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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Working at Gambia Television

Gambia #2 coaster (Google Affiliate Ad)
The largest ethnic group in The Gambia was the tribe Mandinka - or the ruling aristocracy - which the first president (Jawara) belonged to.  But now the new president was from the tribe Jolla, who in many ways still practice animistic beliefs mixed with a kind of Islam.  Though comical as all this now sounds, it was of considerable impact to the country and a blemish to US international diplomacy.

The first time I returned after President Jammeh took over, I noticed immediately a different attitude.  I was hired by the managing director of the telephone company to straighten out the problems within the Gambian Television station.  My contract was to train station personnel and to make Gambia Television a money making venture.  It was a major drain to the country and the director believed, as did I, that all stations can be profitable.  My official title was Trainer and Consultant and I only answered to the General Manager and Managing Director.  It was around this time that I was introduced to the 45 Gambian station personnel and began my 2 year stay.

I began gathering information - who was the program director, the marketing director?  What did their paperwork look like and what was the chain of command?  They had a sophisticated set up using a broadcast Beta cam Sp format, but that was where the professionalism ended and my job began.  The station had just been in operation for less than a year and in that time many mistakes were in practice as well as much corruption.  I had a crash course in their culture and explained to everyone in advance that my American demeanor could seem abrupt, direct and not to take my way as a personal affront.  In the Gambia there is a certain etiquette they go through, a cordiality of greeting that goes like this - Hello, how are you?  How is your family, your Mother, your Father, your brother & sister, you cousin, your uncle and on and on and on. - Then the reverse is in order and this small talk is just their custom.  Since the country is so small and most everyone is from an extended family of over a few hundred, they know almost every one's family and therefore this holds more significance.  For me, though, working in the USA, I am accustomed to asking something even before any greeting and that is one way I got things done.  In this culture very little ever gets accomplished, which is all right with them.  There is a favorite saying "Gambia no problem".  I was told that I would get used to this way of things never getting done.

Life, Scenery and Customs in Sierra Leone and the Gambia, Volume I by (Google Affiliate Ad)

Friday, March 8, 2013


Africa Playlist by Joel Samuel on YouTube

The Gambia is the smallest nation in Africa and can be found on the map at around 13 degrees north of the equator at the most western spot on the continent - right in the middle of the country of Senegal. It was made popular as the home of Kunta Kinteh from Alex Haley's "Roots" and was the place where many slaves were taken from before making their perilous trip to the new world.  It has a population of just over a million people from about 10 different ethnic groups.  Listed as one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, it has a literacy rate of 50% and a life expectancy of under 45 years.  The tropical climate is part of what is called the Sahel and at one time was fully forested  but due to over population and deforestation it is now part of the Savannah zone.  Due to a high incidence of Malaria - which is still one of the leading causes of death - The Gambia has been known as the white man's graveyard.  The chief religion is Islam where polygamy is widely practiced and a man is legally allowed to have as many as four wives and two girlfriends.  This is a country where 90% of the women are still circumcised.  

On previous visits everywhere you would find the pictures of Sir Darwin Jawara, the original President of the Gambia.  He was an educated man who used to be a veterinarian and had a European education.  He became the President right after Britain gave Gambia its independence.  That was back in 1965.  During his long rule corruption was rampant and the government was very decadent.  Even thought he had lost interest in governing, he remained in power for the sake of enjoying splendid palaces, Rolls Royces, a big bank account and to take care of the expense of 2 very affluent wives.  The last time I was in the Gambia, in 1999, I noticed that many changes were taking place at an accelerated pace due to the rapid expansion of technology.  And I had the feeling it was too much too soon and there were undercurrents of tension all around. I had a feeling that all this was coming to an end and soon. 

On one occasion I was contracted to do a video tape for a Non Governmental Organization that wanted to appeal to the international community for money.  Its name was DASH which stood for Development Action Through Self Help.  I was at the airport trying to board my plane when stopped by a guard brandishing an M-16 assault rifle.  This intimidated me to open all my suitcases.  I appealed to him saying that this was my camera and tripod case and of no interest.  He then mentioned out of the blue DASH which signaled me that he knew of my assignment.  I tried to explain yes, I was working for this project - upon which he would continue to say DASH - as if he was trying to convey something more that maybe I hadn't understood about the project.  This went on for quite some time in which I noticed that he was getting more and more agitated and belligerent.  Finally a German man walked by and hearing the words told me that in Wollof, the most widely spoken tribal language, Dash meant a bribe and to just give him some marks or other currency.  I did and the guard immediately walked away. 

Two months later I found that Jawara had been overthrown in what was termed a bloodless military coup, only because no one was shot blatantly, but it was rumored that many Africans had been killed or imprisoned which is a fate worse than death.  The former legal government was replaced by a military regime that promised to hold it's government accountable.  Word has it that the USA was involved in trying to oust Jawara and replace him with a puppet president, but that things went drastically wrong when a (then) second lieutenant who was a former presidential body guard wandered into an abandoned State House and finding it so, declared  himself the new leader of the Gambia.  At that time the new USA replacement was holding conferences with the USA Navy offshore and unprepared that someone else would ever intervene.  It caught everyone off guard and so the bright future of the 2nd lieutenant Yaya AJJ Jammeh was preordained.  Almost immediately he became retired Colonel Yaya AJJ Jammeh.  and the new president of The Gambia.