The country called The Gambia was the British empire’s first and last colonial outpost in West Africa. Most people can’t locate Gambia on the map of Africa unless they are familiar with it. Many more have never heard of it, and if they are curious enough and ask to be showed on the map their reaction is usually one of awe; “wow, it’s so small. I wouldn’t have noticed it.”
That, tiny sliver of land once referenced as the “knife pointing to the heart of Senegal” dared to dream of self-determination; independence from British colonial rule. When the dream was realized, the global media houses sent correspondents to witness an improbable nation attempt to take its first step into independent nationhood. Their impressions were not encouraging at all. Some of their views cited below were captured in Berkeley Rice’s Enter Gambia The Birth of an Improbable Nation
“Gambia could never stand alone as an independent nation. Everyone here knows this.” Wrote a New York Times reporter ahead of independence in late 1950s.
“The worst example of the carving up of Africa in which European powers have indulged.” – West Africa (a British weekly)
“The tiny enclave passes none of the tests that would have been applied not so long ago to a country’s readiness for independence… Gambia ought never to have occurred” – The Manchester Guardian Weekly
“In a more rational world, Gambia would simply not exist as a separate entity.” – Newsweek
A former colonial governor referred to The Gambia as “A geographic and economic absurdity.”
Daily Express tagged The Gambia as the land of HOPE stating “hope they must have, for if you tried to float a company in the city of London with a prospectus based on what they have here, you would get a visit from the fraud squad.”
At the time of independence, The Gambia was Africa’s tiniest and poorest nation. The only natural resource being fish, one cash crop (peanuts) that accounts for 95% of the country’s exports, no railroads, one airport, no university, no daily newspaper and an annual government revenue of $6.5 million which was $1 million less than the expenditures needed to run the state. This, and more negative prospects was what the Gambia faced when it demanded independence from Britain which was granted on February 18th, 1965. No one was impressed.
One observer noted that if the country was in fact serious about independence, out of the political leaders he met at the time, he saw only one man capable of leading it. That man, “a shy, bespectacled, former veterinary officer” Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara was at the head of that independence march becoming the country’s Prime Minister and first president upon successful campaign for a sovereign republican status cutting loose all remnants of British monarchy.
His voice was captivating, his words were measured, inspiring and well crafted. His demeanor was inviting and eases you when in his presence or from afar, his trademark smile was infectious and puts even his political opponents at ease.
He understood what he was charged with and never for once harbored any illusions as to the enormity of the responsibilities he shouldered. With grace, humility and composure he steered tiny little Gambia to prominence on the world stage, a feat many of her larger neighbors were envious of.
How do you manage a state, so small and so ill-endowed? Sir Dawda was well aware of The Gambia’s challenges, but if anyone is hopeful and inspires hope, it’s Sir Dawda and more of that will be highlighted subsequently.
Long before independence, the French, who colonized the Gambia’s larger neighbor Senegal, made several attempts to have Gambia ceded to Senegal. This prospect seemed more likely after independence and Senegal was hopeful that dream would finally be realized. But when it comes to Gambia, Sir Dawda was determined to see her stand on her own as a respectable sovereign state.
Sir John Paul, last Governor General of The Gambia wrote; “God may help preserve and prosper this small settlement of peace and sanity in a world which, in many regions, so sadly lacks these qualities.”
That was the spirit with which Gambia would storm the world stage under the steady and capable leadership of this man from Barajally, upriver Gambia. A country so small, yet so prominent and respectable on the world stage.
When the Gambia was admitted to the UN as the 115th member state of the world body, Sir Dawda captured the aspirations of a people amongst other issues in his address to the body. “With my people, I take pride in the thought that without ever departing from the path of peaceful and orderly progress, The Gambia has taken its rightful place in the family of nations.”
When he addressed parliament back home in January 1965, weeks before independence, he echoed similar sentiments; “We are very conscious that the task that lies before us is formidable; and, this being so, we are more determined to strive relentlessly to overcome the difficulties that make the task so considerable. We are a small nation,…in time, Gambia will prove that a small country can stand on its own feet and play its own part in world affairs by providing an example of stability and progress and good sense.”
And so it came to pass, until 1994, when his government suffered the same fate that awaits most African states, a coup d’etat; The Gambia and Botswana were referenced as the only two true democracies in Africa, a feat every Gambian should be proud of thanks to the foresight of Sir Dawda Jawara.
For the first time in 95 years, 3 months and 14 days; the ever present and always assured Gambian sun has risen on a land without the man whose life shaped and reflected the political image of the country. Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara’s story is the story of The Gambia and he has ascended to the realm of the ancestors to watch over us and posterity; the generations for whom he sacrificed so much and he shall always be remembered and celebrated. The fear of “Kambia Jawara n’tangho” (Gambia without Jawara) that many of his numerous admirers lamented has finally come to pass.
Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, left a legacy that will be near impossible to beat if ever matched. The love, respect and admiration you command from your people was not misplaced. You will be treasured and your dream of a Gambia entrenched in democratic culture will be forever pursued.
As long as the stars will shine through the dark nights over the river Gambia, we will remember you.
Take your rightful place among the ancestors your Excellency Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara; G.M.R.G; G.C.M.G President who birthed the Republic of The Gambia against all odds.