Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Strange Case of Tabara Samba

The Tabara Samba case just concluded, and she was sentenced to death for murdering her husband by pouring hot oil on him. On the front page of the "Today" newspaper this morning there was a headline about how she had been put into a cell full of men, and how she had been abused. The article reported that the Magistrate in charge of the case spoke out against these abuses, condemning them and declaring that the accused had a right to a free and fair trial,and incarceration within the legal framework of The Gambia, even if she was a murderer. Then he turned around and called her actions "shocking, deplorable, dishonourable, distressing and distasteful", before handing down a death sentence.

I - and everyone else in The Gambia - have been following the case with some interest, since the beginning. Of course right from the start everyone who heard the news was horrified - how could a woman in cold blood murder her husband by pouring a saucepan-ful of hot oil on him, whilst he slept in the night? She deserved to be hanged! The husband was made out to be a hard-working man who took good care of his wife, only to have her turn around and "betray" him.

But then as the case progressed through adjournments and witness appearances, chinks started to show in the smooth enamel surface of the story, at least for me. For one, the husband had been married seven different times before Tabara - all seven had ended in divorce. For another, no one but Tabara and her (now-deceased) husband were present at the site of the murder - all the reports came from people who say they spoke to the deceased afterwards, and it was he who told them that his wife had without provocation poured hot oil on him whilst he lay in bed. Tabara's story was markedly different: though she admitted to pouring the oil, she claimed she had done it only in self-defense, as they had been fighting and he had attacked her again with a knife whilst she cooked, injuring her on the head and hand.

There are a few, small problems with Tabara's story. For one, she claims to have only poured a 'teaspoon-ful' of oil on him, in her attempt at self-defense - a teaspoon-ful would definitely not have been enough to kill him. For another she says the fight happened in the kitchen, but when the police went into the bedroom the mattress was turned upside-down, in an obvious attempt to hide the oil-stains on the other side. Also a neighbor heard a scream from the house and came running, but Tabara told him it was only her husband having bad dreams, and everything was OK. All these things are what added up to convince the Magistrate (and the majority of the Gambian public) that the accused was guilty of premeditated murder and so, in line with the constitution, deserved the death penalty.

Who knows what really happened that night? But having lived in The Gambia all this time, and knowing how patriarchal the society is and how this gives males almost free leeway to abuse their wives in all sorts of ways, I find myself thinking that perhaps there is a bit more to the story than just an "evil" wife murdering her husband.

At the end of the trial, Tabara's defense counsel, in her plea for mercy to the Judge, said "some women are strong enough and could find a way out, some are strong enough to fight while still others are very weak and would retaliate". I think this sentence alone pretty much sums up the attitude towards married women in the Gambia (and the resignation of the women themselves, given that whatever they do they will come up against the same stiff walls, of public opinion and traditional practise).


  1. Interesting piece... I feel bad for the poor woman... One moment of anger, one poor choice and your life is messed up. Does she have an option to appeal? Another thing I gathered from other news sources is that the lady was Senegalese. I don't know how the general public feels about this but I do know about the hostile feelings a lot of Gambians can hold against foreigners*.

    *Except the "Tubabs" who are apparently a different case

  2. I've been trying to find out about the appeal, though I really don't know. Maybe she does. Her being a Senegalese did not really feature that much in the case - she stayed in The Gambia long enough, and people were more interested in the 'evil woman murdering innocent husband' angle.