Appreciation/Alhaji Korka Jallow
Saturday June 18, 2011
In Memory Of My Father
By Cherno Baba Jallow
The late Alhaji Korka Jallow
Weeks after my father's passing, I continue to sober up on what a painful loss it has been. The pain of losing a parent, especially the remainder of the pair, can be excruciatingly irrepressible. It is like a bodily ailment that won't just go away for good. It comes and goes. And comes back again. It is cyclical.
But how do you recover from such a terrible pain, if you do at all? Perhaps, by submitting oneself to wilful remembrance of a day or two in the life of your loved one. A sojourn into the past can be a relief, if temporal, for one's emotional scar of death and any other tragedy. I have been thinking aloud on my father.
Born in Basse in 1928, Alhaji Korka Jallow was the eldest child of his family. Three sisters and one brother preceded him in death. Now, remains a sister, the youngest of them all. My paternal grandfather Ousman Jallow hailed from Medina Worra in the Mali region of Guinea Conakry. But my father told us during family chats that his dad had died when he was about 13 years-old. As the eldest, and a son at that, he was left to shepherd the rest of the family. He had to take care of his widowed mother and his younger siblings. It was a world of uncertainty, challenges and difficulties for the teenager. But he persevered and matured into adulthood and into a family man. He was a hardworking and determined man. He never shied away from the challenges of daily life. And nor did he allow the vicissitudes of this world overwhelm him to the point of incapacity. He always had a way of rising to the occasion, resolving the Gordian knots of family matters. Dad was silently confident of himself. He was a tall and strong man. His walks were brisk. Even inside the home, he would walk as if he were on a purposeful errand. His overall demeanor was an embodiment of manliness, of being able to do things and do them with a sense of urgency and without delay.
He often had issues with my perceived flippancy about farming. He thought I was slow; that I had barely any spurts of energy in me --- in tilling the soil, clearing the weeds and looking after the crops. While the birds would feast on the crops, I would be reading a novel or doing my homework. I cared of course. The problem was, my attention was often adrift. And certainly my efficiency as a farmer hardly met dad's yardstick. My skills were something to be scoffed at. I struggled repeatedly to master the proper ways to handle the hoe or the sickel. Dad would chide me and say, "you need to stick to school; you will not be a good famer." I would get a little upset, especially when he would address me in front of my siblings, and to their derisive laughter. But it was one of those moments when daddy or mummy had total monopoly of the microphone. All you could do was to be silent, keep a stiff upper-lip, suck up the pain and then meet up with your friends later.
He was a good dad. Affection? He showed us lots of it, although in subtle, restrained ways. Probably, it was the way the older generation displayed affection to their kids. It shouldn't be in excess, but moderate and incremental. They were conscious, actually worried, that too much love for your kids could turn them into spoiled weaklings. To them, the lines of loving and spoiling would be parallel at first, and then the latter would take over at the end. My dad, typical of many a Gambian father steeped in the ways of tradition, showed us tough love. He was a strict disciplinarian. But he would regularly sprinkle his parental strictness with flickers of doting love. He would occasionally buy me and my little brother things from the Basse market. Once he got home, he would call us, and then hand our gifts to us, asking us to try on the caps, the shoes, the clothes, etc. He was generous. Sometimes, he would call me to his house, and when I would be thinking that I was, here again, about to be sent on another errand, dad would just unfurl his handkerchief (Sarbayt) and hand me a dalasi or two. "Take it and buy something," he would say.
Dad taught us to be respectful to ourselves and to others. He made us wake up early in the morning to pray and then to knock on every door at home to say hello, good morning. It was a practice I would continue even during my holidays to Basse from Banjul. I had not forgotten the family tradition. He took great delight in my continuity. Perhaps, he might have thought that the outside world, and certainly city life, had changed me, making me turn back on some of the time-preserved values of rural life. That was and still is, a fear in the minds of many a Gambian parent in The Gambia's hinterland. The repercussions of the rural-urban drift do not only preoccupy the minds of policy makers in Banjul.
In 1987, I suffered a snake-bite at the rice fields of Basse. I was with dad, working on the crops. I had stepped away to check on the whereabouts of the family sheep. Walking along bushes, I came upon the reptile. The snake curled up my ankle, and I struggled successfully to break free from it. I ran away, screaming. I looked down my left ankle; small drops of blood were trickling out. The snake had bitten me. My father rushed frantically towards me. He was shaking uncontrollably. I needed medical attention. Quick. But how to get to the Basse health center? There was no transportation nearby. It was late in the evening. My father became increasingly restive. Suddenly a Good Samaritan arrived. The late Alhaji Sorie Jallow came upon us on the road, riding on his motor cycle. And off he took me to the health center. And when the center's dispenser couldn't be found at first, Alhaji Sorie rushed me to the marabout in Manneh Kunda for a herbal treatment. I was in some pain. As we rode to Manneh Kunda and back to the center where I finally received a serum injection, I wondered if I would survive. It was a snake-bite! They can be fatal, especially in rural Africa. I thought about my friends, my school and my family. Suddenly the news spread around town. As fate would have it, I survived the snake-bite. Perhaps, the snake wasn't poisonous after all. Perhaps it was; I was just meant to live.
This tragedy helped me see the emotional side of my father in ways that I had never seen before. He kept a hospital-bedside vigil. He cried, and tried, without success, to disclose his tears from me. He sat by my hospital bed, his eyes never drifting off me, as if to accord himself some continued assurance that I was still being possessed of life. It certainly was an agonizing moment for him, and for his fellow Basse elders, who had come out to check on me. I saw a community working together in their unreserved support for my father and for my own well-being. I was overwhelmed with the attention being paid me. I kept staring at the roof of my hospital room, trying hard not to look at the dejected faces baring at me.
Dad was a mason by profession; and duty would take him to far places like Garawol, Gambissara, Baniko. The Serehules came looking for him to build their houses. Dad would be gone for days. He was just trying to make an earning to put food on the table. In the early 1980s, dad and his colleagues formed the Basse Carpenters' and Masons' Association (CMA). They built the first classroom building of the Nasir Senior Secondary School. (For identification purposes, this building has on its western walls a marbled world map put up by a-then popular Nasir Geography teacher Sam Bigtoe in the mid 1980s.) Dad's imprints can be found on several buildings in Basse, from Koba Kunda Primary to St. Mulumba's, from the Basse market to the car park. And certainly the Basse central mosque, for which he served as committee chairman. When the late businessman Alhaji Momodou Musa Njie began his philantrophic mission to build Basse a new brand mosque, he asked for community participation in the project. My father's expertise was sought after. And he was there when the first structures of the current-day central mosque were being put in place in the 1970s.
CMA Members, late 1980s. Top Row (l-r): Sambujang Kongira, Galen Kennel, Soriba Ceesay, Manneh, Samba Jallow, Demba Bah (IBAS officer), Rebecca Kennel, Serign Gaye, ?. Bottom Row (l-r): Momodou Malang, Sidia Drammeh (Kaba Kama), Korka Jallow, Bilali Jabbi and Duta Jawneh. Photo Credit/Galen, Rebecca Kennel.
"Korka was one of my favorite board members of the Carpenters' and Masons' Association. He would come into my office every morning with a big smile on his face and we would go through the greetings," remember Galen and Rebecca Kennel in a private condolence message from their home in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. The Kennels arrived in Basse in 1988 as volunteers with the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO). They helped revitalize the CMA which was by then on the throes of collapse. "Korka was very supportive of the work the Association was doing and was very reliable when given a job and always did a good job, too," they wrote. "Rebecca and I (Nyema and Sambujang) were on your family compound once and were treated royally."
Alhagie Jabbi in Finland, whose late father Bilali Jabbi was one of the founding members of the CMA, remembers the skills group: "The CMA is a community-based project founded by elders of Basse for the development and empowerment of Basse youths. It did not get much publicity but thousands of Basserians learned skills there. So thumbs up to the elders for leaving a legacy for the younger generation."
CMA Members At Work In Basse: Building a Catholic School. Photo Credit/ Galen and Rebecca Kennel.
Lobbying and getting the contract to build the first classroom block at Nasir proved difficult. The CMA faced long odds. They met stiff challenges from competitors in Banjul. At the end, the CMA won the day, but at a heavy price. Sarjo Bayang, in his remembrance of my father on the Gambia Press Union/USA's mailing list, and who had worked with the CMA during his IBAS days, writes: "When the Ahmadiyya Mission decided building Nasir High School, it was on the basis of the generous services to schools and wider community of Basse and environs that the Carpenters' and Masons' Association under Alhaji Momodou Korka Jallow as president won the contract. Don't ask how much money they made from the contract. That high school was built at big material and financial loss to the CMA but certainly great gain to the community ... and not less for their reputation as community leaders."
Dad loved to mingle with people, whether with his friend Baba Sillah at Sillah's NTC shop by the St. Joseph's Primary school or with a regular crew on the front yard of the defunct Commercial Bank opposite the Numbers shop line. They would while away time there in the evenings as they awaited the hours of prayers (Salat) at the mosque. Dad had a good number of friends, including the late Sada Sey, the late Balla Jallow, the late Samboujang Barrow. He would say how much he had missed them and would like to join them in the hereafter.
He was a community man. He loved Basse; and whenever the town came calling for his services and participation, he showed up and gave his all. He passed on several opportunities to become Basse Alkalo. He just wasn't interested. He liked being simple and humble. Big things discomforted him. He loved to farm and tell stories of the Basse past, say, during pre-Independence days, when they would trek down to the colonial office, Poste, in Mansajang Kunda, to pay up their levies. Dad spoke fluent Serehuleh, Wollof and Mandinka, and some passable Aku.
Men of his stock are becoming scarcer by the day in towns and villages across The Gambia. They are of the older generation. Despite the paucity of opportunities at their reach, and nevermind their lack of any formal education, they were still able to provide for their families and contribute to the well-being of their neighborhoods and communities. Such elders were guided by the principles of personal responsibility, of honesty and the constancy of efforts, understanding that hardwork and perseverance go hand in glove, and that it is not just about you; it is also about the community, your contribution to its growth and development. In Basse, we saw such men in their multitudes in the days long gone. Remember Tamu Sillah: He devoted much of his life to the Basse central mosque. Or Alhaji Bajaha: He was a straightforward, no holds-barred enforcer of public health stipulations at the Basse market. Or Juldeh Jawo: As market dues collector, he plied his trade with honesty and diligence, something you don't see in many revenue collectors in area councils across the nation.
Such men played by the rules. They got up in the morning and went to work. Hard. They didn't get and nor did they crave a politician's recognition or a praiseworthy newspaper article. They just carried on, amassing along the way, lots of strength of mind and soul. The temporality of life and its humbling lessons remained etched in the imaginations of these silent community leaders and heroes.
My father was one of them.
Cherno Baba Jallow is an executive member of the Basse Association, Inc. He lives in Southfield, Michigan, USA.