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The Gambia: where silence is golden! Gambian journalist Abdoulie Sey gives a bird's-eye view of his country's enforced culture of silence.

It was a cold and windy January morning and the sun was peeping timidly through a mirthlessly grey Gambian sky. Taxi driver Ousman Gaye (not his real name) was having me for a so-called town trip that would last the whole day. From the very moment we agreed on a price, Gaye was locked in a dilemma.

We were stationed along the intersection of two roads that invariably led to the same southerly direction and ultimately to my destination. Both roads, one a dirt track that kicked up red dust and the other a tarred affair with huge craters, were in differing stages of dilapidation.

Like all taxi drivers wary of potholes and ditches, Gaye was weighing the two choices stretching out before us. After a ponderous few minutes, his mind appeared made up. We would travel the dirt road to get to my destination, a sprawling settlement on the outskirts of Serrekunda, Gambia's largest and by far most populous town.

I was on some personal and not so personal errands and in the absence of a viable public transport system, hired taxis were the quickest and more reliable, albeit pricey, means of spiriting me from one end of town to another.

But, just as I was settling down to the prospect of a dusty and bumpy ride on the dirt road, Gaye without warning abruptly changed course, steering his Benz 190 through a 160 degree turn.

Without a second thought, he had changed his mind, settling for the tarred stretch on which ubiquitous potholes constantly reminded commuters who were the real masters of the road.

The impact of his sharp swerve hurled my unstrapped body from the back seat and sent my head crashing on the back of the unoccupied front seat. In pain, I darted him a murderous look and swallowed my anger.

Recognising the silent but fiery reproach in my eyes, he mumbled a few words of apology before whining the engine hack to life to restart our journey with a jagged burst of speed that immediately rendered his earlier show of remorse pointless.

My anger however soon ebbed and I smiled as a thought crossed my journalistic mind. It was not pretty or sweet! I was reflecting on a stranger side to life under domineering bondage.

It is strange but still, natural how the state of mind of African leaders leaves recognisable traces on their own people, mirroring their ways and setting the standard for future attitudes, individually and collectively. The vainer the rulers, the more their subjects have been likely to act or see life in a similar fashion, longevity in power playing a big role in shaping the destiny of a nation based on the doings, misdoings and mad spontaneity of those holding the reins.

My driver s mind was divided between the road in front of us and his lot in life. He studied me in his front mirror and turned to look at me with incomprehension written all over his inquiring face. I avoided any eye contact with him and kept my mind's business to myself, refusing to let him in on my dangerous secret. It was none of his business anyway, I told myself.

By the standards of the Gambia under President Yahya Jammeh, what had just crossed my mind was supposed to constitute a monstrous infraction--unflattering, abominable and punishable by law if it saw the light of day. It was the kind of "idle, provocative, unpatriotic and misconceived" product of the intellect, frowned upon by the Gambian state with piquant disdain.

It could earn its originator a multitude of charges of contempt for the Great Leader if he was foolhardy enough to articulate them openly, and imprisonment at the end of court shenanigans masquerading as the rule of law. It would seem repression is the only system of containment African revolutionary strongmen know after their revolutions have lost some of their magical spark with the commonality.

After years in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons, the rest of the world has come to appreciate why critical Gambians don't like sharing their thoughts with just anybody, lest their tongues run them into the intolerant arm of the state.

The small banter of citizens complaining about the difficulty of life in the Gambia earned many of them charges of incitement and contempt of authority. Through merely finger-pointing where life was pinching them hard, they felt the full crushing weight of some obscure law. One understated or overlooked narrative is the role that taxi drivers play in this morbid game of Gambian roulette featuring the hunters and the hunted.

They are the most dreaded strangers, naturally distrusted because some among them work at the behest of state intelligence as informers. As in most of Africa, the Gambian taxi industry is one of the few places where rumours begin, assume wings and fly out as bona fide news. Taxi drivers are usually in the middle of the mix as a frontline spying network, eavesdropping on clients, prying into private lives and making light work of intelligence gathering and sharing with their employers in the state. Borrowing a phrase from George Orwell's 1984, they are Big Brother's eyes and ears watching everyone in The Gambia.

"Is my driving rough?" the man at the wheels enquired lamely in Gamblish (Gambian English), after his probing body language had failed to coax my tongue to loosen up and lay bare the supposedly insalubrious musings in my head.

"Yes and no," I replied, hoping to cut his curiosity short, angry that he was still daring to interrupt my thought. I was still unprepared to open up to this total stranger and jeopardise what was left of my "freedom" under a system many privately dismiss as nothing more than despotic absolutism operating under the guise of democratic pluralism.

The Gambia since 1994 has been a trapdoor where silence has become golden, where detractors and those with unflattering views up their sleeves literally seal their lips to avoid being hounded and hooded to the gallows. It is where public discourses are woven with the drab and garbled nuances of political charlatans and praise-singers who are in it for the penny, apparently devoid of any genuine conviction to a worthy national cause.

Even when the stakes are high as a result, people err on the side of caution by concealing what's on their minds, especially if it is not politically gratifying to the ears of those rooting for the government.

These citizens live with their nagging thoughts on a daily basis, prepared to go with them to the grave, comfortable in the knowledge that the state will not come to grief over them as long as they remain furtive.

No tribe of people in The Gambia knows better how to live with what they really know and think than practising journalists, who have mastered the art of self-censorship and are creative with the truth to avoid the state appearing at their door demanding explanations. As one of them, I knew better than to blow my cover to a total stranger I was meeting for the very first time.

Otherwise I might not be guaranteed the "freedom" of another day to practise the kind of compromise journalism still viewed with wary tolerance if not weary suspicion from those on high. The proverbial pen has lost its aura in Gambia. Its ink has been drying up for some time, disconnected from its fount of independent thought and action, from a lacklustre intelligentsia unconcerned about the burning issues of the day.

The local media scene had degenerated to its lowest point imaginable. It is that bad!

Still undaunted by my emotional detachment, the taxi driver tried again and again to crush my resolve to remain silent. This time he was knocking against a dangerous political taboo, brazenly throwing caution to the wind to criticise the regime for interfering with the natural trend of the economy by pressing the values of international currencies like the dollar, pound and euro down to allow the dalasi some degree of national respectability after a year of particularly poor performance.

His knowledge of politics and economic trends vindicated my darkest suspicions of him as a total stranger with a more sinister motive. He was no ordinary taxi driver, I assured myself and pressed my lips tighter together, a deliberate act or caution against any temptation to unburden my politically troubled soul to him in case he was an informer of the state, a Gambian version of Big Brother watching everybody for tell-all signs of rebellious intent in thought or action.

On the face of it, the average Gambian taxi driver, for the most part an uneducated illiterate (no disrespect meant) does not give a hoot about politics and lacks the brain to wrap his head around complex, knotty economics, beyond having the horse sense of knowing what's in it for him in terms of the basic commodities he can acquire to spice up his life.

He lives in blissful ignorance of the laws of supply and demand and seems happy as long as the price of petrol to feed his car's engine remains stable and affordable. But something about my driver made him appear too enlightened to pretend he was an average Joe.

With taxi-driving informers everywhere, their tainted lot has inspired various tales about unsuspecting critics being lured into saying unkind things about the government, only to be turned in to waiting state operatives to face their Waterloo.

Some tales have even taken the ridiculous shapes of twisted mythologies, like the story of an unsuspecting taxi driver who took the supposedly disguised President Jammeh on a ride one night. The story went that the driver passed a dangerous test after refusing to be drawn into criticising the government by his late-night passenger, who was attempting to goad him into the trap. To the point of abject flattery, he praised the president, who unbeknown to him was the self-same passenger, eager to snatch some seemingly harmless conversations with him.

Jammeh eventually removed his disguises and revealed his true identity to the bewilderment of the driver, who went momentarily insane. The mythology went as far as to paint a happy-ever-after tale of how the struggling driver was duly rewarded for professing love and faith in His Excellency and his government.

Those conversant with the consequences of telling truth to Gambian power cannot shut their minds to a lesson or two about keeping quiet or steering clear of words that might offend the state. Understanding the mythology means we all dread what might have been had the poor man obliged and loosened his tongue with a few barbs directed at Babili Mansa and his government.

Mythical or not, it is stories like these that over the years have caused fewer people (including journalists) to be willing to run the gauntlet and brace themselves for retribution over their views when the safest route to take is silence. Better silence than a life spent in political and social purgatory.

Therefore instinctively, I did what was the commonest thing to do under the circumstances by protecting myself with silence.

The thought I was hiding away from my driver was along the lines of our road journey taking a dangerous cue from how the Gambia's destiny was being tinkered with by dint of fleeting ideas before they are immediately abandoned for new ones, leaving the citizenry to deal with the knee-jerk impacts.

Just the other day, a presidential edict demanded that all female government workers should cover their heads in the Muslim tradition. A few days later a sharp U-turn came in the shape of a memo withdrawing the directive, as if it had all been a bad joke in the first place. Something unusual was happening. As with many cases before including hirings and firings, the government was changing its mind and owning up to the unpopularity of its directive among its female workforce.

Wikipedia's French page lists the Gambia as a country using Arabic as its official language. This was after Jammeh announced that English would be replaced by Arabic as the official language and that the country should now be known as the Islamic Republic of The Gambia, even though its constitution still tells the world that the country is a secular republic.

The English version of Wikipedia still clings onto English as the Gambia's official language, the main medium of instruction in schools and the language of business for government and commerce. At least for now, this former British enclave of 1.8 million people wedged inside the belly of French-speaking Senegal, still uses English to communicate with the world.

Although this is no attempt to hold forth for the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer, I cannot resist the urge to point out that any attempt to change this status quo would send this poor country adrift and against the strong tide of international trade and communications, which are moderated in English.

The unexpected twists and turns in these tales remain instructive about one thing--the Gambia's living contradictions, symbolising a state, a government and a people in a crisis of identity, unsure of their place in the world of the 21st century.

Later that evening as he dropped me off, Ousman Gaye ended the silence enforced by my uptight and non-expansive manners by turning round with a smile and asking if I was a journalist. I mustered the courage to respond in the affirmative and shot back a question of my own.

"Are you an informer," I asked, bracing myself for the resounding no that would follow.

Instead he grunted, something between a dry cough and a laugh, before replying "Yes and No".

I did not pursue the matter any further but gave him a good look before paying him for his day's service to me and alighted from his vehicle with a dismissive goodbye.

After a few steps into the Serrekunda market crowds, I turned momentarily to find him talking on his phone, his eyes fixed on me. I had never felt more depressed on behalf of my hapless generation and the ones to follow. The horrid facts of life in Orwell's 1984 are well and truly unmistakable in this sparse land dubbed the Smiling Coast.

Abdoulie Sey, the author is a former editor-in-chief of the banned Independent newspaper in Gambia and now works as editor for the Dakar-based African Press Agency (APA).
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Title Annotation:Travelogue: THE GAMBIA
Author:Sey, Abdoulie
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6GAMB
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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