Tears in Paradise

– Occasionally, you can’t help but cry on the job.

By Allen Meagher (ex-GPU* member)

Watch this and we bet – if you’re not already there – that you’ll want to visit The Gambia! This video (‘All Smiles, Gambian Style’) is dedicated to Demba Jawo and everyone who strives for a greater Gambia.

Boys don’t cry they say, but sometimes we do. My flight landed at Banjul International Airport last March and I stepped down the stairway pleased to be back for the first time in 14 years. I love The Gambia.

But the very moment I put my foot on the airport concrete it was as if my eyes turned to water-sprinklers. Tears exploded on the tarmac. I guess that since democracy was restored many Gambians have cried on returning from exile, but I wasn’t planning to tell many people.

I certainly wasn’t going to write about it… until someone I was looking forward to meeting convinced me to. I’d known him since my earliest days in The Gambia.

In the mid-90s, dozens of Irish and European volunteers, myself included, landed in what was then called Yundum Airport. We flew in on tourist flights – the easiest way to enter the country. They came for a week or two of guaranteed warm winter temperatures and beautiful beaches and probably took no notice of the soldiers hanging their clothes out to dry from the balcony surrounding the top level of the Airport Control Tower. Some challenges lay ahead for us volunteers, but life was becoming especially tough under military rule for Gambian citizens.

A year earlier, in July 1994, low-ranking soldiers had mounted a successful coup, promising to get rid of corruption and promote transparency. They were on a path to becoming common gangsters and held the country by its throat. As the years went by, dissent became less tolerated and people began disappearing, including colleagues.

By December 2016, the Gambian people had far more than they could stomach of Yahya Jammeh and voted the dictator out – a first for Africa. Stable countries in the region, led by Senegal, made further history by backing the people’s choice and forcing him to go.

Us volunteers – many Irish – lived through the early days of the dictatorship. The Gambia is a beautiful, culture-rich, vibrant, musical place and first few years after the coup was a time when many people still believed the soldiers’ promises. However, the regime grew more violent and paranoid and stunted the country’s chances of growth.

Returning in 2004 – for a wedding – I could feel new tension countrywide that wasn’t there when I finished my official posting in 1998. Journalists were now among the regime’s top targets.

Back home in Europe – in Ireland – we’ve had hard times. Tens of thousands of families have experienced homelessness, or come close to it, and suicides rose after the banking crash. But we were never so frightened that we could not trust our own family members. Never afraid to speak our minds because if we did we could be imprisoned and killed. That’s how bad it got before the people wrestled their democracy back.

People put their bodies on the line to make it happen and, on the night of January 21st, 2017, Jammeh was effectively escorted out of the country by ECOWAS. His departure was watched live by hundreds of thousands of diaspora Gambians glued to the social media channels that had helped to swell resistance to his rule. Nobody then cared too much that he took with him two planes filled with luxury cars and looted goods. In due course, he may pay for his many crimes.

That night, I vowed to try and return to The Gambia to pay homage and meet old friends now enjoying new freedom and independence. I also hoped to meet young people who had been to the fore in the revolt. They suffered great poverty and high unemployment while the dictator lived like a billionaire.

And so, 15 months after the thug was sent packing, I stood on the hot apron and cried. It was as if I was visiting a crime scene that had only recently been cleaned up. I thought of Gambian journalists I knew who had been killed, of the hardships all Gambians had suffered and of how brave the living were to call for change.

In a place that should have been paradise, millions of people had suffered needless poverty. Jammeh had jets, houses around the world, his own zoo and farm. Meanwhile, the EU and the USA tacitly supported his regime.

Over to my right, I saw the long red carpet and plinth for VIPs – the same carpet Jammeh walked to board his plane. My arrival even felt like a tiny part of the cleansing process. The air felt cleaner with him and his cronies gone.

As I say, I wasn’t planning to write about my cry. It’s not the done thing in journalism. However, I told Gambian friend, Demba Jawo, when we met. He has vastly more experience in journalism than me and said, “You have to use that as an intro for one of your reports”.

I couldn’t argue with him.

Mr Jawo himself was one of the very people for whom my tears were shed. He’d lost close friends to the dictator and was personally targeted for assassination. He had seen hundreds forced into exile, but he refused to be cowed by the criminals running the country. He relocated to Dakar but returned whenever he liked, undeterred. That spirit, bravery and dedication was recognised when the new government was formed – he was appointed a government minister (for 15 months).

It is not often that the victim takes power from their oppressor.

Demba Jawo, March 2018, while Minister of Information & Communications. Photo: A. Meagher

Demba Jawo and huge numbers of Gambians never gave up, not even when wise heads would have said they should stop protesting. Due to their loyalty, sacrifice and resilience – and by working together – they got their country back.

Now, The Gambia is holding Truth and Reconciliation hearings and much new information is coming out about who did what and why. Prosecutions may follow.

Renewed international engagement is equally important to The Gambia’s emergence from the shadows. The EU recognises this – as well as seeing opportunities – and has made grand promises. (My own country Ireland could do more. More on that shortly).

If you’re interested in reading more about how Africa’s most daring democracy is developing and how communities are empowering themselves, you’ll find my long read news article here. 

If interested in knowing more about the coup in 1994 and its aftermath, you can follow the current Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings which are broadcast on the Gambia Breaking News channel on Youtube. Also, for a written account at the time, check out Yayaa Zeebo’s book published in 1995 with a title that inspired the headline for this article: ‘State of Fear in Paradise’.

And, this week, Demba Jawo published a very interesting interview with Andrew Winter, then the US ambassador to The Gambia that counters the view the US had played a hand in supporting the coup.

For now, without further ado, here’s wishing all Gambians peaceful, democratic and fair development in the days and years ahead! Do please share this video!

– The video (‘All Smiles, Gambian Style’ on Youtube) is dedicated to Demba Jawo and everyone who strives for a greater Gambia.

*GPU – Gambia Press Union.

All smiles leaving. Thanks to Sally Badjie for the kaftan!
Pictured above: Students attending the Gambia Press Union’s School of Journalism. There is great interest in current affairs journalism since The Gambia reverted to being a democracy. Community radio is expanding, new television stations are coming on stream and the arts/culture scene is exploding. Long read here!
This journalism was conducted with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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