By Saul Saidykhan
If you’ve ever lived in, lived near, or even once visited Mansa Konko before Yaya Jammeh took power, then you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise the next time you stop by the place. The picture above is typical of what public infrastructure in Mansa Konko looks like nowadays. Back in May 2004, when I visited and walked around the town, there were only two functioning vehicles in the legacy Divisional/Regional PWD headquarters. One was a big dump truck and the other was the single resident engineer’s car. To fuel the truck to occasionally go repair roads, the crew did private for-hire work (Quarter Jab) to raise fuel money. When any of the two vehicles breaks down, as they often did, the agency turns to private individuals for help. A local cab driver was the first to tell me the story, but I couldn’t believe him. He referred me to one of my uncles Sedibarr who runs a trucking (sand mining, cargo transporting) business in Jarra. Uncle Sedy was surprised I didn’t know about this: “They just settled their final installment of a D5,000 spare parts loan I gave them months ago” he told me. He said it often takes them four months to pay back his loans; and he extends them loans only because he used to work for them, and still maintained a good relationship with the crew and their boss. I was completely dumb-founded.
Looking around, nothing in Mansa Konko looks familiar. The decrepit, and dilapidated look of the old PWD compound is symptomatic of the state of the entire town. If the Jammeh regime had established and implemented a well-documented policy to let Mansa Konko go to rot, they couldn’t have done a better job in slowly killing this once-beautiful place. The health center has been transferred to Soma, the Community Development Department is gone, the Veterinary Department is gone, and so are many other institutions which have either been completely shut down, scaled back, or also moved elsewhere. Both the Community Health Nursing School, and the Rural Development Institute are mere caricatures of their glory days. The paved road that stretched from the trans-Gambia highway in Pakalinding to the edge of the hill going down to Sankwia is no more. Not a single spec of tar remains visible on that two kilometers stretch. In short, the spirit of Mansa Konko is gone. This once lively and boisterous small town, is gone down the tube. This used to be Mansa Konko. Our Mansa Konko.
Mansa Konko literally translates from Mandinka as “Sovereign Hill.” That, because the town is located on a rocky hill range that is the seat of Executive power in Central Gambia. It is built on a then un-used and rarely-trodden rocky hill with a superstitious reputation. Built in the early 1950s by the British colonial authorities, it was the residence of both colonial administrators and their subsequent indigenous successors. It flourished as a model town (some may call it a Big camp,) until Jammeh took over. As far as I know, it is the first completely planned town in the Gambia’s history, built out of total wilderness. Local folklore has it the hill is the home of a mysterious and dangerous dragon, which belief made the natives stay clear of a large section of this towering hill that neatly separates West Jarra’s cluster of six key villages into two groups: Sankwia, Kanikunda, and Karantaba on the east side versus Jenoi, Pakalinding, and Soma on the west.
Yet Mansa Konko’s location in Jarra was due somewhat to pure luck. See, the British colonials had initially planned the administrative town to be built on flat undulating land near Massembe in East Kiang, but the people of the area won’t have any of it. For perspective, the only direct confrontation between a Gambian community and British colonials happened in Kiang Sankandi in 1909 resulting in the death of a British colonial officer. The two Kiang villages are less than twenty miles apart. So, Lang Kinteh (father of Seyfo Buwa Kinteh,) who was local Chief in West Jarra at the time, offered the British the spooky hill to the east of his native Pakalinding that locals wanted nothing to do with. Such was the unlikely beginning of Mansa Konko.
Site clearing started sometime in 1950, quickly followed by the start of construction. The houses are well spaced out in cognizance of the hot tropical climate. In typical British class tradition, the houses were built in three styles to reflect the status of their occupants. There are “Boys Quarters”-like Room and Parlor apartments for junior civil servants; there are two bedroom, one bath and kitchen Single Family units with open backyards adjoining each other for middle level workers; and there are the cream-of-the-crop Single Family “self-contain” houses with three to four bedrooms and fences all round for Senior public officials from Commissioner to Department/Agency Supervisors and Managers. When I lived in Jarra, you could tell someone’s status in the scheme of things by seeing where they live in Mansa Konko.
Much of the initial construction in Mansa Konko was completed in late 1952 to early 1953. If you have an eye for detail – to this day, you can tell exactly when a particular block or house in Mansa Konko was completed as most have their completed Dates stamped on them on one side near the roof. As per the Master plan, there was available running water, electricity, and telecommunications services in Mansa Konko. Government operations in Mansa Konko began in 1953 and were maintained by successive PPP governments throughout their three decades in power. By the mid-1970s, Mansa Konko was simply one of the best places -if not the best place, to live in The Gambia: the PWD was at its peak employing hundreds of people from all over the Gambia giving Jarra an eclectic hue, a multi-million-dollar Rural Development Project was centered there, a Community Health Nursing School was built and operational, as was a Secondary Technical School, the Health Center was functioning fine, a Veterinary Department unit was active, a Telecoms unit with Postal services was working, a Community Development Department Regional Head Quarters was built, as was a Freedom from Hunger Campaign branch, and the Police had a large presence. New buildings were built to cater for the extra influx of public servants, a soft drinks factory was built and operating at the foot hills near Pakalinding, a cinema debuted that decade, as did a local bakery, and so on. The town’s good fortune continued into the 1980s with the coming of institutions like Action Aid, and the building of an Ahmadiya High School. Mansa Konko was a town that depicted the Gambian nation’s potential – “a Gambia that could be,” which I believe might have been the colonialists’ intention. It’s a far cry from the Mansa Konko of today.
I’m not from Mansa Konko. In a way, no one really is. Mansa Konko is a formal place. It reeks of red tape through and through. Like I stated earlier, even the arrangement and allocation of the residences has a formality to it. Hierarchy is denoted by living arrangements. So in a way, Mansa Konko is a place where everyone meets, conduct formal business, socialize transiently, or just kill time, but generally regard somewhere else as their “real home.” Paradoxically though, those of us with native Jarra blood in us regard it as ours, especially as we live in its vicinity, and our mothers went there for pre-or post-natal care. Such was my special bond. My dad worked for the Police Department in Mansa Konko as the lowest man on the ladder. However, he became fast friends with an Officer-In Charge name Saul Samba, who would go on to become President Jawara’s ADC in 1967, and later Chief Police Inspector or Commander. (He was officially immortalized for his death in a murder-suicide by a childhood friend from Banjul Matarr Sarr in 1973.) In any case, I became one of Sister Jojo Cham’s babies at the Mansa Konko Health Center (she told me about this story with pride over twenty years later when I worked for the MRC as a Field Supervisor and met her when she was engaged as a short-term Consultant in 1989-90.) My dad named me after his cop friend Saul Samba, a name I carried until when I had to write the Common Entrance Exam.
I don’t remember my birth there naturally, but I remember some of the countless trips to the Health center especially my own, my brothers, and cousins’ circumcision by old Dispenser Samba in 1975; and of course, my coming of age. Like most kids that lived in West Jarra in those days, Mansa Konko was where you first realize your parents aren’t as rich as you thought. That because, there was no shortage of boys flaunting footwear, clothing, or toys that your dad cannot afford to buy for you. Some months after our circumcision that year (1975,) we were coming from school one day, and sawa ball lying inside the compound of an English expatriate assisting the Agriculture Ministry. Lomax was his last name, but everyone called him Lomars because we don’t know any better. Dawda, who is my dad’s first cousin, but my classmate, jumped over the barbed-wired fence, and threw me the ball, but not before Mrs. Lomars came out of the house yelling at us. The next thing we know, the Lomars’ watchman, and another fellow were chasing us down the hill to Kani Kunda. Sensing trouble at home because of our tomfoolery, we tried to delay what we thought would be a hiding. But alas, when we got home that evening, there was no reckoning: it was announced that evening on radio that the PPP government through M.C. Cham, who was Education Minister at the time, had declared “free education for all Primary Schools” going forward. Our poor parents must have been so relieved they no longer had to pay the D4+ School Fees per Term that news of our prank (not the first time,) did not cause a stir.
And of course, anytime the Health Center throws out a new pile of medical disposables in Mansa konko, we would shift through it after school, and pick out used plastic syringe bottles to spray water on each other. I cringe nowadays when I think of this because of the danger of contamination inherent in such foolishness, but back them, we thought it is fun! Not to talk about purchasing ice pops on sticks, or inside corn beef cans from various House-wife sellers in Mansa Konko. Then there was big and loud corporal Kassa, who loves to pick me with one hand and toss me in the air. The last time I saw corporal Kassa was a week before I left Gambia at the B.I.C.I bank across from the CFAO on Wellington street where he was moonlight as a security guard after retiring from the police force. None of those businesses occupy those locations now, so I wonder what happened to uncle Kassa.
So many memories, so much nostalgia, such a heartbreak. Somehow, I feel cheated out of a piece of my heritage- as odd as that may seem to some, and walking around Mansa Konko, I felt like Michael Moore did about George W. Bush, and wanted to scream out loud at Jammeh “dude, what happened to my country!”
With Jammeh gone, when will the restoration of Mansa Konko begin?