A short sojourn in the Gambia 2003

This was my second journey to West Africa. I journeyed to Gambia to celebrate the coming of my 60th birthday. I wanted to wake up on the morning of that day in what I regard as my ancestral homeland and hear the Atlantic breakers roar as they did on the last morning of their stay in Africa. I wanted to walk down to the water's edge as they did, as they embarked upon the journey across the black waters. My return was for the millions who had made that journey, never to return. It marked the end of one phase of my life and the opening up of a new one, in the same way the journey I made to Nigeria 29 years ago, my first to Africa, marked the end of my rootless wandering and the beginning of the creative phase of my life.

The journey however did not begin in the correct manner; I did not prepare and perform the necessary sacrifices, one returning should make; instead I went back as a tourist, a stranger. However, before the end of my stay, many sacrifices were made that made up for the rituals I had ignored at the beginning. Many new and varied insights were gained which made sense of, and summed up some of my ideological struggles over the past thirty years. We arrived on Friday the 28th of March; the day the Senegalese football team was due to fly into Banjul for a World Cup qualifier against the Gambia. What seemed like thousands of Senegalese fans had turned up at the airport to welcome their team, they were everywhere, in and on top of cars and buses. The place was buzzing with the kind of excitement Margaret and I had not experienced since we were last in Africa. Two days later all Gambia stopped to support their team as they were out-played but held the Senegal to a nil nil draw.

The area of Gambia is about three hundred miles long by seven miles wide. It follows the course of the River Gambia from its estuary to the interior of Africa; this river was believed by early European explorers to lead to the great treasures of Timbuktu. After many years of squabbling with the French, the British gained control of the river, leaving the French with the area on either side. He who controlled the river controlled the trade and the trade at that time was in slaves. Those Europeans who were prepared to suffer the unpleasantness of life three hundred miles up river made vast fortunes; slaves for beads, broken mirrors and whisky, slaves for third rate manufactured goods from Europe.

The slaves were then sold to plantations in the Americas where they produced the sugar and cotton that fuelled the industrial revolution in Europe. Europe's gain was Africa's loss. Today we see Europe and America as great modern affluent countries while these areas of Africa remain barren, sucked dry, the evolution and growth of their indigenous society and culture destroyed, they are the dunghills of the achievements of western civilization.

The pressure to be western and civilised is unceasing, it comes from both the Islamic north and the Christian west, both imported cultures. And here, like the rest of Africa the people are ashamed of their own. Their own is perceived as representing darkness, backwardness, and the uncivilised and so they avoid, denigrate or make no reference to it. Being civilised is equated with being detribalised, which is to say, we are expected to forget how to eat with the hand from one bowl. To accept that there was nothing before the coming of Islam and Christianity; no culture, no religion, and therefore no society, is to accept that we were as the beasts.

The stone circles of Wassu are some three hundred kilometers from Banjul. These are ancient megaliths that were erected to mark the burial place of the local kings. Controversy surrounds these stones, as some naturally believe that these could only have been constructed by some superior race from the north. The only archaeological survey that has been carried out so far however shows that they are between six hundred and twelve hundred A.D, and has the remains of Bantu kings buried in the traditional way. I had decided to travel to see these stone circles myself some years ago when my friend Len Garrison first returned from the Gambia and told me about them. Len died on the 13th of February not having visited the site, which was his desire. He was always interested in African monuments especially those in stone and so I decided to make the journey to the stone circles in his memory. It was a very long and arduous journey lasting over nine hours on very bad roads but it was worth it.

On that journey I saw a kind of Africa I had not seen before. It had a quality that was unique to the grasslands or savannah regions of the continent. This was at the middle of the dry season when everything was parched and withered which gave the landscape a feeling of surreal desolation. I was taken aback when I saw for the first time baobabs and the silk cotton trees, as I had only encountered these in books. These trees stood everywhere as giant, silent sentinels; they seemed to be guarding the portals to the realm of the ancestors and of course, as is to be expected, they play a central role in the lives and traditional belief systems of the local people. These beliefs exist side by side with the imposed and introduced thought systems of Islam and Christianity. At times it is impossible to tell where Islam and Christianity end, and traditional beliefs begin, so porous are the boundaries in the ways and attitude of the people, this is the way it is everywhere in Africa. I came across a sign that read, "Beneath the great baobab is a sacred place where communication with the ancestral realm takes place. It is where initiation, circumcision and other traditional rituals are performed." I was shown a particular silk cotton tree that is said to be over twelve hundred years old. Imagine that tree was standing there watching as the first brigands and robbers sailed down the coast and disembarked from their ships. This silk cotton tree saw the first of those ancestors who walked down to the water's edge to ships that would take them across the black waters into slavery. It was there when the last slave was taken away and now there I was a descendant of those slaves, on my sixtieth birthday standing beneath its branches, between its buttressing roots. I experienced an inexplicable feeling of rebirth, well-being, growth and understanding.

On my first night back in Africa I was kept awake for most of the night by the roaring of the Atlantic. It was like the calling of those ancestors who did not make it across the black waters; their souls had ended up in the bosom of Olokun, the Ifa goddess of the deep oceans. At the time I had left two unfinished pieces that I was working on in London, one entitled Olokun, and the other Carriacou Woman.

Carriacou is the Carib word for a corral island and is a place in the Caribbean I had spent a lot of time in recent years, there the sea is relatively placid. I had spent what seemed like the whole night wrestling with the spirit one of those sculptures in the dark. The next morning, I went for a swim and was almost carried out to sea by very strong waves and currents. At one point I felt I was going to drown, and thought how futile it all was, I had come all the way here to die in the Atlantic on the morning of my sixtieth birthday, a long way from Jamaica, the land of my birth. At the end of my stay however, I took one last stroll on the beach and lost my spectacles to the sea when it was taken from my face by a gigantic wave and washed away. I had given my glasses instead of my soul to Olokun and Yemoja.

As I looked out the window of the bus taking us to Janjanburegh thoughts of the connection with Jamaica passed through my mind. Thoughts of the bones of the many soldiers of the West India Regiment buried beneath the soil of this land; black men who were used by the British in the pacification of West Africa; their bones were buried unceremoniously in this sun scorched place. What were their thoughts as they fought and killed their kith and kin; was it for abstract ideals such as, queen, country and empire? The first two soldiers of colour to receive the Victoria Cross were men who fought in The Gambia. Private Samuel Hodges was the first to be presented with the VC on the 24th June 1867; he received it for deeds over and above the call of duty at a place called Tubab Kolon. The second was Sergeant William James Gordon who received this award for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on the 13th March 1892 at Toniataba. In the greater scheme of things, what is the meaning of their deeds to our lives today?

On the journey to the stone circles at Wassu, I saw a withered old, white nun walking in a market along a dusty road; it was a most incongruous sight, this pale ghost like figure in the midst of these jet-black people, the archetypal missionary in search of sinful black souls. This place was the antithesis of the culture of abundance, of greed and plenty. In its timelessness it appeared to be a culture of enough, contentment with itself and satisfaction. It seemed as though the people had no need of a greater abundance in their lives; there's was a life mode that was a model of enduring simplicity. There was a timelessness about their lives that said that this will still be here, long after the cultures of plenty and abundance have exhausted themselves, for this was how it was in the beginning before the coming of the Hydra-like serpent of progress. However, given that this is one of the poorest countries in Africa I saw no Oxfam-like stereotype of the starving African that people in the west so often associate with Africa. A disempowered and desolate people is what comes to mind when we think of ourselves; a people who can only look back with nostalgia and shame; a people who refuse to look at their past, whose idea of the future is defined by, and created in the image of others; an existence bound in a constant here and now.

It is necessary for us all to make that journey to our own metaphorical stone place, be it Great Zimbabwe, Wassu or the Pyramids and temples in Egypt, for each one must find and face up to his past for without it there is no future for us. My journey was made in the midst of strangers whose reasons for making such an arduous trip were a mystery to me; at journey's end it seemed their greatest reward was returning to their air-conditioned hotels rooms and familiar foods. It has become customary for visitors to place a small stone along with a prayer on top of one of the Wassu megaliths in memory of a departed loved one. The atmosphere was that of a sacred place, a shrine; a shrine to the Africans past and therefore our future. This was a truly desolate place and I wondered why those ancient people had chosen to construct these monuments in such a desolate lunar-like place when the river was within easy reach. But now I can see why, it had to be in a far and difficult place to make the journey worthwhile.

Fowokan 2003