Only now, more than three weeks after his passing, have I mustered the fortitude to write a tribute to my brother and friend, Dr. Al-Hajj Sheikh Mamat Jeng (aka Alhaji Jeng) who passed away on Sunday, August 25, 2013. He was laid to rest on Friday, August 30, in the picture-perfect town of Spydeberg, Norway, a forty-five minute drive south-east of Oslo, where he lived with his family for several years.
Alhaji Jeng was born in the late 1940s to a large, loving, and enterprising Kaur family. His late father Al-Hajj Sheikh Malik Jeng, was a trader at the local market, and was renowned in the area for his humor and generosity- young Alhaji would get these traits from him. Aja Pitche Mboob, his mother, was just as enterprising, selling her wares at the market while tending to Alhaji’s younger siblings- Modou Bamba, Amie and Musa, as well as late Alhaji’s older brothers: Adama (Nylon), Mbye, and Ousman. Young Alhaji was named after Al-Hajj Sheikh Malik’s older brother, Al-Hajj Mamat Jeng, who died while performing the Hajj in the mid-1940s. Thus, “Alhaji” Jeng’s name is Mamat and, he too, would later earn the title of Al-Hajj after his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Young Mamat would subsequently begin his formal Western education in Kaur, in the mid-1950s, studying and ultimately memorizing the Qur’an, as well. From Kaur Primary, he proceeded to the Gambia High School, and then to Yundum College, where he qualified as a teacher in 1969. He taught for several years at the BCC (Bathurst City Council) and was a widely popular French and social studies teacher. In 1974 Alhaji left for Norway to attend the Lyngdal Agricultural School, where following four years of study, in Norwegian mostly, earned an undergraduate science degree.
He, thereafter, proceeded to the Agricultural School of Norway to complete a doctorate in Soil Chemistry in 1991- a truly remarkable achievement. Upon graduation, Alhaji taught and conducted research at several schools and institutes in Norway, including the Norwegian Research Council, and University of Norway, before returning home to work at Gambia’s National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), shortly after the 1994 coup. Following several years of dedicated service, Dr. Jeng would return to Norway to work as a senior researcher/scientist at the Norwegian Centre for Soil and Environmental Research, until his untimely passing.
As a senior scientist, Dr. Jeng led research projects in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Niger, and Tanzania, to name a few. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Africa-Working-Group and was leading a major research project to improve soils and sustainable agricultural productivity in these countries. Dr. Jeng was also a widely published scholar, who contributed immensely to his discipline. His colleagues at the Center spoke of his multiple talents as a scientist, his contributions to the scientific community, as well as his humility, and sense of humor. He was, however, an unassuming gentle man; his scholarly accomplishments often over-shadowed by a disarming and humble disposition.
In late July 2013, at Musa and Aja Oumie Jeng’s spacious and beautiful home in Atlanta, we shared many laughs and iftar. Alhaji had an infectious sense of humor and a slight stutter, which he used effectively in telling jokes. He used it for timing and effect- carefully choosing his words, while building your interest, as the suspense built- before delivering the punch-line, which often left all in stiches. And through waves of pain and discomfort from an aching back, he remained oblivious even defiant- determined that the pain would not take away from the moment or dampen his spirits. Dressed in a white niarri-morso, and skull-cap, he reveled in the moment- flashing a smile to reveal his pearly-white teeth. Less than a week later, following his return to Spydeberg, he passed away.
At the mosque in Oslo, where he was being prayed for before his burial on August 30, Imam Ebrahima Saidy, a brilliant Islamic scholar, with a facility for languages, spoke of Dr. Jeng’s many qualities, and called him a “Muslim,” in the truest sense of the word. He was, according to Imam Saidy, a man of peace and a man who loved what he did. He tended the soil and worked tirelessly to improve the environment in order to impact positively lives of all that depended on them- trees, animals and humans. Dr. Jeng, he also noted, was a well-liked and respected member of the Oslo-Sene-Gambian Community, where he was an elder and father-figure, and an active member of the Muslim Congregation, and a member of its important Reconciliation Committee.
Musa Jeng, (aka Burr Jahka) of Sweden, an older brother to the late Alhaji and Musa Jeng of Atlanta, a much younger sibling, eulogized their departed brother, as a humanitarian who freely gave of himself, his resources and knowledge to his family, Gambia, Africa and the world. Ebrima Mboob also of Sweden, a nephew to the late Alhaji, spoke of their childhood days in Kaur. Though older than Alhaji by a year, they were inseparable- indulging in all sorts of mischief that included swimming in the crocodile-infested Gambia River. I spoke of the late Alhaji Jeng, as a brother, and a friend, a scholar, and above all, a humble and godly man who could hold a conversation with people from all walks-of-life, including children without coming off as condescending.
Mike Angstreich, an American and long-resident of Norway, spoke movingly of his friend and departed colleague, as well as the times they spent traveling the world visiting projects or attending conferences. A Nigerian brother and friend, Alfred Meggison, also spoke of Alhaji’s love of technology and his child-like excitement following each purchase of a new gadget. Soft-spoken Mrs. Yasin Joof, whom the late Alhaji affectionately called suma saeri (sweet-heart), delivered her remarks with the assistance of Ms. Amie Joof. They both spoke eloquently and movingly of their friendships of several decades with the late Alhaji and his family.
Following a forty-five minute drive, we arrived at the cemetery in Spydeberg, where Dr. Jeng was buried against a backdrop of rolling-brown-grass-topped hills of the Norwegian countryside- his former colleagues making a strong showing at the ceremony. And, as the crowd dispersed, I sought out a couple of them. One related a story in which he had asked Alhaji several years ago, if he ever contacted the gentleman who first recommended him to a school in Norway. To which Alhaji said, “No.” To his surprise, a week or so later, Alhaji, with the assistance of his children, he said, sought and found the Norwegian gentleman from some forty years ago. “That was the kind of thoughtful person, Alhaji was,” he said.
Now back in Oslo, after his remains had been laid to rest, and following a brief drizzle, Imam Saidy led Friday Prayers. Lunch was then served and recitation of the Qur’an commenced. Thereafter, the atmosphere took a celebratory twist, and appropriately so. Alhaji would not have had it any other way. In fact, he would have insisted on it. This is because by any measure, he lived a rich, and engaged life, as a family man, humanitarian, scientist, scholar and teacher. He touched many lives and made many more people smile. Certainly, the world, and the worlds of those who knew him, will forever remain bright because he lived.
Like many of his friends, especially those who grew-up with him in Kaur- Jabel Sowe, Basiru Sowe (Domoda), Pa Kah (Knife), Abdou Bittaye (Bottle), Ebou Kah, Saulayman Mboob, Ebrima Mboob (Tan-Jogeh), Bai Jeng (BYJ), Ablie Ndow, Ousman Cham (Cow), Seringe Gaye (SL), as well as his numerous friends in Oslo: Saihou Sarr, Alhaji Nyan, Ba Musa Ceesay, Pa Harding, just to name a few, and Omar Drammeh, as well as Yehia Sayed El-Temsah, both of whom looked-up to him as a father figure, Alhaji was very special and made all feel special.
I, too, enjoyed many special moments with Alhaji- our student days at Yundum College; when he worked at NARI, and when I visited him and his family a couple years ago at Spydeberg, and a decade earlier, in Aas. Yet what stands out as most memorable was the cruise he and I took two years ago from Oslo to Kiel, Germany, to visit a longtime friend, Alhaji Bambo Dampha, who with his son would later pay him a return-visit. We reminisced about Kaur, friends lost, and those still alive, town personalities and events- wrestling matches, and larger-than-life headmaster, Mr. E. T. Jeng and Mr. I. B. Sarr.
We indulged in the numerous activities the cruise-ship offered- climbing to the highest deck to feel the cool breeze on our faces- the ship reminding us of the big ocean-liners that frequented Kaur to collect the shelled groundnuts during the trade season. We lamented the poor state of the town after the groundnut trade’s collapse. In the cabin we shared, Alhaji and I talked late into the night only to awake wondering who fell asleep first.
Yet, it was Sainabou, more than any one, who stood by him, through tough times and good times alike. Sainabou, a devoted wife, a strong and loving mother provided a warm and good home for Alhaji and his children, when she could just as easily pursued a career outside the home. Alhaji, was her first and only love, he was all she ever knew and cared to know. Alhaji was her best friend and they affectionately called one another “Boy.” The two also shared a special whistle-tune that subtly announced Alhaji’s arrival outside Sainabou’s father’s compound in Banjul in the early days of their courtship. They also shared a praise-poem that they often recited to one another to express their mutual devotion and love:
Yai suma lu ne fu ne (you are everything to me, everywhere)
Yai suma lepa fepa (You are everything, everywhere- through it all)
Alhaji Jeng personified the best qualities of the Saloum-saloum creed. He was generous to a fault, unpretentious, with a healthy dose of confidence, (fulaa ack fyda), and contagious humor. Despite years abroad, he never lost his bearings- enjoying as he did traditional Ngoyan music of Medina Sabackh, the inimitable Fatou Gewell Diouf, whose “Suma Narri bi” and especially her latest song, Sa Jarr me Lambul, often left him beaming and fishing for words, as he stuttered slightly. He enjoyed wrestling contests via satellite from Senegal, as well as the accompanying comedy shows- he adored the Senegalese comedian, Bai Peul. He also kept up with the latest dance-tunes- Youssou Ndour’s “namon na len,” even long after he gave it all up in exchange for his prayer-mat and prayer-beads. The late Alhaji also spoke Wolof more fluently than any person of his generation that I know. He was versed in the history, culture- proverbs, similes, idiomatic expression, and spoke with an intonation that few could imitate.
Their children: Ousainou (Old-Boy), Olimatta, Sarian and Isatou- all gifted and accomplished in their own rights, as well as their grandchildren, were his pride and joy. The children too grew up speaking excellent Wolof and could not be more loving and respectful. The late Dr. Jeng was the consummate family-man, a loving husband, a doting and wise parent and a jovial grandparent. He was a loyal friend to many- always quick to crack a joke to break the ice. He related well to all he met, adults and especially the young- he genuinely liked people.
Ultimately, Dr. Jeng is in peace; at peace with Allah, his family, friends and neighbors. He contributed his quota and more, and was an exemplary ambassador for Gambia and Africa, and truly was a citizen of the world. At the picturesque Spydeberg cemetery where he now lies, you can be assured that Al-Hajj Mamat Sheikh Jeng, is finally resting, in peace.
Adios, Jeng Bella, Yall na la suff sede; yall na deh di sa noff lai.
Abdoulaye Saine (with the assistance of Dr. Paula Saine and Ms. Olimatta Jeng, Spydeberg, Norway).