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The Gambia Echo

Now that the Gambian story has been put back on the shelf, with everyone waiting to see whether President Adama Barrow will run an administration that will prove worthy of the amount of words expended on its emergence, I feel I can tell my story of The Gambia.

It was a life and death story, and so I don't enjoy telling it. But once the recent developments had driven it from deep down my mind right up to the front, there was no way of shoving it aside.

Back in July 1981, I was quietly carrying out my functions as a freelance foreign correspondent who needed to follow every political development in my region, West Africa, in order to try and interest a foreign editor somewhere to ask me to write about it and thereby earn my keep. This wasn't something I enjoyed doing, for budgets for news-gathering were being cut all around the world – even then – and foreign editors were understandably careful not to incur the ire of their editors by commissioning too many stories from obscure corners of the world. So the answer to what we call a “pitch” was almost always ”no”, and after a while, such negative responses can become  quite depressing.

So, when I sent a cable to the chap on the London Economist handling Africa at the time, Nick Harman, suggesting that the overthrow of Sir Dauda Jawara as President of the Gambia and the abduction of his wife by the coup-makers would make good copy for his paper, I didn't expect him to “bite”. But “bite” he did. With this proviso: that my copy should reach London by Wednesday morning. (I had sent the cable on Monday!)

What? Forty-eight hours to get to The Gambia and file a story?

Yes. I had to try. Nobody had asked me. I'd asked for the job and had been told how it was to be done. Take it or leave it.

Now, one rule that gets embedded on a journalist's brain after he's practised his trade for a number of years is this: get the story! In other words, the prospect of a good story coming out of a certain amount of endeavour takes over one's brain and one would move heaven and earth to try and obtain the story and tell it the best way one could.

So I studied the Airline timetables. There was only one flight that could be of use to me – the Panam flight to Dakar, which would touch down in Accra on Monday afternoon. I packed quickly and made my way to the airport. I bought a ticket from a white-uniformed Panam official and waited. Within two hours of getting the okay from London, I was on board a big Boeing-707, en route to Dakar.

I'd never been to Dakar before. I did not have a reservation at any hotel in Dakar. But once the adrenalin had been pumped into my system by the perceived existence of a good story, none of those things seemed to matter.

Someone mentioned to me that one of the top guys in the Ghana embassy in Dakar was a chap I knew slightly, George Lamptey. So, as soon as I landed in Dakar, I found his telephone number and called him at home. Now, in those days, Ghana was blessed with really good diplomats and George Lamptey was one of the very best. I discussed my plight with him and he immediately offered me a bed at his home for the night. Early the next morning, he asked his driver to take me to a taxi station in central Dakar, where I was to look for a cab bound for Kaolack, near the river crossing to Banjul.

I found a taxi, but after pocketing my advance, the driver kept waiting for more passengers, while I twirled my fingers contemplating the demise of my approaching deadline. Eventually, we took off but the passenger-touting did not cease, and we got to Kaolack just before dark.

I enquired about how to get an outboard-motor boat that could take me to Banjul. I found one, but after the owner had pocketed my money, he vanished, leaving me in the hands of a boy who could not have been more than 12 years old! This boy was to ferry me across a stretch of water bound to be extremely rough, because the sea and the Gambia River enjoyed volatile conjugal relations at that confluence!

“Clever journalist” me, remembers: oh, there's a curfew in Banjul! So what? Just nip over to the Senegalese immigration post on the bank over there and beg them in broken French to tell their counterparts on the Banjul side that a journalist was being ferried over and so they should disregard the curfew rules when they saw him. Simple really.

Of course, the Senegalese officials neglected to disclose to me that they could not communicate with The Gambians on the Banjul side due to dead phones! Even at the best of times, let alone coup time!

So, I get into the boat. The boy starts the engine. And off we go. But after we've travelled for about two-three hundred yards, the engine conks out.

The boy tries again and again to restart it. But baabu: the engine remains dead. We now begin drifting in the water. Soon, the current will grab hold of the boat and take it – where?

I now remember that I can't swim! So many reasons why one shouldn't die! But there I was. Death's call was all over my ears.

Just as I was lighting the fire to the private hell that's deep inside my head, however, the boat's engine comes back to life. The boy expertly steers us back to safe waters and within about 15 minutes, we are on the Banjul side.

There, the boy hurriedly tosses my suitcase on to the sandy beach and no sooner have my legs touched the ground than he makes off towards Kaolack. He has heard about the curfew and the troubles in Banjul - obviously! And he's having none of it.

I put my suitcase on my head and begin to walk. There's a blackout in Banjul and I can hardly see where to go. A small light can be seen flickering far away and I make towards that.

"HALT!" a voice shouts from somewhere in the dark. 

I stop dead. But I can't see anyone.


I do as ordered. My suitcase balances perilously on my head. But it stays on.

Somebody emerges from the darkness. He shines a torch at me.

"Who are you and where are you going?" he asks.

I tell him. I add that I had asked the Senegalese immigration post to send a radio message to warn the Gambian police that I was on my way to their city and that they should not consider me as a curfew-breaker.

The man sniggers when I say this. I don't know it yet, but in the past few hours, Senegalese troops have invaded The Gambia and most Gambian policemen and officials are running away  from them!

The man comes over from the dark and asks me to open my suitcase. He looks through my things. Then he says in a matter-of-fact manner, " You are very lucky! I am a policeman, and I should have shot you on sight, because that's what the curfew rules tell us to do. On your left side, a few yards away, there is a hotel. Go and check yourself in there and make sure you don't step outside again."

Then he made off.

I found the hotel. There was a receptionist at the front office, dozing by a candle. He didn't express much surprise at seeing me. He just checked me in and took me to my room and lit a candle for me.

The next morning, I checked into the best hotel in Banjul. And fortunately, I found pay dirt.

The Senegalese troops who had come to the rescue of the Jawara regime had camped near the hotel and their top officers resided there. So did a few British SAS officers who were also helping Jawara.

Shortly after I'd arrived at the hotel, a very nice Senegalese journalist informed me that Lady Chirel Jawara had been found and released from the Gambian Field Force soldiers who had abducted her on the orders of their leader, Kukoi Samba Sanyang. We trooped off to hear her talk about her ordeal.

By 10 a.m. on the Wednesday, I had enough news to be on the telex to London with it.

Nick Harman, on the foreign desk, cabled back to tell me that they'd had to remake the foreign pages in order to put my story on the front of the section as the lead story. He described my effort in getting the story in before the paper went to bed as "intrepid". But The Economist did not award bylines. So, if I'd died, no-one would have known that it was I who got that story.

Nevertheless, the cable's message was so agreeable that the encounter(s) I'd had with possible death were driven straight out of my mind. It is such small things that make ordinary human beings go to war fronts again and again to risk their lives to bring media consumers eyewitness accounts of some of the most dangerous events on the planet.

However, I've often had to seek the reason why any sane person would risk life and limb just to tell the story of a nearly-deposed President, and his abducted wife.

I can't find any – especially since the Gambia was to be in the same boat again, so to speak – 13 years (1994) and 35 years (2016) -- later!

* Cameron Duodu is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and author.



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