Exclusive Interview with Wuyeh Yorro Sanyang
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
At executive meetings, his is the voice of studied moderation and of the bigger picture. Wuyeh Yorro Sanyang, a senior adviser to the Basse Association, Inc., was born in Jaw Kunda, Basse Angal Futa. He attended St. Joseph's, St. George's and Koba Kunda primary schools in Basse. He later proceeded to St Augustine's High School and then to the Sixth Form at Gambia High. He furthered his education at the Vocational Training Center (VTC) in Banjul, studying telecommunications. In the 1980s, he founded The Gambia Anti Apartheid Movement (GAAM) and became its secretary general, touring schools nationwide and spreading the message of liberation for the black majority in the-then . He was the secretary general to the Basse Youth Society in the Kombos from 1991 to 1995. In this exclusive interview, Wuyeh talks about his childhood days in Basse, his school life in Banjul, his anti-Apartheid campaign, the Basse Association, among others. Read on....
My Basse: You were born and raised in Basse. Who were your childhood friends?
Wuyeh: I had a number of childhood friends some of whom I may not even be able to recall today. Many a time, there are certain shared characteristics that would bind us together resulting into certain relationships. Those relationships are what result into friendships or other non-cordial relations. I don’t like the idea of listing or mentioning names for I might omit very important people. However, I must mention the following: my cousin Momodou Isata Cham (MC), the late Bubucarr Jobe, Mamma Jallow, Bakary Camara, Cherno Samba Bah, Mamma Sam, Omar Jallow, Musa I. A. Camara(Fullo), Ebrima Bandeh, Kindi Boy Jallow, Mamudou Camara, the late Alagie Jallow, Sambou Malang, Gibby Bah, Karo Baldeh, Ebou Jallow, Musa Jallow,Hammeh Mballow, Tijan Bandeh, the late Mamadou Kindi Jallow, Pullo Jarra, Alagie Famma Jawo, Foday Manneh, Alagie Badarie Manneh, Salifu Manneh, etc. Most of these people were either neighbors and/or school mates. As one transitioned to High School at Saint Augustine's, my friendship with others like Haruna jobe, Sarjo Sowe, Omar Camara, Mbemba Jallow, Ebou Jeng, Omar Sam, Sarjo Bayang, Hamadi Bah, Amadou Koi Jallow, Hassan Jallow(Bapa Chana) Sulayman Jallow (Tox), etc, just to name a few, took on another meaning.
Hopkinson Street, Banjul. Picture on the left, Sitting (l-r): Tijan Baldeh, Musa IA Camara (Fullo), Sulayman Jallow, X, Biran Saine, X and Gibby Bah
My Basse: Paint a picture of Basse during your childhood days.
Wuyeh: In the late sixties to the early seventies, Basse, especially in Angal Futa and in certain family structures like Jaw Kunda, a family's main means of sustenance was through farming ( agriculture and animal husbandry). This was a challenge especially for nephews and nieces. Many a time it would seem as if you were being segregated and tasked with the bulk part of the chores. It was even worse when you found yourself to be the only child in a compound. Life in general was very challenging and a mix of play and hard work. More interestingly, each of these boils down to competitions amongst us. Be it the farming or fetching firewood from the-then dense bushes on the hill tops to the river side, to acquiring Quranic knowledge from either Cherno Ousman, Cherno Abdul, Bam-mawdo, Karamo Soriba, or other places, and academic knowledge from either the Mission schools or the Government school of Koba Kunda. The traditional circumcision commonly referred to as “WANA” or “JUJUWO” was one of the most favorable cultural activities observed by the communities. Those were the days when the late Suntukung Giteh of Koba Kunda, Sanusi Manneh of Manneh Kunda and Kekuta Dahaba of KabaKama use to display the infamous knowledge of the “FANG-BONDI” KANKURANG at night. Their skills of being heard from one side of town to another in seconds were amazing. Those were the times when the uncircumcised dare not show their faces outside for fear of being abducted and circumcised. Those were the times when the “KINTANGS” displayed their knowledge of culture and traditions in exhibiting and interpreting traditional secret codes “PASSING” only known by those that had gone through the preliminary manhood process. Those who succeeded in interpreting the “PASSING” had their chance to ask their own. Failure to successfully answer the questions would result into being whipped by the contender. The “WANA” was one place where people settled their scores in manners accepted by the community.
End of Circumcision Ceremony
My Basse: Any fond memories of Basse?
Wuyeh: There are tons of fond memories about growing up in those days. Some of the memories are not quite pleasant, such as having a whole Quranic school chase after you for trying to elude the teacher's corporal punishment. Individuals would tend to suffer more pinching and spanking from the students even before they got to the teacher. Another unpleasant experience is running late to school just to find some one like Father Fleming and his “TANBI” awaiting you at the Saint George's school gate. Some of the most desirable, fond memories were activities surrounding naming and marriage ceremonies, wrestling competitions, football matches, movies from Sami or Dunia cinemas, fishing and swimming in the streams of Sala Komponeh or the main river during sheep-herding; or watching birds at the rice fields was another thing most kids got whipped for. Most interestingly, imitating the famous Karamonding during full moons in the streets of Angal Futa and right after that sneaking to steal mangoes for the fun of being chased away. Some of these childhood fun-games and pranks led to many Basserians having multiple nick names. One other thing kids were good at in those days was settling scores through "Round the Ring". This is when a circle is drawn and two parties are forced in it to fight until one gives up. The rest of the boys surround the circle cheering their favorable party just like in the Chinese chicken fights. The photo below reminds me of Karamonding and his "SEWRUBA" crew.
A group of white folks performing the traditional Mandingo drumming (SEWRUBA) in New York City at a Gambian event
My Basse: Banjul used to be a base for Basserians attending high school. What was it like living and attending school in the capital?
Wuyeh: It was great pride in folks having the opportunity to leave Basse to go to either Armitage or the Banjul area to further their education. In those years there was no high school in Basse. Saint George's Secondary Technical school or Bansang Secondary Technical school were the only options left for locals to further educate themselves if they failed to go to high school. The most interesting part of the whole process was traveling to and from Banjul especially for the holidays which most of us hated to see end. There were two principal ways of traveling. One was by boat through the Lady Wright which was later replaced by the Lady Chilel boat. The boat would usually take from two to two and a half-day journey. Even though the journey would seem to be long, it used to be the most enjoyable means of transportation for the holiday makers as we used to call ourselves. The second means of transportation was obtaining free lifts from government vehicles like the-then Public and Works Department. It wasn’t until the inception of The Gambia Libya-Jamahiriyya Public Transportation Corporation when holiday makers turned to the public transport system. I had seen on many occasions folks willingly failing to return to Banjul for schooling only to be chased back to school by parents. Living in Banjul for schooling was an opportunity, but it was also full of challenges.
The Banjul Experience. Picture on the left, Standing (l-r): Hassan Jallow (Bapa-Chana), Yusu Keita, Abdoulie Cham, Sulayman Sowe (Jangori) and Cherno Jallow (Najo)
My Basse: It must have been difficult adjusting to city life.
Wuyeh: I count my generation to be luckier compared to our predecessors. We had brothers and sisters who had already paved the way for us in terms of accommodations, brotherly and sisterly aid and mostly a sense of belonging. Living in Banjul in those years wasn’t easy. Apart from the fact that you were not living with your immediate family, for the majority of the students, you get teased by many of the Banjul Ndongos as being a provincial chap. Such teases would result into confrontations and fights at times. I, like many, would have to express our sincere thanks to uncles and relatives like Alhagie M. C. Cham, Alhagie Hassan Musa Camara, the late Alhagie Momodou Musa Njie, the late Alhagie Kebba Krubally, the late Alhagie M.C. Jallow, Alhagie Omar Sey, Alagie Ousainou Jallow, Alhagie Basiru Jawara, Alhagie Musa Njie and many more for offering shelter and food to many provincial people. The younger generation like Saikou M.B. Jallow, Hamat Jaw, the late Mawdo Sowe, Selu Bah (SB), Buba Baldeh, Amadou Sowe, Mamadou Sarjo Jallow (MSJ), Kenbugul Sam, Sharifu Baldeh, Nyan Gaye, the late Musa Trawally, Marie Conateh, Musa Sanyang, Jewru Krubally(Father J), Housainou Waggeh etc., were very generous brothers who dipped into their pockets to ensure that their little brothers’ pocket monies were always handy. They definitely deserved to be thanked.
On his graduation day, Wuyeh, his family and uncle Alhagie M. C. Cham in Pennsylvania, USA in May 2000.
My Basse: But how did you all handle the hardscrabble Banjul life?
Wuyeh: It was very challenging indeed. It was only the will and determination manifested in all of us that kept us going. A handful of us were blessed to live in families where our three daily meals were provided. There were still some that did not enjoy such privileges. I remember one such student who blew up his entire year's school fees within a month just after beginning school; he spent it all just on breakfast(seriously, no joke). Many of us in Basse had our laundry and meals prepared for us at home. So when you left Basse to stay on your own, the first thing you came to learn was how to wash your clothes, and in some cases, prepare your own meals. That was generally a challenge none of us were prepared for but we quickly overcame it and adapted to the new reality.
Picture on the left. (l-r): Momodou I. Cham and Wuyeh Sanyang doing their laundries during the weekend in 1979 at Hopkinson Street, Banjul during their school days. Picture on the right: Momodou I. Cham brewing green tea (Attaya) in the Ghetto
My Basse: You grew up in Angal Futa. Have any good football teams and players come from this part of town?
Wuyeh: Basserians are generally creative and sportive. It is very difficult to come across a Basserian who is not a creative football player. It will boil down to the style of football one prefers. In those days, organized football teams were not as prevalent as they are today. People used to resort to "Pick a Post" where two people will start to pick their team from a group of youths present. Generally most of the youths belonged to some kind of a youth group "vous" bound together by some elements. These groups also used to challenge one another. One of the most interesting periods of the football season used to be the summer holidays when holiday makers would come back to town either from Armitage High School or from the Kombos. As a child growing up in Angal Futa, I used to be impressed with the football skills of brothers like Hamat Jaw, Nyan Gaye, Babanding Camara, Sarjo M.B. Jallow, Selu Bah (SB), the late Amadou Bah (AB), Amadou Koi Jallow, Michael Secka, just to name a few. However there was no specific football team that was identified to have come from this specific area. Players were open to play for any area or team they desired to play for. One of the most cohesive groups I noticed in those days was the Camara Kunda family group of the late Alhagie Karamo Soriba Camara. We used to call them "Susu Pekin". Their skills and talents in football were immeasurable. I used to love football very much but it always conflicted with my other household responsibilities. So my actual knowledge of the teams and members was limited.
Fulladu FC, Basse (1980's). Standing (l-r): Selu Bah (current Basse MP), X, Mohammed, Sherrifo Janneh, Sarjo Mendy, Tijan Njie, Saidy Touray, Ba Demba Camara, Musa Darboe; Squatting (l-r): Pa Dodou Sarr, Bass Fofona (Captain Yeeks), R.I.P, Goal Keeper Solo, X, Abdou Camara, Karo Baldeh and Abdoulie Cham
My Basse: When you visit Basse these days, do you have a longing for its past? Do you reminisce?
Wuyeh: I definitely miss its past. The floods that used to send the merchants to the dry season market. The thick mangoes of Sarja Narko, the orchard of Juldeh Jawo, the famous Malang Baldeh mangoe tree, the sweet Laye Touray mangoes, etc. Many youths would go on scare-mongering, saying that Laye Touray had a bow and arrow just for trespassers on his mango-yard. I also miss the wrestling contests, the cinemas and the traditional Mandinka drumming by Karamonding and his crew, the wonderful PulloFuta acrobatic musical dancers and the famous Fullakunda musical strings and drums of Mboye Touray and Hocha and their crews, the famous Binta Lalley of Guinea Conakry who used to frequent Sara London Camara’s home entertaining the entire community. Interestingly, we used to have our own youngster musical group led by the late Babucarr Jobe, and Mamma Sam as chief drummers. During a full moon, the crew would provide some entertainment in the neighborhood. My family had three horses which I rode every morning and evening for training. I really miss the circumcision, marriage and Christmas festivities.
Some of the thrills of election campaigns during the First Republic. The famous Hocha and his group in 1977 after the Paliamentary elections in Banjul
Basse has always been a town of the grapevine and rumors would spread faster than wild fires. The town has always cherished style and fashion. The famous barber Demba Berm used to do wonderful haircuts. The most famous was "Ndell Dakar". The tailors were always on top of what was in fashion and ready to serve.
Picture on the left: Momodou Cham and now (Dr) Omar Sam in style and fashion: Displaying the "Padellefa" & "TIP" at their fashion peak in the 1970's. Lady on the right: Inna Sam: where beauty and class meet.
My Basse: You have visited Basse several times in the recent past. What is your take on the town? What does it need?
Wuyeh: This is a tough question indeed. Our exposures in the other parts of the world tend to skew our own reality. When I take a walk in the streets of Basse to the hills of Manneh Kunda or to the rice fields of Dampha Kunda and Allunkarie, I see a completely different environment from what I was used to while growing up as a child. Many a time, I ask myself if it is just my own natural development or is it the deterioration of the environment that is responsible? In my opinion, I must confess that it is a combination of the two or more other things. Space wise, the town has run out of it. When I took a walk to the one-time densely vegetated hills of Manneh Kunda where I used to fetch firewood for cooking, I was amazed by the amount of loss to the vegetative cover. Streams like “GUJUGUJUBAJU" and "SALLA KOMPONEH" where I spent most of my childhood days swimming and fishing are now too dry for my imagination. The grass fields by Dampha Kunda where we used to go sheep-herding and mow grass for our roofs are mostly barren now. Infrastructure-wise, folks are really upgrading buildings and styles. One thing I am still not impressed with is the streets and the irrigation layout. As for my take on what Basse needs, I would rather leave that to the local community to react to. Every community has un-ending needs. So it is rather better to leave it to our brothers and sisters at home to voice out their opinions on what is it that they need.
My Basse: During the 1980s, you were in the forefront of The Gambia branch of the Anti-Apartheid movement against the-then South African government. What lessons did you learn from your experiences in terms of social activism?
Wuyeh: As a student in the early 1980s, I came to find myself in the student governing body at the Gambia High School. This was the time when The Gambia was just trying to recover from Kukoi Samba Sanyang's rebellion that was squashed by the Senegalese Government. We had a very mature group of students which comprised the first batch of Muslim High School’s graduates (namely the first and second year enrollees of the school at its inception) and their fellow students from the other high schools. The student body realized that it needed to engage the students into more meaningful issues other than just organizing Welcoming and Passing Out parties for incoming and outgoing students. A better structured student body was set up involving all students and neighboring schools like Saint Augustine's and Muslim High Schools. Government wanted to use the Kukoi's incident to get rid of scholarships that were generally allotted to sixth formers. The student body was already organized enough to challenge the Government at the Ministry of Finance level and a compromise was drawn between Government, School board and Students Union and we were allowed to return to classes after an initial expulsion from school for non-payment of school fees.
Among the many, as indicated from left to right, Wuyeh Yorro Sanyang, Yahya A.J.J Jammeh (Gambian President), (Ba) Juldeh Camara (Basserian) and Henry Bachi Baldeh (Basse ties) during their Gambia High School days
During our graduation ceremony, the school authorities wanted to stop the head boy, Alpha Robinson, from delivering a speech that was outlining student’s general problems as was the norm because they felt that the speech was too harsh to the guests namely the President and attending parents. The student body took it up with the school authorities and the speech was finally edited by the two parties and the head boy was allowed to deliver the speech only to have the principal pull Robinson's shirt while delivering his speech. He was trying to have him sit down. These were motivating factors that kept my spirit in enlightening the general public about their fundamental rights.
(Graduation Day, Gambia High School, 1983 Math Class.)
The South African situation at the time was unfortunate, because it was one different race subjugating another. This warranted a close study of the situation just to discover that it was actually more of an economic class struggle and economic dominance than a blatant racial discrimination. It just happened that leaders like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Steven Bantu Biko and the many more others refused to be bought by the regime's divide, conquer and rule strategy. They had the interest of their nation and its people first before their own. There were many parties struggling for independence even though some were more rigid in their approach than others. One of the lessons I learned in the Anti Apartheid struggle is to consider all parties and not just concentrate on the majority alone just so you don't create some discrimination against the minority. There are many whites in South Africa who do not know any other place other than South Africa; so there needed to be a compromise between the oppressed and the oppressor to forgive and forget and forge a better relationship and future.
My Basse: Was there an audience for your message?
Wuyeh: The audience for our message ranged from Government officials, private individuals and organizations, students and ordinary citizens and the Diplomatic core. We tasked ourselves to go into Government offices from one office to another selling the message in the form of letters, reading materials, posters, pamphlets and preaching. Many Gambians were very welcoming and supportive. However, we encountered numerous challenges and even got arrested and detained by the-then NSS. Thanks to some veteran lawyers like the late Pa Joof of Latrikunda YeriNgaya, Antouman Gaye, Jibou Janneh and Cheyassin Secka for always coming to our aid. We worked with the-then Film Production Unit to show the atrocities the Apartheid regime was involved in. We held symposiums and exhibitions in most of the schools in the Banjul and Kombos and as far as Kartong and Basse. Thanks to people like Amadou Alarba Bah, Ebou Taal, Birang John, Halifa Sallah, Saul Sillah, Eliman Sarr, Bunn Sanneh, Saja Taal, Amie Sallah Sarr, etc., for always been there when we needed them. The Women’s Wing was so dynamic they were able to engage women in places like Brikama and Sanyang into self help agricultural projects to sponsor some of our activities.
We mobilized Gambian musicians like Demba Konta, Jaliba Kuyateh and Tata Dinding to help us in our sensitization and fund raising programs. Those students who attended Nasir Ahmadiyya Muslim High School in Basse from the mid 1980 to the late 1980s could attest to the involvement in the school's drama society of teachers like Mark Hallim Collier and Peter Conteh. This society was very helpful in sensitizing the Basse community about the atrocities of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. We were in constant touch with the South African Diplomatic core in Dakar for materials and our donations. I must, here, thank the AND-JEFF(PADS) coalition in Senegal for extending an invitation to attend a congress held in Dakar in 1989.
My Basse: It is almost two decades since the end of Apartheid and the introduction of majority rule in South Africa. But the general conditions of the black majority are still far from desirable. Are you frustrated at the slow pace of change in the economic sector for black South Africans?
Wuyeh: We must understand that change takes time for its impact to be felt by the majority especially in the situation of South Africa where the majority of the means of production and governance were in the hands of the minority white. What is essential in South Africa is to have the majority black have a say in the governance of their affairs. It is for them to select competent leaders like the Mandelas who have their national interest at hearth and look at the conditions and circumstance of the people and create laws and economic principles that will elevate them further. The fact is undeniable that they need to establish a level-playing field for their citizens to compete and elevate their economic conditions. This is not going to be easy and nor is it going to be fast for the native black citizens especially with so many more privileged investors zooming in to take advantage of the situation.
My Basse: What is your assessment of the Basse Association?
Wuyeh: The Basse Association has taken a very good initiative in putting the town of Basse back in the forefront where it belongs. I believe that the Association's cause is a good and noble one. However, I am concerned about the low involvement of the local community in the affairs of the Association. As the saying goes “Charity begins at home”. I would love to see more local community involvement in BA's affairs. I have belonged to many associations but none as transparent as the Basse Association. I do understand some of the people’s frustration of having the website as the Association's principal medium of communication and the lack of Internet facilities in the community. I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse for the lack of involvement. Whatever the reasons for the lack of participation should be made known through the Forum so that ways and means could be looked into to facilitate solving the problem.
Basse Association Kombo meeting. (L-R): Hassan Touray, Pa Malick John, Mamudu Cham, Bassey Krubally, Wuyeh Yorro Sanyang, Filly Sabally and Alh. Saibo Drammeh
My Basse: It looks like the Basse Association is top-heavy in the Diaspora and bottom-thin on the ground in Basse. Is this trend unavoidable or is there a better way for the BA to grow its presence in Basse?
Wuyeh: That is indeed a true statement. Associations are generally created to serve certain purposes. The principal purpose of the Basse Association (BA) is to coordinate efforts and resources in a bid to help improve the lot of Basse. However, since there are other sister organizations and/or associations on the ground with similar aims and objectives, I feel that there is no need to duplicate efforts. BA’s membership is open to all and it is very transparent in its activities including having a spreadsheet of its finances to be viewed online. It is only the people who can relate to what the Association stands for and who will decide if they want to be a part and parcel of the Association or otherwise. In every social setup there is always room to grow and improve on the standards of living of the society.
BA can definitely grow its presence in Basse by having desiring members commit themselves more to the activities of the Association and engage the Association on the ground more. I know that Internet services are not as easily accessible in Basse as it is in the Diaspora or the Kombos, but some means of coming together could be used by folks on the ground to further expand the Association. Project manager Dawda Sankareh and his aides are doing an excellent job on the ground. However, I believe that having an ad-hoc committee working with them will facilitate and expand the execution of the Association's aims and objectives more easily. As the saying goes "Necessity is the mother of invention". We need to be creative and utilize the existing means at our disposal. I believe that there is a lot more we can do together to make a difference in Basse.
Wuyeh Yorro Sanyang attending to his first born, Hamat Steven Biko Sanyang
My Basse: You have a wealth of experience in terms of leadership and organizing people. How does one get people involved in their own affairs?
Wuyeh: The most difficult people to organize are those that are volunteering their time and resources to fulfill an objective. Nonetheless, the most rewarding contributions offered by any people are generally those rendered on voluntary basis. People must see the venture as their own and the benefits for them to reap. The venture should give the people equal opportunities and rights to participating and should avoid any form of sidelining members. A culture of listening to each other should be exercised and people’s opinions be respected. With these in place, people will tend to have a more sense of belonging and would consider themselves as the masters of their belongings. This will lead to more commitment and the urge to guide and protect what belongs to them.
Basse Association Project Manager Dawda Sankareh speaking during a recent townhall meeting in Basse.
My Basse: It can be frustrating when people don't respond to your calls for community participation. At what point, do you call it quits? Or should you ever?
Wuyeh: If a call is ever made and people did not respond, the caller must revisit himself on the call. Many a time people respond to things that pertain to them or interest them. If these two elements are present and people are still not responsive, then we need to see whether the points just mentioned above as to how to get people involved are in place. Certainly, one should not continue pursuing matters that may not pertain to the people or do not interest them. It is at times a very smart idea to modify the purpose of your call or even call it quits and venture into something else rather than wasting time and resources on things that are most likely not going to work. All this will require a good understanding of your community and the people you are dealing with.
Wuyeh at a February 18th 2011 Independence Day party with the Gambian Community of Reading, Pennsylvania, USA.
My Basse: What do you like to do for fun in your spare time?
Wuyeh: I like sports especially track and field. I do it for fun even though I have won many gold medals in my sporting career. I also like hanging out, playing draft or Crazy-8 and drinking "Attaya". I like computers and browsing the Internet. I also like traveling and farming.
Wuyeh Yorro Sanyang is a graduate of Wilkes University. He lives in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, USA.