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The City and the Writer: In The Gambia with Kadija George

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of The Gambia as you feel/see it?

I’m going to refer to all of The Gambia as the city, since it is a small country and when we talk of being in Banjul, it stretches outside of the perimeters of the city—greater Banjul.

The mood whenever I step off the plane is one of home, of relief; that I’m away from the madness, chaos, and hypocrisy of the West. It is not that The Gambia is perfect but it offers a space that is relaxing, peaceful and safe even at seeming times of chaos. I have never felt in danger in The Gambia, even when moving around at night on my own. If a man falls into step beside me and says, sister, what’s your nice name, I’ll walk with you, that is what he does. Often I don’t want to talk so I’ll say gently, I just want to walk on my own. He’ll respond, alright, sister. And slow his step down while I walk on my way.

The mood, on the verge of a historic change of president, was total stillness, not a person or vehicle on the main streets, and even the back sandy streets were much quieter than usual. Still, I was not fearful and I didn’t really understand why people were. I felt the mood should have been one of exuberance and excitement (apparently it was, hours after I left!). The pensive wait, especially among young people, could be felt, by those who had been looking forward and driving the change.

For those who like driving fast vehicles, this was the time and place to be there, and some did take advantage of it on quad bikes.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Finding my five-year-old nephew in the public Banjul Hospital dying, his grandmother holding an armful of bones on her shoulder, reluctant to let him go. I have never fainted before but I almost did. They needed me to be strong though, and get them to a private hospital to see if we could save him. We didn’t.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The beauty and grace of the women. Totally unappreciated. And the beautiful traditional clothes they wear, especially on Fridays (prayer day) and for weddings.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Dr Lenrie Peters—everything. He is the “father” of Gambian literature and one of the first writers to be published in the iconic Heinemann African Writers Series. He writes about the city. Tijan Sallah, poet and fiction writer; probably one of the most notable contemporary Gambian writers living today. Dayo Forster’s novel Reading the Ceiling. Sally Sadie Singateh’s novel The Sun Will Soon Shine. Hassoum Ceesay, a historian whose works give a great sense of notable people in Gambian history and places them in a social context. I like his work because it is rounded; he has a strong commitment to cultural and gender issues, ensuring that they feature in his work.

Is there a place here you return to often?

There is a place I have been to once, the Stone Circles of Wassau, and that I dream of returning to often—it is far out of the city!

Bijilo Beach Hotel. Their new development means that you can sit undisturbed on the veranda or at a higher level on top of the conference space and write and read looking out over the ocean. In Banjul, the Gambia National Museum. It’s small but full of interesting items that offer a good understanding of Gambian culture.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Timbooktoo Bookshop. Purpose-built as a bookshop. On a recent visit, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o described it as “the soul of The Gambia.”

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Serrakunda market is sprawling and noisy and colorful—moving around within it is an adventure, a story, a poem, each time you are brave enough to step into it! There is a market in Banjul proper that is covered, and so it feels. I don’t think that markets should be covered; covered markets feel like shopping malls.

Where does passion live here?

My passion is poetry, so the African Poetry Library in Fajara, with the support of the African Poetry Book Fund. I also helped to set it up, so a lot of hard work has gone into it from myself, the K.A.I. Youth volunteers, and the African Homecomers Collective. We have plans and dreams of how the library should go and how more Gambian poets can grow out of the resources it provides.

The first place that came to mind, though, is outside of the city—Sandele Eco Lodge in Kartong. A wonderful scenic place to create and meditate. I aim to create a similar space specifically for writers and artists in a village called Sambuyang.

What is the title of one of your works about The Gambia and what inspired it exactly?

“Brikama Bus Garage”—about a market town where the garage for buses that depart for different parts of the country is in the middle of the market. The lyrical way in which Gambians speak also inspired the poem.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside (city) does an outside exist?”

I consider the Banjul, the capital city, “outside” as it still has an old colonial feel, and one of decay. The architecture and the layout of the city dosn’t look like anything else in The Gambia. If you have a handle on Banjul, then you really do know Gambia. The Gambia is heralding a new change and development. I wonder how Banjul itself will change? Even the new assembly was built on the edge as you enter Banjul, as if marking the difference and separation between old colonial Banjul and the new developing Banjul; between Europe and the Middle East (who funded the New Assembly building). It’s also where, for the New Year, the masquerades happen, and the parades—only here and the Banjulian’s in their tight, narrow, paved city dwellings, own the country, and there are clear connections to their sister city Freetown in Sierra Leone.

Kadija Sesay is a literary activist, poet, editor, and publisher of Sierra Leonean descent. Her debut poetry collection, Irki, was shortlisted for the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. She has edited several important anthologies, including Burning Words, Flaming Images (1996); IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), coedited with Courttia Newland; and Write Black, Write British (2005), and she is editing a collection of short stories set in Africa for Comma Press. In the mid-1990s, she worked for the Centerprise Literature Development Project as the Black Literature Development Coordinator and set up the newspaper Calabash. In 2001, she founded SABLE LitMag, and in 2016 cofounded the Mboka Festival of Arts Culture and Sport in The Gambia. She is currently the manager of Inscribe publications for Inscribe, a writer development program housed by Peepal Tree Press. She is the recipient of numerous awards, namely: Cosmopolitan magazine’s Woman of Achievement Creative Arts Award, Candace magazine’s Woman of Achievement, the Voice newspaper’s Community Award for Literature, Woman of the Millennium 2000, STARS of Sierra Leone Award for outstanding women of achievement, and the Leeds Black Award. She is a George Bell Fellow and a Kennedy Fellow in Performance Arts. She received a research and development grant from Arts Council England for her forthcoming poetry collection The Modern Pan-Africanist’s Journey, which will include an app.

Published May 26, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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