Before the New Earth published by Calcutta in 1988, a collection of 16 short stories (including a Letter from Wole Soyinka to the author) is made up of 93 pages. The author is raising his voice against the North-South inequalities and its consequences on Africa. He is dreaming of a New Earth with New Human Values.

Kora Land published in the USA in 1989 is a collection of 25 poems. “ I consider myself to be a griot flying over the Gambian land, but seeing it in its interrelation with other lands”. The poems deal with religion and the Ancestors.

Dreams of Dusty Roads was also published in the USA in 1993, four years after Kora Land. It is a collection of 34 poems divided into three parts: Roots, Branches (America), Dream-Clouds (in the Mind). Beyond material things Man craves for spiritual things, longing for the Dream Kingdom where he can experience something that transcends him and will bring about spiritual fulfilment.

New Poets of West Africa (1995) is an Anthology of 156 pages, where you can come across 7 female poets out of 48 from 15 West African countries. They all belong to the third generation of African poets of the seventies and eighties.
New African Poetry (USA, 1999) has 350 pages and is another Anthology covering this time the whole continent. The euphoria of independence is gradually giving the way to an era of disenchantment. 66 poets will figure in this anthology and among them are 17 women.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Being a young black girl born and in a European country hasnt always made me aware of african culture. I am glad I stubbled across this web page because it has opened me to the way. I am proud to be a Gambian woman and if God is willing I will publish a book that makes my family proud.