50th Anniversary Symposium of Gambia High SchoolClass of 1971
Friday, 2 July 2021, School Hall, Gambia Senior Secondary School, Banjul
Mr Chairman, I shall begin by remembering all the teachers and friends, who are no longer with us. We offer prayers, that the Almighty God will welcome them into Heaven. We also pray for the wellbeing and good fortune of their families. Teachers, classmates, friends, ladies and gentlemen; and indeed the Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly, and all the Honourables and Excellencies in the room; May we all be blessed with good health, long life and happiness.
Fifty years ago, we were at Upper Five, in this prestigious institution, the Gambia High School. In July 1971, we completed our O-Level exams; with great joy and some anxiety, we left the school, to enter the world of work, and the life of adulthood. We express our gratitude to Almighty God, that we are gathered heretoday, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that important date in our lives. My classmates have asked me to speak briefly, on ‘How Gambia High School (GHS) has impacted my life’. It is not easy or comfortable, to reflect on one’s own life and activities, but the lessons already learnt by us the elders, can be helpful, to our children who now run GHS and other schools, and to our grandchildren who study at these schools.
Teachers, classmates and friends; to summarise my reflections, I can say without hesitation, that GHS had three major positive impacts on my personal and professional life; Number One: self-confidence and a sense of independence; Number Two: recognition of the power and importance of education; Number Three: sense of duty to serve the community.
When I was at Methodist Primary School, my father, the Late Alkalo Alhaji M.O. Faal was a very successful businessman, working as a commission-earning sales manager for the French colonial trading company, Maurel Freres, at their building, at Wellington Street, Bathurst. He had the financial means and the general independence, to provide substantial support, not only to his extended family, but to the wider community as well, in Latrikunda, Serekunda, Banjul and elsewhere. At the height of the struggle for decolonisation, my father entered the world of active politics. He lost his role as a business executive, and the wealththat came with it. He became a civil servant, observing the dictates of General Orders, and the many rules and restrictions of being a public servant.
With that family background, by the time I was at GHS, I had developed a desire for professional independence. I wanted to work for myself, make my own decisions, and attain the freedom that comes with financial and career autonomy. In 1960s Gambia, this was not necessarily a common aspiration. Ambitious young people wanted to be senior civil servants. For me, Gambia High School gave me the skills, tools and confidence, to create a career for myself, as an independent businessman. Making this choice in the 1970s required a certain degree of self-confidence, and perhaps even courage, because one was not guaranteed a monthly salary, let alone a pension.
From as early as Form One, GHS allowed and encouraged us the students, to organise ourselves, and do things for ourselves. We planned and organised social events, including picnics, outings and farewell parties.
These were run well enough, for our teachers to attend and participate. We hosted at our homes, visiting exchange students from Senegal, taking the responsibility to demonstrate and upholdthe discipline, hospitality and reputation of the school; and indeed, the progressive aspirations of the newly independent country. I immersed myself in these activities, enjoying the ability to make things happen and appreciating the trust accorded to us, to take operational responsibility for the many events and activities we organised. In a way, without knowing it then, these were the beginnings of my career in tour operating, tourism and hospitality.
GHS encouraged us to think for ourselves, and to express our views. Teaching was not just copying notes from the blackboard, and cramming. Our teachers engaged us in discussions, analysis and debate. This allowed us to understand our potential as individuals, and gave us confidence to be ambitious for our future careers. After few years taking woodwork classes at GHS, one year, I decided to switch and join the girls at Home Economics.This was highly unusual, I was the only boy in the class. By then, I already had the confidence to decide for myself what I wanted,even if it was unusual, unprecedented or pioneering. Neither my teacher, Mrs Adelaide Faye Njie, nor the school itself discouraged me, or queried my decision. They could have said ‘No’, or ridiculed my choice. Rightly, they endorsed my sense of independence, and nurtured my self-confidence; and I am most thankful and most grateful.
Whilst at GHS, I knew that lawyers could be independent, but I was not inclined to a legal career. Yet, I did not know many other professionals who could choose how, when and where they worked. However, one of our classmates, the Late Catherine Foon; her father, the Late Kebba Wally Foon was, like my father, also involved in politics. For Mr Foon, despite contesting so many elections, he maintained his independent professional career. I was to learn that he was a Certified Accountant. As a result, I considered accountancy as a possible career. Incidentally, by the early 1980s, Mr K W Foon was one of my many older friends, and a very good mentor he was to me.
This leads me to the importance and power of education. Maybe it was the highly selective nature of GHS as a grammar school. Or perhaps the constant pushing from our parents and guardians, but without any doubt, GHS had the atmosphere of scholarship and excellence. This was keenly nurtured by the teachers and the school leadership. We looked up to the young graduates who were our teachers, the likes of Madame Andre, the American Peace Corps, and the British VSO teachers. Dr Florence Mahoney, just returned home as the first Gambian PhD holder; Miss Victoria Peters who became Mrs Clarke, and the founder of Zenith Schoolin Fajara; Miss Satang Janneh who became Mrs Jow, GHS Principal, and Honourable Minister of Education; Mr Crispin Grey Johnson, who became a UN official, and Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs. Some of them were barely 10 years older than us. They were more than just classroom teachers, we visited their houses, and they visited our homes. We were impressed and inspired by their achievements and social standing, and they impressed upon us, that education was the passport to success.
By the second half of the 1960s, higher education for Gambians was no longer limited to the UK and Africa.
As students at GHS, we knew of schoolmates, cousins and uncleswho have travelled to the United States or Canada for their further studies. Some of you will remember that for many years I was known by the nickname of ‘States’. This was because of my keen interest and knowledge about the United States, as a place where access to higher education was easier; opportunities were many and plentiful, and the spirit of freedom was alive, in the civil rights movement. In the afternoons, after finishing classes at GHS, I was one of the boys who went to the American embassy librarysituated at Clarkson Street, to read about American Universities,and American lives; and imagined myself in those beautiful campuses and corridors of learning, and amongst the skyscrapers, the bright lights, the popular culture, the modernity.
After my O-levels, I was accepted to study, for a Bachelors degree in Business Administration and Economics at Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Mississippi. This was to be my route to becoming an Accountant and an independent business professional. That dream did not become reality, partly due to financial difficulties, and partly because I found myself in the world of business, as early as 1972, in the new and emerging tourism sector in The Gambia. I was privileged enough to use money and connections I made in business to ensure that education remained a cornerstone of our family and community. My younger brother, Lawyer Edi Faal, who followed me at GHS became the first in our family to earn a university degree in 1976; and in my private capacity, I had the good fortune to support hundreds of Gambians from different social backgrounds, to obtain a good education here in Gambia and abroad.
In 1974 at the age of 22, I established the ‘Pa Omar Faal Prize for Commercial Maths’, here at Gambia High School, under the leadership of Mr Eric F. Foss, in his final year as principal. I wanted to promote commercial education at a time when the school was focussed mainly on Arts and Science subjects. About 15 years after its launch, with the advice of Mrs Jow as principal,the Prize was rededicated, to reward students who demonstrated utmost Determination.
Teachers, classmates and friends; our Upper Five Class of 1971enrolled at GHS in the September of 1965. We were the first intake, after Gambia gained independence in February of that year. There was no doubt that being at GHS, we were a privileged minority. That privilege came with expectations, responsibilities,and social obligations. From the PWD drivers who gave us lift to and from Banjul, to the teachers and principals who tutored us at the school, to the general public who recognised and respected our uniform and our badge; everyone expected that we would work hard, make good of our lives, support our families and communities, and contribute to the development of the newly independent country.
Like many of you, that sense of duty to serve the communityremained an important part of my entire life. We all carry out that community and national obligation both formally and informally.In the past 50 years, I have contributed to many community organisations, served as a Member and Chairman of the Gambia Ports Labour Board, and currently serve as Ambassador-at Largefor the Republic of The Gambia, and Alkalo of LatrikundaYiringanya, in the Kanifing Municipality. In all our roles, directly and indirectly, we fulfil the obligations expected of us, as the privileged alumni of the school. For me, I did not make it to Tougaloo College, Mississippi; thankfully, I made it at Gambia High School, Banjul, The Gambia. I am forever grateful to GHS as an institution, and for the defining and positive impact it had on my life. Mr Chairman, teachers, classmates, friends, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your kind attention.
Alkalo Omar M.O. Faal, Banjul, 2 July 2021