(JollofNews) – The last time I headed to The Gambia, on a Sunday evening SN Brussels flight from London Heathrow via Brussels and Dakar, I didn’t make it out of the airport terminal.
Like a few other so-called dissident Gambians who arrived before me from the Western world, I was picked up by the dark suit-wearing agents of the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Like other dissidents before me, I had no idea why I was arrested and I wasn’t told idea. Connecting the dots later, I figured it had to do with a series of Anti-Gambian regime protests I occasionally helped organize in London, mainly Trafalgar Square and Downing Street.
Following an unofficial bail from custody which included seizure of my documents, I took off. Out of fear of persecution, I fled to nearby Dakar. For the next decade, I had to battle so many bruises. Sometime in 2008, I received an unusual phone call and the message: ‘My beloved father had died’. A few months later, another phone call came and the message on the other side of the phone, ‘my elder sister had died’. And then came a third call came and the message, ‘my big brother, my pride and my confidant had died’.
Between the three deaths, I contemplated suicide at least twice. I was only held back by the thought of the trauma my death would put my poor mother through. And then I decided to let it go and move on. But on a daily basis, I longed to go home. I was missing home.
Exile became more and more difficult for me. I couldn’t take it anymore but I had no choice. For years, I was scared of the sound of telephone ringing. I hated it. Each time my phone rang, I thought I’d be told that my mum was no more. My mind was constantly fixed on that nightmare and that was my routine for the next two years. The more the nightmare continued, the missed my family and the more I wanted to be back in the Gambia. I knew the Jammeh regime would fall and I’d go home but I always thought it would happen after decades of dictatorship.
When it became clear that Jammeh had lost the December 2016 election to Adama Barrow, I cried many a time and shed so many tears. To fast track the long story, I traveled to Senegal-Gambia border town of Karang to be close to Banjul, in anticipation of Jammeh’s exit and my return home.
On January 21st at around 10am, 48 hours after Jammeh lost his constitutional mandate to be Gambia’s president, I crossed the border into the Gambian soil. The feeling was a mixture of everything: fear, anxiety, sadness, excitement… just everything. I told my a group of foreign journalist friends who were traveling with me, that whether or not I proceeded to Banjul would depend on how the security agents and officers treated me at the first Gambian security checkpoint, just hundred meters from the Senegalese border point. I was still nervous that I could end up being arrested and persecuted even at those dying days of Jammeh and his dictatorship.
So I walked into the security office to tender my passport and interestingly, some of the officers recognized me from my TV appearances and Facebook and immediately came hugging me and thanking me for (quote-n-quote) contributing to the success of the fall of Jammeh’s rule. One after the other, they reminded me of what I had said on TV or Facebook and gave me more hugs and love. I was relieved and as an immigration officer stamped my passport, the officers hugged me once more time and welcome me into the country and wished me well. One mission accomplished!
The next obstacle was how to cross the Denton Bridge, which separated Banjul from the rest of the mainland Gambia including my village. There was always a heavy military presence and I was worried that someone there might recognize me and that could be bad news. An hour later, we were in Banjul, a ghost city where almost the entire population fled a few days before for safety reasons, as Jammeh continued to defy Ecowas and the international community who warned of military attack unless he stepped down.
15 minutes later, we were at the bridge and beautifully surprisingly, there were just a couple of armed military officers there and they didn’t even stop our vehicle. As soon as we passed them, my two foreign colleagues shook my hand and congratulated me while broad smiles.
Very much in the Gambia, I asked our driver to just drive around town… to anywhere. I wanted to feel the warmth and humility of the Gambia, my home. I wanted to emotionally feel attached. I wanted to make sense of my presence and everything. As we drove through Bakau, the tourism-reliant town where my journalism career started, my mood changed from excitement to sadness. To the Gambians I met a few days later, Bakau remained the same.
For me, it was a different place, a new place from the one I left. The more we drove around other areas, the more I felt sad and lost and confused. Nothing made sense to me. For the next 48 hours, I embarked on ‘walk-around’ town mission to visit places that were dear to me when I was around. A place where I left a lovely restaurant, I found a pharmacy. A bookstore where I used to go to read or buy books, I found a Mauritanian-owned grocery shop.
I felt like a stranger, a foreigner in my own country. I struggled with everything, including the value of the local currency, Dalasi. For a distance where people pay D100 as taxi fare, I was charged and I paid D500. I did this a few times before a friend told me it wasn’t right.
On day three, I headed to Brikama, my home town. I was nervous that I’d breakdown the moment I set eyes on my mother. I was driven by my cousin and friend and we rang my mum about my coming just 10 minutes before I arrived at her house. The vehicle stopped and when I got out of the vehicle, my mum gave me the longest hug of my life and I wondered why she was so silent. When I looked at her face, she was crying, and I found myself crying too. Then the neighbours and other family members came from all over, and everybody shed tears. My sister, Neneh, cried louder than everybody else. I struggled to stop her from crying. We spent the whole night talking mainly about things that happened while I was in exile, and often times, there’d be a long pause and someone would be quietly crying. The last time I saw my mum it was just for 15 minutes, and seeing her more than a decade later, she looked great for a woman her age.
The next day, I headed to the cemetery to visit my father’s grave and pay my last respect. It was by far the most touching part of my trip. He laid there, in that quiet place alongside other family members… his uncles, brothers sisters and aunts. Most of them died in my absence. As I sat down on the floor praying for my dad, tears were dropping on my cheeks, and the memories of my days with the old man started kicking in. After half an hour, I said my final goodbye to him and left. I left broken. And for the entire journey back to Banjul, I never said a mumbling word to my cousin who was driving and he remained quiet… he was certainly giving me a space to mourn my father’s death and go through my pain and sorrow.
For the entire duration of my trip to the Gambia, I was a lost child. Each night I forced myself into believing that there’d be a breakthrough the next day and I’d finally feel at home. But it didn’t happen. Until the moment I crossed the border back into Senegal, there was no emotional attachment with my country.
If being in exile for more than a decade can break anyone, I’m the embodiment of that. It has taken away the Gambian in me and reduced me to a foreigner at home. On the positive side, I celebrate freedom… freedom for all Gambians to be themselves and not to look over their soldiers out of fear. As I prepare for my second trip to Banjul later this week, I’m hopeful that at some point I will feel at home and everything will make sense once again.
Until then, I celebrate the change hundreds of thousands of Gambians worked so hard for. And I pray that our new government will do good-by the people.
Sheriff Bojang Jr is the head of the English Service of the Dakar-based West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR).