The Cancer In Your Shopping BasketKaramo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.17, November 17, 2017
In May, this year, I got news of a young lady who died of cancer, of an old friend who died of cancer, and of a former employee who was diagnosed with cancer. The first was in Sweden, the other in France and the third in North Sudan. The causes may be different, but a recent unexpected shopping trip drew my attention to one -- the food that we buy!
Late one afternoon I finally decided to accept a favour from a new friend, Abou. Normally, because of distrust, we make friends with kids through their parents, but I have been honored with the opposite numerous times and often in the most unlikely places.
My new friend this time is from Kazakhstan, but we met in a nation that is neither his nor mine. Travel is the best source of discovery! His kids had written such a convincing reference to him about their "African uncle" that he now calls me his "brother". Abou is a successful business man who specializes in kids' clothes.
As he and I get closer, his kids seem to be willingly settling down for the background. His English is not very good and that of his kid's is better than his. As he struggles to explain himself in our conversations, the two kids sit on the sidelines, kicking with amusement. Unlike them, I admire their father, because the only word I know in Russian is "het"!
With Abou and his kids surrounding me, physically and affectionately, on that Friday afternoon, I walked into a local supermarket with the confidence of a shopper with enough money in his pocket. I once told my friend, Nabil, a hedge fund expert with hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, that I met a man who said he had $600 million to invest. "Look at how he walks!" said Sheikh Na (the shortened form of his name).
"Why?" I asked.
"If a man owns $600 million you can tell it from the way he walks. If you can't, then he is lying!" Unfortunately, Nabil was right. I could not tell from the way the so-called investor walked and he eventually disappeared from Jacob, who brought him to me. Jacob ended up paying all his hotel bills. "It was after a very expensive meal in a restaurant. He went to the bathroom and never came back!" Jacob recounted.
Coming back to the supermarket, the first fruit I went for was the normal first choice of my family - water melon. There were piles lying neatly at the back of the supermarket, in the fruits' section. Beautiful, fresh, big and tempting! Like any normal shopper, I followed my eyes and lifted one.
"Hold!" urged Abou.
"Hold!?" I looked at him with surprise. "I'm holding a water melon in excess of God-knows-how-many kilos in my hands and you are saying 'Hold!'? I'm not in a mood for weight lifting, dear brother!"
He pulled something from his pocket, that had something like a short little antenna attached to it, and, very gently, he stabbed the melon, like a vaccinating doctor. I saw a sudden short red flash of oscillating waves dancing on the screen of the little gadget. "No good!" he warned. "Leave it!"
He pulled me to another side of the same heap and this time I didn't have to do any body building. He stabbed the fruit gently, inserting a very tiny "puncture", hardly noticeable. The red flash started dancing again!
I became very interested! I pulled him to another heap of beautiful melons, at another corner of the supermarket and confidently pointed to one imported from a country further afield -- a far Eastern nation. The ones before were from a Middle Eastern country. He did the gentle vaccination with the antenna again and the result was the same - red!
"Ok," I thought, "where next? Home, sweet home -- Africa! I went for a very familiar country, where I have once delicious and fresh fruit -- a North African country. With the confidence of a shopper buying what he believes he knows, I grabbed one, certain that I would head home with it. Dr Abou did the same thing and got the same result. Again! This was not funny at all!
A happy woman walked in, with her young son behind her, and quickly snatched one melon without the slightest contemplation. "Be careful!" I warned her.
This was far from funny! I couldn't go back home empty-handed. Maybe something was wrong with Dr Abou's little gadget, which he said was based on good old Soviet technology. This thing might be unreliable. How could I tell I could I trust it?. "Let's try cantaloupe and rock melon," I told him. We moved to another pile, but the results remained the same.
"I give up! Let's go home," I said.
As we were about to leave, a shop assistant who had been watching us very keenly, called. He seemed very sorry for me. He picked up a big green water melon and said, "Try this, sir!" We did and (finally!) I saw a flash of dancing green waves on the screen of Abou's little thing. There is nothing like good will. The assistant really wanted it to happen and it happened. I finally found a water melon to take to my family!
What Abou was carrying is called a portable nitrate tester, in case you don't know it by now. It can check the levels of nitrate in a very long list of fruits and vegetables.
Although nitrates naturally occur in the soil and water, when their levels become too high they can contaminate underground and surface water. Such high levels are mostly the results of man's agricultural and industrial activities and wastes. Too much nitrate in the body can cause cancer, among other health problems, according to scientific researchers. Accordng to Chanie Kirschner, "once we consume them, nitrates are converted to nitrites in our digestive system. ...In the human body, nitrites form nitrosamines, which have been associated with various cancers." (Mnn.com).
Abou informed me that a friend of his bought it for him in Kazakhstan for $200, a very worthwhile expense. Red means a dangerous level of nitrates and green means safe.
Getting an instrument like this through the internet or from Kazakhstan is possible, although it may take some time, so that was not my worry. In fact, Abou recently got me a brand new one for a discounted price of only $100. I have real worries! How about the fruits that I have already eaten and continue to eat without testing? How about the billions of shoppers around the world who (like the lady with the young son and I) just look, grab, buy and eat? I have an even bigger worry. It is how to answer a question from a village peer of mine in The Gambia, who, upon reading my article, "Your Health, Genomics and Epigenomics", in my company's Facebook page, asked: "How do I escape from being a victim of sickness since I have no control over any of my surroundings and anything therein?" (http://julaconsultancy.com/blog/).
The Match StickKaramo NM Sonko, Ph.D
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 16, November 3, 2017
"As a child I never understood why my parents never shouted and screamed at anyone. Now I do: it is because anger is like fire on a match stick. It burns you before anyone else!" Karamo NM Sonko, HI Occasional Postings, No. 16, October 31, 2017.
ISSAKA: THE BONE MAN OF THE IVORY COASTKaramo NM Sonko, Ph.D
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 15, October 2, 2017
As warring factions shoot each other in Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen; as criminals attack their victims in South Africa, the USA, Mexico and Myanmar; and as reckless drivers knock down road users across the world, one man sits in a tiny room in a poor suburb in Africa, helping multitudes live a normal life, away from excruciating pain. He asks not, not, for a single cent from his patients!
A journey begins
On August 13th, 2016, I set out on a journey, with a driver and two others. The main street ahead of us was well built, brightly lit but littered with heaps of scattered garbage all along it. My friend, Ali, said that this was due to a recent decision by the Government to take away the responsibility of garbage collection from the Municipality. A new system was yet to be put in place.
We turned into a dark small street in a vast neighbourhood. There was garbage again and potholes, contrasted with lively, colourfully dressed, busy and happy crowds of people everywhere. The day ended as we approached our destination.
We bumped along. A few parties started, some in spaces lit with small generators, some under tents, some with bands playing and fun lovers dancing. The street was so full of cars and human beings that it became impossible to steer all the way through it to our destination. So we had to give up driving and depend on the scissors under our waist.
Where is a clinic, the Clinic of the people? Where is it? When we finally reached it (ONG Espoir Handicap) we found it closed, most unexpectedly. After all ours efforts! We were disappointed! However, I was not to be discouraged. We had to go on a hunt,a task I never imagined would have been so daunting.
Ali was beginning to be impatient. We were going around in circles, with our many voluntary guides telling us every five minutes that "We will be there in five minutes!"
"Let's leave it till tomorrow!" Ali urged.
"We have come all this way, we can't go back empty-handed," I insisted. Alhaji Kone, who came with us from the Plateau (the city centre), supported me.
The gold of Bromakoté
Finally, we spotted him, the gold beyond the garbage, potholes and the Clinic, the Clinic of the people. We saw the gold which makes this poor neighbourhood shine with beams of the selfless sacrifice of a man, the man, one very special man. His beams are so bright and strong that they spread into the green fields of Côte d'Ivoire, into the neighbouring nations and across seas. That and this was the man we were hunting for.
I could not recognize him at first when we found him; relaxed, well dressed in a nice brown local haftan, with only two people seated next to him in a faintly lit street, by the verandah of a house. We sat with him for an interview, at the end of which I made a request to return the following week in order to take pictures of his clinic in action. He agreed.
Issaka Kouriba was the man we were looking for and the man we found. I heard about him through Alhaji Kone some years ago and met him for the first time in July 2014, whilst I was on a business trip to Côte d'Ivoire. He lives in Adjame Bromakoté, a less privileged suburb of the capital, Abidjan.
Born in Mali on August 28, 1972, he is married with 8 children. He comes from a family of "local bone doctors" or "traditional orthopaedic surgeons". Issaka was taught by his father, who learnt from his father, and so on. He started treating broken bones and fractures in 1984, at the tender age of 12.
This is a man without a life of his own, a true servant of humanity, an incredible model of sacrifice in a selfish world. When I saw him in 2014 he was squeezed inside a very tiny room, invaded by hundreds of suffering patients. I had to be led by hand through the crowd by his aides to reach him. Our meeting lasted a few minutes, because he was too busy and because of my own uncontrollable emotions at the sight of so much suffering, in such a limited space. I saw split wounds and broken bones all around.
The biggest challenge to our humanity is how we react to the suffering of others. In my case, the sight of a human being in pain brings out the biggest weakness in me. I cannot stand the suffering of others. Therefore, I cannot understand how a human being can deliberately subject another to suffering and enjoy it, as happens often in this world. Each time I see a person in pain I imagine that it could have been me or someone I love.
This, paradoxically, has discouraged me from wanting to be a medical doctor since childhood. I remember a friend of my father's asking me, when I was in primary school: "Karamo, you come first in every subject at school, are you going to be a doctor?" "No, dad, I can't," I replied. "I'm afraid of blood!"
History repeated itself more than three decades later when my daughter was doing well in all subjects in her early years of high school. "I want you to become a doctor," dictated her mum. "I'm sorry, mum, I can't. I'm afraid of blood!" she replied. She abandoned the sciences and followed me into the social sciences.
A thousand cases a day
Issaka reported that he treats about a thousand cases on average, male and female, young and old, a day. He works from 8am to 2am almost daily, almost seven days a week! The youngest patient he has ever treated was only one day old and the eldest 90. His patients comprise Muslims, Christians, believers in traditional religions and others. They include sportsmen, such as the goal keeper of the Ivorian national team (the Elephants), Silvain Gbohouo, who won the African Cup in 2015. They cover all the ethnic groups who once fired at each other in this country.
From 2002-2011, Côte d'Ivoire, one of the most prosperous countries in West Africa, went through two brutal civil wars, in which thousands were reported to have died. The post-war Government is now busy rebuilding the country. Ivorians are shaking hands again and investors are flocking in from many directions, especially China and France. The Government took notice of Issaka's work and decorated him with the Order of National Merit in January 2015.
Issaka's patients come from across West Africa and much further afield, from countries such as the USA, China and Belgium. "I treat them all as patients. Although I am a Muslim, I never ask them what they believe in. I never ask them about their tribe either. "
Most importantly, he never asks for money from them. I pointed out to him that he could become a millionaire and build a beautiful house in an affluent suburb of Abidjan. "Why don't you charge a fee for your services?" I asked. "Because I inherited this skill from my father, who got it from our ancestors. It is a blessing on our family for generations. Even my younger brother can do it. Our forefathers warned us never to do it for money and we cannot disobey them!"
I was able to return to Issaka only on October 23, 2016. I watched him in action again in his small, crowded, and rusty clinic. His patients were mostly the poor, who could not afford hospital bills. The ones who could, including the ones from abroad, were typically those who had been to hospitals and finally gave up, after long and unsuccessful treatments by medical doctors. They included a young man from Belgium. He was involved in an almost fatal motor bike accident, which has confined him to a wheel chair.
Some patients lay on the floor, some were carried on old stretchers by relatives. The patients went to Issaka on his bench, one by one, on their own or carried by some of Issaka's seven assistants. He touched the affected part (s), rubbed it (them) gently with shea butter, massaged, pulled and/or pushed, and rolled big bandages around it (them), as necessary. Some, with minor dislocations or fractures, got up and walked away. Others with more serious injuries would return for further treatment, the length of which depended on the seriousness of their cases. Some patients had "fled" from their hospital beds, after medical doctors decided to amputate their hands or legs!
He told me, emotionally, "I am very happy to know that you have come all the way from abroad to say "Thank you" to me, although I have never done anything for you. On the other hand, I have treated, washed, fed and healed many patients whom I have never set eyes on again, after they have left my clinic."
"Thank you on behalf of humanity!"
I believe he is who deserved the "Thank you!" instead. "Thank you Issaka, but no thanks to me! You have done so much for me by doing so much for those whom I am related to in humanity," I assured him.
All men and women belong to the "tribe" of the double-legged two-handed children of Adam and Eve, although we do not always behave as such to each other. Even if you believe we come from monkeys, monkeys do identify with and help each other. Sometimes they walk on two legs and lift their "hands", although they cannot say "hello!" to each other.
Men (no blame on women!) have a tendency to focus on their small differences rather than their big commonalities. Unless we are able to see the big picture rather than a portion of it, we cannot see the need to help or care for each other beyond our communities or for only those whom we see as similar to us, through one narrow criterion or another.
I do believe that he who washes your brother's clothes saves you from shame in public and he who dresses his wound does even better for you. All humans are brothers or sisters. Therefore, all humans owe a "Thank you!" to those who help other humans, even those whom we do not know or those we do not feel we are related to through one narrow criterion or another.
I spoke with some of his patients. Forty-five-year old Kwaku Adjounani from Yopougon said that he came to Issaka after listening to the testimony of so many people about his successes. Kwaku's leg was broken in a car accident in 2013. He came to Issaka, after many visits to hospitals and he "now feels much better".
Fifty-five-year old Mamadou Fofana from Odienne was greeting a friend by a roadside in September 2015 when a reckless driver hit him, breaking his arm, shoulder and leg. He also came to Issaka after initial treatment in hospitals. He felt much better at the hands of Issaka and is very grateful: "Everyone knows that he takes very good care of his patients!"
The most grateful patient I met in the clinic was Madame Nicole Kouadio, 44, who said she heard about Issaka through her stepson. He and a friend of his were hit by a car whilst riding his motorbike at the age of about 27. When he was admitted in a hospital, the doctors made a decision to amputate his severely broken leg. Friends and relatives urged him to refuse and recommended Issaka to him. Now the 32-year old young man is back on his feet.
Therefore, the bespectacled, official looking, lady, with a cross hanging from a lace around her neck, came to see Issaka with a very old injury from high school. She narrated an incident when she fell down and broke her kneecap and the doctors replaced it with a metallic plate which made it impossible for her to bend her knee and to sleep painlessly at night. "The pain disappeared after Issaka's first touch. It is free! He doesn'task for a cent!" she echoed the appreciation of other patients, raised her hands in prayer for Issaka, as the cross leapt on her chest!
A small wish for a big man
Issaka's biggest wish: To find a good Samaritan who would build for him a big, well-equipped and clean clinic, where he could treat some 300,000 cases each year.
So small of a wish for so big a man. Big, not because of his weight, height or ego, but because of doing so much for the benefit of so many, without asking for a cent!!
For more information please contact:
ONG ESPOIR HANDICAP Tel: +225 07 51 50 66 / +220 66 58 90 87 / +220 45 45 35 36;
Email : email@example.com ; Email : firstname.lastname@example.org.
HEENO INTERNATIONAL Tel: +220 755 5272/+220 713 9773
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
A DAY OF TEARS FOR MANKIND!Dr Karamo NM Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 14, September 8, 2017
A friend of mine sent me a picture a few minutes ago. It shows a man standing on the private parts and neck of a naked little boy (perhaps only 3/4 years old!), deliberately crushing him to death, mercilessly! It does not matter where and who; these are human beings, just like you and I. Equal and worse things are happening around our world, around the clock!
I leave you to ponder over the following questions. How can we brag about who we are, if we continue to brutalize each other, especially our children and women? Can we raise our shouders as leaders, managers and followers, if we continue to brutalize the weakest segments of our human society? What are the uses of our qualifications and competence, if we cannot save ourselves and others from the vicious crimes we commit against each other? What are the uses of our decorated degrees, our shining shelters and our protective weapons, if we cannot cover each other in the comfort of what we have and what we know? To help you find the answers, I would like to remind you of a statement I made earlier this year: "The purpose of knowledge is to make life better for ourselves and others in this world and (for those of us who believe in God) the hereafter. If, in spite of all the knowledge that we have today ... in the world, the animals are still ahead of us in compassion, then maybe we should think of calling the animals humans and ourselves animals, because compassion makes us truly human and humane" ("The King of Bechuanaland...", Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 12, February 10, 2017).
Now, I have asked you many questions! Now, ask yourself one: "What do I contribute to humanity to make me brag?"
Gambian Makes History And Promotes Peace In Alaska
By Moro Sintet
Heeno Occasional Postings, No 13. July 31, 2017
Alaska's historic mosque
In late July or early August 1982, three village boys stood in a dark wet street near Tobacco Road in Banjul, the Gambian capital. One kept on laughing, one was grumbling. The third was defending himself against his complaining friend. All three had just finished high school and were about to head for the unknown. Lamin Jobarteh was the amused boy. He went to Mississippi, in the United States, where he finished his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management at Rust College in Holly Springs, in 1990. He went back to The Gambia to work at the National Investment Board for four years. He left again to go back to the U.S. in 1994, only because of the military coup of July that year.
From Mississippi earlier, Lamin ended up in another, even more unlikely place in the U.S., on November 17th 1994 -- Alaska!
"When I arrived here the Muslim community was very small. We were barely 200 and the majority were Albanians. We had a small rented office space as our masalla, paid for by a wealthy Palestinian. By the beginning of 2001, we started getting refugees from Iraq and other parts of the world."
Lamin and a handful of friends decided to mobilize the others and set up the Islamic Community Centre Anchorage Alaska (ICCAA) and a committee in April 2000. "We elected Dr Buhari as our President. He is from Pakistan. I was elected the treasurer," he recalled.
Because of his unifying skills and pleasant personality, Lamin was elected President in September 2002. Fifteen years now, Lamin is still President, a testimony to his success in running the ICCAA and the love of his association.
Lamin brings to mind the days during and after the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be with him), when Muslim pioneers went to unknown places in Arabia and the rest of the world, built mosques and lived with Muslims and non-Muslims. From only a rented masalla in 2002, they embarked on a task no one had thought was even imaginable -- to build the first mosque in the state of Alaska, known typically in the imagination of most people for only its Eskimos and ice. Over a period of 10 years, Lamin, his wife, Kady (Khadija in full) and the ICCAA committee spearheaded a fund-raising drive and successfully raised $3.1 million. They built one of the most beautiful mosques in the U.S., where and when it was least expected. He attracted the attention of the international and U.S. media, such as Al Jazeera, Newsweek, Brian Adams, Julia O'Malley, The New York Times, Michael Isikoff and a host of other international radio and television stations. He also met prominent religious Sheikhs from the U.S. and around the world.
In 1997 Lamin earned his M.B.A. in Business Management from Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage (the capital of Alaska). He became a successful banker in Anchorage, where he got a job with America's historic bank, Wells Fargo. In only three years after his appointment as a commercial loan officer, he rose to become Branch Manager and Assistant Vice President.
Whilst at the bank Lamin became aware of a well located plot of land for sale and informed his committee, the majority of whom were engineers. The negotiations that ensued were successful and the committee purchased the land for $700,000. This led to the inspiration and activities that spurred the ICCAA into fully fledged fund raising across the U.S.
He left the bank in September 2009, because he no longer wanted to work with interest (riba), which is forbidden in Islam. Lamin became a self-employed business man and helper to fellow Muslims in satisfying their obligatory dietary requirements through halal foods. He opened Alaska's first halal grocery store in November 2009. Alaska is now home to more than 4000 Muslims, the majority of whom (about 2500) live in Anchorage. "We now have five halal stores in Anchorage!" he reported.
Alaska's historic grocery
I asked Lamin about the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Alaska. "We are highly respected in the community, mainly because of volunteer activities, such as feeding the poor in the shelters, cleaning neighborhoods, serving lunches in the schools, etc. I am proud to be a Gambian, because in my country Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side. We don't disturb them and they don't disturb us. This is the experience I am sharing in Alaska. I want Alaska to be a model of peace between Muslims and non-Muslims for the whole world to see!"
Lamin said that the Alaskan model should be copied throughout the U.S. "Muslims are an integrated part of America. Over 3.5 million call the U.S.A. their home, the majority of whom are medical doctors, engineers, nurses, college professors, accountants, etc., and are in high income brackets."
Lamin is grateful for their success in Alaska. "In 2004, when we started building our masjid, we had no cash on hand and we relied solely on donations from domestic and international contributors. Alhamdoulil Lah our project is now 97% completed under my leadership."
Lamin hails from a village in The Gambia called Kudang, which is located 290 kilometres from Banjul. It is more than 10,000 kilometers from Alaska, with average annual temperature of more than 81°F, compared to Alaska's 37. Who would have imagined in July/August 1982 that he would be living where he now lives and doing what he now does? Not me, the boy who was defending himself helplessly near Tobacco Road that dark night in 1982. Not even Lamin himself!
In May this year (2017), there was a reunion through one of the world's biggest (if not the biggest) obsessions - the mobile phone. Numerous things have changed since 1982, but not all. Our grumbling friend, K.S.D., has risen to a senior position in Africa's biggest multilateral bank. He still grumbles about me, sometimes, but I have discovered now why -- because he wants more of my time as someone dear to him. This, he revealed to me recently. I feel guilty as charged! I, on my part, continue on my nomadic sojourns around the world (a habit I have had even before Tobacco Road). Lamin still heads the ICCAA and continues to warm the hearts of his association. He is now trying to raise funds for the parking lot (area) at the historic mosque in Alaska, where Muslims admirably continue to live in peace with non-Muslims. He can be reached at email@example.com or +1 (907)350-0792.
THE KING OF BECHUANALAND III: The Final Episode!
Dr Karamo NM Sonko
Heeno Occassional Postings, No. 12, February 10, 2017
Images and imaginations
The human being regularly lives an imaginary life. We imagine things that do not exist, confusing ourselves by creating conflicts between what exists (the truth) and what does not (falsehood). We create images in our heads. We subject ourselves to these imaginary thoughts and use them to destroy ourselves and others.
Falsehood can be destructive, whether it precedes or succeeds the truth. Hitler in the 1930’s and 1940’s convinced Germans to destroy themselves and wage war on the world, because of ideals that were tantamount to false images. In Italy, Mussolini did the same in supporting Hitler in the Axis Powers and to justify his brutal attack on Abyssinia. In Cambodia, within a period of only two years (1975-79), Pol Pot decimated an estimated 25% of his people, because of policy-induced starvation, overwork and executions. In Rwanda, in 1994, the Hutu majority government convinced Hutus to carry out a genocidal mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. In 2003, the US led its allies to invade Iraqi because it was believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction which he did not. We are still suffering from the consequences.
This is why the media and movies (the double “ms”) are so powerful. They appeal to our imagination and make us seek, love, desire and die for even what is not true. I once met an old lady who fled from the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990’s. I was very sad when she told me her story. I asked what I could do to help and the reply was: “A tv set, because we don’t have one where I stay”. No wonder, the media and movies have joined the ranks of the biggest businesses in the world. In the US, for example, the NSI’s total number of television homes in 2016 was 113,314,340. My old lady was not dreaming alone and dreaming without reason.
Let us come closer home, in fact let us come home. In 1981, Kukoi convinced thousands of peace-loving Gambians that “Enough is enough” and that they must fight the Senegalese “invaders” who forcefully brought Jawara back. A neighbour of mine on Tobacco Road (Banjul) stabbed a government vehicle several times in front of me. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. “Because it belongs to Jawara!” he replied. I have a friend who still carries the mark of a stray bullet, because he went with peers to watch a film called “The Arrival of the Senegalese Invaders”! They imagined that life would be better under Kukoi and many young Gambians died pursuing an ideal they did not understand. When our imaginations run wild, they can be destructive!
Smarter than you might have thought
Have you ever asked yourself why Jammeh was able to fire and hire Ministers even in the last days of his downfall? Have you asked why he was able to use an institution as solemn as our honourable National Assembly to extend his term by 90 days (three whole months!)? They cooperated with him even when his downfall should have been obvious. You have already had your answer.
Jammeh, as President, was actually smarter than most Gambians might have thought. Why do you think he claimed to cure AIDS and catch witches? Why do you think he wore a big white boubou and carried a big staff? Why do you think he carried the Glorious Qur’an (or what his critics say only looked like one) and always mentioned Allah (SWT) in his speeches (again which his critics say was only lip service)? I cannot judge him, but whether sincere or not in his looks and pronouncements, he succeeded in creating a trade mark in his appearance and an image of himself as a very serious Muslim.
Why did he chant “Al Samaday!”? This catchphrase was popularized by him among Gambians, most of whom knew neither its meaning nor where it came from. According to my sources in Brikama, the catchphrase originated from a very popular crazy man. He could look at people and tell their innermost secrets. Some people called him “the blessed mad man”. According one of these sources, the man walked into their home one day, for the first time, as she walked out of their house to join a crowd of family members and friends outside. The mad man looked at her and cried, “Oh you with a big stomach, who likes to hide in your room and eat all the futoo of the children!” “I almost collapsed, because that was exactly what I did that day!” she blushed, as she told me the story.
Why did he give himself so many titles? The first time I heard the many titles from a Gambian in Mauritania, I thought he was joking until the day I visited home and saw the names on billboards with the President’s pictures. A foreigner told me: “I love that name -- Babili Mansa!” He loved it, even though he did not know what it meant. Why you think he gave himself all these names? You have already had your answer.
Undoubtedly, his strategy succeeded for almost 23 years. “We must not underestimate this President of ours!” a civil servant in Serekunda told me. There are many people who believed he could cure AIDS, although I personally knew one former patient who appeared on GRTS saying he was healed, but later admitted to me that he was still ill. There are some, in and outside The Gambia, who believed that he was eliminated, because he promoted Islam. As he intensified his Islamic utterances, it became clear in his last days that the former President wanted the “theory of the serious Muslim” to gain higher ground than that of the tribal card. Within the Gambian context, the Islamic card is very tolerant, but (like anywhere else) the tribal card could have been deadly if pushed too far.
The religious and tribal cards
Therefore, it was fortunate that he did not fan tribal sentiments the same way he did before the elections. He could have easily done so, as there were reports that a handful of ill-informed Jolas (in a settlement near where a relative of mine lives) buying cutlasses to attack Mandingos. Even more dangerous, was the unreported but confirmed firing of mortars into Kanilai by the Salif Sarjo Casamance rebels, which could have signaled a “tribal” onslaught in Foni. Miraculously, not a single person was hurt by this fire! The entry of ECOWAS troops into Gambian territory on the 20th January provided an ideal moment for a potential massacre, just as the return of the RPF army provided the right moment for Rwandan Hutus to react to incitement by their leaders to slaughter Tutsis in 1994.
Maybe Jammeh did not use the tribal card, because he never seriously believed in it, like the rest of our people. Maybe he did not, because, as my friend Mustapha put it, “he is not suicidal”. In any case, we have to give credit to ordinary Gambians, including the Jolas, who did not form any militia. This is because we are a peaceful and “non-tribalistic” people (read “The King I” & “The King II”). As the former President himself proudly noted, after finally agreeing to step down, not a single life was lost throughout the political impasse?
The imagination and images that oppressive leaders use to perpetuate their actions may also destroy them in the end. This is what happened in Germany, Cambodia, Italy, Rwanda and recently in The Gambia. Jammeh’s human rights violations are definitely not comparable to Hitler’s, Pol Pot’s, Mussolini’s or those of the Hutu leaders in 1994. However, like them he successfully exploited his subjects’ fascination with imaginations and used this to create fear not only through his actions but also through his words and imagery (imagined and visual).
Jammeh had built an image of himself ruling The Gambia for probably “a billion years”. He had also said that there would never be a “Mandinka Government” again in the country. Naturally, he must have been taken aback by the truth that both dreams turned out to be untrue so soon. However, even when the reality struck, he imagined that he could hang on to power and evade the draculas on the Gambian streets who wanted his head for themselves or the ICC. Some of his supporters were quick to sense the reality and switch sides. Some of us can be rather “flexible”, rather fast! Others stayed with him for as long as possible in the vain pursuit of a dangerous fantasy.
Why was he so adamant?
There was so much at stake for Jammeh. The biggest was the possibility of being sent to the ICC. The longer we stay in political office, the more likely it becomes to do wrong things and the more wrongs we do the more difficult it becomes to quit the office. The second was ceasing to be President and losing all the powers and privileges that go with it. The highest on this list was the possibility of losing the wealth he publicly stated would protect even his great grandchildren against poverty.
The figure of his net worth that has emerged since his departure sounds like a huge exaggeration ($900 -- 2 billion!), but even a tenth of this, if true, is too much for a small economy such as The Gambia’s. Whatever the figure, it must be one of the main reasons why he imagined an army, Cabinet and National Assembly that would support him. The National Assembly, his closest advisers, and the security forces reinforced his imagination, even as numerous soldiers (including officers) deserted or folded their arms, and all his cabinet resigned or were fired.
ECOWAS military intervention, which I was opposed to because of the fear of potential losses of lives and the fact that Jammeh was already finished (especially after the oath of office of Barrow), has helped to crush his images of using the instruments of public office to stay in power. The arrival of his friends (the Presidents of Guinea and Mauritania, which I had suspected would happen in “The King II”) helped to turn them to dust. In the end, the ECOWAS intervention became necessary only as a show, rather than an exercise, of force. It facilitated Jammeh’s acceptance of the reality, but it was not the cause of his demise.
The demise of the Jammeh era was ironically engineered by himself, his advisors and some of his supporters. Internally, the coalition deserves credit (especially those who were arrested or killed). Externally, Gambians abroad have played their part through one of the most active social media campaigns in the world, financial contributions and encouraging friends and relatives at home to support the Coalition. There is much that the world can learn from this exemplary combination of national actions or citizens’ power, serious regional military threat and high-level diplomacy.
As he finally left for the airport Jammeh told the press, “Allah has decided that this is the end of my term....” Unfortunately, it took him so long to realize and/or accept this and in the process destroyed all the chances of the advocates of peace and reconciliation, such as myself, to have him retire in Kanilai! There is something we can learn from this experience through the Glorious Qur’an, which the former President always carried: “They are deaf, dumb, and blind, so they return not to the Right Path” (2,18). Images, even when they appear fragile, may be impossible to break away from.
Drums of war
On Saturday, January 14th, after the failure of the ECOWAS negotiators to reach agreement with Jammeh, the day before, the drums of war started to be beaten with ferocity. Most of the strongest men and women from The Gambia and outside the nation were smashing them with all their energy. The strongest muscles were descending on them! “Attack! Attack!” the chorus went, as in a match of gladiators. Yahya Jammeh had again given his enemies the opportunity they had been looking for for almost 23 years - get his head!
I received a message the next day from a nephew: “A military strike is imminent in the next 24-48 hours!” That was what I never wanted to hear, just what I never wanted to hear! Nobody seemed to be listening to my call for a peaceful solution to the deadlock! In search of shoulders to cry on, I wrote to my family and friends:
My dear family and friends,
I was told by some of you yesterday that military action is imminent within the next 48 hours; this means within the next 24 hours! As military action becomes imminent, should we stop praying for peace? NO! Unless we hear the sound of gunfire, we must not!
However, we must NOT pray for peace, whilst our hearts are calling for war; that is like Jammeh saying he believes in Allah (SWT) whilst challenging His Will and subjecting his nation to the possibility of unnecessary bloodshed.
I have no doubt that Jammeh's Presidency is over, by the Will of God. God always shows us His Signs, but we are often too blind to see them. All those who are clamouring for military intervention seem unable to understand or accept that even without this, Insha Allah Yahya would go after the 19th. So why shed innocent blood for what is inevitable? As I had stated before, what we are seeing now are the last kicks of a dying horse. So why should we shoot a dying horse and risk killing innocent bystanders?
I have done and I am doing my part. I have and continue to pray. I have written and my stories have reached the apex of ECOWAS. Last night, I wrote to two friends of Yahya (one a head of state), both of whom I have met outside The Gambia. I believe he may listen to them IF they accept my request to reason with him. I am yet to get a response. I have even tried to contact Yahya directly, but was again told not to!
I have and continue to do what I can to seek a peaceful end to this crisis, which unfortunately Jammeh's recalcitrance is making impossible, only FOR NOW.
I wish to ask all of you to continue with prayer and patience from YOUR HEARTS. Use the famous Mandinka dua: ALLAH MANG NTANKALA KATA NING KATA TO'OLLA!"
Difficult to translate, but I think it means: "May Allah (SWT) Protect us against trouble and trouble makers!" AMEEN YAA RABBIL AALAMEEN!
Searching for (in)justice
Very shortly afterward, I got an audio by WhatsApp from a friend. It was a recording of Jammeh and the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Chairperson of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS. Jammeh’s voice sounded desperate. I immediately felt like doing something. I thought he was sincere about what he was asking for - the Supreme Court to hear his appeal.
In “The King II” I had thought that this could be his way of putting the pieces together and exiting peacefully. If I could help, through my contacts who had the power to intervene, directly or indirectly, and send judges to The Gambia immediately, the President might take the opportunity of the verdict to step down. He might announce that he had exercised his rights and all that he wanted was justice. I could not imagine the Court ruling in his favour, with all the available evidence, and I did not think that that was the President’s objective either. I was to be proven wrong.
My scramble For peace
“Before my nephew Muhammed accuses me of only praying (“I believe in prayer and deeds,” he wrote in “The King II”), I better get up,” I told myself. “After all, even heaven is attained by both.”I wrote to a friend of mine, an influential former Mauritanian Minister:
Blood may be about to be shed, unnecessarily! As you may be aware, talks have again broken down between Jammeh and ECOWAS. ECOWAS, with the full support of the UN, AU and the rest of the international community are dead serious about launching a military strike. They are saying that the inauguration must take place on the 19th. Please consider asking President Aziz to offer to mediate. Here lies a great opportunity to help.
I wrote to a Sheikh I knew was close to Jammeh:
As- Salaam Alaikum Sheikh,
I hope that, by the Will of Allah (SWT), that you and your family and all those who work with you are within the "Rahma" of Allah (Subhanahu Wa ta'Ala).
I am writing with regard to the events in The Gambia, which you may be following. The President may be about to bring disaster on himself and his country and I am wondering if you can reason with him. The forces of ECOWAS, backed by the international community, are preparing to intervene militarily in The Gambia because all the negotiations with him have failed, after his rejection of the recent election results.
I am writing to you as a man of wisdom and as someone who knows him well. What he is doing does not serve the cause of Islam, his own interest or that of his country. I am a Gambian without political affiliation, objectively following the truth, whilst seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in my country and peace in our world.
Jazzak Allahu Khairan!
Then I sent a message to my best hope for immediate attention, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, through a good mutual friend of ours. “This may be just what he is looking for!” I wrote. “When can we talk?”
I met Mrs Johnson Sirleaf about 21 years ago (time flies, especially when you are getting older!), in New York city and then in Abidjan. She impressed me with her calm, cool and collected personality. She was then Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the UNDP and I was running a continent-wide African business organization which had a zero balance in its bank account. That was the most challenging professional experience I have ever gone through. One day in Accra, during the first UN-sponsored pan-African investment conference of its kind, which I initiated and coordinated, I unhappily murmured to a Camerounian friend called Ahmad. He responded: “When God is helping you, He sometimes puts a big obstacle on your way. If you cross it, everything else would become easy.” I was 20 years younger then and 20 years less intelligent about life, so I had nothing to say, except “nothing to say!” If it was today, it would be: “Thank you for your wisdom!”
Mrs Johnson Sirleaf never wasted words and her calculated decisiveness was written all over her face. I can still see her in Abidjan; seated at a desk, patiently, whilst her Assistant (Evets) and the rest of us wiggled and bumped our heads with each other.
I was confident that she would do something, because she was seriously committed to peace in The Gambia, although Jammeh’s refusal to budge was making her mission impossible. Buhari must have been fed up with Jammeh. The Nigerian House of Representatives had made an asylum offer to my President which he ignored. Buhari, being a soldier (former General), older man and President of Nigeria might already be preparing to teach Jammeh a lesson; force him to realize that he was but a former army lieutenant and President of the smallest country on the continent. Maybe to even enforce the traditional African respect for big brothers. Sall might be in a hurry to settle a score over the Casamance rebel issue; a dream come true! As a former President, Mahama did not have any muscle to flex, although he was of great symbolic importance in the negotiation process. In contrast, Mrs Johnson had many things in her favour, including patience.
I did not hear from my Mauritanian friend and the Sheikh, but Evets replied almost immediately and said he was ready for a call. He told me that the judges had decided not to go to The Gambia. When I persisted, he assured me that he would try his best and come back to me. I knew he was serious.
Then came the bombshell! My friend, Mustapha, and nephew, Sarg, told me that Jammeh had recorded Mrs Johnson Sirleaf, without her knowledge. I felt disgraced. Shortly afterward, I received a statement by her Press Secretary, and later in the evening the President herself was on the BBC’s Focus on Africa, expressing her disappointment at what had transpired.
I gave up! There, was a man I was indirectly trying to help, in directly trying to help my country, but he would not let me. It did not make sense to me! Was my outgoing President going out of office, going out of his mind or going out of both? My family and friends had told me that I was wasting my time. I persisted because of the thought of external military intervention and its potential consequences in our beloved country. I have seen too many military interventions gone wrong in this world. With all the military might nations today possess our world is not safer than it was 50 years ago; in fact it has become less safe, because of violence and counter violence.
A few days earlier, I had asked an uncle again if he thought it was a good idea for me to call Jammeh. Understandably, most Gambians were furious and terrified, even my uncle. They seemed ready to make any sacrifice to get rid of a dying horse that was making its last kicks and provoking them to lose a peace they must treasure. No one seemed interested in listening to the son of Foni, nephew of Kiang and grandson of Niumi. My uncle replied: “Yes, but only to greet him. Never ask him to step down, because he would consider you an enemy!”
“To call just to say “Ka soomaayi?”, dear uncle?” I gave up again! I could see the war mongers in the social media laughing at, and telling, me what my brother, Yusu, had already told me: “I told you!”
What could I do? I could only beg God and try to talk to my fellow men and women. I had done these. I must give up talking and turn to prayer again as in the pre-election period. Jammeh was upsetting even the peace seekers. Was the ugly Shaytaan having a ball with him? Telling him directly, or through those he trusted, that he could rule for an imaginary “billion years”? Telling him that the ECOWAS threat was only a bluff and an imagination and that the “billion years” were the reality?
After the celebrations
AlhamdoulilLah, it has ended well. The swearing-in of our newly-elected President happened in Dakar as Mustapha had predicted. Jammeh has left, gone to a country where no one had expected him to go. Even in his last moments he terrified Gambians with an image that he was eternal and convinced the international community that he was more powerful than he actually was. Few people realized that about 95% of his army were actually not supporting him, according to sources within the army itself.
Most Gambians may never be able to fully appreciate how fortunate we were that a war did not break out. We could have become Rwanda, if the Jolas had risen up against the other “tribes”. We could have been less than Rwanda but still a very bloody mess, if even 100 determined state house guards or 100 Casamance rebels and mercenaries had seriously confronted the ECOWAS troops on Gambian territory or decided to cause havoc in the civilian population. We could have, but did not because, as Stephen See, a prominent American business man with investments in many African countries, saw it: “Prayers work!” Yes, our prayers were accepted, efforts blessed and peace overcame violence. Never in the history of ECOWAS had anything like this happened. Those who have even basic understanding of the history of military intervention worldwide know that things can go wrong even in the most unlikely scenario with good intentions and the most unequal military antagonists. Have you heard of OPERATION RESTORE HOPE in Somalia in 1992? Therefore, we must never rush for military action as far as there is a chance for peace and to save innocent lives.
We have survived nearly 23 years of the terrible side of the Jammeh era. We must be grateful to God and celebrate, but in celebrating we must not forget that what lies ahead may be equally challenging. Our country has emerged physically intact as I had hoped, but would The Gambians stay intact? I suspect they may not be for some time, after the celebrations. The faults are already appearing in the nation, but the long term would remain bright if we remain grateful for what we have and what we have come out of.
Credit: Getty & Independent
THE KING OF BECHUANALAND II: Drive Carefully!
Dr Karamo NM Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 11, January 6, 2017
A lizard in a desert
In the scorching heat of the desert, when sunlight and air create the impression of falling rain, deceiving the eyes with mirages unreachable, a man drove his car, in boredom. He suddenly saw the sign of a tail...then a body... and a head. A monitor, a monitor lizard ahead, crawling across. "Hurrah!" he shouted, ramming his foot on the accelerator. He chased it, drove around it, until the poor animal could not run any longer. He got out of his car, grabbed it, plucked out the eyes with his knife, left it and watched in entertainment as the animal struggled in the sand. Having had his fill of fun, he drove away.
I always love to walk. In my early years at St. Augustine's High School, I walked from Banjul to Serrekunda. I never took notice of something along the road until I met a lecturer in the second smallest country on the continental mainland, known as "the Switzerland of Africa". She, like the numerous people I have met around the world, who have visited our little country, told me, "I really loved The Gambia!" The reason for her love was rather unusual and, at first thought, you may even consider it trivial, until you go beyond the first. It is not what you may have in mind, no, no! She is African, was young and did not meet any bumpsters in Bakau. Instead, she loved The Gambia, because she found something that she never saw anywhere else in the world, a road sign that so many, including me, never paid any attention to: DRIVE CAREFULLY! THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN.
Those around me
Someone from Sonkokunda told me yesterday: "Yahya is having fun with Gambians. He will let you "sing" and "sing" and when you are tired of "singing" he would step down." As an advocate of peace and reconciliation, I am very much encouraged by this statement.
I am indeed fortunate to be alive, up to and including this day, when many young Gambians call me "Uncle" and "Big Brother". When I look at some of them with their grey hair, I see how I, myself, must be looking like and how, as an African and Gambian traditionalist, I must behave. These young men and women include ordinary but very nice people. They also include engineers, lawyers, bankers, economists, business men and women, and other professionals, with qualifications ranging from higher education certificates to doctorate degrees. Upon receipt of "The King of Bechuanaland: Jammeh's Volte-Face in The Gambia ("The King I" for short)," one of them sent me a beautifully conveyed message by email, which carved my position in an undeclared Mandinka traditional hierarchy, through a proverb: "An elderly person seated sees much further than the youth standing!" The proverb was welcomed, because I knew it was sincerely meant to be both a compliment and a shield against a potential debate with, in this case a younger brother called Yusu, who is a competent international lawyer, capable of disagreeing with me and even launching an offensive. I sometimes tell my European and American friends that in their culture "young" is a compliment, but that in mine it is the opposite.
Yusu went further and offered an olive branch to Jammeh, worth much more than the six pence he modestly claimed: "One good counsel I drew from your deep and intuitive thoughts resonates with the power of healing and reconciliation. However, while the victims are central to any genuine calls for reconciliation, having suffered egregious crimes, which in the true spirit of faith and destiny they may be able to forgive, he too needs to offer an unconditional apology to Gambians as well. This is my six pence."
Another young man, in international trade finance, to whom I am an honorary uncle, wrote to me, with independence in thought, eloquence in style but respect in tone:
"Thank you uncle Karamo. ... Negotiation is the way to go and the preference of every Gambian, I would imagine. All those who clamour for external military intervention would be doing so out of sheer desperation and hopelessness, and as a last resort. There are two sides to every negotiation and I do not believe that Yahya has any intention to negotiate. In that case, what do we do? In that case, we have a binary solution – either let an emboldened and vindictive Yahya rule over Gambia for as long as he lives with its attendant consequences or hope that external forces flush him out, again with consequences. Both of these are sub-optimal solutions, but our choices are limited. I believe in the power of prayers backed by deeds. In short, I hope negotiation works but I doubt if Yahya and his cohort are interested in that. I hope and pray that I am wrong."
Muhammed, is his good name. He makes it clear to his uncle that military intervention is a "last resort". Honestly, I do not want to contemplate military intervention, even as a last resort.
Yusu and Muhammed's messages, in highlighting the importance of age in our society, offer another potential solution – getting more elders involved in talking to Jammeh. Under normal circumstances, Gambian elders should be able to convince Jammeh to step down, just as elders "begged" him to run for the office of President in 1996! Unfortunately, present circumstances are not normal and neither Yusu nor Mohamed is the President of The Gambia.
From Uncle to Nephew
I was demoted from my elderly position that Yusu and Muhammed placed me in to a "junior" position when one of my uncles in The Gambia called, after their messages, to express a sentiment that seems to confirm the feeling at home (in The Gambia, not Sonkokunda): "I think this man will not go without force!" My own peaceful uncle, even my peaceful uncle! Then I went on Skype with another nephew, Lamin Eff: "Uncle, if he refuses to go they may have to get him out by force." Another one, another subtle advocate of "soldier- go-get-him!"
However, it is clear from the messages of Yusu, my two nephews and my dear uncle that Gambians (or many) are advocating military intervention out of desperation. People are fed up, angry and in a hurry to see an end to the Jammeh regime. Gambians are peaceful people but they are in a hurry now and therein lies the danger. When a man is starving he may eat from the fire!
The Iraq factor
Something seems to be developing at home and abroad among my compatriots which I would like to call the Iraq factor: oppressed citizens ready to welcome foreign military intervention in order to get rid of the cause of their oppression. Most Gambians may ask "So what is wrong with that?" I would answer: "Remember that Iraqis cheered American troops as they moved into Baghdad, but later turned their guns on their saviors. The Americans were forced to abandon a shattered country. Out of the ashes of American bombs and Saddam's brutality, emerged ISIS, which (some may say) makes Al-Qaeda moderate. There are some exceptions of military intervention, especially when there is no other choice, after a tyrant has fired the first shot, but they are rare and I do not want to contemplate it for our lovely little nation. Yes, even as a last resort, unless an uncle insists I give him what Yusu and Muhammed gave me.
The Ivorian analogy
In the current crisis in our country, Gambians love to cite the example of Gbagbo in order to justify military intervention. Indeed there are many similarities between Jammeh's present behaviour and Gbagbo's past. However, we must not limit the similarities in attitudes, but also note that Côte d'Ivoire is still in the process of breaking away from the violent legacy of the Gbago era (which extremists are trying to benefit from, as the March 2016 attack at Grand Bassam showed). I cannot think of a better personal example than the face of the 5-Star hotel I was staying in at the centre of Abidjan, when I started to write this sequel: soldiers, road blocks, security guards and security bars. It was (still is) like a mini fortress to enter, in spite of the apparent calmness in the city.
When a former killer warns you against killing
When a former killer warns you against killing, you better take him seriously. When a veteran warns you against war, you better fear war. I am indeed fortunate to be alive, up to and including this day. This day, when I can tell you that one of the uncountable things in my life, that I am most grateful to the Almighty God for, are my meetings with some extraordinary people, who have left me with many quotable quotes. One of these was a 13-year old mathematical whiz kid whose tale inspired me to write the fictional "The King I". Another was a soldier known as "The Brigadier" or "Cowboy" in a Portuguese speaking country that has not known very many good night's sleep since the colonial period. I once sat in front of this nation's greatest war hero. He was the "The Brigadier" or "Cowboy", a Mandingo General whose past exploits were narrated to me by witnesses. Incidentally, he was a Gambian who walked away from our shores at the tender age of about 15 to seek his fortune not across the Mediterranean but towards the savannah and tropical forest. I have met this soldier.
I have met this soldier and I have walked for kilometers on the jungle paths, across dense foliage through which the sun could hardly penetrate. These were the territories where he had won his battles, speaking Portuguese creole with the real sons of his new country, where his courage earned him adoption. I saw where he burnt down a Portuguese army base to ashes. I went past the silent forest where he singlehandedly and empty-handedly wrenched life out of a powerful mutinous guerrilla no one else could face. I flew over the intimidating trees which watched a boy, called Foday, a foot soldier, shoulder-fire a Russian surface-to-air missile and bring down a feared Portuguese fighter pilot and his jet. "When I got to his plane, I found the bastard crouched inside, dead!" In war, men can become beasts and, as another old army General put it, "it takes only three weeks to turn a man into a beast". Foday was one of the calmest and nicest men I have ever met in my life. Yet, he killed an enemy and insulted a corpse!
Beasts of war in Central Africa
Thou shalt not kill
I met this soldier, the Brigadier, after he had changed his mind about killing, because he had learnt something new that he never knew. Decades after all his experience as a local military legend, one day the grey-haired Mandinka Kebba, with a prayer bead in his hand, warned me in his office: "Sonko, if you were to read the Qur'an and understand the value the Almighty Allah has accorded to human life, you would never dare take a life!" In the year 2000, he was killed by the same troops he had successfully led against the Portuguese in pursuit of freedom and against his President, a man he had also served as an aide-de-camp to during the liberation struggle. He succeeded in overthrowing the man he had once carried on his back in rough terrain, during the struggle, and those who once risked their lives for him in rough terrain ended up killing him. Both happened in war. When his death took place I was perhaps the only one in the world, not with him, who suspected that he might have voluntarily chosen to die, rather than take a life, because of what he had learnt late from the Glorious Qur'an. Better late than never.
It took a long time for many Gambians to believe he was dead, because many were convinced that he had supernatural powers. A friend confirmed this belief to me: "He can fly away at the height of battle!" Later, whilst I was speculating how he died, a young driver, another Lamin, who had served under him came to me, as if he knew what was on my mind, and reported what seemed to be in line with what the General had told me. Lamin recounted how his enemies overcame his defenders and found him in a room. He begged them to let him pray to rakat. After the Salaam they ended his life with gun butts and sticks because, like Geronimo, there was widespread belief that he could never be killed by a bullet. This was what Lamin told me about this fallen soldier I once met.
He was a friend of Jammeh's. ECOWAS, the UN and perhaps Jammeh himself tried everything to get him to retire from the army and peripheral politics before his death, but he did not agree. They promised him prestigious positions in the UN system, but would, or could, not accept them, because of interest group pressures. People used to queue outside his office, telling him what pleased him in the interest of their interests. The human tongue can be as deadly as a gun butt.
Better late than never
I sincerely hope that Jammeh's decision to reject the election results does not lead to a refusal to step down when his term expires. Maybe we are all getting too "excited", as the woman from Sonkokunda pointed out, because we are confusing or taking the two for one. The possibility of military conflict, which may lead to the loss of lives, unnecessarily, is worth talking about only if Jammeh takes the two as one. The President may also be changing in his last days in office. Difficult to imagine, but who really knows? If he is determined to stay, he should heed the voice of the Brigadier. The Brigadier was not a religious Sheikh, our President is supposed to be one. Better late than never.
The President still has three viable channels of listening to the Brigadier, putting the pieces together and exiting peacefully. One is the Supreme Court route, which many Gambians see as a farce. I think it can be helpful as an exit strategy. Our President, like a mason who rebuilds walls he demolishes, can get the Court (or whatever resembles it) up and running on the 10th and let them reject his rejection and then make an announcement: "Fellow Gambians, I have exercised my legal rights, respected the decision of the Court and the will of my people and will now accept the results!" Dream? If not, I have no doubt that Gambians would be so relieved that they would cheer rather than boo him.
If he does not tune into the Supreme Court channel, I can only think of him turning to ECOWAS again (difficult and embarrassing) or calling for the intervention of another third party he trusts as a negotiator. The latter may be the head of state of a country he considers to be a friend.
There is still hope, as a 90-year old friend of mine in Bakau told me last night. That encouraged me. I found someone older than my uncle who might be seeing what my uncle could not.
I hope so. God has His Laws. If you do not believe in Him, I would say nature has its laws. These cover the animals and plants. Only? How about the humans? Of course, obviously. The human being is even more important, because of our responsibility in respecting these laws and the value the laws attribute to us. If we disobey them we face the negative consequences, whether we know it or not. If we obey them, we reap the rewards, aware or unaware. Think about that.
My stories are not about Jammeh alone. Although they are most relevant for him today, because he is the one in our driver's seat, they are messages for all of mankind (no blame on women!) to be careful about how we treat each other. The stories are for you and me. Going back to our driver in the desert, he got married later. He got three children, all of whom were born blind! Think about that.
Call it the punishment of the Almighty God or call it coincidence, but pay attention to the gears and steering wheels of life. When we drive carefully, both literally and figuratively, the life we save may indeed be our own. Therefore, our academic visitor from the kingdom of the Swazis had a very important reason to appreciate something in our homeland, something much more than just a road sign.
Greetings: the Call of Humanity
When the Jolas greet each other, traditionally, they go (literally translated):
"Ka soomaayi?" ("Is there sweetness?")
"Ka soomaayai kebb!" ("Yes, only sweetness!")
Credit: Travel with Kat
Given that there can be no "sweetness" without peace, the Jola response becomes the same as that of all the main languages of The Gambia – Mandinka (Khaira dorong!), Fula (Jam tang!) and Wollof (Jamma reck!). The common thread in all these four languages is peace – Soomu, Khaira, Jam and Jamma. We are a people of peace!
The voice of a neighbour
About 14 miles from Jammeh's village of Kanilai, lies one of the biggest villages in The Gambia. It is a special village, near the border with Casamance, where all the ethnic and religious groups in The Gambia coexist in harmony. As a poor, but uncontaminated, proud and very happy child, I spent the early days of my life trudging the footpaths, hunting in the forests, fishing in the river and attending the Catholic school of this village. Yes, those were simple but very happy days – no Soviet or American invasions that I knew of, no credit card bills, no AIDS, no mobile phones, no global warming that I knew of, no locked gates and barbed wire fences, not even an army in The Gambia. No young men who drank alcohol, refused to pray, drove trucks into crowds and were called Muslims. No pulpit boys who kidnapped kids, forced them to rape girls and were called the Lord's Resistance. No deadly ruffians who torched Christians and were Hindus. Those village days taught me that it is better not to need money than to have it and worse to need and do not have it.
It was an unknown village, because it lay about a mile and a half from the highway and did not have even a Middle School until the end of the 1990's. With the formation of the army under Jawara, many of the young men of the village, who had no recourse to better sources of employment, flooded the army. Two of these men became infamous because of their association with Jammeh and because the bells of bad deeds always ring louder than those of goodness. The good name of the village was tarnished and the sacrifices of its thousands of inhabitants went unnoticed or were ignored. The nation never noticed the group of staunch self-declared UDP supporters in the village.
The nation seemed unaware of Jammeh's onslaught against Jolas whom he accused of bewitching the successful boys in his security services who hailed from the village. The village remembers the day that the President stormed in and out, threatening to use his superior supernatural powers to deal harshly with the Jola witches and wizards of the village. The casualties included a young Mandinka woman who was forced by the President's witch doctors to drink a concoction, which led to her death. They included a group of old and sick Fula women, thrown into the back of a truck and forced to report to Kanilai, accused of witchcraft. They included an old Jola community leader who died in humiliation, after he was forced to drink the substance that killed the young Mandingo woman. I remember three days in the life of this old man; the day he shocked me by telling me that he would die for me if necessary; the day he made fun of himself by trying to recite one of the shortest surat from the Qur'an which he said he would but could not; and the miserable afternoon when I sat with him on a mat in my little round bungalow, built on the land he had given me. His voice cracked, at the point of tears that afternoon: "They said I ate my own son (another Lamin), the police man!!"
A message from a name
This village has a very special message for Jammeh, the understanding and acceptance of which he and The Gambia can benefit from. It is a message embedded in language and culture, which together with politics and environment, universally differentiate one ethnic group from another, though only superficially, as one human "tribe". This messages stems from the Call of that human "tribe", the universal Call called "greetings". Through the Jola name of its founders, the village is calling out to the President, a Jola, through all the names the President loves to be called by (Dr, Sheikh, Professor, Babili Mansa, etc.). This neighbor of Kanilai is calling and is called:
Isoomut jaat mambu teyto or for short: Sintet.
Sintet, Mr President, as you can tell from the above, means:
'If things are not sweet today, please leave!"
In other words:
"If there is no peace today, please go!"
The King Of Bechuanaland And Jammeh's Volte-Face In The Gambia
Dr Karamo NM Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 10, December 16, 2016
The King of Bechuanaland
The King of Bechuanaland was very oppressive and suppressive, in short brutal. He killed his subjects, took their properties and did whatever else he wished to them. They got fed up with him and plotted to get rid of him. Enough was enough! A group of citizens got together secretly to decide how to go about it. They flung around all types of violent ideas. Some wanted to assassinate him, some wanted to poison him, some wanted to launch guerrilla warfare against his disorganized and weak army, others wanted to kidnap him. A lame man sitting at a corner of the room during the meeting raised his hand and said calmly, "I have a better idea!"
"What can you do?" Someone tried to make fun of him. "Lead us in a battle against him?"
"Let him speak," another intervened.
"Find out what are the three things he likes the most and come back to me," he requested.
The men did their research through the close associates of the King who did not like him, although they always pretended to, because of fear, vested interest, or both. These associates carried out the King's dirty orders. They clapped for him whenever he spoke in public, even when, as almost always, he spoke rubbish. He had no respect for them. Nevertheless, they sang his praises until the day he got rid of them - one way or the other. Then the lucky ones, who managed to flee, sought sanctuary in other kingdoms. From their safe abodes they hurled insults at their former boss, forgetting that they once sang songs for him to dance to.
The people of Bechuanaland called these former supporters of the King "the weather men", because of their abilities to change their colors. The King himself made fun of them: "Look at you, opportunists! There is no shortage of people like you in this kingdom. I can change you like my dirty socks!" Despite these insults, they never resigned. Scholars, lawyers, army generals and men old enough to be the King's father were among "the weather men". They all called him "Our Father Who art on Earth!".
The conspirators met again and a report was given to the lame man: the King loved meat, gold and to be flattered. "OK," he said," we will send a delegation to him from all parts of the kingdom."
The delegation went to His Oppressive Royal Highness. They took a lot of gold and a herd of fat cows for him. They showered him with praises and told him he was the best of his lineage in a thousand years who ruled their land. Although he was a coward who never saw the sight of a battle, they called him the Conqueror of the Conquerors! Although he could hardly read and write, they called him the Scholar of the Scholars. They offered to give him every year 1000 fat cows and a weight of gold equivalent to his own weight.
The King had never felt so good. However, he had one problem and a rather big one too; he was a small man with little weight. In order to get more of his favorite toy (gold) he had to do a lot more eating than he has ever done in his life. So he ate and ate and ate! Within a year he gained so much weight that he could hardly be recognized. In fact, as the months passed by, the elders started to get worried about their ability to find enough gold to match his weight! When they finally got to the end of the first year there was relief and a big celebration in the kingdom as the cows were herded into the city and the servants carried the gold to the throne. Before the end of the third year, the King had become so fat that he suffered a heart attack and died.
The morals of this story, which I wrote for the first time on October 21st, 2016, are obvious and several. Power and greed can blind, wisdom is stronger than force and oppressors or bullies are often weaker than they appear.
Memories of Addis Ababa
When I tried to publish the story on my website in October, my editors (family and friends) advised me not to, because someone in The Gambia might think I was referring to him. I relented, but their concern gave me an idea to write to His Excellency, my President, Sheikh and Babili Mansa Dr Jammeh, confidentially, to remind him of a conversation I had with him at the Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, only a year after the coup on July 22nd, 1994. About two months before the coup, I had been privileged to meet, in a palace close to the Ghion, the fine gentleman whom Jammeh had overthrown (Sir Dawda Jawara).
The palace had been inhabited by Emperor Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah. He was overthrown by Lt. Colonel Mengistu in 1974, died and was buried under the floor of a lavatory in 1995. His lions and golden forks and knives were still lying in the palace at the time of my visit. Few people in this world have the opportunity to closely perceive the history of so many fallen (and yet to fall) African leaders in such a small area, within such a short period of time, as I did in Addis in July 1995.
I was taken to Selassie's palace by another fine gentleman, also a Minister and an uncle (B.B. Dabo), a man I have always appreciated and respected. One of the Emperor's most famous quotes is: "It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked". How sadly still true, in spite of a modern world with educated, knowledgeable and sophisticated humans in an internet-age!
A 10-year old child today, in The Gambia and the rest of the world, can own a laptop and have access to information about almost everything, the totality of which the whole world did not possess only three times his age ago. The purpose of knowledge is to make life better for ourselves and others in this world and (for those of us who believe in God) the hereafter. If, in spite of all the knowledge that we have today, in The Gambia and the rest of the world, the animals are still ahead of us in compassion, then maybe we should think of calling the animals humans and ourselves animals, because compassion makes us truly human and humane. In any situation in which our actions can hurt others, especially when we have the upper hand or believe we have the right to hurt, compassion can be the strongest basis for voluntary compromise if we are truly human and humane.
Jammeh was surrounded in Addis Ababa by young men and women from my high school or village and other contemporaries who had known me because of my student activities at high school. There were also older compatriots from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU, now AU), both of which I have worked for.
In an attempt to encourage me to join the new head of state's government, I was given unequalled attention by the visitors. Jammeh was warmly welcomed by my colleagues from the UNECA and OAU (one of whom later became his Minister), who also thought I was a natural candidate for a Ministerial position. One night, late, as I ate grilled mutton and watched television with him, I decided to seize the opportunity to advise him to be careful about two dangers: power and wrong advice. He listened with such attention and modesty that I felt that he was a good man, who could be trusted to do good for The Gambia and who would leave after the two-year transition that he had promised.
But there came the bad news whilst I was with him that same night. It was as if a warning to me. As I walked out, one of the aides whispered to me that the Minister of Finance, Koro Ceesay, was killed under mysterious circumstances (on June 23rd). Another told me that Capt. Sadibou Haidara, member of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Party (AFPRC, of which Jammeh was Chairman), had also died, in prison on the 3rd of that fateful month. He and Lt. Sana Sabally had been arrested and accused of an attempted counter coup. Too many deaths for my liking! By the time the delegation left, I had decided not to accept any offer from the new Government, a decision I stood by in spite of subsequent efforts to persuade me, directly or indirectly. However, I decided to continue sending investors and humanitarian organizations to the country, which I had started to do since 1992, during the Jawara Administration.
Power and bad advice corrupt
I met Jammeh again twice during my visits home, the last time in 1999, but he was no more the Chairman I saw in Addis: elders had "begged" him to run for the office of President (as they did with Jawara in 1992 and may do with Barrow in 2019), his weight had changed and, drastically, his tone. It was clear to me that I was the student and he was the confident lecturer who had learnt in office and whom the rustle of leaves on the windows of Ghion hotel would no longer bother. He was President and determined to stay. The dangers of power and bad advice, which I had warned against, seemed to have crept in.
Reports of disappearances, killings, imprisonment, beatings, etc, were increasing. His accolades were also increasing. I sometimes found it difficult to believe that the young man (now referred to as Kebba (the Old Man)), who quietly and humbly listened to me in 1995, from a country where citizens put hadamaya (humanity – in my native Mandinka) before everything else, is the one under whose watch all such terrible things were said to be happening.
In addition to my concern for the safety of my compatriots at home, I began to feel uneasy in the last few years, for the first time in my life, about visiting my own country. I have also never felt a stronger urge to speak. Yet, family and friends advised me: "He is very dangerous. If he can't get you, he may go for your relatives in The Gambia!" Acquiescent, but unhappy that if everyone keeps quiet in the face of wrong goodness will never triumph. In a sad twist, relatives and friends started to be picked by the security forces. They included a cousin of mine and the brother-in-law of one of my nephews. As I was running around to arrange the release on bail of my dear cousin, a brother was picked up. Earlier, in order to avoid arrest, another friend had fled to Senegal, where he died. Although these arrests had nothing to do with their relationship with me, I was quick to learn something – when there is landatambo (excess) in oppression, anyone may become a victim, even the silent.
When there is such landatambo, even the agents of oppression themselves can become victims, because of one reason or another (fear, misinformation, greed, poverty and/or other factors). They may be forced to oppress even their friends, neighbours and relatives, including their spouses, whether they like it or not. I learnt these facts several years ago when at home for another visit and decided to advise someone publicly accused of being the top assassin for Jammeh. He was a security officer who had harmlessly worked under Jawara for many years. I had known him since childhood, so he came willingly when I contacted him through a mutual friend of ours. His Boss had earlier put him under house arrest for several months before releasing and redeploying him.
He drove to me in a black mercedez benz, without a number plate. It was at the time of the maghrib prayer when he arrived. He agreed to pray with me and after the prayer I talked to him about the rumours I have heard. I warned him that "life is too short and one day we will all be accountable for the bad things we have done in this world". He did not deny or accept the rumours, but he told me what he had personally gone through with his Boss. Like Jammeh in Addis, I was astonished at how well he took my advice and how ordinary he seemed in private. "If you don't advise me, I don't know who would," he thanked, informed me that he was sick and left. He died some months later. That was in 2007.
I tried to try my hand with Jammeh last month (November). "It is time to write," I said to my nephew in England and other confidantes. If there was still a potential flare of goodness in him that I thought he had in 1995, as he joked with his entourage and as I sat with him, it might not be too late to spark it. I might be able to get his attention, change his style and start a process of reconciliation and healing in The Gambia. After all, I am an apolitical citizen with no hatred for him and just wanted to advise him in camera and not on camera. There is never any harm in igniting a rusty engine. Like Hercules, I might be able to lift the ugly mountain of unfettered power from someone who had everything that he perhaps never dreamt of.
As Lord Acton puts it, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." How many of us would not behave like Jammeh if we were in his shoes? As history has shown again and again, perhaps his problem is not particular. Perhaps the problem is the weak and ungrateful human being in him who lurks in all of us and which overcomes so many of us each time God's Favour comes to us unexpectedly.
The power of prayer
Surprisingly, even the victims' immediate families told me, "Be careful! Just pray!" They expressed the spirit of The Gambia (prayer), a country where people would lift their hands and pray at every opportunity. I stopped, again. Acquiescent, but steeped in guilt, I decided to now focus on what I believe so many Gambians, better than I, were doing across the nearly 11,000 square kilometers of Gambian territory, a tiny but blessed nation.
"If I have to only pray then I better go to Mecca (because I am good enough on my own, but I am fortunate to live only a couple of hours away by plane from the Holy City) and do it there," I decided. To Mecca I headed, for umrah and prayer for The Gambia. The Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) did say that prayer is the weapon of the believer and this is supported by the Holy Bible.
The elections came on December 1st and miracles happened! On the day before the results were announced, a friend of mine, arguably the most prominent Gambian businessman, asked me: "What do you think?" "Insha Allah," I stressed, "Jammeh would lose, but I cannot predict his reaction or that of the Gambian people." It was just a feeling and nothing more! Or if anything more, it would be the power of Insha Allah from the heart.
President Jammeh did lose to a man very few people knew and the President graciously conceded. I have never been so much interested in Gambian politics. I was glued to the television set (which I rarely watch), as the results of the elections were announced.
I have never felt prouder as a Gambian, as I watched kids singing and dancing in joy! I was proud of my compatriots at home and the united coalition of political parties. I was impressed by Jammeh's excellent speech as a Muslim and a democrat, demonstrating to the world that there is no conflict between the two and falsifying criticisms that he is neither. The concession helped him to wrestle his enemies to the ground with incredible feat and pave his way to the positive annals of The Gambia and Gambians. I was happy for everyone. الحمد لله!
I arrived in Abidjan, the next day, for a business trip. I flashed my passport in front of the immigration officer who processed my papers at the airport. He smiled, saying "Felicitations!" Success is sweet, even if your role is only to pray!
Too good to be true?
Is it all or partly too good to be true? Jammeh shocked Gambians, or most, on December 9th. Upon second thought, he could not believe that he has lost. His change of mind was an expression of the disbelief and fear of what lay ahead of him. He must have watched and/ or listened to reports of his pictures being torn and soldiers celebrating with civilians. Most terrifying for him must have been the pictures and videos of atrocities, such as the charred body of Ceesay, and the calls for him to be handed over to his former Justice Minister at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ordinary Gambians had reason to celebrate euphorically, but I think that statements of a few of the coalition leaders should have been better calculated, after Jammeh's unexpected concession. The Gambia is now flung into confusion and the risk of civil conflict, with a dangerous ethnic dimension. Jammeh has allowed his enemies to rise over him again and historians are rewriting the annals. I better turn my passport upside down on my way out at Abidjan Airport!!
Hadamaya and "tribalism"
What can we do? As someone who has had several political opportunities since high school, but turned down all of them, and as a Catholic-educated Gambian, Muslim, Mandingo with a Fula base, from three regions (grandfather from Niumi, parents from Kiang, born in Foni), I feel a sense of objectivity about nation, "tribe", religion and politics, which many compatriots may not have. It is for this reason, that I have finally decided to dip my finger into Gambian politics as our nation stands at historical and political crossroads.
Before any attempt to answer the question of what is doable, it would be honest to admit that Jammeh's 22-year rule has destabilized the traditional Gambian hadamaya, across the board. Jammeh did so through an amorphous type of relatively quiet violence the like of which had never been seen in The Gambia before. I doubt if there is any Gambian family (even his strongest supporters) who has not heard the sound of his whip at least once. I doubt if there are many. Even as a distant observer, it appeared to me that the biggest victims were those closest to him, including Jolas, army and intelligence officers and his Ministers. This is why even the good things he has done are ignored by his critics and may be subjected to reversal after his rule. This is also why I think it would not be easy to find very many Gambians who would sincerely defend him out of love instead of fear.
Hadamaya was also struck at the core through the exaggeration of "tribalism", which was never a serious issue in The Gambia before Jammeh. However, his "tribal" tirades against Mandingos were both of his making (in order to mask his oppression of other ethnic groups (including his fellow Jolas)) as well as those of some of my fellow Mandingos who have fallen into his trap or into whose trap he has fallen. I have in recent years heard some non-Jolas describe him scornfully as "a Jola President!" Ironically, I have also heard a Jola describe him the same way! The best statement I have heard from a Gambian with regard to Yahya's "tribal" ploys was from a Jola civil servant who was once stranded in my house in Accra: "If he puts us in the limelight whilst he rules, he would put us in danger the day he leaves".
Jammeh may not be a "tribalist" by conviction, but someone who uses "tribalism" for political expediency. He proudly exposed his Mandinka side to me in Addis, including (if I remember rightly), the time he spent in Kiang, his ability to speak the language, and telling "Mbemba (a Sarahule) that Sarahules are Mandingos!" He quoted the Holy Qur'an to me in Mandinka and the only languages I could remember being spoken around him were English and Mandinka. So why did he publicly threaten to exterminate Mandingos? Why did he publicly choose "hell instead of a Mandingo Government in The Gambia"? So how did things go so wrong that the UN had to warn him in June 2016 about the genocidal implications of his anti-Mandingo threats? The answer is not as complicated as you may think. As Bob Dylan's famous 1962 song goes, "the answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind" — power and bad advice!
Who is not guilty?
It is also essential to recognize that every community, in every corner of The Gambia, has accumulated guilt during Jammeh's 22-year rule. Some of us are guilty of being silent, some because they voluntarily work for him in positions of responsibility (or did so at one time or the other) and others because they support (or did so at one time or the other) his policies, either in public or private. The statistics are easy to compile; just look at the official list of Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Directors and army officers since 1994 or simply look at the old editions of The Daily Observer and other local papers. The old tapes and videos of GRTS would be revealing too. For those who wish to be more thorough on the violence side, please look at the list of political prisoners, killings, arrests, etc, and compile the names, in each case, of those who actually carried out the orders, if you can.
The results would reveal what should be obvious: Jammeh's supporters, past and present, can be found in all Gambian communities from Banjul to Basse, Cape to Cairo, York to New York. If we have to go for the truth, which is our right, then we must go for the full truth and not half-truths and everyone should honestly ask himself/herself: "Did I ever do anything wrong for Jammeh or condone anything that he did wrong?" Some terrible things have indeed happened in mainland Africa's smallest country for 22 years! In a country of less than two million (the fifth smallest on the mainland), with intense social interaction, where most people know each other or are related directly or indirectly, the best way for reconciliation is not to rush and point fingers. If you point one finger to someone, the rest may be pointing at yourself and others close to you.
What can we do?
Based on the above, I would, first and foremost, advise that "tribalism" must never be tolerated in The Gambia. No one can claim to be better than Jammeh if he hurls a "tribalistic" insult at you and you hurl it back at "the Jolas". We should never hound the Jolas, in particular, because we do not want to prove Jammeh right and because the army is still in their hands. Similarly, no one can be better than Jammeh if you preach the violence that you accuse him of. The only way to revive the Gambian culture of accommodation and tolerance is to judge wrong doers as individuals rather than tribes or regions and, even better, to forgive each other as much as possible. Gambians must not forget Mandela so soon. We must not forget that Mandela suffered longer than the length of Jammeh's rule, under rulers truly Bechuanan to blacks.
Secondly, military intervention must be avoided as much as possible. Senegal seems keen to intervene militarily. Many Gambians are angrily urging them to do so, quickly, forgetting the history of Senegalese intervention in the Gambia (1981, when The Gambia did not have an army) and Guinea-Bissau (1998, when Senegal was accompanied by Guinea). The Senegalese are our brothers and sisters and they should be our first port of call when we are in trouble. However, Senegal has very serious scores to settle with Jammeh and the rebels of Casamance, which may serve as strong motivations for the barrel of the gun. Abundant historical and contemporary evidence show that military intervention is always easier than the management of its consequences.
As I write this article on December 13th, a part of my conscience is pulling me away from The Gambia, our homeland. I can hear the cry of thousands of voices, the soft innocent voices of children I do not know. They make me feel like forgetting my own problems in our beloved Gambia and to start weeping in empathy for those little angels who could have been Gambians. They are little Syrian children, some (according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)) unaccompanied, trapped in the rubble of buildings in Aleppo as bombs rained on them. As these horrified children weep, four West African heads of state take off in their plane from The Gambia, empty-handed, after unsuccessful negotiations with Jammeh. If he did not listen to them would he have listened to me, even if I had spoken or written? If Jammeh and the advocates of military intervention cannot hear the voices of the children of Aleppo would they hear mine?
Finally, what should Jammeh's fate be? I have told friends several times not to worry about or feel sorry for The Gambia. I always believe that The Gambia would emerge in one piece, stronger, from the experience of the Jammeh era. Instead, we should all be saddened and sorry for all those who have been killed, unfairly imprisoned and severely hurt in other ways during the Jammeh era. I am also sorry for the Kebba Jammeh, a young man overwhelmed by political power and stained with so many lifelong accusations, especially those of bloodshed. I would not like to be in his shoes and wish he was not in his! Those who have the direct right to forgive or not forgive him are his victims. However, in order to maintain or revive the rule of law, we have to entrust the newly elected government with the administration of this issue on their behalf and on behalf of our nation. Jammeh would have done such a great service for himself if he had not revoked his own decision. Beware of power and bad advice!
Optimistic about the future
As I write this modest and critically objective contribution, Gambians remain very uncertain about Jammeh and many are terrified at the possibility that he will cling to power by force. A friend of mine told me again, "Please hold on! Wait until he goes before you publish this article!" This time I disagreed! I want all Gambians to read this article. My hope is that it will soften the hearts of all sides, our hearts, towards each other during these challenging times, so that we do not descend into conflict.
Negotiations are ongoing under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Other efforts, we may or may not be aware of, are taking place. They offer chances for Jammeh to exit, peacefully. I am optimistic that, Insha Allah, he would eventually realize that digging in his heels may be hastening what I believe he is trying to avoid (the ICC) and what he is trying to seek (amnesty). I sincerely hope that he would take the opportunity to give himself and The Gambia a smooth transition to the third republic. The outcome of the 2016 election was divine and Gambians should continue to use prayer, patience and wisdom rather than violence to reach the promising future that lies ahead of us.
THE ARAB AND THE JEWDr Karamo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.9, May 26, 2016
In the old days, Arab and Moorish traders used to travel on camel backs from Mauritania to Fez, Morocco, to buy carpets from Jewish merchants who inhabited the Jewish quarters of the ancient city. A one-way expedition took the caravans two to three months. One day Mohamed, a Mauritanian trader, bought carpets from a Jew. He paid him and left for home. Halfway through the desert, he put his hand in one of his pockets and found money that did not belong to him. After some confusion, he realized that the Jewish trader had made a mistake by giving him back more change than he should have.
Months later, the Jewish trader saw a nomad walk into his shop in great haste.
"Salaam!" said the Arab, putting his hand in his pocket, taking out money and putting it into the pocket of the Jew.
"Shalom!" said the Jew. "What is this for?"
"Something which made me unable to sleep for six months. You made a mistake when I bought carpets from you the last time. This is your balance!"
The Jew did not even recognize Mohamed's face. He was so impressed by his honesty that he decided to give as many carpets as Mohamed wanted or did not want, interest-free, payable whenever Mohammed wanted to. The business relationship between them lasted a life time and Mohamed and his family became one of the biggest carpet traders across the stretches of the Sahara.
MORALE: Honesty pays and must have no boundaries
Told by Memoud, Nouakchott, Mauritania, 2015.
SIXTY-FIVE MINUTES WITH AN ARAB BILLIONAIREDr Karamo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.8, February 9, 2016
When our cleaner was going for umrah this year, she called her brother and informed him. "Thanks God," said her brother, very happily. "Please don't forget to pray for me!"
"I won't," she assured him.
"What will you pray for?"
"I will pray for you to get long life, good health, a good wife..."
"No, stop! Just pray for only one thing for me - to become a millionaire!"
On December 28, 2015, I was taken by a friend for an unexpected meeting with a man who is more than a millionaire, more than the dream of most people. The meeting was not planned in a manner one would have expected in order to meet such a personality. I was simply told by my friend, "He said we should go anytime after 11am to have lunch with him." I agreed hesitantly and told him on the way that I would discuss what to discuss when the proof of the pudding came to the eating.
The first signs were encouraging. The security guard on the ground floor recognized my friend when he saw him and so did the personal assistant of the man I was being taken to meet. It was time to discuss what to discuss.
After waiting in the reception for a while, because our host was in another meeting, we were ushered by the personal assistant. There was the man at his desk -- grey-hair, grey beard, with a serious but brightly receptive face. That was the second time I saw him. His name is Abdallah Al Ghurair, Sheikh Abdallah al Ghurair. The first time I saw him was only in a newspaper or internet article in July, 2015, when he announced that he would give a third of his billions to charity. According to Forbes, his net worth in 2015 was $6.1 billion; "much more," said my friend. Honesty, I have never heard of him or remember hearing of him before, although I knew his bank (Mashreq), run by his son, Abdul Aziz, former Speaker of the UAE Parliament. He is often confused with or mistaken for his elder brother, Saif, another billionaire.
The welcome was very warm, right from the beginning. He repeatedly apologized for keeping me waiting because of his earlier meeting. When my friend said, in his introductions, that I work for a Canadian company, the Sheikh told us how, in his younger days, he travelled by ship from Japan to Vancouver. Then I told him where in Africa I hailed from and about my own nomadic life over the last 33 years.
I have spent private moments with two billionaires before, both of whom treated me with unexpected modesty. I flew with one. The other walked with me in the streets of Geneva and showed me where to shop for my family, although when he walked away in one direction, the prices drove me away in the opposite! Both have helped me to learn to be impressed with personality rather than money. The octogenarian Sheikh Abdullah has helped me to make another step in understanding life and money.
He told me that his journey by sea from Japan to Canada took about 22 days. I have experienced every major mode of transportation in this world, including what I heard someone once describe as "number 11" or "the double one" (our two feet!). Each mode has its specific characteristic: the most stable and secure is the "number 11", a camel the most shaky, a donkey the most unstable, a car the most reckless, a plane the most helpless, a motor bike the most risky, a train the most reassuring and a ship the most patient. I sometimes wish the world would return to "ship speed" -- imagine standing on the edge of a ship in the middle of the ocean, looking at the blue waters and nothing else. Imagine thinking about what you can only imagine (your destination, your family and your business), as the ship slowly ploughs through waves knocking it from all directions. Travelling in a ship teaches or should teach us an essential ingredient of life -- patience. With patience, the continuing destruction of ourselves, of each other and of our world would be significantly reduced. Patience is even a key to heaven; as stated in the Holy Qur'an: "Truly, Allah is with the patient".
The Sheikh called his grandson and, as he walked in, he directed him to shake hands and greet us one by one, very politely. He asked him to bring two large paper bags, which contained gifts, which he said were for our families.
After the meeting, he insisted that we have lunch before leaving and I had to apologize a number of times that I could not, that day, before he gave up. On our way out, he asked some of his employees to step out of the elevator so that my friend and I could get into it, when it started to groan under our weight. Inside, appreciative of his kind attention, I wondered what could I give an 86-year old billionaire. I turned to him and said, "Sheikh, may Allah, the Almighty God, Grant you many more years in excellent health!"
The answer was completely unexpected and it was what I considered my gift from the meeting. Untouchable and invisible, but it was more material to me than the beautiful gifts to my family.
"Shoukran, " he responded calmly, " but "Kullu mann alayha faan...."
"Wa Yabaqa Wagihu Rabbika Dhal Jalaali Wal Ikraam"! I completed the verses for him. They are from the most beautiful chapter to listen to in the Holy Qur'an, even if one does not understand Arabic (Chapter 55, Verse 26-27). The Chapter is named after God, Himself, and is called "The Most Gracious".
He shook our hands and bade us farewell. As he drove away in the latest model of the Swedish manufactured Maybach S600, I stood on the steps of the building in the Centre named after his family in Dubai, impressed by two questions I did not have to look for the answers to: "How many people in this world would like to be him, because of his wealth? How many people with his wealth would like to live forever?"
THE FROG AND THE SNAKEDr Karamo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.7 , November 2, 2015
A frog and a snake used to go for daily walks together. After a long period of doing so, the frog said to the snake that he was fed up with the snake always wriggling and wiggling along the way. "Why can't you walk straight, " asked the frog?"
"Sorry, I will try to be straight tomorrow," the snake promised. It never happened. The question continued, the answer remained the same, but the snake never changed. Then came the day when the frog waited for his friend to start their daily exercise, but the snake never turned up. The frog went looking for him and found him dead along the way, stretched out on the ground. "Straight at last," said the frog, "but only after death!"
MORALE: Old habits die hard!
Told by: Noor Mohamed Khan, Pakistani driver, October 2015, Sharjah, UAE
WELCOME TO DUBAI: Reflections of Beauty and Mortality from a Personal ExperienceDr Karamo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 6, June 28, 2015
In the scorching summer heat of Dubai, on Sunday, September 7th, 2014, at about noon, my 1 4-year old son, Kemo, our sleeping driver, Abdul Razzaq, and I were seated in a parked Lexus outside the French International High School (Georges Pompidou). Kemo had been accepted at the school and it was his first day. We were completely off the road when it happened; a terrifying screeching of tyres on the tarmac, then a massive "bang!!" I felt my teeth crushing each other, my head and neck lurching forward and a sharp pain in my lower back. Our car dropped on the sandy roadside, there was the smell of fuel and people running from everywhere to help.
Our car, parked 10-12 metres away from the road, was hit behind by what Adbul Razzaq later described as a "200-km an hour speeding 4 by 4", driven by a 20-year old Emirati, in the company of his friends. Sympathetic people, including the high school's doctor and Vice Principal, surrounded us. I heard the siren of an ambulance and in about twenty minutes I was on a stretcher in the back of it. Kemo, Abdul Razzaq, a male Egyptian and a female Filipino (paramedics) sat beside me. It was the first time I was on a stretcher in an ambulance. The attention was flattering, but the experience was shattering. Accidents, like foreigners, always seem to be so far away, until they land on our doorsteps.
I looked at Kemo and he looked at me. The message was clear: "I can do nothing for you and you can do nothing for me, even as father and son!" He was very calm and assured the paramedics that he was fine and did not need a stretcher. I have never been prouder of him!
We were taken to Al Baraha Hospital, a long ride of about 40 minutes not because of the distance, but of the traffic. Alhamdu Lillah (Thanks to the Almighty God), we were in a condition to survive the time! As I lay on the stretcher I felt completely helpless. I could feel the movement of the car and the discomfort in my neck, but had no idea where we were. I prayed for and thought about myself and others. I thought about the thousands of accident victims around the world who might be in much worse conditions than I was. I thought about those in the underdeveloped countries with poor medical services and poorly equipped hospitals. Even with Dubai's efficient ambulance services it still took about 40 minutes to get to the hospital and 40 minutes is much more than enough time to die. I prayed and thought. No one feels closer to God than one in the face of death. No one calls on God faster than someone who steps on fire by mistake! Accidents are terrible and nothing humbles more than them. A rich man feels pain just as a poor man does. A man feels it just as a woman does. Like the colour of our blood, pain is the same in every human being.
I had a "grandfather" (in the African sense), a younger brother of my grandmother from my mother's side. He was a very brave and serious man. We became very close friends in his old age. One day I called him in a village dispensary where he was admitted, because of a wound he had not very long before he departed from this world. "You are a brave man!" I said, trying to console him. "There is no bravery in pain," he responded, frankly.
A lady whose first and last names and lifestyle symbolize beauty and pleasure proved my "grandfather" right in June, 2015, when the plane she was inside of during an aerial tour of Dubai suddenly dived toward the ground in a shocking prank by Ramez Galal, an Egyptian actor. She screamed and wept in distress and desperation, repeatedly calling out to God. Paris Hilton was convinced that she was going to die, as passengers were thrown off the plane in parachutes. As people watched the video on YouTube, some in amusement and others in disgust, her reaction showed that she was human, just like any of us. Pain and fear are like identical twins, sometimes Siamese.
The Plane that carried Paris
Abdul Razzaq and Kemo were on their feet. They were examined and immediately certified to be in good shape. A number of nurses and medical assistants came to look at me in the intensive care unit. A doctor came, examined me and left; I could see the relief on his face: ''I'm sorry we are very busy now, but I will come back.'' He never did and I was not surprised, because I saw it in his face that he had more serious cases to worry about. Another doctor came (female), asked some questions about how I was feeling. I narrated the experience, perhaps said a bit more than she needed, more actively than she expected. She left too. I could feel the sense of relief all around me: ''This patient's mouth shows that we can take care of others first.'' Alhamdu Lillah!
I was moved into another room where a medical assistant came and cleaned the cut in my lower back and gave me an injection against tetanus. I rested a while and he came back and said I could leave. I picked up my medical report and left. As we drove away, in another car Abdul Razzaq quickly organized, I felt a sense of dislike for''four-wheelers'' that I never before had in my life. I was a bit angry also, because I heard some people saying that the young Emirati who hit us did not care. They reported that his car was quickly removed from the road and the police seemed to be afraid of him. I heard them saying that he was perhaps from a powerful family. "Why wasn't he arrested?" they asked. "He could have killed them!"
Source: Gulf News, Thurs, Sept 11, 2014.
In January, 2015 (I forgot the exact date), I was in a taxi from the airport at night when the Pakistani driver came to a speed bump and had to suddenly slow down. We were hit from behind, by a Jordanian driver speeding the same way as my driver. Rather than being sorry, my driver found it amusing that the Jordanian started jumping up and down like a headless chicken, repeating ''Oh sorry! I'm so sorry!''. Deliberately oblivious of the fact that he had not been driving with sufficient attention himself and confident that the law was on his side, he quickly called the police. He got another taxi for me and, exhausted and sleepy, I agreed to leave as the hit was light and I was in good form. Alhamdu Lillah!
Again, yes again it happened! If I was a superstitious man I would not be in this country anymore; a colleague of mine told me that three is one time too many! On April 8th, 2015, at about 21h30, returning from a meeting in Abu Dhabi, it happened again. Almost entering Sharjah, Abdul Razzaz this time became the guilty party. He hit the car in front of us in slow but heavy traffic on Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Road. The car behind us was speeding and it hit us hard. I was seated at the back without the seatbelt around me (Never ignore a seatbelt again!!). I was flung on to the seat in front of me and I had a soft crack in my neck as my head hit the seat. I also felt an abrasion in my lower leg. The cracking sound concerned me, so I decided to stay in the car. In the confusion, the driver of the car that hit us fled from the scene. Within minutes the police came and they called an ambulance and I was on a stretcher again, this time to Rasheed Hospital in Dubai. Rasheed is a very clean hospital with excellent services. Broken down "human engines" could be seen everywhere. I saw a child with a bandaged hand. An Asian woman sat in the ladies' waiting area crying, because of her pain or that of someone near and dear. A big and strong Arab man lay on a mobile bed, immobile. A man was crying out loud in an intensive care room. Welcome to the side of life that is missing from the beautiful streets outside, where happy people, of almost every nationality in this globe, were busy at work, celebration and entertainment. Dubai welcomes all and it is one of the most vibrant and organized cities in the world. This is a city where hardly anyone feels foreign as almost everyone is foreign. Welcome to Dubai, the city of wide roads, open arms but dangerous drivers.
As I lay on an impeccably clean bed in an equally clean room, waiting to be called to see the doctor, I was attended to by very friendly and highly motivated young men and women, mostly from or near India and the Philippines. These industrious men and women like Dubai and their jobs and make the clinics and hospitals in the Emirate some of the finest in the world. The white shiny room and the smiles of the young nurses brought to my memory a little story once narrated to me by a Sudanese friend of mine, Mohamed Abdul Hafeeze. He told me about an old Sudanese man who went for hajj. The heat and fatigue of Mecca became too much for him one day and he collapsed. He woke up in a very clean and beautiful hospital room, on a very comfortable bed. He saw what I believed was similar to what I was seeing, but without the male nurses. He looked at the female nurses at his bedside, all in white, smiling! He had never seen anything so pleasing and he had no doubt that he had left this world for a better place -- paradise! "Promise fulfilled!" he cried with joy. "A Lord's promise fulfilled!" Unfortunately, he turned around too soon and saw his poor wife, seated at a corner, tired, sobbing, sleepless and not very fancily dressed. "Oh Awa! Oh Awa!" he uttered in disappointment, "so ... they brought you here too?"
After about three hours, X-ray and CT scanning, the meticulous Palestinian or Jordanian doctor certified that my neck and spine were intact. He gave me pain killers and a neck collar, in case I needed them. I left, in another car again quickly organized by my Indian driver and friend Abdul Razzaq. If I was superstitious I would never have hired him again.
My Chairman in Vancouver, B.C., has advised that I get a Hummer. My CEO in Coventry, England, has gone further to recommend an armour-plated car! Jokes, but in reality a Hummer (although I have never been impressed by its shape!) might not be a bad idea!
According to the Interior Ministry of the UAE, road accidents killed 651 people in the Emirates in 2013, an average of 6.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest traffic related death rates in the world. These were the result of 5,124 accidents that resulted in the injury of 7,743 people. The casualties in 2013 were above the 628 deaths recorded in 2012 but below the record high number of 720 in 2011. Many of the victims were pedestrians on roads passing through residential areas: the total number of run-over accidents on these roads were 2,017 in 2012 and 1,209 in 2013.
According to the Director-General of the Traffic Coordination Department of the Ministry, Brigadier Gaith Al Zaabi, the main causes of the road mishaps are (in order of importance): sudden lane changes, misjudgment of road users, failure to leave sufficient distance between vehicles, lack of attention, speeding, entering the road before it is clear, failure to comply with the rules of the lane, running the red light, driving under the influence of alcohol and failure to give priority to pedestrians.
A few days later when I accompanied Abdul Razzaq to a police station, I got into a conversation with a local gentleman I found there. He laughed about an idea I was toying with - suing the driver who hit us.
He had his own story to tell: one day a woman without a licence drove into his parked car, outside his house, whilst he was fast asleep. He narrated his experience going back and forth to court and asked me to thank the Almighty God that I was fine! Alhamdu Lillah!
Discouraged but not dissuaded, I turned to Abdul Razzaq who was trying to draw my attention to a young man who just walked in. "This is the man who is hit! He is here!!" he said, emotionally.
"Great!" I said, "I have found a partner with whom to sue the culprit." There was a second car that was also hit by the car which struck us. This was the driver, I thought! Just whom I needed. I looked at him. He did not look like the kind of troublemaker or partner you need on your side when you want to face an enemy. He looked at me and I realized that he recognized me when he said: "I am glad you are fine sir. My tyre burst and I was trying to avoid the kids." I was somewhat confused, but it quickly occurred to me that because Abdul Razzaq spoke Shakespearean English he actually meant the opposite of what he had said: "This is the man who hit us!!" I think that there is a literary terminology for such proficiency, which I learnt at High School, but I have forgotten it for now! Time flies and memories lapse.
This young man looked anything but a spoiled and arrogant kid. He looked timid and remorseful to me. "I forgive you," I told him. "You are not whom I expected." I gave him a few words of wisdom and my business card and left. I got an email message from him the next day, "I appreciate the advice that was given by you, again I am sorry for what happened."
I am a believer in the vulnerability of the human being. In spite of our dynamism and determination, our achievements and atrocities, which have led to strides far and wide, the unpredictability of life makes man not too much more durable than a chicken or not always too much more durable than a chicken. Yes, we are stronger than a chicken, much more, but, like a fowl, in reality we have very little control over what falls on us and when. Whilst, on one hand, we do see many a man or woman emerge in one piece from fires, sinking ships, crashed planes, etc., on the other hand, we hardly notice the ugly head of our vulnerability, unless it touches us (or someone close), through, for examples, a heart attack, an unexpected accident or a sudden natural disaster. Such incidents do not always have to be Tsunami scale or even close to it; no, they include a sore throat or a toothache and malaria from the bite of a tiny mosquito we can hardly see.
I have climbed mountains that I could have easily fallen from and broken my legs, waist, back or all and more; swam in seas I could have easily drowned in. Many a friend, relative and colleague have left this world at a time when they never thought they would; some were planning marriages, some travels, some businesses, etc. They included one head of state and one billionaire, both of whom treated me with kindness. There is never a shortage in supply of the causes of death and nothing is more irresistible than them. That is why we never meet anyone who is living forever. This is life.
My younger sister, Mama, sometimes comes up with great statements of wisdom. One of them is: "Do not make enemies, because life is short and death is sudden!" Her reasoning is that if you make an enemy and he/she dies before you could make peace, the guilty conscience would stay with you forever. I agree with her simple and accommodating attitude towards all; this attitude is prevalent in our family and among all peace loving-people. However, in this extremely materialistic and power-hungry world that we live in today, it is very easy to make enemies, even if you do not want to. I have seen this in all the numerous places I have been fortunate to work, live and/or visit in four continents of the world. Making enemies over money and power, in particular, has become almost as easy and common as drinking water and it is pitiful that most people would perhaps rejoice at the death of an enemy than regret making peace with him/her before he/she leaves this world.
The unexpected always happens in life and it is more unpredictable than the weather, obviously, and that is why it is called the unexpected. We can never forecast it, although we can, and do, try to. Knowing this should motivate us to be always good to each other, in readiness for a sudden farewell. As a traveler all my life, I have discovered that the best handshake, hug, smile, in short the best behavior, is often when we are saying "good-bye!". Our vulnerability and the unpredictability of life should make us modest and, in particular, cautiously optimistic about what we can. Optimism with regard to our abilities is a desirable quality but it creates a sense of eternity and control which can also be extremely elusive and delusive in its outcomes. Whilst essential for happiness and achievement, such optimism is sometimes used to fan a false sense of an all-able, non-fictional Superman: ''You can do it" instead of ''You can try'' or ''You will succeed'' instead of "You may succeed". In reality, the only things we have control over are our intentions and efforts. Even a tall man with my credentials or better, can be flung on to a car seat like a loaf of bread and carried on a stretcher like a corpse!
On June 27th, 2015, I was walking past a charity post outside Dubai when I saw a man getting rid of two big cartons. I stopped to greet him. The boxes were full of books, mainly; religious ones as well as secular publications such as Encyclopedias, books on consumer behavior, children's stories such as "Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus" and "Alice in Wonderland" and films and magazines with the pictures of beautiful ladies and handsome men on the covers. There were wet wipes (the sign of a baby) and a card with "Happy Birthday Dear Daughter", signed "Mama and Abba". The collection of publications, diaries, notebooks, stationery and related belongings were being dumped, with the hope that it would reach the needy somewhere. A collection once so personal and so precious! The owner (Pakistani) was born at the end of the 1970's, got married in the early 2000's, had a degree in economics and exited life through an illness.
As I walked away I prayed for the deceased and asked myself, "Why do we kill each other in wars and other forms of violence when we will all end up dying anyway? Where can I find a poor man to give a dollar to? Where can I find a sick man to offer a drug to? Where can I find an orphan to scratch the head of? Where can I find a neighbor to invite for a meal? Where can I find an enemy to make peace with?"
More than anything else, the accidents in Dubai have reinforced in me a golden phrase, which, unfortunately, abuse has eroded to a joke, but which should guide all facets of our aspirations, actions and achievements: Insha Allah (God Willing/If God Wills)! For those who believe in God, understand its real meaning and say it from their hearts, rather than from the tongues or only their tongues, Insha Allah becomes, or should become, the real motivational guide, the best inspiration to act, succeed and do good. This is because, as a Christian African-American nurse (Amber Vinson, who survived an Ebola infection in Liberia, whilst thousands succumbed) put it: "With God anything is possible!"
Our lame Lexus in the sand
EBOLA: THE BITE ON LIVES, BUSINESS AND ECONOMIESDr Karamo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.5 , November 11, 2014
According to the African Development Bank, in 2013 Africa continued to defy the global economic slowdown with growth in sub-Saharan Africa posted at 5 percent (including South Africa) and about 6 percent (excluding South Africa). West Africa, with a growth rate of 7 percent (same as the year before), was the gold medalist among all the subregions, including North Africa. In March 2014, a little known disease started to pose a very serious threat to that enviable position.
Last September, after a series of very positive electronic and telephone exchanges and a meeting in Burj Al Arab in Dubai, an Australian company that was keenly considering the possibility of investing in a mining project in Mauritania suddenly developed cold feet. The reason, according to their Chairman, an Africa-optimist with very long experience in the continent, was that no one was excited about West Africa anymore : the cause -- Ebola! Australian geologists were resigning their jobs and returning home and there were rumours of an Ebola case in Queensland.
Shortly, after this decision, another Australian investor who was looking at a project in the Sudan sent me a message: "I have decided to look a bit closer to home". The fear of Ebola was greater than the distance from the Sudan to West Africa!
By the end of October , seven months after the first announcement of the outbreak, Ebola had claimed 1018 lives in Guinea, 2,413 in Liberia and 1510 in Sierra Leone. Isolated cases were reported in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and the US.
Throughout our history, mankind has been afflicted by one epidemic or the other. Since the second part of the last century we have been subjected to a record number of universalized diseases (such as malaria, cancer, AIDS and now Ebola), which have spread at incredible speed across boundaries. This is because while, on one hand, technology has reached heights of advancement never seen before, on the other hand capitalism, poverty, population pressure and many other challenges associated with modern development have made us vulnerable to new forms of diseases.
More than the much-feared, but now known, diseases of malaria, cancer and AIDS, for examples, the obscure Ebola strikes terror even from its very African-sounding name! The disease is relatively new (although first identified in 1976) and sounds very much like another terror from the jungle, in a continent that is unfairly regarded as the home of deadly viruses.
Unlike AIDS, for instance, Ebola kills fast. Similar to AIDS when AIDS was first discovered, many people exaggerate how infectious and contagious it is. It is this combination of reality, fear and exaggeration that is affecting the lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and influencing the attitudes of the international community towards these countries.
Although it is too early for most people to contemplate the effects of Ebola on these economies and West Africa as a whole, as the priority now is how to find a vaccine, the issue will become increasingly important in the months ahead. The extent of the negative impact would depend on how long it takes to find a vaccine or cure and how widespread the current epidemic gets.
In an interview, Steve D. Cashin, founder of the Pan African Capital Group in Washington, D.C., one of the biggest post-war investors in Liberia, said that "Ebola is a horrible disease. It has destroyed much progress that has been made over the past decade in the three countries it is most prevalent in. I have seen its impact in Liberia where it has reeked havoc on the health care system, closed the schools, and brought an aspiring economy to a hault."
The Liberian economy grew by 8.1% in 2014 and it is expected to grow by 6.8 and 8.2%, in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The engine of growth lies in the extractive sector (iron ore, palm oil and other forestry products).
Since the end of the war, Liberia has benefitted from a good governance dividend under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as illustrated by $16 billion of FDI commitments and plans for large scale infrastructure and energy projects. Foreign capital is not the only requirement, foreign skills are also essential for the execution of new projects and sustaining existing ones. Locally, there is already a tremendous reduction in economic and social activity; expatriate staff have left the country en masse, schools are closed and work hours have become very irregular.
In Guinea the economy is dominated by the mining of bauxite, gold and diamonds. Economic growth last year was about 2.0%, down from 3.9% the year before. The slowdown was due to political difficulties and the decline in mining investment. Economic growth is forecasted to be a little over 4% in 2014 and 2015, due to expected increases in investments in big mining projects, such as the Simandou iron ore mine.
The fear of Ebola may result in a direct hit on such investments, which are dependent not only on foreign capital but also skills. Getting the management and technical expertise necessary to start the construction of such complex large scale projects is not going to be easy. Guinean agricultural produce, which is exported to a number of African countries, including Morocco, may also be another victim.
In Sierra Leone, real GDP grew by about 15% in 2012 and edged down to 14% in 2014. It has been forecasted to grow in 2014 by about 16% and 12% in 2015. As in the cases of Guinea and Liberia, iron ore production has been the source of the latest growth spurt. However, unlike or more than in Guinea and Liberia, agriculture, manufacturing, construction and services have fueled growth of about 6% from 2010-14. According to local sources, there seems to be somewhat less of a panic inside Sierra Leone than in its two neighbours.
Although schools are closed and 21-day quarantines are carried out in neighbourhoods of Ebola victims, most offices and businesses remain open. Amadu Barry, a Sierra Leonean businessman with Australian citizenship, who has refused to return to "the land down under" says that "life is almost normal in Free Town".
Nevertheless, many expatriates have left the Lion Mountains and it is unlikely that they would rush back or be replaced easily in the current situation of uncertainly. Therefore, Sierra Leone's regenerated mining sector is likely to become vulnerable to skills shortages and potential reversals of capital flows.
Malick Niang, Regional Manager for West Africa of Dutch-funded ICCO Investments said that they have put their activities in Liberia and Sierra Leone on hold until they become Ebola free. Although It is difficult to assess the medium and long term economic consequences of Ebola, Malick pointed out that it is clear that in the short term there would be significant impact on trade, tourism and agribusiness in the region and that growth projections will be revised to a downward trend. Nevertheless he remains positive about the long term , because "sub-Saharan Africa, particularly West Africa, has always been resilient and will recover from this crisis".
The countries struggling with the Ebola viruses are among the poorest in the world. This status does not create an urgency for the development of a vaccination or a drug by those who can - the big pharmaceutical companies or the governments they report to. However, the call for a vaccination or drug by Africans and concerned non-Africans seems to be already heeded, not because or only because, of a sense of humanism but of the fear that the virus is exportable.
As shown by the alarm caused by, and attention on, the few patients in the US and Spain, it is in the interest of all that a vaccination or cure is found. The recovery of US victims in Atlanta last month has indicated that that happy day may not be too far away in sight. However, as the case of the AIDS virus showed in the early years after discovery, many more victims may have to die and the economies of West Africa to continue shivering for some time to come. In order to stop this, African Governments and people must take the lead not only in calling outsiders for help but also in supporting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone themselves, anyway they can. At this stage, nothing is too late or too little!
MOTLANTHE: The story of a Leader and his nationDr Karamo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.4 , November 15, 2013
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe (centre), former President Thabo Mbeki and Ms. Zinzi Mandela, with former President Mandela's Smart ID Card at the launch of the Smart ID Card on Mandela Day in July, 2013. As Deputy President, Mbeki attended the first global conference on promoting private investment in Africa, which took place in Accra, Ghana, in June 1996, a project I initiated, set up and coordinated at the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I remember a conversation I had with Zinzi (Mandela's daughter) at the University of Swaziland, Kwaluseni, in August 1982, during which she told me that her family would never give up the struggle against apartheid, despite their suffering at the hands of the South African security forces. I was a West African student who just finished high school and landed in Southern Africa. I felt as if I was in a Wonderland, wonderfully beautiful, rich in experiences and history, but greatly troubled. I was tremendously impressed by Zinzi's strength and commitment and felt very much honoured to meet the legendary Mandela's daughter. On her way to South Africa after our meeting, in order to collect her belongings to start school in Swaziland, she was picked up by the South African security forces and never made it back to the University.
I have met heads of state, statesmen and stateswomen since my high school years. I felt humble when the first President of The Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara, picked pineapples with me on his farm in 1981, when his Vice President, Bakary Dabo, received me in his office the following year, when Jawara's replacement, President Yahya Jammeh, asked his wife in Addis Ababa, in June 1995, if she knew "the Great Karamo?", when Prince Charles shook my hand at Kensington Palace, in 1986, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu prayed for me in a Nairobi street the same year, when the late Prime Minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley, and his wife wrote to me in 1994, when former U.S. National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, returned my phone call in Washington, D.C., in July 1990, and when former President Abdou Diouf of Senegal said to me in Fes, in October 2013, that I was "more handsome" than him! However, nothing made me feel more humble than Deputy President Motlanthe carrying my bag for me in February 2010!
1. The First Meeting
In May, 1997, after delivering a speech at a UNIDO conference n Accra, Ghana, two gentlemen walked up to me, shook my hands and said some kind words. Both men looked ordinary. The older gentleman had a firm but gentle voice and assuring smile. They were South Africans, one was the Secretary General of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) (South Africa's most powerful union) and the other Chairman of a diamond-cutting company owned by NUM's Investment Company, in partnership with De Beers. In December, the same year, the Secretary-General was elected to the same position at the African National Congress (ANC). In December, 2007, he rose to become Deputy President of the ANC and in September, 2008, President of the Republic of South Africa, after Mbeki's recall. In March last year (2012), I received a copy of his biography.
2. The Biography
The book bears his name, Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography, by Ebrahim Harvey, published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, Auckland Park, South Africa, 2012.
Motlanthe's rise between 1997 and 2008 was based as much on his political accomplishments as on his character. Before 1997 not very much was known of him even in South Africa. From 1973-74, he and three close friends formed an underground cell to fight apartheid, established contact with the ANC, joined its armed wing (Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK)) and started recruiting and transporting sympathisers to join it. He travelled, many times, to neighbouring countries, risking his life, until 13 April, 1976, when he was arrested with his closest friend, Stan Nkosi. Jacob Zuma, current South African President, recalls driving Motlanthe and Nkosi to a secret house in Manzini. Incidentally, this house was the home of another South African I have known since 1982, Elias Masilela. It has become an officially designated historic site, about which Masilela has published a well acclaimed book in 2007.1
Although they escaped the death penalty which the prosecution called for, they were sentenced to ten years imprisonment and sent to Robben Island, where he met the world's most popular prisoner at the time (Nelson Mandela). After his release from the Island on 14 April 1987, he became Education Officer at NUM in June, before becoming its acting Secretary-General in January 1992.
3. A Personal Experience
Mothlanthe is well-known for his calm demeanour, modesty, honesty and level-headed behaviour. In the 16 years that I have known him my most memorable experience was in February, 2010, when I had an appointment with him. It was an extremely busy time for him as he was Chairman of the Cabinet Committee of South Africa's successful World Cup tournament, which was to begin on June 11th. Therefore, while on my way to Pretoria to meet him at the Union Buildings, where the Presidential offices were located, his Personal Assistant called me and asked that I should return to Johannesburg, where he was talking to the press from his residence. To my surprise, when I entered, walking past a few unintimidating security officers in civilian clothing, I found him standing by the gates waiting for me. Before I could properly greet him, he grabbed one of my bags (I went for the appointment straight from the airport in a taxi cab) and tried to carry it. I refused and snatched it back from him, with disbelief! A tug-of-war almost ensued. The guards had to politely intervene, before I relented. I was completely caught off guard by a head of state carrying my bag!!
That is the very ordinary nature of the man known to the world as the President or Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa and the book did not miss it either. The biography is very rich; the deepest, most personal and frank I have ever read. It tells not only the story of one prominent African leader, but of many other South Africans of the liberation struggle (Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Moses Kotane, Mac Maharaj, Ahmed Kathrada, Cyril Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Steve Biko, etc.). Furthermore, it tells the story of a nation (its modern history and politics). In nine chapters and 396 pages it starts with Motlanthe's family history and childhood, traces his political career and ends with the question: "Whither the ANC?" . In doing so, the author ploughs through the historic BaPedi resistance to Boer and British colonialism, the rise of the Nationalist Party and apartheid in 1948, the banning of the ANC and PAC following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the setting up of the MK in 1961, the role of the Church in the black communities, the Black Consciousness Movement in both South Africa and the US, the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, the Soweto Uprising in 1976, the life imprisonment of Mandela in 1964, life on Robben Island, the assassination of Chris Hani in April 1993, the excesses of the Scorpions and the ANC Youth League, the Mbeki-Zuma conflict which led to the sacking of Zuma and the demise of Mbeki, etc..
4. The Issues
The author deals with so many issues, both Mr Mothlanthe's and others', in passing or in detail, that it is impossible to enumerate them all here. However, I shall attempt to summarize some of the key issues, as follows:
- Motlanthe's rare personality as a politician. In a letter to Motlanthe on the occasion of his inauguration as President of South Africa, Mandela wrote: "We have known you for a long time and you are eminently deserving of this high honour. You are a quiet, firm and principled leader, one who puts reason above emotions and one who seeks to unite rather than divide. We know that our country is in good hands with you at the helm of government." (p. 260). Harvey describes him as, "refreshingly undogmatic, calm (too calm, some may argue), modest (too modest, still others may say), a very measured and dignified political leader" (p. ix). Paul Nkuna, former NUM Treasurer, refers to his "gift to persuade people without an ounce of arrogance, aggression or force. His capacity to lead by example and immensely respectful and comradely behaviour towards others" (p. 95). Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he succeeded twice, first as Secretary-General of NUM, then of the ANC respectfully calls him, "my leader" (p. 78) and recalls his first meeting with him: "I was struck by his analytical capabilities and powers and by his disciplined approach to everything. Here was someone who had great dignity and humility..." (p.77). Time magazine calls him "cautious and low key". Apart from his exploits for the MK, the biography reveals other heroic actions of Motlanthe, such as when he beat off two hijackers in 1988 (even after being shot) , defeated a bully on Robben Island and spoke "out against the rantings of the likes of Youth League motor-mouth Julius Malema" (pp. 69, 118, 265);
- Motlanthe's family and love life. It was his marital and love life that reveals very troubled waters for both Motlanthe and his biographer. The author reports Motlanthe's relationship with Gugu Mtshali, after his marriage to Mapula Mokate had fallen apart. The story bears some similarity to Mandela's case with Winnie, as both marriages ran into difficulties largely because of the long imprisonment of the two men on Robben Island. However, Motlanthe's story took a twist for the worse when he was also accused of a relationship with a 24-year old girl in 2009, following his rise to the South African Presidency. Although it is clear from the account of the author that this was politically motivated at a time of intrigue and factionalism in the ANC, as a result of the Mbeki-Zuma conflict , the South African media ran wild with the story, as if it was another Clinton-Lewinski drama;
- The shift of Motlanthe from church to politics and the ANC from Marxism to capitalism. Three of the most striking issues in this book are Motlanthe's shift from the Anglican church to politics, the ANC's sprint from armed resistance to non-violence and from the Marxist doctrine to outright capitalism. Motlanthe was an altar boy for many years, whose childhood dream, was to become a priest like the Anglican "fathers" he met and admired so much in the townships. In fact, if it was not for the refusal of the apartheid government to let him go to Swaziland to become a priest, he would have become one. Ironically, apartheid created one of its biggest enemies by forcing him off the path of peace to that of violence. The ANC's change was dramatic. It went from an ANC which was widely considered and which largely considered itself as a socialist/communist revolutionary Party to a peaceful organization when it suspended violence in 1990. Then in 1994 it went on to rule South Africa with economic policies, such as the Urban Development Strategy (UDS) and the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR). These strategies are not socialistic and much further from communism;
- The Mbeki-Zuma conflict and its consequences. Mbeki and Zuma formally locked horns in May 2005, after Shabir Shaik (a very close associate of Zuma's) was found guilty of fraud and corruption. The sentencing dragged the ANC, Mandela and Motlante into the dust of the Mbeki-Zuma's battle for survival. It seems that only Mandela and Motlanthe did not take sides in this clash. Motlante's efforts in first getting Mandela to talk to both Mbeki and Zuma and later his own persistent efforts to mitigate the effects on the party are clear in the book. Nevertheless, he later became a target of some Zuma supporters who thought he had long term designs on the Presidency, which could have ruined Zuma's chances after Mbeki. These supporters were reported to be behind the media allegations about Motlante's private life, in spite of the fact that Motlanthe "has never really been an ambitious leader seeking attention, publicity and even power" (p. x). Motlanthe made a memorable statement when he was President: "Being President means you have no life of your own. I actually don't like it (emphasis mine)" (p. 298);2
- South African Democracy and the power of the press. It appears from this book that South African democracy has somewhat come of age. This is rather dramatic, both in terms of the situation which existed before 1994 as well as the short period since then. The two areas in which this is clearly illustrated are press freedom and national elections. The press's intrusion into Motlanthe's private life and some business deals, even when their attacks were not based on facts, are evidence of unbridled democracy at work. The successful elections of three Presidents since 1994 are indicative too. Nevertheless, the author is of the opinion that the poor majority has materially "not much more than the vote" (p. 350);
- The ANC's performance. The author makes scathing attacks, with very harsh language, on the ANC and concludes that "its many neoliberal economic and social policies since 1994 have worsened the poverty and inequalities that apartheid bequeathed. This is obvious in many areas but none more appalling so than in the most crucial ones..." (p. 351);
- The oppressive and repressive policies of apartheid. The book reveals apartheid's unjust laws in education, employment and settlements. It goes further by showing the effects these laws had on the Motlantes as they were forcefully moved from place to place, and consequently, denied the opportunity of tertiary education. This is narrated against the backdrop of apartheid's atrocities such the Sharpeville massacre, the Soweto Uprising massacre, the murder of Steve Biko in September 1977 and of many other political detainees at different times;
- Whither the ANC? By the time the author asks this question at the end of the book (p. 348), it becomes easy to guess what his answer would be, because of his critical commentary on the party in various parts of the book. His answer summarises his conviction: "The ANC's recent policy discussion documents are frankly not inspiring... 'Social transformation', 'transformational project', 'ideological capacity', 'organisational renewal', 'developmental state', 'capable state', 'balance of forces' are among the vague terms used. Meanwhile the black masses, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of social transformation grow poorer and more restless while the ruling elite who urge them to be more patient live in luxury." (p. 348). Citing township protests, strikes by organised labour, especially the ANC's ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), inroads by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) into former ANC strongholds, police massacre of 34 striking miners at Lonmin in 2012, he makes it evident that he is bleak about the future of the party. He even fires at the party's 'second transition' (ST) as "a belated attempt to deal with the disastrous social results of the ongoing dominance of white capital, the elitist nature of BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) and the consequently moribund national democratic revolution" (p. 350).
- This biography provides many lessons in good leadership.3 The most important of this is patience. As one reads through the pages of press attacks on Motlanthe and his frustrations, it becomes possible to imagine the temptations political leaders go through to misuse the forces of law and order against their detractors . In many countries, in and outside Africa, we have seen many opposition leaders, journalists and even internal opponents disappear because of leaders who could not resist the temptations of abusing power in the face of criticism.4
The Motlanthe story shows us that a political good leader may/should not be aggressive. He may/should be a modest and cautious person who weighs the pros and cons of each decision before making it. He should think of his post-political life and be cautious or reluctant to carry out any decision which may haunt him after leaving office. He should not hesitate to resign, if necessary. Although communication and good relations with the press is shown to be essential, a good leader should not court the press and public opinion to deify him rather than the institutions of governance. Finally, as Mandela, shows in his letter, he should be "a quiet (calm), firm and principled leader, one who puts reason above emotions and one who seeks to unite rather than divide " (p. 260).
The biographer shows all or most of these qualities in Motlanthe. However, he exposes his imperfections too in, at times, very strong and undiplomatic terms. In fact, I think he (like the South African press) goes too far into Motlanthe's private life, by delving into his relations with former wife (Mokate), "partner" (Gugu Mtshali) and the fictional 24-year old. He goes so far that he succeeds in getting the reader to wonder why it has taken Motlanthe so long to marry Mtshali, after the end of his marriage to Mokate. If he had, this could have succeeded in both indicating that his first marriage had formally ended and that the man whom widespread testimony has confirmed as a "teetotaller ... never a womaniser" (pp. 116-7), could not be guilty of such accusations. At the same time, it could have boosted the support of those among his numerous sympathisers who would have preferred to see the photo of Motlante and Mtshali as a happily married couple in this biography, rather than "partners" as the author reports under a picture of the two in the book. Indeed, many would agree that heads of state should proudly pose with their spouses (whether a Mokate or Mtshali) as happily married couples. In this way, they can illustrate their commitment to the union, promote the sacred institution of marriage, the family and love and simultaneously encourage their citizens to do likewise.
I think too that the author should have given the ANC credit for seizing the moment in 1990, allaying the fears of its opponents, especially the pessimistic white minority, creating a "rainbow nation" and keeping the economy steady since 1994. While the author is right in his observations that the ANC seems to have forgotten its founding principles and adopted policies to the contrary, especially with regard to poverty in the country, he seems to advocate a revolutionary or radical transformation the contents and realities (especially the implementation and probability of success) of which he does not explain.
He also makes an indirect and unfair comparison between ANC governance and the apartheid era. This comparison is like those who used to compare Africa's colonial governments with post-colonial ones. This is untenable because like Africa's colonial governments the apartheid regime never had the responsibility of running an economy for the benefit of all rather than a very small minority of citizens. Naturally, the ANC, like Africa's first independent governments, had to deal with a surge of expectations and demands many more times than the colonial/apartheid regimes ever faced. The causes of the ANC's shift in favour of capital was not adequately linked to the pressures during the CODESA negotiations leading to the elections nor to the wider international forces against socialism/communism after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Understandable perhaps, as the book is about Motlanthe and not this icing on the cake. Despite these limitations, the book remains a rich and informative story about Motlanthe and his nation and offers useful lessons in political leadership in and outside Africa.
1 Elias Masilela, 43 Trelawny Park: KwaMagogo, David Philip Publishers, 2007. The courage of Elias's mother and her young son came to worldwide attention after the publication of this book by Elias (now an Economist and Statistician). President Zuma appointed Elias as CEO of South Africa's Public Investment Corporation in 2010, which manages Africa's biggest sovereign wealth fund. In spite of the controversies this book raises about Swaziland's relations with the apartheid government, King Mswati III, one of whose wives includes a Swazi sister of mine, designated the house as a historic site and wrote very complimentary comments about the book.
2 This is not the only time Motlanthe, who is never known to be a power hungry individual, has expressed such a statement. It is most unusual in a world where the desire for power seems to be everything. It reminds me of a statement an apartment mate made to me in the U.S. in 1992, when he asked whether I would return home after my Ph.D studies to become a politician. When I replied that I was not interested in becoming one, he retorted, "You don't know what is a good life!" That so-called good life revolves around the fact that political power, especially in what I would call "a state of unaccountable governance", enables the fulfilment of interrelated fantasies - wealth, fame and pleasure including, as one international civil servant told me, "the most beautiful women". This is why the history of man is universally replete with evidence of the abuse of power.
3 For good summaries of leadership theories and types the interested reader may refer to Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, "Leadership": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leadership; and Puriry Makandi, "Theories of Leadership" : http://www.money-zine.com/career-development/leadership-skill/transactional-leadership/
4 Information on political assassinations, military invasions, missing persons, unfair trials and other forms of abuse of power around the world are now readily available, thanks to advances in ICT. For those interested, the UN High Commission for Refugees, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch would be perhaps the most useful sources to refer to.
Mara the Masai and the FrenchDr Karamo N.M. Sonko
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.3 , November 3, 2013
Mara was a proud Masai warrior who lived happily in Masailand. He took good care of his family, protected his people and looked after his animals. One day, when going home from the wild he heard screams of "Help!" and ran toward the noise. When he reached the scene he found terrified tourists in a broken down jeep, with a rhino ploughing the earth with its fore legs ready to attack them. Without the slightest hesitation, he leapt at the angry animal with his spear. The rhino turned around and ran back into the bush.
The overjoyed tourists thanked him and when they returned home they reported the incident. They were related to a famous French family in the perfume business. One day, Mara was contacted and invited to a ceremony in Nairobi to reward him for his courage. He went, looking his best, in his traditional attire, with red ochre smeared on his body. The smell of ochre was not particularly enticing for the guests from France who carried the scent of their best brands!
After the ceremony, Mara returned to his friends who were eagerly awaiting his return from the wonderful occasion in the city. "How was the white man's party?" they asked, very curiously. "Lousy!" Mara replied. "They gave me small pieces of tasteless meat the sizes of my fingers, a piece of paper and ... they were all stinking!"
MORALE: Your Guess!
Chinguetti: Entrepreneurial Women And Ancient Treasures
Heeno Occasional Postings, No. 2, August 26, 2013
Ten years ago, I wrote a contribution for African Business (London, January 2003) on a little known part of history - Africa's entrepreneurial past during the golden period of the 12th to the 16th centuries. One of the most well known trading centres of the time was Chinguetti, in what is today called Mauritania. Originally founded in the year 777 it became a trading centre for Berber ethnic groups who later mixed with the Almoravids, founders of the Moorish empire which spread from modern Senegal to Spain. After two centuries of decay, the city was re-established and fortified in the 13th century as the trading hub which linked the Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa.
Ten years ago I never imagined that one day I would actually visit this ancient city, as I did three years, from March 14-16, 2008. About 520 kilometers from Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, the trip by land to Chinguetti took me through the desert, intimidating mountains and valleys, and rocky plains. The city had its treasures, some lay under the sands of time, some under the rubble of dilapidated buildings. Others were visible: a mosque more than 700 years old, scientific, religious and literary manuscripts from the latter Middle Ages, robust red stone buildings with courtyards or patios along narrow streets, relics of ancient astrology and technology, some of the best dates in Mauritania, and, to my surprise, women who were not only religious but entrepreneurial. Many would think it was a paradox, but I found within these Stonehenge-like walls, covered from ankle to hair, with only their feet, faces and hands showing, women with prayer beads hanging on their wrists and tools in their hands. They made different things -- mats, necklaces of old and new beads, pendants, large colourful mats, embroideries, wall hangings, etc. They also brought in textiles, blankets, turbans, veils, scarves and other clothes, some of which they dyed themselves after buying and before re-selling.
The city had approximately 7,000 inhabitants. According to a local tour guide and lodge owner, about 23,000 European tourists (about 95% French), visited Chinguetti every year during a 7-month tourist season from October to April. They stayed in more than 20 small lodges. The tourists went there to visit the 5 libraries (under the custody of 5 of the oldest families in the old quarters of the city), observe the indigenous Saharan architecture, ride camels, "ski" in the sand dunes, and (for the most adventurous among them) head for the equally famous ancient city of Timbucktu, all the way in neighbouring Mali.
Although it was not a colourful city with tarred streets, bright lights and nice cars, UNESCO declared it and three other Mauritanian cities as world heritage sites in 1996, because of their rich history. The UN agency described them as "exceptional examples of settlements built to serve the important trade routes of the Sahara Desert, and which were witness to cultural, social and economic contacts for many centuries." In the Islamic world, it was ranked and remains the seventh among the holiest cities. In Mauritania it was the home or origin of the country's most well-known scholars and writers of the past.
Chinguetti's women were organized into about 46 small cooperatives of 12 members each, on average, belonging to two larger associations. The average size was unique as cooperatives elsewhere tend to be larger associations, a common cause of their problems too. They functioned independently and even competed with each other to some extent. Their wares, comprising self-made articles and those purchased wholesale from Nouakchott and elsewhere, were displayed in stalls or buildings near the ancient mosque.
One of these cooperatives (with the interesting name of Cooperative for Work and the Protection of Morals) hosted Mohamed Lemine, my assistant, and I to traditional Mauritanian tea (warga), in their shop and allowed me to interview them. It had 24 members, aged from about 42 to 70. Their President was 50-year old Tekber Mint El Ghoulam, who had been a trader for about 20 years. Her deputy was 55 year old Toutou Mint Bannahi, who had been trading for 35 years, and whose daughter also owned a shop at the entrance of their home nearby.
Their operations were small when looked from outside. The whole shop contained goods of only about $8,000 and their annual net profit per member was less than $200 per annum. However, given their very modest lifestyles and the widespread unemployment in
Chinguetti, this amount, although not much, was not "peanuts" either.
Furthermore, I learnt from these women that they had more to look for in business than strictly the monetary aspect. For them, it was an ancestral tradition they were continuing, which granted them self-gratification, control, respect and a pastime. Therefore, for these ladies of Chinguetti business meant more than money.
I asked the President if there was any contradiction between being Muslim mothers and business women at the same time. She replied in the negative, saying that their involvement in business could be justified for two reasons; 1) they needed some cash in their hands which was legally earned; and 2) they were doing business the Islamic way. "We do not deal in forbidden goods (such as drugs, alcohol and pork) and interest. We are properly dressed up and we pay the zakat (Islamic "tax") every year," she explained.
I questioned them about control over their money and what they mostly spent their profits on. With regard to the first question they replied that they had full control over their money and spent it anyway they wanted. Their husbands did not bother them, because the men knew that their religion has made it clear that it is the responsibility of the husbands to take care of their wives. As for their expenses, they spent on "personal belongings such as dresses, jewelry, mobile phones and gifts".
Many of these women had successful "children" in Nouakchott and elsewhere in the world. In fact, I was in Chinguetti with one of their successful sons. Mohamed Lemine grew up with his grandmother in one of the stone houses in the old quarters of Chinguetti. He went to school in the sandy streets there and then attended the University of Nouakchott. He studied Economics and languages (Arabic, French and English). He was the Manager of the Nouakchott Office of Tasiast Mauritania Ltd, then a subsidiary of Canadian multinational mining corporation, Red Back Mining Inc.. Another example was Hussein, a judge in Zouerate (Mauritania's mining capital), son of 70-year old Fatimetou (the oldest member of the cooperative).
The women complained that the year's tourist season was a particularly bad one for them, because of the negative international press coverage of Mauritania at the end of the year before. In December, 2008, four French tourists and a number of Mauritanian soldiers were killed in separate attacks. On January 4, the famous Lisbon-Dakar rally, which ran through Mauritania, was cancelled.
These women enjoyed what they did. They affirmed that they liked doing things the old-fashioned way - working with their hands and maintaining traditional social values. They expressed their dislike for spending most of one's time in front of machines, because it "dehumanizes". The name of their Cooperative said it all.
Finally, I asked if they had a message for the world. They urged the world not to let Chinguetti and its ancient treasures disappear in the encroaching sand dunes that had already swallowed the first settlements. "We want the world to discover this old town, to protect it and invest in it as the world heritage site that it has been declared to be," said 56-year old Toutou, mother of Mohamed Lemine, as she poured warga into treasured little Moorish tea cups.
Haha and the Hyrax
Heeno Occasional Postings, No.1., August 1, 2013
Once upon a time, there lived a farmer in a village called Nochira in a land called Naga, somewhere in Africa. He was called Haha. He had a loving wife and three smart kids. He loved all his kids very much, especially the youngest, his only girl, called Heena. One day, when he was relaxing in his hut, Heena walked in and asked him, "Daddy, why is it that, unlike the children in our neighbor (Aran)'s house, we always eat our rice without meat?" The poor farmer felt surprised, ashamed and, above all, saddened by his lovely daughter's simple but striking words. He couldn't tell his dear daughter that Aran was rich and he was poor. Aran had money, which he used to build a herd of goats and sheep. When he didn't use one of his goats or sheep for his household's need, he would go to the market and buy meat which his wife cooked for the family. Haha couldn't tell this to his daughter, because his pride simply wouldn't let him. So he turned to his daughter and assured her, "Don't worry, my dear child, you shall eat your rice with meat tomorrow!"
Early the next morning, Haha set out for the wild forest. He surely wasn't a hunter. He could neither afford nor use a gun. In fact, he was scared of guns! So he went forth with only his little dog. After walking around hopelessly in the intimidating forest for a long time, he heard a noise up a tree and when he looked, happily it was a tree hyrax he saw! A rare delicacy for a poor farmer, but smaller than a rabbit. It was during the dry season, but the forest was still very thick. The tree the hyrax was on had creepers all over it. He had to come up with an idea, and he did. He wasn't ready to go back home to his lovely daughter empty-handed. So he lit a fire at the bottom of the tree, which quickly engulfed it, from bottom to top. The hyrax jumped down the tree and he got it. Haha ran home to his daughter with joy, never looking back to see that he had left the fire on and, as a consequence, was burning down the whole forest, the one and only source of their livelihood!
MORALE: Your Guess!