Book review: A Legend: Seyfo Mama Tamba Jammeh

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By: Saikou Jammeh, a journalism and communication professional

He died only 36 years ago, in 1987, peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 107. Yet, his life story and stories of his exploits often sound as tales of yore which end with ntaling kon korongdang kos. But Mama Tamba Jammeh is not of myths and minotaurs. The third colonial chief of Illiassa District, a piece of what was the Kingdom of Baddibu, he was a ‘big vigorous man’ lording over his people like a pre-colonial Mansa.

In fact, one colonial administrator had confided in his superiors that Tamba Jammeh would have made ‘an exceedingly good mansa’ if he had come before his time – that is, during the era of kingdoms and empires in Africa. But despite the colonial constrictions and restrictions of his time, he flexed his muscles with enviable results, leaving significant impact on Gambia – and world – politics. He was, true to legends and written historical sources, a legend who had, through courage and vision, achieved unprecedented heights as a traditional ruler and maverick politician.

But was he not in fact only his father’s son?

So, who was Mama Tamba Jammeh? This is a rather rhetorical question the reader would come across on Page 33 of the book, A Legend: Seyfo Mama Tamba Jammeh. The biography explores the full and eventful life and times of the man who epitomises the institution of chieftaincy in its former glory.

The book was published this year by local publishing house, Boabab Printers. The main author is Alieu Kebba Jammeh, a grandson of the chief and a career civil servant and diplomat. The unmistakable hands of sage of Gambian history, Hassoum Ceesay, could be seen as the two authors take a deep, deep dive into history. They have recorded the ever-green, sensational stories told through oral history and collected historical evidence from archival records, including confidential reports of the colonial rulers.

A Legend: Seyfo Mama Tamba Jammeh is told in 134 pages, 10 chapters and useful appendix of resources that provide evidential proof of claims and perspective of issues. The story is not presented in any strict chronological order. Beyond Mama Tamba’s life history, it covers broad and invaluable perspective on life as it was before and during colonialism.

The book’s opening chapter, Baddibu, an old Gambian polity, gives a detailed account of the pre-colonial socio-economic and political settings under various ethnolinguistic or geographical arrangements. Special focus is placed on the Mandingo-led Kingdom of Baddibu, which was part of the ancient Mali Empire, one of the largest empires in the history of Africa.

Mama Tamba Jammeh is from a long line of rulers – kings and queens – from the Jammeh family who had ruled in Baddibu and Niumi for hundreds of years.  

The Kingdom of Baddibu, like empires and kingdoms before it, would fall. It suffered attacks, first from the British, then Jihadist forces led by Maba Jahou Bah, who invaded and occupied the kingdom. Jatta Selung Jammeh, the father of Mama Tamba Jammeh, would lead Soninke forces to wrest the kingdom from the Islamists after Maba’s death. He was crowned the king, but his reign under this arrangement was short-lived. He soon ceded power to the British and became the last Mansa of Baddibu and the first chief of Illiassa, one of at least four districts carved out of the former kingdom.

Chapter 2 examines the institution of chieftaincy under colonial rule from 1894 and exposes the inner workings the British style of indirect rule. Kingdoms were divided into chiefdoms. Kings with near divine rights to rule over their people were reduced to chiefs collecting taxes on behalf of some khaki wearing colonial administrators.

“Chiefs were the most important cog in the wheel of the colonial protectorate administration. They were traditional and political leaders; they dispensed justice, collected tax, and ensured security within their jurisdiction,” the authors explain.

This section offers an important history lesson on how the British set up and nurtured a multi-layered system of governance carefully designed to suppress and control the people using pre-existing traditional authorities and structures. Reading it invites the age-old question: should everything about colonialism be damned? While this remains an unresolved debate, one cannot fail to see how, compared to post-colonial systems, the institution of chieftaincy under colonial was made to deliver effectively and chiefs were made to account for the taxes they collected, and the decisions they made.  

The remaining seven chapters, from 3 to 10, covering 85 pages – more than half of the total number of pages in the book, is dedicated to the intriguing life story of Mama Tamba Jammeh, an apple that did not fall far from the tree, then germinated and sprouted into a tree with many apples falling not far from it.

The book introduces the reader to young Mama Tamba. How he was enrolled in school. How he joined his elder brother, Biram Jammeh’s court as the clerk, and later deputy. And how he was formally appointed as chief.

The book captures his much-touted infrastructural developments. How he built bridges and roads to ease communication. How he built markets and other trading centres to promote trade. How he built causeways and cleared swamps for agricultural purposes. How he built dispensaries and schools to provide much needed social amenities in his district. How he presided over the richest and cleanest district in the protectorate.

Mama Tamba was deeply rooted in the traditions of his people. But he ‘did not leave modernity to anyone…he embraced it’.

The most fascinating development project he carried out was in agriculture. How he went against gender norms to instruct every married man to grow a rice field. How he instructed every village to create a food reserve for use during lean periods. How he introduced innovative farming methods. And, how he attained self-sufficiency in food in his district, a feat that post-independence politicians with clarion calls, from Tesito to Operation Back to the Land could not come near achieving. The success of his agricultural projects attracted constant praises from colonial authorities to the point that Prince Philips of Great Britain, upon his visit to The Gambia in 1957, had to travel to Illiassa to see the projects firsthand.

The book explores how Mama Tamba stood by the Allied vs the Axis in World War II and how the British recognised and compensated his efforts.

From 1947 to 1960, and 1948 to 1960, respectively, Mama was a member of the Legislative Council and Executive Council. How he used his position in those august bodies to promote enfranchisement and political representation of protectorate people, and women. How he made a case for increased development in various areas, from sports to agriculture to provision of social amenities and creation of economic opportunities for the people are well documented by the authors.

Mama Tamba’s rule was not without controversy. The event that perhaps attracted the most interest is his clash with ‘the colonialists’. The grapevine had it that Tamba ye Toubaboloula naamo le domo. Turns out, as revealed in the book, this is not entirely accurate.

The authors believe that the travelling commissioner had a personal and political score to settle with Tamba. So, he set up a commission of inquiry and investigated him on at least 16 charges on wide ranging accusations. This was in 1935. The details of each charge and outcome are produced verbatim in the book.

Whatever the outcome was, the mere probe into his conduct did not leave Mama Tamba at ease with himself. The people who ‘conspired against his authority’ would face punishment. But his authority no longer went unchallenged. Seeds of discord that had been sown had germinated.

Whether politically motivated or not, reading the details of the commission of inquiry against Mama Tamba could leave the reader in shock. The kind of charges levelled against him, from bribery related to negligence of duty, are a pastime in modern Gambia.

In Chapter 9, the authors bemoaned how the role and powers of district chiefs ‘changed in style and substance’ as colonial rule gave way to self-rule. In the attendant political contestations, chieftaincy became polarised. To the victor, the chiefs would soon learn, belongs the spoils. 

“Chiefs, including Mama Tamba, began to lose much of the influence [they had] over their people. The new political class of the PPP did not trust the older generation of chiefs…Therefore, between 1962 and 1965, more than half of the chiefs were retired or sacked,” the book reveals.

Mama Tamba left his position in 1962, as captured in Chapter 10, under circumstances that remain shrouded in murky details. Was he removed or did he resign? Armed with documentary proof, the authors submitted that he had resigned to enjoy a ‘blissful retirement’ even though he maintained quite an intense level of public engagements as an elder statesman.    

 

The book is not without shortcomings. For instance, we know so much about Mama Tamba as a public servant. But we do not know much about him as a son, a brother, a father, a husband, and grandfather.

Granted, the author is a grandson who understandably comes from a biased place in his account of our venerable grandfather or his descriptions of certain events.  But, without asking for too much, or false equivalence, a more critical analysis of certain events, say, the Maba Jahou wars and the conflict between chiefs and post-independent political class would have made the book even better. For example, how and why did the jihadists succeed? What were the strength and weaknesses of our system as a ruling class? In this constantly evolving political landscape, such could serve as good lessons for present day politicians and citizens.  

There are areas that need further research. We do not know from the book what Illiassa or Yilliyassa means. Or, what Bakindiki or Sittanunku means. The surname Jammeh is found in at least three ethnolinguistic groupings – Serer, Mandinka and Jola. There are strong claims that we are either Serer or had, from Mali, settled in Sine, before heading Westward to present day Gambia. This is an important question around the origin of Jammeh, which should be more adequately clarified. And if indeed, Sora Musa came from Mali to settle in Baddibu, as claimed in the book, what were the circumstances of his migration? Who and who did he come with? How did he charm the queen of Baddibu?

 

Notwithstanding, A Legend: Seyfo Mama Tamba Jammeh is a great refreshing read, an encyclopedic material on governance at all levels, from national to local administration, and from pre-colonial to colonial. 

The book is well-researched, and it is written in largely simple language. The context it provides in respect to the socio-economic and political norms and practices of the past are relevant to current realities. Those in policy – or decision -making positions could benefit from useful guidance to addressing some of the country’s political challenges, such as the vexed questions around the role of chiefs and how to the make the institution of chieftaincy effective, transparent, and accountable.

The most significant takeaway, it can be argued, is how it could – and of course should – inspire present and future leaders to see possibilities where impossibilities loomed large. If Mama Tamba could build bridges, roads, and attain self-sufficiency in food for his people, using limited resources and relying mainly on manpower technology, the justification of current leaders that funding is inadequate to realise high-sounding development plans may no longer be tenable.

It won’t make sense to recommend this book to any specific people or groups. There is something in it for almost everyone.

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