Saturday, June 27, 2009
Book Review: Baba G. Jallow, Kentucky: Wasteland Press, 2004, Pp.61 Kentucky: Angry Laughter, Wasteland Press, 2004, Pp.61
Written by Eucharia Mbachu
Sunday 28, June 2009
African literature has developed since the pioneering works of Chinua Achebe and a host of African writers who deployed Western languages as tools of African thought and culture. Among the most prominent writers certain forms of expressing the African conditions have taken place. Some writers have presented historical events, such as matters relating to pre-colonial or post colonial lives in Africa, and immortalized the past and the characters involved therein through metaphors, neologisms and parables
Many still read with appreciation Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” where English language was used as the errand boy of Ibo thought and culture. Apart from his characters in Things Fall Apart, we also fell in love with the story of Chief Nanga in the: “Man of The People”, that master corrupt politician in Nigeria whose escapade resonates in African corrupt political landmark. Indeed, so effective has Achebe brought this perennial message of greed and corruption to light that his works have been translated in many international languages.
Under review here is the spirit and mind of this great Nigerian author who is called upon by Baba Galleh Jallow in his “Angry Laughter”. He did not just use the language of the conquering Europeans to immortalize the sad story of his homeland, jolted by a military coup detat in 1994, but he is creative and imaginative enough to present his story in bits and pieces numbering two or three pages at a time. This style of articulation marks how Gambia’s struggle for freedom under military rule translated into fictitious narratives
To analyze the contents of Jallow’s story, we indeed come to realize how the writings of British writer, George Orwell, affected the way he told his stories. Like that author of the world famous book, Animal Farm, he too used animals as substitutes for individual human beings whose lives and performances during these difficult moments give meaning to his attempt as telling stories in disguises. Instead of Orwell, who used the pigs as the leaders of the revolt against human control, Jallow used animal names to describe the actors operating within the political geography of the Gambia. In his own literary style he tells the story of the military coup detat against President Dawda Kairaba Jawara. Although he did not call him by his personal name, he invented the name, “Mansa Talkmuch Dolittle”, a sobriquet that issued out of his ethnic background. The name is apparently inspired by the meaning of the former President’s middle name, Kairaba, Big Peace. What we are hearing here is that the former President was rich in words and poor in effective actions. He revisited the tragedy of the first military coup detat and how the former Gambian President managed to govern in a manner unacceptable to him. In his own words, the former leader‘s greatest weakness was “that he talked too much, did too little and paid too little attention to the most ardent desires of his subjects.” This characterization was balanced when he wrote: “In general, however, his reign was one of peacefulness, relative security and relatively high level of prosperity and dignity for the animals of Smiling Forest.” (The Gambians)
To really understand the political geography of the Gambia, which he nicknamed Smiling Forest; Jallow tells us more about the types of zoological creatures operating on this political landscape. His inventory includes the following members of the Gambian fauna: There was Buki, the hyena ,”whose favorite pastime was to ambush lesser animals and strike them dead or frighten them out of their wit,”; there was monkey, the nice boy who was the animal representation of the corrupt elites who robbed the masses of their valuables; there is Nopa the hare, who is the animal that has ears to spy on others and to bring mischief in people’s lives; there is Sambo the elephant, whose big size and that of others like Tooty the boar made them the target of manipulation from Nopa and others.
Then Skimpy the giraffe who takes pride in his height and ability to enjoy the fruits of life from the top .There was Saa, the snake, the notorious liar whose presence in animal company was avoided by everyone because he scares the hell out of them. The snake characterization brings back to life the role and place of this reptile in Gambian folklore. It is not only deadly from its venom, but it is spiritually connected to Satan the Devil who tempted and misled humanity from Paradise. Jallow used the snake in this capacity to condemn those who lie and bite their fellow Gambians. He also identified Spotty the tiger and Blackie the panther. This group represented the political rivals of the Jawara regime and he described their political destiny as a political death through marginalization and political collapse.
The last category of the animal political heavyweights visible during the Jawara was the Cheku, the parrot. Mr. Jallow used this storyline to show how the old regime was better than its successor with respect to freedom of speech. The parrot was not only loud but his lamentations about jealousy in the society served an effective purpose in contrasting between the first regime and the sitting regime under President Jammeh
Beginning with chapter 2, Baba Galleh Jallow brought to our attention the self-perpetuation of the different animals representing competing interests in the country. Working on the same strategy of using traditional measures of wooing and controlling people, he portrayed Loony as a moral, social and policy factor in the land of Smiling Forest. Next, Jallow dwelled on the transition from Jawara the first President to Yahya Jameh his successor. He referred to the attempted coup detat which tested the loyalty of his soldiers several years before his overthrow. Pointing out the machinations of Jammeh as solider and body guard of Jawara. Since that failed coup detat, he projected himself as a faithful tool of the leader whose authority is acknowledged as divinely will. Here Jallow is leaving the impression that some kind of political fatalism is dominant in the culture and that both Jawara and Jammeh apparently shared this belief. In the train of events captured in chapter three, he singled out Jammeh as the potential traitor who successfully disguised his true intention before the final blow was struck
Chapter four, which also consists of three pages, elaborated on the failures of the Jawara regime by addressing the lingering problems from the post coup detat period. In his view, instead of cleaning up the stables and dealt effectively with the challenges facing his society, former President Jawara increasingly divorced himself from “the realities of the ordinary animals of Smiling Forest. A thick wall of sycophants surrounded and shielded him from the realities on the ground and fed him with multi-colored layers of convenient truths about the state of the common animals” Writing in the vein of George Orwell, who used Boxer and Molly as contrasting characters representing hard work and personal vanity and frivolities in life in Animal Farm, Jallow spoke about Toothy the boar, Samo the elephant and Momba the tortoise who became disenchanted with the corruption-condoning policies of Talkmuch Dolittle. This parallelism suggests that Yahya Jammeh is Gambian version of Napoleon of the Animal Farm in modern West African literature. He is the corrupt and tyrannical partner of Achene’s Chief Nanga, but
One other aspect of Jallow’s fictional story about the Jawara regime and the factors and forces that led to its collapse was his construction of a story in fiction what actually happened in history. He talked about the gradual failure of the ruling party under Jawara to focus on national issues and the clever schemes of the greedy class to hoodwink him on the one hand and enriched themselves in many ways possible. Under these conditions, Jallow told us that the Gambian leader felt into the traps of a peculiar version of the Nigerian 419 as when he offered to resign and leave office peacefully, his flunkies rejected the decision and so like Gamal Nasser, he too agreed to stay on in office. But, unlike the Egypt leader Nasser, he too stayed on and lived many more years longer in office than the North African who died soon after that fiasco. The Jawara narrative in this fiction used effectively animal analogies of the human actors known to most Gambians who watched the scene closely at that time. The political jockeying for power among the competing groups within the ruling Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) led to the total breakdown. Jallow identified these historical characters as Chokie the bush fowl, Saa the snake, Jumbo the peacock, Cheku the parrot, Barr the alligator, Njogi the owl, Bahi the crow, and Sinbad the lizard. As in history is captured in this scholarly literature, so also in this fiction Jallow reminded his readers that animal-like creatures on the Gambian political arena profited from their sycophancy. They were promoted. One became the new Vice President and the others answered to new titles.
Chapter five revisited the Kukoi Samba Sanyang era, when this Jola political actor, seized power briefly before the mighty military powers of neighboring Senegal put an end to it through what is now known as Operation Fode Kaba. Apparently, the Senegalese security and military leaders saw a parallel between the activities of that nineteen century Muslim opponent of European colonialism and the political articulations of this Jola insurgent who could destabilize the region. The Senegalese leadership struck and brought things to an end. Jallow once again addressed the unresolved political conflict between Gambian nationalism and the Senegalese nationalism. He pointed to the glaringly clear fact that after the unidentified 1981 coup detat led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, the Jawara regime negotiated a co federal agreement which is now known as the Kaur Agreement.
Chapter six is another fictional portrayal of the excesses of the Jawara regime and Jallow is able to accomplish a great deal better than what might be more difficult for scholars to do without being charged for libel and propagandistic vituperations. In this section, he raised issues about greedy lifestyles, ostentatious living and unwillingness to pay close attention to the welfare of the weak, the poor and the helpless in the country. Any one who is familiar with the plight of the African poor cannot deny the night life of the rich and the famous on the one hand and the unfortunate role of the women folks in the misappropriation of national wealth and resources. Adding insult to injuries against the poor, he asked us to follow his plot on the activities of Chamil the buzzard who uses traditional methods of praise-singing to get richer.
Chapter Seven fictitiously retells the events during the military coup detat against President Jawara in 1994.Here the author shed some light on the nature of the relationship between the visiting American navy and the Gambian soldiers who seized power. What is interesting here is the author’s ability to recount the story of that epoch in Gambian history by drawing parallels to events in other parts of Africa where the likes of Idi Amin and Samuel Doe wasted many lives through blood bath and reckless decisions in the name of holding power at all cost.
Following Chapter Eight we see Jallow sharing his portrayal of the aftermath of the 1994 coup detat in the Gambia. Here is a gift to future Gambians who wished to revisit their setback on their journey towards effective and meaningful democracy. He brought to our attention the rise of unknown persons working in the Gambian military. He called the voice of the military coup detat Sgt Nyinkili (the one toothed), an interesting play on words since the historical person satirized here has a Mandinka name Singhateh. One mythological explanation of this last name goes to the story of an ancestor’s foot crippled by a snake bit. Real or imagined, the historical fact is that the announcer of the coup detats was a nephew of the first Gambian Governor-General after political independence before the establishment of a republic in 1970.
Chapter Nine deals with the stories of the people who ended serving the Yahya Jammeh regime, where captures the magic and the enthusiasm of the post coup days and the way many Gambians who then supported the military vented their feelings of disgust with the Jawara regime. Many had legitimate grievances and the coups detat provided them with the opportunities to vent their feelings. This short account fictionalizes the tale of changing cabinet members and the Jammeh effort to go civilianize after 1994. Chapter Ten is about the political transformation of government and opposition in the Gambia. Jallow is able to bring to our attention how political actors such as Chokie, Cheku the parrot, monkey the nice boy and toothy the boar, maneuvered their ways in the trying days of the Jammeh regime. Though a variety of ways they managed to live and push for better living just for them. Trying desperately to avoid the bullets of the coup makers, they made efforts that filled his three page narrative.
Here the elevator takes us to the eleventh chapter, Jallow talks about the end of the honeymoon and the beginnings of the bad days for Jammeh. If he was lauded by many young and old Gambians who felt cheated in the Jawara days, some were beginning to read his story differently. He identified the factors and forces leading to the collapse of the unity within the arm forces and at the same time, shed some light fictionally on the state of affairs in the country. This deterioration of political coherence among the military known as the foxes is treated by Jallow in a way that suggests that Jammeh was clever in using the contending forces within his government to kill each other. In the midst of this chaos, as he documents it in Chapter Twelve, he apparently elevated himself higher and higher. He moved from being a captain to the level of a general. This fascination with titles would begin here but the story continues in the coming years as he received title after title.
The last three chapters of this book focuses on the rise of a repressive political autocracy in the Gambia. By taking power forcefully, Jammeh followed the examples of Gamal Nasser of Egypt and Muammar Gaddaffi of Libya and many others in the creation of an intelligence apparatus. Through such means he did not only civilianized his rule through a party system, but he also introduced a system of control never known and suffered from by the Gambian people. Chapter Fourteenth talked about how Jammeh civilianized his rule and how he became elected President with a powerful security and intelligence apparatus at his disposal. While Chapter Fifteen Jallow addresses the rise of popular résistance to the Jammeh regime and brought his assessment of what is happening and the future the Gambians. While writing about these matters, he informs us about the activities of Jammeh notoriously called Loony. Here Jallow calls on political psychology to help him explain what he believes to be madness on the part of Jammeh. He made us to understand that certain Gambians who benefited from the Jammeh regime became victims of their association with such a regime. He brought our attention back to Buki the Hyena, Chokie the bush fowl, Nopa the hare, and Monkey, the nice boy.
“Angry Laughter” has sixty-one pages that capture the dynamic of Gambian politics since 1994. It is not a scholarly paperback; rather, it is a work that impresses upon the essential elements in the making of a New Gambia under military cum civilian rule. Many Gambians under Jammeh became Ministers, an honor some of them never expected; however, the manner in which they rose to those positions and the circumstances and conditions that prevail have made their role in Gambian history a topic of discourse and meaningful scrutiny. They encouraged and supported atrocities in their homeland. Baba Galleh Jallow is following the examples of literary figures that immortalized such events for the benefit of the great grand children and beyond.
In concluding this review of the book, a few critical remarks ought to be made to appreciate the author while reminding him that no narrative is absolutely correct and remain unchallengeable by others. The first note of criticism goes to the length of the work. Although he has brought to our attention the rise of Yahya Jammeh as an autocrat and a dictator in peaceful Gambia, he should remind his readers that Jammeh became the victim of his own success at the expense of Jawara. However, President Jammeh felt into the opposite of peaceful Jawara by creating a legacy of monstrosity and bloodshed. Not only did Jammeh capture the helms of government in the Gambia, but he demystified the mystique of ministerial appointments by making his ministers as docile as an errand boy. In this way he has psychologically transferred the self- image he once possessed under Jawara as his body-guard to the new flunkies he made by his own power as sitting President. The other criticism lies in his appropriation of the historical record and the telescoping of data and facts to suit his own needs. Jammeh and his men would raise the charge that the author is long on denunciation and short on acknowledging even the smallest bits and pieces from the good deeds of Jammeh.
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