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The little-known radical history of The Gambia

The fire was once aflame and blazing in this small country. May its memory serve as a spark to rekindle its embers.

Every Thursday, my father and his brothers typically convene at the house of one of my uncles, Mr. Dodou Taal, in Banjul, The Gambia’s capital. On this occasion, I would be present to partake in this long-established family ritual. In one of our most recent meetings, our conversations centred around The Gambia’s radical past. While I had been somewhat aware of the radicalism that took root in The Gambia, this particular occasion allowed me to talk to my uncles who were directly involved in Pan-African organizing. We had lively and heated conversations over lunch, with some of my uncles seeming to espouse Establishment Politics, which consist of appeasing former colonial powers, while others demonstrated an undying commitment to radical Pan-Africanism. Now in their late 70s and 80s, my father and his brothers represent two key political ideologies Gambians have taken to pursue African liberation since its independence in 1965.

The approach of radical Pan-Africanism, which calls for the unity of all African people wherever they may be, spread beyond the post-colonial borders of African nations into The Gambia thanks to the influence of famous personalities such as Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Touré, Marcus Garvey, and Patrice Lumumba. Nkrumahism, synonymous with the ideology of Pan-Africanism, found a home in the country as young Gambian intellectuals. Inspired by the political possibilities occasioned by independence and the works of aforementioned pan-Africanists, these young Gambians converged in the Gambian capital, Banjul, to debate and discuss the political situation at the time, and imagine, with youthful zeal, radically new futures for their country.

For instance, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, charged that political independence without economic independence meant a re-colonization of the continent. Nkrumah coined the term “Neo-colonialism,” which maintains that the colonization of Africa is perpetuated through the economic disenfranchisement of African nations by Western financial institutions. Likewise, Sekou Toure, Guinea’s first president, a committed Pan-Africanist, staunchly maintained that Africa’s liberation is only realizable through a political unification of Africa, wherein transnational economic planning is established. The young Gambian radicals deeply espoused the ideas of these two great African political philosophers.

But, in 1965, The Gambia gained independence under President Jawara, a conservative leader hesitant to challenge the West. While other leaders pursued self-reliance, Jawara embraced neoliberalism – a path that would keep The Gambia beholden to the financial interests of the advanced capitalist countries. This neoliberal approach to development adopted by Jawara and the subsequent presidents, which entraps nations into debt and forces countries to be reliant on Western financial institutions, has left the majority of Gambians (over two million people) impoverished.

Whilst aware of the calls for Pan-African unity, self-determination, and economic independence, President Jawara nonetheless remained committed to his expressed mission: “peace and stability,” a posture that would remarkably see him last more than twenty years in power, while more radical African leaders were swiftly removed from power via western-backed coups or assassinated in cold blood.

Despite President Jawara’s neoliberal posturing, a radical intellectual generation thrived in The Gambia, inspired by Nkrumah and Touré, envisioning a united Africa. They became known as “The Kent Street Vous (KSV),” named after landmark premises in Half Die Ward at Number 31, Kent Street in Banjul, Gambia’s capital.  “The Kent Street Vous” became the epicentre of intellectual exchange, where the works of Pan-African leaders reverberated throughout the days and nights of heated debates. They devoured Garvey, Padmore, DuBois, Fanon, Newton, Marx, and Lenin. Their Pan-Africanist commitments transcended borders, recognizing the global connection between the African diaspora and the mother continent. Kwame Ture would become an influential personality for these young minds, whose condemnation of Neo-colonialism as an obstacle to Black liberation was championed by the KSV.

Their intellectual fervour went beyond words and their impact was felt across walks of life. For example, in 1966, hundreds of schoolteachers protested against the appointment of a British principal in a Gambian school. KSV intellectuals led the nationwide strike. Their activities spread beyond the streets. They developed a social programme through which funds were raised and distributed to schools and health institutions in the rural areas of The Gambia. To disseminate their thoughts, they birthed The Kent Street Vous Journal, which became a beacon of Pan-African thought.

A free monthly newspaper, the journal featured articles drawn from its membership and managed by an editorial team, amongst whom was my uncle, Saihou Taal, who informed me of the strenuous labour that was required in readying and distributing the journal: “It was the 60s; we used typewriters and stencils and then went to a printing press owned by The Gambia Workers’ Union. It would take all night to print, sort, and then distribute the next day,” he recalled. The Kent Street Vous Journal featured various editorials aimed at connecting The Gambia to the wider Pan-African audience in the sub-region.

Years later, The Black Brotherhood (a pan-Africanist group), inspired by Black Power and The Black Panther movements, emerged in 1968 in Yundum, The Gambia. Its largely Ghanaian-educated membership aimed to unify Africa through education. The Nkrumah/Jahumpah programme saw 100s of Gambians flown to Ghana for secondary, tertiary, and technical education. To remedy the brain drain that had resulted from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Nkrumah considered it necessary to establish several programmes that would train young Africans from across the continent to become leaders and pioneers in their respective fields. Nkrumah’s government covered all the costs. In his commitments to pan-Africanism, he envisioned that education should be accessible not only to the elite or just Ghanaians but to Africans on the continent as a whole.

The Black Brotherhood and their goal bore fruit in The Gambia in November 1969 with the arrival of Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), a pan-Africanist American political activist, accompanied by his wife, Miriam Makeba. The members of The Black Brotherhood liaised with the then President Jawara, making it an official visit in which Kwame Ture would meet with President Jawara and also addressed a mass rally at the Half-Die KGV football field, followed by a lecture at The Crab Island Junior Secondary School hall in Banjul.

Despite the hesitancy to challenge the West, the Jawara government provided adequate protocol and hosted the visitors to a gala dinner/reception at the State House grounds, followed by a musical event led by Miriam Makeba. Kwame Ture in his various speeches emphasized the need for Africa to unite, and in his usual electrifying fashion roused the crowd to be Black and Proud at a time when African women throughout the world were attracted to wearing wigs and personifying whiteness as symbols of beauty. My Uncle Saihou told me: “The message against it was so powerful that some women or girls in the crowd responded by removing their wigs (artificial hair).” his message of Black Power and Black unity instilled a sense of pride in the attendees, and reverberated across the country.

These conversations with my uncles reflect timeless debates on Black liberation in Africa and the competing ideologies and approaches put forward by theorists and activists for the emancipation of Africa. Despite their disparate prescriptions, we all resoundingly agree on this point: ‘Africa can be better.’ Yet, there remain those who fail to address and contend with the perils of Neo-colonialism. The Gambia remains indebted to the IMF and unable to free itself from the neocolonial yoke of debt entrapment. One lesson to take from the legacy of the Kent Street Vous is that Neocolonialism can be combated by first recognizing our interconnected struggles.

The Gambia’s radical history teaches us that the African politics of appeasement are costlier than the politics of confrontation. Let’s rekindle the flames of revolutionary Pan-Africanism that fervently inspired deep thinking and praxis in the young Gambians of Kent Street Vous. The fire was once aflame and blazing in this small country and across Africa, and may its memory, presented here, serve as a spark to rekindle its embers.

As Nkrumah said, “Forward Ever, Backward Never.”


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