“I am giving the title ‘SEEKING TO PLEASE’ to this collection as that is precisely what I am doing to the Gambian public in this endeavour. As I see it, the avidity around us to read anything creative and with local origins is something of a stigma on any one of us who can do anything about it and, contrary to belief, there are many of us who can. Ability is certainly not lacking.” Hassum Ceesay
Hassum Ceesay – not the curator but the one commonly called senior – is a veteran writer. Hassum’s past rest always an enigma to most of the literary critic but then, though I not a literary critic, I will attempt to provide a little introduction of my own. Hassum is a financial economist who obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Havard, the United States of America and he has worked for the United Nations for several years. He is the son of Madi Ceesay, a well-known alkalo of Panchang and he is of royal dscendance on his mother's side. Hassum is also a devout muslim and a great scholar in Islamic teachings. He is known to have started writing since in his primary school days. He will publish several articles on The Gambia News Bulletin. In 1968, he wrote several articles some of which are: A Spot Worthy Of Tarzan (GNB N°67, 18th June), Mr Edward Brewer, Forestry Department Abuko Nature Reserve, and Random Thoughts on a Money Spinner (GNB N°127, 7th November 1968, p3).
In the early seventies, Hassum Ceesay joined a group of Gambian writers to create the literary magazine, NDAANAN. Hassum would be responsible for distribution. However, though he published some of his stories and poems in the magazine, it was only after Ndaanan ceased to exist in 1974 that he publishes his fist collection of SEEKING TO PLEASE.
In Ndaanan, Hassum published about eight poems and a short story. Some of these are The Cotton Tree, Behind the Looking Glass, The Palm Wine Vendor’s Song, Fugitive and Manifa Musu. From these poems, one easily recognises Hassum’s love for the Gambian people and his concern for their well-being. All his poems observe those issues that one hardly notices even though they directly affect our lives. Hassum takes it upon himself to entertain through his writings but not forgetting, like a true caring person, to enlighten and educate, to warn and counsel. He feels, as a writer and a poet, it is his duty to send a message to all, both in The Gambia and elsewhere, of the issues and concerns affecting our societies and of the beauties that lie within.
It is in this view, that upon publishing the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th collections of Seeking To Please, he donated a large bulk of it to the Government, the Department of State for Education, for distribution to all the school libraries throughout the country. An official letter from the president’s office has been already dispatched, thanking him for this immense gift for education and acknowledging his laudable contribution to national development. He also donated books to several libraries and institutions. None of his books is for sale, he promises, except for the interest of the student. The books he wrote and he is writing are meant to entertain and to help schoolchildren develop interest in reading. It fact, they contain enough motivation as each chapter of the story unfolds, as each verse of the poem reveals itself, as each scene fills an act. Hassum could have written only poetry, prose, or drama. However, he is one of those rare Gambian writers who are good in all three. The four books recently published are poetry (Seeking To Please 9 and 10), prose (Seeking To Please 8) and drama (Seeking To Please 7).
We with service reverent
Great Bacchus make contend.
Not by pleasing all,
But seeking to please.
For what pleases the gods
Pleases not men
(Extract from The Palm Wine Vendor’s Song by Hassum Ceesay)
DRAMA: Seeking To Please 7: You Will See For Yourself
“Allah made me who I am and what I am. A scholar in the Holy Quran, and a teacher of the religion of Islam. What am I suppose to do? What am I suppose to say, when a parent brings his child to me with that message? Shall I say no I will not be able to provide for his upkeep? Then I would not be believer…” (Act 4, Scene 1, page 38)
You Will See For Yourself is a piece of drama in four acts with almost a dozen characters. The setting is in ‘a sizable multi ethnic village with a population of four hundred people, mostly fulas, wollofs and mandinkas in the Central River Division’(Act One; Scene 1;p2). A Quranic teacher cum Imam cum Alkalo, Baa Foday Jabbi, is the main centre character. There are 11 scenes. Act One (2 scenes) introduces Baa Foday and his talibehs. Juldeh Jallow, a senior talibah over three decades old, will have a special chat with his Master. A particular question on women will arise as Juldeh is recently married and solicits guidance in maintaining a good marriage. In Act 2 (four scenes), certain issues will arise. The first is the question of the music in Baa Foday’s courtyard. Mayamel (Juldeh’s wife) and Hijinka (Baa Foday’s wife) will play music and they both love it. Baa Foday councils Juldeh to admonish his wife and help guide her to stop indulging in sinful habits. In this act too, parents of one of the talibehs will arrive. They will discover their talibeh child turned into a dirty scrambler of thrown coins in a fight in the streets. The question of the state of the Almudo arises. The parents are welcomed in Act 3 (three scenes). Juldeh will have a lengthy discussion with his wife as he tries to inculcate some of his master’s principles in her. The closing act, Act 4, presents two very interesting scenes. The first is a lengthy discussion on the question the Almudo (a begging talibeh) where heavy irony is observed as the author tries to portray the reality of the situation, and a curious scene between Baa Foday and his young seductive bride Hijinka as Juldeh and Mayamel watch secretly through the complicity of Hijinka.
Hassum Ceesay tries to portray, in this story, the irony behind certain believes and doings. He intends to provoke the spectator (or the reader where the play is read from the book), to reflect on certain social and cultural issues. He obliges the spectator to question three particular things: the complete veneration of certain religious people particularly local quranic teachers where one’s life is dictated (as this is probably the case between Juldeh and Baa Foday) and the question of the ‘Almudo’ and its raison d’être. Juldeh is persistently cautioned about the evil intends of women and advised to strictly apply measures to correct or moderate them. And who is to blame for the Almudo’s situation? The play is though provoking. Hassum builds a lot of humour in the play and equally uses simple understandable English as usual.
PROSE: Seeking to Please 8: Have Friends, Will Win
“All we parents are saying to you children is to be more thoughtful. Be more slow to judge. Weigh the effects of your words. And why do we keep saying so? […] We love you and we want to keep you out of trouble. […] But above all because God enjoins it upon us to bring you up well.” (p48)
This is a story of a university student, Pa Ndongo, who completed his undergraduate studies and leaves the university to return to his family in Sukuta.
Pa Ndongo, a BA student in Agricultural Science, have just completed his final exams and was waiting for the end of year events: the end of year debate where he is to present a paper, and the end of year agric and debating club parties. Pa Ndongo, commonly called Faana Faana Soona farmer, supported by his close friends Mansawula commonly called Wula or De Gaulle ears, Njilan Joof and Jelleh Ndure, he will make and impressive presentation at the debate and be declared the winner.
The 62-page story deals with many social issues particularly that of the undergraduate student and university activities. Mr. Ceesay, I believe, intends to delve into pertinent social issues through an easy-to-read short text with a lot of entertainment. One cannot help noticing the ‘kal’ attitude between the schoolmates; particularly, how much it will be effective in helping Pa Ndongo overcome his shyness during the debate competition. Among the students too, there is constant girl-talk on how they perceive girls and girls’ attitude. In fact, a curious relationship will build up between Pa Ndongo and one of the most desirable girls in the University, Yabanaa. The writer did not hesitate to portray our present society and leave us to judge for ourselves. Most of all, Ceesay intends to point out the importance of friendship and its advantages in our lives. Have Friends, Will Win is an unstoppable book that one enjoys from the first to the last page. The reader sails through, with the help of simple English language structures suitable even at the Upper Basic School level, a wonderful story that grips you to the end and makes you laugh, frown, and relaxed. It is readable anywhere, on trips, at the attaya vous, while waiting during appointments even during half time while watching football on TV.
POETRY: Seeking to Please 9: Sewruba Rhapsody And Other Poems
“A convention and child rights / Is incomplete unless/ It says no more war. / Why do I say so? / The first right is the right to life. / Adults declare war / then they stay at home / And send the youths to fight / The war they didn’t declare.” (Child Rights, p19)
Hassum proposes two books on poetry. The poems, like his books on prose and drama, deal with social issues and expose some of our social ills. In Sewruba Rhapsody and Other Poems, Hassum proves a good observer of our contemporary society and translates his observation in simple and easy to read poems. He centres his concern on youth matters, children’s affairs, national issues, nature, etc. Hassum goes further by writing poems in Wolof and Mandinka, which he includes in these collections.
POETRY: Seeking to Please 10: Our River And Other Stories
“Lo giss wanneh/ Lo gaeg netili/ Lo kham wakh/ Lo mann def./Lunj neh yaa ko def/ Yaa ko def/ Lunj neh yaa ko wakh/ Yaah ko wakh.” (Sanj Sanj, p11)
This 34-page collection of poems regroups 34 poems dealing with issues such as nature, cultural manifestations, new technology, relationships, leisurely activities, current issues and four poems in Mandinka and Wolof. Each poem traces a specific line of thought and tries to leave the reader the choice to judge. Hassum is careful to use easy language as always and to provide thought provoking verses.
Hassum Ceesay has a big heart. His concern for young Gambian children is quite apparent in his philanthropic actions geared towards their well-being. Hassum’s concern, unlike most writers and poets, is not to enrich himself. He has chosen to invest heavily in children’s education by donating almost all his books to the schools. That is why he wrote in his forward which is the same in all his collection of Seeking To Please:
“Like the first Seeking To Please, the present ones are free, and may be sold only to raise funds for students and student associations.”
In the new Education policy for 2004-2015 published in May 2004, it is clearly mentioned under section IV of Chapter 11.2.3 on page 36 that “Textbooks written by Gambian authors will be encouraged and utilized where appropriate and relevant.” I believe that today Gambian writers are important stakeholders in the development of education. Hassum Ceesay has already taken a large stride in this vein. It is true that not all writers may have the same opportunity to publish and donate their books free of charge but if Government is prepared to work hand in hand with the writers through the writers associations, certainly swift and efficient solutions will be found in the earliest possible time and the necessary actions taken immediately. The Gambia is facing serious problems with the quality of English spoken and written by many senior officials, in the media and more alarmingly, the poor results of English at grade 12 level. This has become a great cause for concern to educators and DoSE. There is no doubt that one of the most efficient solutions is to rekindle the desire to read among the very young by providing the necessary environment and resources. Books written by Gambians could be very appropriate for this because young readers may not only be fascinated and entertained, but they will recognise themselves in these stories as they are drawn by the familiarity of the setting, the characters, the plot and the themes. That alone could be a major step towards building and strengthening the reading culture in The Gambia.