Is Dr Tijan Sallah Gambia’s Soyinka?

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Cabbie, a Latino friend of mine once remarked that there are two things that fascinate her. Guess what, do you know? The answer is literature and science. The discussion was centred on cosmology, ephemeral classicists and magic realism. Of course, the works of Paz, Marquez and Soyinka elongated our chat. Despite the minuscule of our location, I could figure out the bigger world, and could not help but imagine whether I have ever met any thoroughbred Latino who was so immersed in literature and science than Cabbie. It is true that the big apple is a thriving nest for old and emerging minds, and spare moments when officials are locked up in sound-proof UN offices sorting out complicated issues, can help the idle connect and ‘kill’ time with the experts.

Under the canopy of snow, young and old donned thick clothing to enable them beat the coldness and move on briskly to their various destinations. I was chatting with someone who has never met a native African and never had the opportunity to receive first-hand information about Africa, all what she knew about Africa was from the media. Waw! I exclaimed, and thought, I will serve as the un-accredited Africa’s spokesperson to help my new-found Latino understand a continent that has systematically been pilloried by some of the most powerful forces not far from where we sat.

It was not until I return to the Gambia that I realized, several years before my journey to the big apple, a certain Gambian writer had a somewhat related experience as mine in the United States. Over the years, I have studied most of his writings and could not help but imagine if Dr. Tijan Sallah is Gambia’s equivalent of Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka. I will do the comparison later, but first allow me to highlight a classic poem published in When Africa was a young woman (1980) by Dr. Tijan Sallah entitled MAYNARD MY AMERICAN FRIEND. The tone of this poem summed up the issues I tackled during my brief but memorable encounter with Cabbie.

Is Africa a place where people inhabit in unusual places? Are Africans aggressive people, always fighting, hungry and angry? Suddenly, I started to realize the wisdom of Cabbie when she stated that literature and science fascinated her. In other words, through literature, one comes to term with other people’s feelings, whilst the wonders of the world are all captured through science and technology. Great, isn’t it? Come to think of it, two decades ago, delegates from big brother of Africa made a startling remark at the UN asking whether ‘democracy was usually served in the menu of western restaurants? Where was Cabbie then?

However, when one mentions Africa or native African-speaking peoples, it evokes certain images of misery, helplessness, a continent infested with the Ebola virus… but from the point of view of a writer like Sallah, it takes a little bit of creativity to recall lines that are worth narrating. Here is Sallah:
Maynard, my American friend,
Came from the foothills of Virginia
I was the first African he had ever met
And he asked me, like an inquisitive child
Why I did not look like Tarzan
Since I was from Africa.

A symbolic presentation of the political and social environment of 70s and 80s in the United States where even among blacks there is always something intrinsic that tends to unite and the same time divide them. This is why Sallah went on to say:
‘I was speaking his own language
And he continued to ask me-
Do ya like it here and this country?
I looked at him and said-
Of course, of course
Silence. Soul-searching, refractory moment.
Then he continued-
Do you live in trees in Africa?
Again silence. But this time mummified.

With honesty, some blacks born and raised in the United States despite their ‘education’ lack the depth and sophistication to fathom the conspiracy behind the maligning stories that have inflicted so much damage. Is Maynard not educated in history to understand that Africa is resource-rich? Where was Maynard when the famous Mansa Musa embarked on a journey to Mecca to perform the hajj and splashed out cash and gold to people which eventually changed the market dynamics and drastically brought down the price of gold? Was Maynard trying to psychologically blow off the mind of his friend by sending him crude missiles? Again the questions rained:

‘Do ya have cars in Africa?
I mean do ya Africans still
run around elephants and tigers?
I bet that must be fun
I mean do ya have tvs, radios, and ball games?
Do ya have jeans, discos, movies, and hamburgers?
Do ya run around killing each other?
As Idi Amin did to his people?

Like most Africans who studied abroad or lived there, these are some of the issues they faced. To be bombarded with issues that can psychologically and emotionally put one off momentarily. The beauty of literature is the ability to inspire and inject into the readers a certain feeling of hope and merriment about the past, the current and what may happen tomorrow. What Tijan Sallah did not realize at that time was a palpable sense of décor which I suspect was inflicted during the infamous liberation wars in the south.

Sallah and Soyinka
There is a nexus between Sallah and Soyinka, perhaps a major point of departure is that Soyinka is an unapologetic political activist, while Sallah is moderate about his political sensibilities. A thoroughbred economist whose passions for words and structure stimulated him to write. Sallah’s sense of creativity and tenacity makes me think he’s Gambia’s equivalent of Wole Soyinka. In Contemporary literature of Africa: Tijan Sallah & Literary Works of The Gambia (2014) edited by Wumi Raji, Sallah is undoubtedly credited for taking Gambian literature to another level. In his interview with Raji, ( July 2012) entitled: The amphibian dilemma, Sallah is quoted to have said that he admired Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka for his stylistic ambition, employment of Yoruba folklore, and bold and ambiguous artistry. What most readers do not know is that the pair is as intimate as love birds. In fact, shortly after he scooped his Nobel Prize for literature in 1986; Sallah was one of many who wrote to Soyinka. The Nobel laureate personally replied, and for the sake of the record, Sallah attached a copy of Soyinka’s letter to his 1988 book, Before the New Earth.

They may have some sharp contrasts as regard their sensibilities and world view on other issues, but the fact remains, Sallah is undoubtedly a highly acclaimed writer, one of the finest to emerge from The Gambia. His case demystifies the traditional view that writers have to be molded and incubated in the arts laboratory at Universities. From his high school experimental labs, writing and winning hearts and minds, Sallah studied economics at Universities and was subsequently hired by the World Bank. As I conclude this essay, let me leave with this question: Is Dr. Tijan Sallah Gambia’s Wole Soyinka?

Ebrima Baldeh studied Literature at the University of the Gambia. He works at GRTS-TV.

By Ebrima Baldeh

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