Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Against a Gambian Monarchy: An Essay

Lately I have been hearing rumors that have left me feeling greatly disturbed, concerning the current system of government in Gambia, and a possible change to it. I religiously stay away from politics in my writing. But this is a big enough change that I feel I cannot in all good conscience hold my peace, as a writer, and as a Gambian.

There are problems, with the method of discourse we have chosen. It is polarizing - a fake distinction has been set up, for every issue: for and against, good and evil. Yet it occurs to me that we must first try to understand our problems, before we attempt to solve them. Insults are free - any idiot can utter them. They change nothing, engender nothing - they are the worst kind of masturbation. Despite all the resources and talent we have in the country, of all the chances at a discourse that will change the nation for the better and at the same time be respectful of each other and bent always toward a useful purpose, we choose Freedom newspaper as our flag bearer? There is something deeply wrong with our body politic, if truly this is the best representative we can find: a half-educated journalist who cannot separate fact from fiction, who delights in the gleeful exposure of the misfortunes of others, in their public embarrassments and humiliations, taking a word that contains hope, and a promise of a future liberty, and twisting it to his own perverted use.

Our so-called "Opposition" is an almost useless entity. They resort to hyperbole, the last refuge of the desperate, on and off the Internet. They bicker with each other, like little ganaar chicks over mere scatterings of rice seeds. They fight, over who amongst them will lead. And our "intellectuals" spend all their time trying to impress us, with how sharp their thought is, how they must be genuises far smarter than the common Gambian man, too caught up in their collective navel-gazing to see reality, or recognize it.

And yet all these groups expect to be taken seriously, they tell us that what we have is bad and they are our last and only hope.on and off the Internet. They tell us we should replace it, and when we ask with what they fumble and mumble and with a fake humility propose themselves.

This is why I do not write about politics, will not be drawn into that fray. Oh I love my country alright - everyone who knows me knows this: I love it with a deepness that follows me around everywhere I go and informs all my future plans, and is the source of all my writing. But our politics (and perhaps politics everywhere) seems of necessity to be a worship of the self, a setting oneself up as the best option at the expense of others. And this requires certain compromises with oneself, that I would rather not make. There are other people who think like this, youths like me, people who are assets to the nation, ready to sweat and toil for it with a pure motive, filled with talent and a generous cleverness.

I did not vote, in the last election, though I got the chance for the first time. Aha!, the overeager reader will yell, how can you then even talk about a democracy? Failing to vote meant you gave up your right to being involved in democratic discourse - if you don't vote you can't complain!

I disagree. Putting colored beads in a box once every five years does not constitute participation in the democracy and development of my country any more than going around chanting party slogans into a loudspeaker does. These are the rituals we have built up, serving nothing more than the egos of the people who ask for our votes, a temporary (and expensive) derailment every five years that does little more than create a tension in the air, an anomie in a previously peaceful people.

The online forums, of course, are going wild. All the "brave" men and women who sit behind their keyboards and trade fiery insults online, and speak with great passion about how The Gambia is being ruined, filled with a self-righteous outrage that infects the people who read their comments and spreads through their websites and mailing lists like wildfire. The language they speak is the worst kind of language: a language whose speaker is not ready to do anything himself, but wishes to rile up others, to drive them to commit violent deeds. It is the language of jahaseh, the language of the coward. It is an unworthy language, of our country and our culture, so full of respect and love for each other. And on the other side of the divide, too, we have the same set of problems: the name calling, the casting of aspersions on people's integrity, the use of force as an enforcer of silence, a remover of sounds that make us uncomfortable.

It makes me wonder what kind of country we the youth will inherit, when the time comes. What will be left to us, by these adults, who we look up to but who insist on debasing themselves, on placing themselves on the ground?

A failure of imagination on both sides, this has been one of our central problems. A failure of empathy. Some see the wish to stay on and interpret it as a love of power, a reluctance to let go of it, and the many luxuries it affords. Myself, I prefer a more romantic interpretation, a more forgiving one.

Put yourself, for a moment, in the position of President: you are working hard, night and day, to do what you believe the best for the country. Of all the people in the country you believe you are the only one who sees the big picture, the whole picture, and you see there are things that need to be done that go against popular opinion, that will risk raising the ire of the citizenry. But that in the end these things are the only hope, if the country is to be saved - you do sincerely believe this. And so you work at them, you risk unpopularity, you risk being not liked by anyone. You are insulted, you are called names and accused of all manner of things. Your family is subject to ridicule and public humiliation. Anyone who genuinely loves you and wishes to be friends with you is accused of sycophancy, of seeking only after his own selfish need - in this way society casts you apart, and all associated with you. Your loyalty to the nation - this nation that you have risked your life for - is called into question, again and again your attempts at goodwill are dismissed.

It must be the loneliest job, in the country.

Yet you put up with it, it is a sacrifice you willingly make, because you have a vision, and you wish to see it to its realization. And then, in the cruel and unfair way of democracy (as you see it), the very people you are trying to save, the ones you have given up so much for and who have hated you in return, these people are given the chance to choose or not to choose you, to renew your term or send you packing. A growing fear, that they will at the last betray you (for you see it as a betrayal, after everything you have done for them, and it hurts you deeply, and fills you with an indignant anger).

How could this not be a nuisance? Who would not attempt to remove themselves from such manner of judgement, if they possibly could? Did you see pictures of Obama, after the recent defeat at the polls? Did you see the look on his face, the weariness in his voice and manner? You think if he had had a chance to change that, to make it go away, he would not have?

But what would be easy for us is not always the right thing to do. In fact I have come to harbor a suspicion of facile-ness, a distrust of ready-made solutions.

If you are of the strong opinion that Gambia would be better served with a monarchy, well there is nothing wrong with that. You have every right to your opinions, after all. But you must also be willing to let myself and others disagree with you, without rancor, without casting us as enemies. We all love our little Gambia, in our different ways. We all want the best for it. And no one knows what this "best" consists of. But if we talk, if we join our thoughts, then we can all discover it together. This is the practical value of democracy: that it gives us all voices, that it says - we do not, cannot, bequeath the future of the nation into the hands of one man. Not because we hold anything against the man, but because a country - the land and its people - is not a trivial thing, to be left to the whims and caprices of one person, no matter how kind the person is, no matter how wise.

The state is not a glove, that fits neatly over our people. It is more like an undersized blanket, a saangu that is too small and needs to be stretched out, in order to cover the whole bed. There will always be people dissatisfied with it, discontent with the system. Democracy gives these people a voice, their vote gives them a choice, a means of catharsis. A way to express their opinions in a non-violent manner. A monarchy will take this away, trap us within a system that confines us and takes away the ultimate choice even the least of Gambians has a right to: who we wish to be ruled by. I do not even speak about now. Yes, perhaps we have the leader we need, perhaps you are right and if he were only to stay for the rest of his life we would become a great nation. And then, when he is gone? When the next leader comes, his replacement, and is not to our liking, is selfish and corrupt and misuses the resouces of the country and runs it like his own personal fiefdom? You think a system of government is like a change of clothes: a dagit in the morning, a kaba in the evening, a malaan and T-shirt at night?

Ruling over a land is not a gift, to be handed out. It is a terrible burden.

If we choose this route and later decide we have made a mistake, there will be only one way to undo the mistake, and it is a way that, save for a brief and frightening period of anarchy in '81, our country has never experienced. A way none of us wish, for we are, and have always been, a peaceful people. But peace is not preserved only by an aversion to guns, and a submission to faith - no, the decisions we make now may perhaps not infringe on our own peace, but they will, on the peace of the future.

We suffer, as a people, from a queer amnesia. We do not seem to remember the past, and when we do we think of it only as a collection of ancient relics, not in any way related to our present. Perhaps this is necessary, a philosophy of life well suited to the hand-to-mouth existence that most Gambians live. It is even, perhaps, useful - for we are a forgiving people, who hold no grudges, and the greater part of forgiving is willfully forgetting, letting bygones be gone, never to be mentioned again, in polite conversation or remembering.

Yet it is a damaging philosophy, sometimes. It was not the toubab, after all, who brought us democracy. Why would the shepherd promote representation, amongst the sheep? No - history tells a different story: of a growing anger at a power that fed off the land and the people yet did not acknowledge them, left them powerless and like little children needing to be directed and decided for. Of a country that grew agitated as it came into an increasing self-realization, of men and women who made many sacrifices, for the future, for us, so we could be free of the yoke of monarchy.

And the end result of this sacrifice, the democratic government, is not just a toubab ideal that does not fit into our culture, but was shoved down our unwilling throats. To dismiss it as such shows a deep (and, I suspect, disingenuous) misunderstanding of the state, and the exchange we enter into when we all decide to live in it together, as one people.

Some of my friends speak of self-exile. They throw their hands up in frustration, at every setback in our national project, and make plans to move to another country, to attempt to set roots down in another land. But though this may be a solution for some, it does not work, for many. Gambia is our country, it is the land of our birth, and that of our forefathers'. It is the only place in the world we can truly call ours - where would we go, how could we be ourselves, realize our full potentials, in the bosom of a land not our own? This is not a true solution, then.

And so to conclude I wish to say, we are in this together, mu neh mu nahari. I apologize, if this essay has offended you in any way - that was not my intention. I wished only to bring the issues at play to the foreground, so we can think about them, and discuss them and do what is best for our country, and our future.

Now is our chance. I hope, whatever we end up deciding, we do not live to regret it.

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