Reflections on Childhood
December 23rd, 2009
Long Time Gone
By Cherno Baba Jallow
The author, wearing a memory cap and deep in self-reflection, combs through his childhood days in Basse. He writes an interesting account of the lives and times of the distant past.
The other day I was searching for an old document stacked in a box-load of old college textbooks and magazines. I find it hard to dispose off things, dear readers. I have in my safe-keeping a lot of memorable items, collected some long, long years ago. For instance, there is a stack of old Daily Observer copies which contain most if not all of the articles I wrote for my former employer. This particular caption of one of the articles, written in 1993, caught my eye: "Basse Experiences Good Rains, But..." I remember this vividly. The rains in Basse that year were good, but heavy, leaving destruction in their wake. I arrived in Basse during a country-wide journalistic tour, and I soon realized the heavy-handedness of Mother Nature: crumbled houses, impassable roads, further erosion of Guju Guju Baju, etc. The rains had been merciless. The folks at the Basse Hydromet were worried. I took pictures of the run-down houses in Jobarteh Kunda opposite the Dunia cinema. The old man, the late Jalimakang Jobarteh, was in a lamentable mood. He stood there, in the middle of the yard, surveying the architectural demise of a sector of his compound. I left him standing there, motionlessly grief-stricken, and perhaps, wondering if more heavy downpours were on the way.
Back in the day, heavy rains were a constant trouble in Basse. During childhood, I would hear from my late mom and her brothers stories about floods in Basse. At various times in history, the Basse River would burst its banks and the waters would invade deep into town. The canoes (Bara) would fetch passengers by the Basse Police station. It was the boarding point for travelers bound for the northern side of the river. Then during a Gambian government-run presentation on Basse history at the community center by the market in the early 1980s, I saw some documentary proof of floods in Basse. "1951 - the year Basse over-flooded." I read this on one of the poster boards at the presentation.
Cherno in childhood days
My childhood in Basse was one of whooping energy; a garden of great delights. I believe the same is equally true for any of my pals. The times were lively; everything seemed aplenty: food, money, Attaya, football, laughter, jokes. There was so much to do, and so many places to go to. And I went places as a young lad: Sareh Koba, Manneh Kunda, Kaba Kama, Mansajang. Allunhari? No, man, it was too far and scary to venture out there. That thick bush situated between Koba Kunda and Allunhari frightened me. I was timid. During childhood, you heard countless stories of the Ngotteh, Ninki Nanka, Mballeh Mballeh (black, black). There was no evidence that someone had come face to face with these creatures. But some people believed the stories. They ran rampant in town, during late night attaya sessions (TDB) or when you are heading home from the football field or the rice fields as darkness was descending. One of you would just start running, howling out a Ngotteh or Mballeh. Then it was a mad rush to safety. You never wanted to be left behind. The fear was, you would be mauled by these creatures. Such tales had an air of incredible believability about them. Well, at least among the little kids.
But it was part of childhood, its sweet innocence and the sensibilities of young, immature minds. I remember returning home from holidays in the Kombos and all my friends talked about my height. They all agreed that I had grown several feet. How they came to that measurement I still can't tell. It was amusing. And I was sensitive to the comments because I was naturally a shy kid, barely said a lot. I was often taken to studied silence in the company of friends. Childhood is dull and uninteresting if you are a loner, has no friends. But it was rare to see loners in town. Everybody had a friend or a group. There was a sense of belonging, a loyalty to the group. I was somewhat conflicted between Angal Futa and Santa-su because I was born and raised at my uncles' in Santa-su and later moved to my father's in Angal Futa. Both sides would come, soliciting my play in football games. I was never in doubt about where my heart was:my childhood team formed with my pals Maju Bah (Zico), Omar (Bundu) Jaiteh, Bassy Krubally, Billo Jallow, Adul Jallow (LP), etc. The loyalty was deep. The Angal Futa posse would be upset, never wanting to speak to me again. Oh well.
The ruralman in the city: with cousin Abdoulie Batchilly in Serekunda (1986)
Football was second-nature to us. We played everywhere, between the mango trees at the High Level, inside the community center, inside the Nyawirdu (the traditional court house by the market), in street corners. And we would hit passers-by especially market-bound women, with the balls. Sometimes, they would be seized, never to be gotten back. Other times, they would be handed back to us, the aggrieved parties simply coming to terms with the innocence of our actions, Ko-su-ka-beh-ne, meaning these are just kids. We went through several coaches, but I think Baba (Iddy) Jallow was the most effective, and well, toughest in his drills. We would form into two lines, jogging long miles, from the High Level football field and well beyond the outermost bushes further afield. He would command, "on your toes," as we trotted back to the field. And he would put us through ball-handling (feeling) exercises outside the perimeters of the football field.
Baba Iddy Jallow (in red) with fellow Armitage students during French Club visit to Vellingara in mid 80s
(Photo, courtesy of Cherno Omar Barry - Cobra, squatting with the radio)
In the meantime, and in the main football field, the big guys would also be doing their regular exercises, running in groups, fellow goalkeepers ball-testing one another, some doing corner kicks. You would see a few spectators around, some listening to the BBC from their portable radios. It was fun to watch practice sessions at the High Level during the late afternoons. Everybody was doing something, warming up, kicking ball, etc. There was total dedication to the game. The players were always on attendance: Aruna Jobe, Cherno (May/ Lindo) Jallow, Alhaji Loppy, Papa Keita, others. Selu Bah, the current National Assemblyman for Basse, would also be seen jogging around, beads of sweat streaming down his cheeks. Like his fellow defender Amat Jaw, Selu contributed immensely to Basse football. He was passionate about the game. He was a fierce competitor. Selu would run to the sidelines to protest to the match officials. He hardly got his way. He would throw his hands into the air in utter frustration. And his opponents from the spectator stand would yell loud boos at him. Ever the professional, Selu would just smile as he runs back to the defense. And then a lone voice among the crowd would send him a loud cheer: "Don't falleh them, SB!"
Fulladou FC of Basse (1980s):
Std L-R: Selu Bah, X, Muhammed, X, Sarjo Mendy, Tijan Njie, Saidy Touray, BaDemba Camara, X
Inset: Abdou Camara, Sitting L-R: Pa Dodou Sarr, Bass Fofana (RIP), Solo, Boye Njie, Karo Baldeh, Lie Cham
(Photos, courtesy of Lie Cham)
If Selu Bah was the consummate professional at the High Level football field, Mbemba Jallow (Jerzinho) was the cantankerous one. Like Simao, the former Portuguese international striker, Mbemba could be difficult, emotional in the field of play. He never liked to be roughed up; he detested rough tackles. And he would complain bitterly and sometimes the anger in him would undermine his effectiveness in the game. But he was an excellent footballer and a good reader of the game. His skills were far from done when I saw him play in the Sukuta Nawetaan in the early 1990s. Mbemba had a huge fan base in Sukuta. I would hear great compliments from the spectators.
Brazil FC of Basse (1980s):
Std L-R: Selu Bah, Karo Baldeh, Kindi B. Jallow, X, Cherno Jallow (Najo), Lie Cham, X, Samba Saidy (Bull)
Sit'ng L-R: X, Abdou Cholel J, L. Sanneh, Hassan Jallow (Bappa), Mike Secka, Ous Darboe, Bapenda Camara
Lying down: Basiru Fofana (Captain Yekks), RIP
After Jattas and Bob Marley were gone, I decided to support Koba Kunda's Foday Kabba in Basse Nawetaan. My support was mainly because they were the underdogs; nobody gave them any chance. Well, they had no chance. Save for their 'only' potential, the late Bunka Suso, the team didn't inspire a lot of confidence. I thought their manager Madi Mballow (Market Master) spoiled them with a lot of favors. On some of the days it had matches, the team would encamp outside the field most of the day, barbecuing and partying. They couldn't deliver on the pitch. They were at the bottom of the league. But if Madi Mballow was unsuccessful as football manager, he was certainly good at community organizing. As community emcee, he made the town of Basse lively on the entertainment front. He would bring the Fulakunda woman drummer Mama Eggeh, organize the visits of musical groups from Guinea Conakry such as Supe-rr Kolima, Binta Laly, Tele-Jazz, the band from Telimile, western Guinea. Madi was the chief patron for the traditional Fula groups (Nyamakala-mbeng), Sumbili, Lama Sirdu (flute) and others. Always well-dressed, especially in his white ambassador suite, with a matching hat and shoes, Madi had style; he brought glamour to the community center. We could never get in during these shows. Too young, the gatekeepers would tell us. So we would stand outside listening to the tunes wafting through the air.
The entertainment scene was huge: Football, music and wrestling. I loved wrestling, its drums and beautiful songs. The wrestlers sure could flex their muscles, but they also had good, melodious voices. Their songs were moving. And some of them like the Jimara wrestler Demba Na-nge (sun), for instance, had good dancing moves. No offense to the folks from Baako (the other side of the Basse river), but I thought their wrestlers didn't impress. They couldn't dance; in fact they had no drums. They operated in individual units, more like renegade freelancers. There was nothing entertaining about them inside the Bayeh by the Department of Animal Health and later at Areng Muna Njie. The same couldn't be said of the Jimara wresters or the ones from Boundou (Cassamance) Sampha, Sada, Ndama or Mbelleh and his crew from Gabu, Guinea Bissau or Nyaw Ngemba, the tall, huge fellow from the Ballangharr area. These wrestlers were a fun to watch.
I was a witness when the little known Cassamancinko Kurang brought the then Gambian wrestling champion Jalang Bukari Demba to his knees in Basse in the mid 1980s. Well, he wasn't necessarily flattened on the ground. Kurang flew him high up but Jalang landed on the ground not on his back but with his hands and knees kneading the ground. He was on all fours. But that's it. It was over. It was enough for Kurang to claim victory. A champion in a wrestling contest is declared defeated if even his hands touch the ground. You are supposed to land with your feet firmly planted on the ground. You are supposed to be invincible like Amalinze, the Cat in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The Gambian champion was upset. He had lost the COMBAT! Humiliation was written all over his face. He asked for a rematch. Nope, not happening. Kurang had shattered Jalang's invincibility. David had slain Goliath. The crowd went wild. This defeat put wrestling experts and managers in Banjul on notice. They came to Basse, looking and poaching.
The magicians (Nduray-mbeng) and money doublers from different parts of the sub-region made several trips to Basse to practice their crafts. The Banga Tala crew made a lot of noise. They would always attract huge crowds, promoting and drawing from public spectacles. And Kaybendo, the Bissau unicyclist, also had rave reviews in Basse entertainment circles. The Banjul area would soon hear of him and Kaybendo was well on the way to the capital, entertaining tourists and city sleekers. But he started in Basse, the base for his entertaining forays into the Gambian heartland.
Anywhere you went in Basse in the 1980s, there was fun to be had. The two cinemas were drawing in huge crowds. Dunia cinema was the choice for the Angal Futa residents and those further upfront. The Allunhari folks loved this cinema, and they would pedal their bicycles fast enough to make it in time before the start of the movie. The last song was being played. It was time to speed up. This was the era of the Kung Fu and Indian films (The 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Joseph Kuo, Carter Wong, the drunken master; Sholay, Gabarr Singh, Hema Malini, Amintabh Bachan (G-9), Shashi Kapoor). Some people would leave the cinemas with teary eyes. Indian movies usually had sad endings to them. It was too much for the soft-hearted in the audience.
The Adidas Shop (Krubally Kunda), Amat Jaw's fashion shop by Aja Muna Njie's home, the Numbers shopping area on the anterior side of the Basse market and Bakary Sillah's recording shop (Sillah Kunda) provided comfort zones for people to chill and pass good time. There was nothing much to worry about. Life was good. But we partied responsibly if we did at all, because there were home works to do, exams to take. There was a perfect balance between fun and school. We wanted to play football, go to the movies, listen to Ndagga vibes, Alpha Blondy (birgadier sabari) and the like, but we were also conscious of our hardscrabble student life. School was king, too.
Boysabe-ng (L-R): Ahmad Tijan Jallow, Cherno Mahmudou, Ous Krubally, Galo Touray
One day in 1984, we converged under the tree on Koba Kunda Primary School grounds. It was our "Choosing Day" (the day you get to select your high school of preference.) The crowd was big. I was leaning between Armitage High School in Georgetown and Nasir Ahmadiyya Muslim High School in Basse. My father chose Nasir for me. No contest. But why the interest in Armitage? Well, for the most part, I was fascinated about this school thanks largely to the stories I would hear from vacationing Basserian students. I would listen to a lot of recountings of Haruna (Soberman) Krubally's antics on stage in Armitage, the comradeship of Basserian students on campus. The Armitage football team would come to town for games against the Saint George's Secondary School. Their school mini bus would zoom into town and to the High Level field. There were several Basserians on the team: Lama Jallow (LJ), Agga Jallow, etc. You could tell they were enjoying their homecomings, showing off and the girls were paying attention. I wanted to be like them, you know.
I was at the rice fields with Sulayman Jallow (Salimatou Krubally's big brother). We were chatting and tending to the crops. Our fathers rested within the vicinity, engaging in their own talk, perhaps more fruitful than our trifling chit-chats. This was late evening, sometime around six o'clock. Instantly, I observed somebody emerging behind the tall grasses from afar. It was hard to figure who it was. But gradually, as the contours of the person's face emerged in full, recognition was in order. It was Saul's younger brother Amadou Jallow (Coach). He was running towards us, hardly concerned about the muddied waters and the slipperiness of the ridges. Amadou had good news to tell us: His brother and I have both passed the Common Entrance examinations. The results had come in that late afternoon and the news was all over town. I scored 265; Saul, 257. Our fathers, excited about our successes, released us from our tasks and they took over. The three of us sped off to town and arrived at the town center. It was teeming with people --- friends, siblings, little kids, well-wishers and the curious-minded. We joined a group huddled on the other side of the then Gambia Commercial and Development Bank leading to the mosque. We stood there, waiting to hear about the results for St. Joseph's Primary School. They were being announced.
In the meantime, Saul and I and other passers mingled within the crowd and exchanged pleasantries. The dried rice-field clay on our legs didn't bother us. We were feeling good, bound for High School. It was a big deal, man. Cherno Mamudu Jallow was the person of the moment. He scored almost 300. He gingerly moved about within the crowd, barely showing any emotions. Che was a little bit shy; the compliments must have been too much for him. I imagined.
Nasir days (L-R): Cherno Mahmudou, Sulayman Jeng, Ahmad Tijan Jallow, Famara Minteh
(Photo, courtesy - Mamadou Sellou Jallow)
Basse in the 1980s was a study in urban fanfare. People had a lot to savor for. They laughed and laughed aloud not because they wanted to cast off stress and difficulties, but because they felt good about themselves; their laughter was good-natured, reflective of the good times. Business was booming. Everything seemed an endless bliss. Remember the Guinean truckloads of fruits (oranges, pineapples, mangoes, bananas)? A mere 50 bututs could buy you a bowlful of fruits. You ate a lot and still had some saved for later. And remember also the arrivals of the ship Lady Chilel Jawara? We would go riverside, get on the ship, goofing about and talking to the tourists (Toubab). The tourists would spread out into town, mingling with the folks, buying the fine pottery from Allunhari. You would see the tourists go in and out of the homes and taking pictures. The people and houses fascinated them. Once a tourist couple tried to take a photo of my old grandmother's house, a sprawling hut in the front yard, and I wouldn't let them. I acted rudely towards the Toubabs. I regret that to this day.
Basse had a lot to offer. You were always in a festive mood, the kind felt in an African village during a full moon.
Cherno Baba Jallow, the Public Relations Officer of the Gambia Press Union (USA), is a member of My Basse editorial board.