Thursday, February 18, 2010

Independence Day

"Any of y'all remember independent stadium independence day marches in primary school ?"

- sjobe on twitter

The preparation started weeks before the actual independence. Every day some thirty minutes would be given over to marching practise. In our red and white uniforms (I went to J C Faye) we would march past our classes, winding our way around the school grounds, in the final days waving Gambian flags we had constructed from crayons, A4 paper, and thin sticks of wood. We sang the National Anthem, the teacher conducting us with his hands from his position at the front of the line. The only other time we marched like this was when we practised for the Commonwealth - and the main difference was that then there would be more flags, not just of the Gambia. (I still carry the remnants of these Commonwealth celebrations with me: "Oh Canada we stand on guard for thee" and lines from many other national anthems which pop into my head at odd times).

The day itself finally arrived, after much waiting. In the morning you'd wake early, not even knowing how you'd slept the previous night, you were so excited. And there was your mother (it was always your mother, in the early hours), getting things ready for you - your breakfast, your clean and ironed uniform, stiff under the weight of starch. Jump into the shower and jump out again, get dressed (don't forget your shiny belt), wolf down your breakfast, and then run out onto the almost-empty streets, past houses where other sleepy-eyed mothers were getting their own children ready. At the school all the students would be lined up into neat rows (at least the teachers would try to keep them neat - occasionally they became messy), then led into wide buses which were what took us to the stadium in Bakau. Each bus had a number, like flights - you were told to commit your number to memory so you would not get lost later, in the confusion at the end of the event.

And get lost you could do - it seemed every child in the country was at the stadium, when you got there. Your first experience of being part of such a collective, doing everything together, from singing and marching, to the co-ordinated movement of your hands and feet ("left! right! left! right!"), the police band belting out the tunes to which you sang with great exhuberance (quite likely the only live music performance you saw every year, at that age (the annual Youssou N'dour came later) - and how well they played, and how well the police marched, the source of much pride. Gambian joke: "if marching was a world competition our police would always win it"). And it felt good: because you were part of a crowd, yet still felt your own individual presence and contribution, and saw how the crowd and what it produced would not be possible without you. Your first intimations of what it meant to be a citizen of a country, at an age when you were too young to know what it meant when people called Gambia a "third-world country", or claimed it was one of the poorest in the World - young and innocent and full of patriotism (for lack of a better word: what you felt was childlike and beyond words). The closest you would ever get in your life to the citizen ideal, country and you merging into one, you ready to live and die for it, and asking for nothing in return.

So other children and their teachers stood as far as the eye could see, in hundreds of lines, all the colors of the rainbow present in the uniforms everyone wore (even the teachers had their own uniforms, spotless and clean, each the general in charge of their own small army of pupils). And the regional officers (the school districts were divided into regions: from 1 to, if I remember correctly, 6) commanding the teachers in a hierarchical construction with the President and his government up on a dais watching over it all. By midday the Sun had risen to its highest point in the Sky, and beat down with a fury on everyone assembled, yet no one flinched or complained. It was rumoured that someone had fainted - in fact many people would, with the red cross running to and fro to administer to them. This all added a certain sense of urgency to the proceedings, ice and water sellers making their way through the crowd hawking their wares.

This was all before the changes, before it was announced that to make the logistics easier to manage everyone would hold a small celebration in their own region. This meant my younger brother would never experience Independence in the way we had, in all its majestic splendor - it instead became merely another holiday, remembered only when the teachers announced it perhaps a week before the event itself, and not looked forward to the whole year. And the Gambia as a whole is the poorer for it.