Socialist activity in Gambia
(Companion of the World Socialist Movement)
A six-hour flight from a rain-swept Manchester airport, south across France, Spain, picking up the African continent in shape of Morocco, down across the yellow landscape of Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal and the final descent to Yundum airport 10 kilometres out of Banjul, the capital of Gambia. We were familiar with the names of many people and places having been involved for the last 3 years in a campaign of correspondence with like-minded Socialists, all started by the placing of socialist articles in English-speaking newspapers and journals. The interest generated had convinced the EC to endorse our visit in the hope that we could establish the true extent of socialist activity and the potential for consolidating ties.
Gambia is a narrow strip of land some three hundred miles along the banks of the river Gambia, a small country with a population of 1.2 million, its capital Banjul being situated on an island at the mouth of the river.
We were met at the airport by a number of members and driven off in a yellow taxi belonging to one of the comrades along roads that had more holes than the Labour Party’s case. First impressions were of long stretches of low-level dwellings and shops and it felt that most of the population was out and about on the road that led to the Kombo (district) of Serra Kunda, a hive of human activity and as it turned out inactivity too.
We made our headquarters in a cheap hotel in a place called Bacau and as events turned out we took over the telephone and were to receive a continuous flow of visitors as we organised a series of meetings and discussions. Before we had any real time to get to know our comrades we met with a bar owner from Freetown, Sierra Leone who in the course of a conversation informed us that “Marxism cannot be said to have failed because it had never been tried!” Like many of the residents in the area this man had fled his home country and the carnage behind him. He had a lively interest in Socialism and we left him with tapes and literature. He proved to be a useful contact and in the course of events we were to use a room in his bar for a number of meetings. He also agreed to the comrades using his room as a headquarters after we left with the further promise of a room in his house for a more permanent headquarters. Things were up and running.
As the week progressed we held 4 meetings with an average attendance of 16 members and potential members. The meetings were lively and productive resulting in the establishment of an interim Executive Committee, General Secretary and various other requisite positions. Due to the problems of geography and the fledgling nature of the enterprise, positions were agreed by the comrades present and are to be maintained for 6 months until such time as more democratic voting procedures can be organised involving the membership throughout the country. Representatives of the various provincial branches of Brikama, Basse, Farafenni, Georgetown and Banjul were present and took up positions on the EC. A clear impression was gained that these people were serious-minded and determined to make advances. They had a commitment to democratic accountability and the need to ensure that a formal structure procedure was adhered to. An EC meeting was to be held every 2 months in Bacau with clearly defined Party committees responsible for all essential tasks in the running of an efficient socialist organisation.
The potential for growth is very encouraging. Many of the comrades are school teachers and are busy holding meetings in schools up and down the country. A highlight of the visit was our being able to hold a meeting in a technical school in a small town, Brikama. Two of the comrades also addressed the meeting and the level of interest was heart-warming. The students showed a good understanding of many aspects of Socialism and a good understanding of current world issues. These were confident, articulate young men and they demonstrated a critical and analytical approach to the subject of Socialism.
A number of journalist contacts were established, one young man being a member of the organisation which culminated in an interview with the daily Observer newspaper which will hopefully be published shortly. We gave a no-holds-barred account of the case for World Socialism.
It is not difficult to use the material conditions at hand to argue the necessity for socialism. A major problem in Gambia is unemployment. The majority of the population in the Bacau region appeared to be in a condition of enforced idleness. There just aren’t any jobs nor is there any welfare provision. The result is a culture that forces the youth to attach themselves to the Toubab (white person) with whom they have come into contact as a result of the emerging tourist industry. These are resourceful people who over the years have invented quite plausible reasons why you should part with your money. Over and above the fact that the unwary tourist will be charged massively inflated prices if they are unaware of the custom of haggling, these young people known as “bumsters” will convince you that their services are both necessary and in need of financial recompense. This entrepreneurial spirit led one young man to try to persuade us that there existed a beach tax payable to him as a representative of the local administration. Holy water at a reasonable price abounded, along with the stroking of a crocodile and sponsoring of schools. A friendly handshake could cost around 50 Dalasi (£3). We declined to visit too many new-born babies for fear that we would be cleaned out.
The visit must be interpreted in the context of African culture. It is different from that which we see in Britain. In the rural villages there exists a healthy spirit of community sharing. People work co-operatively on a variety of ventures. Everybody knows everybody and shares common interests. The fragmentation of society so common in Western cities and towns is alien to the people we met. This is fertile ground for socialist argument. A warmth of humanity is in evidence, a genuine interest in fellow human beings and the physical manifestation of full handshaking. The hospitality we encountered, the socialist ideals we shared and the desire to build a more sane world community will live with me for the rest of my life.
It was also encouraging to note the ambition of many of the comrades. Many were from Nigeria and had contacts throughout West Africa. They saw the Gambia venture as but the first step, intending to link up and establish firm footing throughout the region. The possibilities to support the comrades are considerable. To enable them to flourish they will need good supplies of literature, tapes and so on. There are many possibilities to place articles and letters in a number of English language journals including the Observer and New African. There is a need for money to enable them to carry on their activities over and above the money they are intending to raise themselves.
The comrades in Gambia decided on the name “A World of Free Access” taking into consideration the current political climate. They thought that the government would be overtly hostile to any aspiring political party and that its members would be at risk. New political parties are not able to register until early in the next century. This is their stated aim and they intend to put the meantime to good use in a concerted campaign of education and the building of a strong membership. If we are serious in our stated aims to see the spread of Socialism on a global level then this is an opportunity not to be wasted.