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In Foni after ‘a truth’

Mustapha K Darboe sitting with students from Sibanor senior secondary school.

By Mustapha K Darboe

A man looked on with blood shots in his eyes. His fist in slow motion fell on the table before him. The protested muscles slowly receded. And his gaze fell upon Horejah Bala Gaye. “Aning teh kiling, ateh teh siti nola,” he said, looking agitated. I would come to know him as Karamo Manneh.

Manneh was passionate as he was angry when talking about the 2009 witch hunting. By the test of former president Yahya Jammeh’s witch doctors, he was a wizard. A truth then it was. For truth, but a truth, was Jammeh’s. He owned it.

In January 2009, Jammeh was to distinguish himself from the rest of tyrants before him. Some witch doctors on his orders began invading communities and institutions searching for witches and wizards. The hunters were being escorted by Major Solo Bojang, a onetime top member of the state guard.

Manneh was their victim, as were hundreds in Foni. Their mandate, as we would come to know, was to cleanse the country of witches and wizards. They managed to kill at least 12 in Sintet alone and exiled their Alkalo, Bully Badgie, to Casamance for 3 months. The hunters were being protected by soldiers who were reportedly led by Major Bojang.

Also, protecting them was the Green Boys, a civilian vigilante group associated with former President Jammeh.

Manneh came to tell ‘a truth’ to the world. He sat before ‘a’ Truth Commission in Sibanor, a settlement about 29 minutes from Kanilai, the birth place of Jammeh.

As Manneh testified before the Commission, in the crowd were students from Sibanor and natives of Sintet.

Last week was the second week of following the trail of witch doctors. There, I sat, as people narrated the stories, from Jambur to Sibanor, pondering. I have watched tears fall on peoples’ breasts. I have watched people bite their lips in anger. I have seen anger; an anger unmitigated.

How wicked is time? How wicked is the wind? They have connived to wipe their footpaths. I could travel in the minds but couldn’t see the footprints—the footprints of the witch doctors.

As Manneh burst, Horejah looked on with expressionless expression. Her eyes blank. Perhaps like me, she just doesn’t know how to feel the ridiculous. How does one convince himself that any sane President would send people on forceful confession mission—that people are witches but somehow, you who notice that, you are not?

Like everyone else, Horejah too must have a tortured mind. It has been ten months of a truth. A truth we sometimes hope does not become the truth. We doubt ourselves but even our gods. Dictatorship is an embracement of the absurd!

This truth that tortures a nation! But a truth expired, that was. Truth is supposed to save, they say. For truth is what shall set men free. But how does it save when it is not said on time? Is truth and time separable? Must truth come after the crime, during or before?

I could use some distraction. On my phone, I turned to some Quran. I could not hear Manneh anymore but I could feel and see his expression—the picture on his face. “Which of the blessings of your Lord will you deny?” said a voice in my ear. Me, I said to myself.

Who must I hold responsible for this ridiculous excess of the Authority? The gods who, like men, were silent witnesses? Must that be the blessing I deny? But could the poet Khalil Gibran be right?

“And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, so the wrongdoer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all,” said Almustafa to the people of Orphalese.

“Like a procession you walk together towards your god-self. You are the way and the wayfarers. And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone.”

But was it Khalil, the writer, who was talking of Almustafa, the character in the tale? This rule is a bad law. How can the murdered not be unaccountable for his own murder, and the robbed not blameless in being robbed?

Perhaps, Horejah, like me and the rest of mankind are all sinners. Together, we did the witch hunting. Or by our mere existence, must we be accomplices? What if I say it is your tax that funds the witch doctoring?

What if I tell you that it was your silence that perpetuated the witch doctoring? How about if I tell you that it was your votes that gave us Jammeh for election results are a product of all those who voted. It mattered not who you voted for.

That was perhaps the frustration on the face of Dr Baba Galleh Jallow. Jallow sat next to Horejah. He buried his chin in his palm. His lower jaw fell, exposing his teeth. He too needed air. Everyone under the tent in Sibanor needed fresh air.

Like the rest of Mankind, the last to despair, the man who makes fun in hell, also looked on. At the TRRC only Dr Lamin Sise jokes. Often no or little laugh greets his joke. Not that his storylines are not funny but tortured minds knew not what fun is. Tired eyes recognised not what is happiness.

His face nevertheless lit. Dr is a kind soul. In Jambur I have watched him make fun of an old woman who in her 80s, he said, is still a beauty that will shake many men. Eventually, we would come to know that Dr Sise was speaking for himself. Who loves a witch!

There was no ST. You would a man of that standing, his lyrical clarity and artistic purity, to say IT. For even Dr knows in our world, Gonga, the truth, has long died.

Dr Sise occasionally gets appalled with 22 years of Jammeh making the absurd normal. But if wrongdoers are sinners, so are onlookers. Helplessness is an excuse Heaven takes not. He was at UN. We were here.

It is like Mutabaruka taking Christopher Columbus to court. They don’t even live in the same century. Thus, brother Muta and the Judge One Thousand Years have a music but they don’t have a court case.

Gonga is time. So, shall it expire? And as it expires, like tophi, its taste disappears. So, must this nation speak Gonga while it is useful? For useful truth, not a truth but the truth, saves life. Such truth would have prevented detention of an Angel.

Even Angels were detained in Jammeh’s Gambia. Three-month old baby of Nyima Jarju and Lamin Badgie was detained at Sibanor police station. The couples sat before me, revealing a story they kept to themselves for a decade. As Nyima began the story, she sobbed, paused and picked a tissue paper before her. Tears started streaming.

“…We were put in a cell and we did not have dinner that night. I was in the cell with my baby. There was no ventilation in the cell. I spent the night with my baby,” she said before the Commission on November 28. Is Gambia a nation of faith or the faithful or simply, hypocrites?

Nyima would be in that condition for a week. Jarju was in the same cell with her mother-in-law. As she cried, Badgie sat there, helpless. Much like the day of the crime.

As the couple addressed a guilty nation of criminals that left them alone to the mercy of a tyrant, Dr Sise looked on, lost in his eyes.

It had been 4 days of torture. In the midst of madness, total insanity, were sane teenagers. They were not witnesses to the crime.

During TRRC’s session in Foni, I got to notice the obvious: only people in Sintet testified. And according to a native of this region I spoke to, this is the most affected region by Jammeh’s witch doctors. So, I asked some guy at the TRRC why only Sintet.

And his response was that they only get witnesses from Sintet. This may sink with the usual Foni stereotype: “Foni does not want to testify”. Kumba Sanneh, a native of Bwiam, would have disagreed. When I went to Foni, I wanted to have a feel of the environment. I mean how people there think of Jammeh and his occasional madness.

I would talk to several students from Sibanor upper and senior schools. Kumba is at grade 12. On my first day, I approached her in the midst of her colleagues. “Bouma,” I stretched my hands. She took it and smiled. “You can speak Jola?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “Just a little.”  Standing by her was a Fatou Badgie. Both have bright eyes, smart looks and wearing a veil. They must be religious.

“What do you think of the TRRC,” I asked. To both I stared. They stared back. Some seconds of silence ensued. Then Kumba stepped forth. “I think they are doing a great job,” she said. Kumba is a big fan of the Commission. She thinks Jammeh made mistakes and must be held accountable for them. Fatou does have a difference in opinion. She thinks Jammeh is, on his overall score, a great leader. Never mind his human rights abuses.

“He [Jammeh] built so many schools, introduced free education for girls and many others,” said Badgie. Her face lit with a smile. I smiled back. She looked down. I feared she may think I am disappointed in her holding such an opinion.

For many, TRRC is after Jammeh’s head and anyone with them must be after his head too. I held her hand. “It is ok to hold all sorts of opinion,” I said. I hope that reassured her.

Then a sudden silence. In this whole time, four of their other colleagues stood by. Innocent onlookers, they were. I would later have an interview with Kumba before she wrote her letter to TRRC.

She would even confide in me the political party she supports. “I am a socialist,” she said. I smiled. I believe in not the angel, nor the gods or the land or its dwellers. I just smiled at nothing, the not believing.

“We are sure that the very existence of the TRRC is to dig out the human rights violations committed by the former regime,” Kumba would say in her letter to the Commission.

“We are really optimistic that if the truth is revealed, it will surely encourage healing, reconciliation and reparations in order to develop our beloved country, The Gambia, into a well-coordinated society where the past evils will be forgiven and forgotten for good,” said Kumba in her letter to the Commission.

Kumba Sanneh, a native of Bwiam and head girl of Sibanor Senior Secondary School.

Throughout the TRRC’s session, each day I spoke to students. The first teams of 4 students I met on the first day would come looking for me on Thursday. That was the day we were supposed to leave.

“Hey,” I heard while walking back to the tent. I stopped and looked back. It was Jarju and Jallow with their colleague I didn’t know. I took a seat and sat near the tent, at the back.

“We have been looking for you,” said Jarju. Both girls are very intelligent, by standards. They did hold different views on Jammeh. Jallow’s is more interesting.

She said she thinks Jammeh is a great leader. I asked why, she said “he used to invite us to his birthday party in Kanilai”. “He would also sometimes bring lot of stuff for us or give our school money,” she added.

To this, her two colleagues laughed. She appeared feeling embarrassed. “Iteh, domoro,” said Jarju, a native of Sibanor. Then we all went quiet for a moment. I broke it. “We all have our priorities,” I said. “Let’s not imposed our definition of what is important on her.”

The girls would later shift our conversation to journalism. Both of them want to be journalists. But conversation, the testimonies in my mind, continues. It is a world of many sides where evils are not evils and prophets are not prophets.

We are way and the wayfarers! A nation that failed Nyima’s 3-month-old baby. As the Commission searches for Gonga, not the half or the divided truth, so must each Gambian search for it from within.


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