Netally chi lameng nyi borom – Wolof proverb
By Cherno M. Njie
What do we make of a country whose leader digs a hole and buries a live ram to avert an attempted coup? An odd question to be sure, but that is how strange recent history has been in this country. I ask this question because the incident surfaced in public testimony before the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission last October. My thinking is that the event is a metaphor for just how far from grace we have fallen as a nation. How else does one explain the yawning gap between President Jawara and Yahya Jammeh? But I also think the fall to degeneracy was self-inflicted. Its cause was not only the imposition of the army of an authoritarian and his enablers, but it was also the complacency of us as citizens that had such disastrous consequences for the nation. Furthermore, the incident highlights our habit of seeking solutions in the wrong places.
I decided to write my memoir after my experiences of the last six years, a time that coincided with my dangerously rising alarm about the Jammeh regime. I said to myself, and with the urging of friends and family: let me set the record straight on the December 30th event, which, as the past few years have borne out, was a significant event in Gambian political history. But I also wanted to examine the contours of my life, to give an account of the forces that shaped me and my world view, and, finally, to say something about the country I remember as a child. It is with that country of my memory in mind, and some observations of its history, that I wish to make some suggestions on how to build a better Gambia for all into the future.
Agency, the capacity to act in a goal-driven activity, and volition, the conscious faculty to decide freely, are themes that I explore in this book, recalling the many arguments I had with my father about predestination, determinism and free will. My father was unusually open to this sort of banter with a child at a time when children were seen but not heard. If all is already decided, I would argue, why bother going through the motions. We discussed other things. Do genies exist? I guess he encouraged free inquiry inadvertently, for being kind and considerate.
The lessons of my mother also contributed to shaping my disposition. She taught by example and through proverbs, which she deployed when the situation was apt. Some I remember because she said them so often that, many years later, I had them written out, framed, and hung in my office. Her favorite one was wanyil sa galag gi nyu jamla. It translates as: don’t be too full of yourself, be more sensitive to others. It was an admonition to humility. In the intense pressure cooker in which I worked, such advice was valuable, for it enjoined me to build consensus by persuasion rather than forcing my opinion or will as the correct one. The framed proverb became a conversation starter when visitors entered my office. Her selflessness in caring for others was evident in the many relatives who came to live in our home temporarily or permanently during my childhood.
I remember the Tunkara sisters, Sainabou and Fatou, the former being the mother of our entertainer and Gambian music star JaIi Madi. The story of how they came to be members of the family was only revealed to me in the course of writing this book. The sister’s uncle, Pa Solo Chatty, had rented a room at our compound when he came to Banjul from Kuntaur. Sometime after he settled down, his nieces came to visit him, and my mother invited them to share sleeping quarters with her sisters, who were their age mates. They had such an excellent rapport so that when their uncle moved on somewhere else in Banjul, they stayed and became part of the Njie Family until marriage. There was no need to sign adoption papers; none were available or required. This level of social trust was a common feature of life in Banjul.
At the same time, the Banjul of my childhood was a city said to be ruled, especially at night, by mysterious forces such as genies, wizards, and one-legged horses. They were mythical creatures, of course, and as a child, it was fun to be scared to death about them except that people, including adults, believed they existed. And of course, there are the marabouts and diviners of every sort who dispensed their amulets and prescriptions to ward off evil spirits, cure illnesses, advance careers, bring good luck and wealth. They were everywhere. I remember this one marabout who plied his wares near the Albert Market and was very audacious in his claims about the potency of his amulets to make you financially successful and famous. He sang his jingle aloud without any sense of irony, against the backdrop of his sizable inventory, that whatever you sell will fly off the shelf.
We tried some of his charm for a soccer match, to no avail: we lost the game. I think he was a Fula man (perhaps one of my long-lost relatives). In all these years, I still remember his chants: Baireh, baireh, baireh: lo jai mu jarr, kornyan mu meyla, ko lebb mu lebbal la boileb, ah, lebballungamunafeyy, baireh, baireh, baireh! (Fame, fame, fame: whatever you sell will fly off the shelves, all favors you seek will be met, all lenders will open their purse strings, but please, borrow only what you can repay, fame, fame, fame.) It’s perhaps noteworthy that I remember him after some 50 years have passed.
I was speaking of him to a friend who had just recently read the book and who asked whether Baireh’s amulets had anything to do with my notoriety. After 50 years? I asked. Well, he retorted, maybe you took the wrong charm. I suppose Baireh has the last laugh. But to my point: the extent to which belief in the supernatural is a fabric of Gambian social consciousness is difficult to tell, but clearly, there is a deep attachment to the notion that one’s fate depends upon the power of forces outside of oneself.
The eminent historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has argued that nations beset with trauma and decline, which characterizes The Gambia of the last two decades, tend to ask one of two questions: Who did this to us? or What did we get wrong? The first question assigns blame to an outside force or a streak of bad luck, the second accepts responsibility and engages in selfreflection to locate the problem while recognizing the centrality of human agency and volition. I believe we are precisely at a time in our history as a country when the questions we ask and the answers we provide will determine the path of our development for decades to come. For a question rightly put, is half resolved.
Does God choose leaders? I think many Gambians would agree that God chooses leaders at some level—in other words, that Barrow did not just happen. At some point, there was divine guidance. Although I do not share this view, I don’t think this idea is particularly controversial for most Gambians (Even some Trump supporters believe he was chosen by God to rescue the US. He is, they argue, the biblical Cyrus the Great). While the importance of divine intervention in human affairs is shared by many, it is an insincerely held belief or one that is very selectively applied. I suppose it is possible to keep such views and still believe in the scientific method. Burying the ram at State House is, after all, an attempt to forestall what is preordained. Otherwise, why not just let events unfold naturally.
It is my belief, then, that the right question to ask is, what did we do wrong? And, as Gambians with agency and volition, what lessons have we learned, and how do we move on? We urgently need to recognize with a renewed sense of responsibility that we control our destiny, and as a people, we need to come together to chart a better path for the country. There are five areas we must reexamine: we need to redefine the norms of citizenship; we need to reassess the role of government; we need a new openness beyond Maslaha; we need a better understanding of the processes that ignite socioeconomic development and material prosperity; and, finally, we need to decide what type of character we should expect of our leaders.
What does it mean when we say I am a Gambian citizen? Do we immediately conjure up a place we call home, or do we think of shared values? Are we either a Banjulian, a Baddibunka, or Nuiminka? Or Gambian? Of course, these are not mutually exclusive— one can be a Gambian from Banjul or Baddibu. But we need to develop a Gambian creed of national identity based not on ethnicity or region but one that gives primacy to core values such as liberty, pluralism, freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and the rule of law. We must engender citizenship based on an acceptance that we are a multiethnic society in which all citizens are equal before the law and entitled to the same consideration by the state regardless of ethnicity or place of origin. Citizenship that promotes a common purpose and belonging, and one that abstains from the idea that a majority, whether political, ethnic, or religious, is first among equals.
Some things should be beyond the reach of a majority, even when they could be attained by popular will. We want a government that expresses the will of the majority but one that is at the same time sensitive to minority rights, be they ethnic, political, or religious. We should avoid a winner take all style of governance. We need to define the compact between the government and the citizens. What do we expect from our government? What is our duty as a citizen? The government has a central role to play in providing public goods. However, it will not absolve us from the struggles of daily life or personal responsibilities to manage our lives nor undertake the role of raising a family.
The government will not relieve us of our civic duties to pay our taxes and act as responsible members of society. We must educate ourselves on the activities of the government at the local, regional, or national levels. We expect a lot from politicians, often outside their official duties. They, in turn, make promises far beyond their ability to deliver. It is not the responsibility of my national assembly representative or local council member to pay the school fees for my child or to provide my daily fish money or to buy me a ram for my naming ceremony. That is for me to do as a responsible member of society. There is a Wolof proverb that goes Gorr borko johhe lum douday, bou yageh nga mom ko. If a freeman depends on you for his livelihood, he is, in truth, enslaved.
Selfdetermination is the most taxing form of governance, for it involves active engagement, integrity, and the cultivation of the habits of reflection, persuasion, and tolerance. The American constitution, John Adams wrote, was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other. I hope our new Gambian constitution will engender tolerance, accountability and solidarity, all critical ingredients for human flourishing. We need openness with each other and to ideas and inquiry. Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader, famously said at the dawn of the reform movement that ushered the unprecedented uplifting of millions of Chinese from poverty: “seek truth from facts.”
Open-mindedness is not just lovely; it is essential for personal growth and creativity. The toleration of dissenting views, especially those that are deemed to be outside the mainstream, should be welcomed. Heresy is the font of innovation. Ideas begin as minority views before they gain wide currency. And many scientific breakthroughs usually start from a process of trial and error. So, the expression of controversial thoughts should not be suppressed because they make us uncomfortable. If we do so, we encourage self-censorship and stifle innovation and original thinking. We should teach young people, especially not what to think but the tools of how to think.
Critical thinking skills should be part of the school curriculum at an early age. We must teach them the habit of skepticism and not that of conformity. Openness also means holding each other accountable. We must move away from what I have called the culture of Maslaha, an unwillingness to censure bad behavior or only doing so in a selectively self-serving manner. To end this culture of silence, we need to look no further than the victims of such corruption to get any idea of the human toll our failure to speak up and do the right thing has enabled. These are not victimless crimes. When state resources are siphoned off through corruption, we all pay the price.
How many children have been denied proper education and are languishing without hope? How many infants have died because of a lack of prenatal and postnatal care in our hospitals? How many farmers have been denied access to new technologies and resources to increase their yields and improved their standard of living? To stand up and be counted is both a religious and ethical imperative. We must understand the processes that ignite economic development and material prosperity. Democracy and good governance just by themselves are insufficient to generate economic growth.
It is self-evident that we need massive structural changes to revitalize the broken machinery of the state. After that, our greatest challenge is how do we generate meaningful, broad-based economic growth to lift Gambians out of poverty? The policies we pursue must be anchored on a firm cultural footing, which recognizes societal norms of how Gambians live, work, and make progress in their daily lives. Economic development will not occur if we merely implant a set of best practices that do not fit local conditions. It will happen only through innovations that are adaptive enough to local norms, and that recognizes that institutions and markets coevolve in a dynamic, iterative process. I am reminded of another of Chairman Deng’s famous phrases, an homage to flexibility: “We must cross the river by feeling the stone.” Although we have weak institutions, they can still be harnessed to build markets and grow the economy while allowing the benefits of such growth to strengthen those same institutions and help to preserve markets.
An effective judiciary, for example, will not emerge without the economic growth to underwrite and sustain it. For it is expensive to retain competent judges, court administrators, investigators, law clerks, and stenographers, to make the system work.
Furthermore, the policies you need to build a market, and those required to preserve them once vibrant are not identical. Knowledge of this fact should mean that we must rationalize the scale, scope, and span of aid that we receive and must develop the self-confidence to reject foreign assistance that does not meet our development objective or fails to offer us the ability to innovate and improvise. Not all aid is benign. If there is donor fatigue, there is undoubtedly donor aid overload. I am amazed by the sheer amount of funding and its conditions coming into this country. How can policymakers coordinate and rationalize such assistance, and how does such support hamper or distort incentives and market-building strategies? How can a local rice farmer who has invested his capital compete with free rice aid?
I recently saw a story about books for Africa in The Gambia. Who can be against the donation of books? But then again, how does a local printer, bookstore, or a budding chain of bookstores compete against free books? Do we impede the creation of indigenous markets by indiscriminately accepting everything that is offered? For how long will the free books keep coming? And when do we develop local book publishing markets? The path of development for the US and more recently, for China, offer valuable lessons that good institutions often follow rather than lead the development of markets, especially market-creating innovations that become an engine for generating broad-based local employment. In his excellent book, The Prosperity Paradox How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, Clayton M. Christensen gives an excellent example of such innovation as exhibited in Mo Ibrahim’s Celtel phone company. The company operated across several African countries by focusing on making cell phone service available to nonconsumers, and in the process, created a new market.
Talking of phone services, I am reminded that in the 1980s, Gamtel was among the best in Africa. In fact, it was thought to be second only to South Africa in terms of its quality of service and management. We can only imagine the lost business opportunity such a corporate gem would have been for this nation at the dawn of the internet age. How much more ahead would we have been in internet connectivity and the impact of that in the growth of a local digital economy?
The Nollywood film industry in Nigeria provides another example of a market-creating innovation focused on local consumers who were not served by foreign movies that dominated the Nigerian market. If the Nigerian street traders and entrepreneurs, without experience in moviemaking, had gone to the World Bank or African Development Bank for a loan, they might well have been informed that there was no market for their product.
A related lesson we can learn from the emergence of Nollywood is the role social trust plays in business formation and success. In an environment with weak institutions and poorly defined property rights, the hardscrabble entrepreneurs of Nollywood plunged right in and began to innovate by relying on each other. Today, Nollywood employs more than a million people, second only to the agriculture industry. Ultimately, the only sustainable path of development for us as a nation will be one developed locally, as a specifically Gambian model.
What character should we look for in a leader? Poor leadership has been the bane of many African countries. Leadership is not the domain of just politicians, but essential in all aspects of human endeavor. There are political, religious, business, and cultural leaders at all levels of society. Some of the most significant failures we had over the last 50 years as a nation, and especially over the Jammeh years, have been the result of an abdication of leadership at all levels, particularly in business, religious, and political spheres. We must recognize that leadership is about service. Service cannot be meaningful without a moral compass and personal integrity. For the leader, it is about what value you can add to improve the lives of your fellow citizens. It is about them and not about your self-importance, your greatness, or Mansaya.
The people are sovereign. We must insist on leaders who have a vision and who can articulate it. People need hope. They need real hope and not false hope. We must choose leaders who are competent, who know enough, and 9 yet have the humility to acknowledge what they do not know, who know that, at best, he or she has only partial truths and not the font of all wisdom. The Wolof have an adage: Njitt deng kor Jubanty. It is a full-fledged philosophical statement that recognizes that the leader is not only not infallible, but that the leader needs honest feedback so that she can make the right decisions. We need courageous leaders. It is no accident that when we say a politician is brave, it is usually only
when he is telling the truth.
Without courage, you cannot make the tough but necessary decisions a leader must make in the course of discharging his or her duties. Above all, we need leaders with wisdom, that rare quality, to exercise moral will and excellent judgment; those who know to do the right thing and when to change course when the facts themselves change; those who place the greater good over personal interest. Am I looking for a perfect leader? Not at all, for there is no such thing. But the leaders we select should be the best reflections of ourselves. If we want good leaders, we must begin by holding ourselves accountable. People who hold themselves accountable are more likely to hold others to that same standard, and when accountability becomes the norm, truly outstanding leaders will emerge.
The issues I have outlined here were part of the systemic changes central to the December 30th project. Those of us who were part of it recognizes that the end of the Jammeh regime was only the starting point for changing the status quo, a must for ensuring that The Gambia reaches its full potential. We all want a better country, a country that, though small, will not be insignificant. A nation that stands tall because of the strength of its values and the character of its citizens. We remember citizens like Solo Sandeng and many others who struggled without the glare of publicity, and whose sweat remain invisible.
I had the honor of working closely with Col. Lamin Sanneh, Capt. Njaga Jagne, Alhagi Jaja Nyass, Alagie Barrow, Musa Sarr, Modou Njie, Abdoulie Jobe, Papa Faal, Banka Manneh and many others who have not been publicly identified. Sadly, some did not see Jammeh finally forced from power. We, collectively, carry on the project of rebuilding The Gambia so that such evil can never again claim the lives of good men. I remember 10 each of our fallen heroes with a heavy heart. They did not die in vain, for I see their legacy everywhere in this country.
I mentioned earlier the lessons of my parents—I have discovered in writing about my life that what I learned from them as a child and young man is so tightly wound up with my place in Gambian society of the last decade. The values my mother and my father imparted are more and more visible to me in my instinct to serve the Gambian nation, however much of a surprise, it may seem to me.
It is their words that ring in my ears today, as The Gambia continues its long path of rebuilding and development.— So, too, I wish to express immense gratitude to my family, to those who have passed already, but whose spirit remains with us, invisible as our sweat, and to those who continue to support me, who fill my life with joy, and give me a purpose in this world. To my loving wife, who gives me a chance every day to practice the lessons of my parents. To my beautiful children, to whom I have the opportunity to teach those lessons. To my friends on this or that side of the Atlantic who continue to support me in all my endeavors.
Thank you all.
An abbreviated version of this speech was delivered by the author at the book launch of his memoir Sweat is invisible in the Rain, held in The Gambia, December 14, 2019.