No Beautiful Feathers

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By Baba Galleh Jallow

In a reaction to “Gambia on the Move – II” on the Community of Gambianist Scholars listserv, an anonymous member wrote: “This is truly a very optimistic view of what seems to be starting off according to Prof. Baba Galleh Jallow. Time will tell. . .” This concise statement is pregnant with truth for many reasons, but especially because yes, it is hard to be optimistic when we have so many serious problems in Gambia. And it is hard to be optimistic in Africa where potential moments of progressive transformation so often founder on the rocks of human vanity, carelessness and inactivity. Invaluable chances for positive change are lost because inimical habits and practices from a debilitating past continue unchecked into the present; and debilitating difficulties suffered by people in all areas of existence remain unresolved and growing in the present. How then can we in the Gambia dare to be optimistic when we know fully well that inimical political habits and practices from the past are still very much with us in the present? How dare we be optimistic when we know fully well that difficulties suffered by the people in all areas of existence in the past are still with us today?  Time will indeed tell if our current optimism is misplaced. But it will tell such a sad story only if we fail to strive with all our might to confront and neutralize these persistent difficulties and inimical political habits and practices from the past, including for example, denial of permits to our alternative political parties.

A Point newspaper story of August 14, 2017 quotes the GDC’s national campaign manager as saying that his party was denied  a permit to hold a rally in Brikama after he and two of his colleagues were subjected to some tedious form-filling procedures totally unbefitting the new Gambia. The outpouring of reactions to the story on Gambian social media circles is refreshing. Luckily, the authorities are not denying an encounter with the GDC over the matter but are attributing the incident to a misunderstanding rather than a deliberate intention to deny the GDC its right to hold a political rally using a public address system. Certainly, if the police have concrete evidence that a political party is planning a rally with subversive intentions, appropriate courses of action may be taken. But without such concrete evidence, the police can absolutely not refuse permits to legitimate applicants in the new Gambia. If orders or instructions to do so emanate from higher authorities as they did in the old Gambia, the police should refuse to obey those orders or instructions because no person or authority has the power to take unlawful action against any individual or group in the new Gambia. No person or authority has the power to deny citizens their right to freedom of association, assembly, and expression in the new Gambia. If in their exercise of these rights citizens break the just laws of the land, they will be held accountable. But until then, the police must act with the full knowledge and confidence that what we have in the new Gambia is the rule of law, not the rule of men. Gone are the bad old days of unquestionable orders from above.

Time will prove our current optimism misplaced if we also fail to start actively ameliorating some of the debilitating difficulties suffered by the people for so long that they have become abnormal sub-cultures in our society. Difficulties like water shortages and power blackouts for example. Who remembers a time when there were no water shortages or frequent power blackouts in The Gambia? Since the days of the GUC, Gambians have been mentally slapped every time the lights suddenly go off leaving them in crippling darkness. Blackouts are bad for business but they are also bad for our psychological wellbeing. Blackouts automatically inspire a sense of stress-inducing powerlessness among the majority of ordinary people who cannot afford generators or solar power. The strange combination of stress and powerlessness induced by frequent blackouts invariably evokes a sense of helplessness and maintains a heavy presence in the public mind.

And then there are our terrible street conditions. Who remembers a time when the streets of Banjul were not littered with muddy potholes and ugly craters through which Gambians have to walk and drive every day, and have done so for many years? Who remembers a time when there were no large, muddy and often stinking pools of water on the streets of Ebo Town, Tabokoto and almost everywhere else in the Greater Banjul Area? Who remembers a time when there were no potholes on the short street leading from Brikama Highway into the University of The Gambia campus?  Much like the Banjul streets, this short stretch of road – just a few hundred meters long – is a messy tapestry of muddy potholes through which cars and well-dressed students have to wobble and wade to reach office and classroom buildings. A mere $15, 000 will transform this small street in unimaginable ways and remove a festering nuisance from the lives of hundreds of young, dignified students and others who use this short street on a daily basis. To bolster our optimism with realism, we must make the new Gambia look and feel different from the old Gambia in ways that will directly improve the lives and daily experiences of our people at the UTG and elsewhere.

A journalist asked me in a recent Standard newspaper interview (Bantaba, Friday July 14, 2017) whether in my brief interactions with them as a visiting professor, I saw any hope for the country in the students of the Masters program in African history at the UTG. Yes, I do see hope for the country in them. They are intelligent, energetic, outspoken and engaged with their subjects of study and in the national discourse. They hold strong views on matters political in the new Gambia. And they express these views in no uncertain terms during class discussions moderated by civility and respect. Together we learnt that we can all write our own histories of the recent past and we can all tell it right. But these students are faced with all kinds of crippling difficulties. They have no access to the research facilities and databases so crucially important to graduate studies in history. And they have severely limited access to internet, copying and printing facilities. Good reading materials are hard to come by partly because surprise, surprise, 38 years after its founding the University of The Gambia has no main general library. UTG students at Brikama use the Gambia College library which they say is very poorly stocked. It is amazing that these students are able to pursue and do well in graduate courses under such difficult circumstances. In undergraduate programs at the UTG Brikama campus, some students attend whole lectures without seeing the lecturer because they have to stand outside and listen through the windows for lack of classroom space. A shortage of lecturers is compounded by a shortage of classroom space and furniture. And so our undergraduate students suffer the repeated and tedious indignity of attending lectures on their feet outside or sitting on the floor inside severely cramped, overcrowded classrooms. We know that a new campus is being built at Faraba Banta. But learning facilities such as the ones above cannot and should not wait for the completion of that project. They are urgently needed now.

And then there is our undeniably broken public health delivery system. On Saturday, July 22, the New Gambia Movement (NGM) launched its Heal the Family Project at Serekunda Health Center. The launching included a small ceremony at which the NGM team donated a hundred thermometers and first aid kits and were given a tour of the health center. The report on our experience by Dr. Surahata Ceesay, the NGM’s Coordinator of Health Services is revealing. Part of it reads: “The entire center has only ONE blood pressure machine that they share with the Emergency department. They have to wait for one another to use it. There was not even a single thermometer in the center. The center has 12 beds which are insufficient for its operations. Two new born babies and their mothers are sometimes required to share the same bed. The beds are dilapidated. And none of the beds are electric, so forget about comfort. Mothers are discharged from delivery to their homes in 24 hours instead of the normal 48 hours. There is limited access to the center during the day due to market vendors on the streets selling their goods. This restricts emergency vehicles leaving or entering the center. Cars cannot reach the center because the street is totally blocked by vendors. Sometimes babies are delivered in taxis on the street due to lack of access to the center. They have only three delivery rooms with no tools or equipment. The delivery kits on the deck have to be sterilized and re-used several times. No pain medications are available for mothers in labor or during labor.”

We certainly cannot allow such conditions to persist in the new Gambia if we are serious about getting anywhere at all. As a matter of urgency we call upon Inspector General of Police Lang Kinteh to dedicate one morning or afternoon to clearing that street of vendors and to ensure that it remains clear and easily accessible to cars at all times. It is almost unimaginable that babies are delivered in taxis in the middle of the street, in broad daylight and with all the loud noise and people everywhere, some of them obviously stopping to watch. We also call upon the Ministry of Health and the UN system in this country to help upgrade in practical ways the horrible conditions at Serekunda Health Center.  How can such a major health center in such a densely populated part of our country not own a single thermometer, and own only one blood pressure machine which it shares with the emergency department? How can such a health center not have any pain medications for mothers in labor, or tools and equipment to help them through the painful labor process? Needless to say, things have been like this at the health center for a very long time. But we can no longer afford to have our babies delivered in taxis right in the middle of the streets of Serekunda, in broad daylight. We call upon President Barrow himself to personally oversee immediate remedial action at Serekunda Health Center, even as the Ministry of Health plans or executes other interventions in our public health sector where across the board, similar conditions are known to be the norm rather than the exception.

The bottom line is that while we are optimistic that the Gambia is on the move in the right direction, we cannot afford to romanticize or ignore our harsh realities. We cannot afford to wear beautiful feathers and pretend that everything is fine and dandy beneath the bright colors. The good news is that because we are freely talking to each other in a civil manner, there is genuine cause for optimism in the new Gambia, however guarded. When a people are able to freely and openly express their opinions over the wisdom or propriety of their government’s actions and policies, when they are able to disagree in a civil manner over issues of common national concern, and when they are able to protest real or perceived injustices – whatever their source – in an open and civil manner, then that people has genuine cause for optimism. Our present optimism is grounded in the pleasant reality of a blossoming culture of free expression in the new Gambia. But it must be optimism backed and guided by practical action directed towards eliminating or minimizing inimical habits, practices and difficulties from the past. It must be optimism matched by practical action towards making sure that things like police denial of permits to legitimate political parties, frequent power blackouts and water shortages, muddy potholes on our streets, poor learning facilities at the UTG, and lack of thermometers and painkillers at our health centers stay in the ugly past to which they belong.

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