Alhaji Lalo Samateh: A Man for All Seasons - A Personal Tribute

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Man of wisdom, embodiment of humility.

Through out the annals of human history, events had always shaped our lives. Their capacity to shock or excite is often dependent on the rhetorical distinctions they are framed. And the extent to which that framework touches our emotions or gauges the contours of our being is also dependent on the status of the person(s) it is related to. If that person is an icon, it is sure to raise emotions. Deep emotions. There are two types of icons, historians say. There are those who through the magnetism of their personality and the power of their ideals have been able to shape great things. There are those who lacking in originality themselves, have been nonetheless able to mould events to their own course by generating a following and a life of virtuous exemplification. Alhaji Lalo Samateh, veteran Gambian broadcaster, who died on October 17th2008, lies somewhere between these two strands.

Born in Salikene, in the North Bank Region some 66 years ago, Lalo Samateh is synonymous with one of Gambia's oldest institutions, Radio Gambia. His relationship with the station started shortly after its creation in 1962, when he was engaged on a trial basis as a trainee news reader. His passion for the profession was evident from the start, and he was seen as huge potential. Few years into the job, he was recalled by his former employers, the Audit Department in the wake of shortage of personnel. But Lalo's knack for broadcasting seemed to presage anything the Audit Department could entice him with. And not long, he returned to Radio Gambia on a full time basis. In the decades ahead, he rose through the ranks from news reader, senior news reader to head of local languages and religious affairs. He retired a few years ago, but was constantly retained on contract. Whilst at Radio Gambia, Lalo Samateh produced numerous productions and covered virtually every major event in Gambia's postcolony.

At a personal level, Alhagi Lalo Samateh was a man of impeccable wisdom, with a personality that had the tendency to accommodate everyone. His social disposition had a kind of an extensive outreach that comforted those in distress and lend a helping hand to whoever needed it. For those of us who had privilege to know him, and interact with him in person, Lalo Samateh's life invokes qualities of compassion and recollections of a person whose humility shaped his faith and belief in the sanctity of the human project. Highly dependable and steadfast, his sense of decorum was a cushion for his unassuming personality in the conduct of inter-personal relations. He was considerate, and so never oblivious of the sensibilities of others.

Similarly, his service to the nation, and in particular to the broadcasting fraternity, is almost unrivalled, and shall forever remain a pleasant point of reference for generations to come. He was passionate as a broadcaster and relished every moment of it. He informed, entertained and counselled. His colleagues remember him as a man with a sense of purpose, professionalism and responsibility. A national asset.

I recall, with fond memory, my last encounter with him in 2005. It so happened that an academic friend of mine was at the time researching a book project on Gambia's decolonization struggles and its interlocking web of actors. On our way to a scheduled meeting with a local historian, we stumbled onto Alhagi Lalo by the perimeter fence of the Serekunda post-office. In his usual unrehearsed sense of humour and endearing wit, Lalo grabbed my back pockets and insisted that he must search for what he called 'weapons of mass destruction' (Gambian bank notes). He managed to pull a few, then lavishly showered me with prayers - a ritual he always fulfilled whenever we met, be it at the annual Gamo in Kuntaya or in the streets of Banjul. I took the opportunity to introduce him to my friend and explained our mission. He sat us down by a make-shift haberdashery and bought us refreshments. For almost two hours, Alhagi Lalo gave an immaculate rendition of some of the defining events that shaped Gambia's decolonisation epoch. His depth of knowledge was beyond belief, his memory almost pristine. Both my friend and I were particularly struck by Lalo Samateh's remarkable attention to detail and his understanding of not only the symbolism that characterised the era, but also the nexus underpinning pre-independence subaltern activism and the subsequent construct of political institutions in Gambia's postcolony. He was an archive on the move; someone to trust with facts and dates.

Iconic voice, national treasure.

Alhaji Lalo Samateh was in more ways than one, an iconic figure, a national treasure. This is perhaps best illustrated through the bond he carved with his overwhelmingly loyal listening audience. For them, he epitomised a social institution that had a resonance with old and young, men and women. No where was this true than the sub-urban ghettos where decades of marginalisation had cultivated a deep sense of distaste and apathy to institutions of governance. News for whatever its subject, no matter its immediacy, was to these folks, a product of state propaganda devised to subdue the prospects of the resurgence of subaltern activism. But one thing not in doubt, however, was the sincerity and veneration of the messenger. They could afford to brush the message, not the messenger. He had an affinity with them, and they could in turn accommodate his voice as one, or perhaps the only one, that proffered a genuine sense of solace in the midst of adversity and social ostracism.

Like the sub-urban shanties, Gambia's rural folks had a similar chorus of affection for Lalo Samateh. Dislocated from the urban populace by decades of poor infrastructure, his iconic voice became for them, an identification with some semblance of state apparatus. It was not uncommon to spot a farmer under a tree glued to a battered Sanyo transistor fulfilling a daily ritual of listening to Lalo's kibaro slot. In years gone by, radio transmissions were pretty dispersed, barely reaching the grits of the rural communes. Access to Radio Kombo, as my grandma used to say with sarcasm, was dependent on the functional state of the Bonto transmissions. For the rural folks, it was a painfully incomprehensible realism conditioned by a certain sense of depressing expectations. But when transmission resumed, albeit faintly audible, folks were assured that Alhaji Lalo won't fail. He was there for them. His voice provided therapy to the disgruntled, assurance to the doubtful and consistency to the highly dependable.

To build that trust though, was neither accidental nor imposed by some transcendent moral order. It was earned. Period. Lalo Samateh spent most of his life working at a Radio Station that had little incentive other than the pride of its institutional symbolism. To him, it was a big incentive and that kept him going. In the process, he created an unvarnished understanding with a multitude of devotees. And to relate with them, Lalo devised, inadvertently perhaps, a method of communication that was innovative, effective and functional. A friend of mine recounts that Lalo was once asked, rhetorically perhaps, why he kept on (mis)pronouncing the military rank lieutenant as late-te-nan instead of its proper British pronunciation lef'tenant. It was a noun he struggled with especially in the aftermath of the 1994 coup. He became Gambia's custodian of malapropism, the 'substitution of an incorrect word for a word with a similar sound, usually to comic effect.' It owes its origin to the character Mrs Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals. Like Sheridan's Mrs Malparop, Radio Gambia's Lalo Samateh provided comfort to those less literate, speaking the language that his audience could identify with and understand with ease. He was no fan of complexity, and where it was unavoidable, he creolised words to make them intelligible. For instance, he would say bordo-fel instead of Board of Health, hacriculture for agriculture etc. It had great effect. And that's the point.

As a broadcaster, he was expected to have a grasp of current issues, or at least their meaning. The expectation encouraged him to have a certain intellectual inclination. Once, he challenged me to explain the legality of the recourse to force on Iraq. My reply, if I recall, was typical of lawyers; it was long and punctuated with an abstract academic narrative, shrouded in legal terminologies specific to the discourse and so foreign to the uninitiated. He paused a moment, put his hands on my shoulder and said 'Mon avocat!' as he occasionally called me. He had a different hypothesis and it was intriguing. The emphasis, he noted, must be peace building in all its facets, where the human condition ought to be prioritised above political expediencies. His realistic utopia was that prosecuting war cannot be an appropriate means of engendering peace and that human security must be an unending vocation of global politics. For Alhaji Lalo, the search for world peace must substitute institutional legalism with moral philosophy. It was vintage Lalo Samateh - part philosopher, part historian, part idealist.

But Lalo's peace hypothesis had hallmarks of a Kantian conception. Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), the iconic German philosopher, was one of the leading thinkers of European enlightenment. One of Kant's pre-occupation, at the risk of oversimplification, was the conceptualisation of a precept for peaceful human existence. He believed that as long as war exists, human security would be almost impossible to actualise. If the Hobbesian world of human gloom (solitary, nasty, brutish, and short) does not change, Kant warned, how could we avoid the conclusion 'that discord natural to our race, may not prepare for us a hell of evils, however civilised we may now be, by annihilating civilisation and all cultural progress through barbarous devastation'? Peace for Kant, therefore, constituted a perpetual condition. Alhaji Lalo's supposition against violent countermeasures correlates with Kant's, to some extent. Like Kant, Lalo was not solely concerned with how peace can be installed, but also how it can encompass a framework of individual entitlements. For him peace ought to be what the French philosopher, Antoine Garapon, views as a practical objective that calls for a reorientation of the very way we conceptualise politics and social order. And so Lalo spent a lot of time outside Radio Gambia reconciling individuals entangled in social discord. Such was the depths of his thoughts and the extent of his goodwill.

A servant of God, a devotee of the Qur'an.

Contemporary Gambia's demography has a particularly colourful outlook. Society is rapidly been transformed from a sleepy conglomeration of friendly communities to a religious theatre, where the good and the bad are locked in a battle to propagate contradicting representations of Islam. In recent months, this has led to apprehension and runs the risk of eroding the country's long standing tradition of tolerance and diversity. For Alhaji Lalo, this hubris, part generated by opinionated punditry of over-zealous bearded talibes, is nothing more than the effects of a fragmented core that is no longer at ease with its original identity. His religious ideology was simple, yet far from simplistic. He was religious in private, cosmopolitan in public. Religion was a platform to engage, interrogate and understand his inner self, an asset to build a productive social network that espouses normative values, an instrument to bond his family, and a social institution to guide his daily conduct. To his family, he was a friend, a mentor and a partner.

Volunteers to vouch for Alhaji Lalo's character and association with God are not hard to come by. They are numerous. At his parked funeral, tributes touched every aspect of his life - ranging from his amiable personality, sense of humour, devotion to duty and his loyalty to friends and family. The glowing tributes affirmed what most of us all already knew. One thing clear though, there is considerable consensus that Lalo was always reading, either the Qur'an or the news. For him the Qur'an exemplified a sea wave of knowledge and to gain its blessings, he always insisted, requires a constant engagement with it. So he carried it along and shared its wisdom.

At the annual Gamo in Kuntaya, where he had been in attendance over many years, Alhaji Lalo's company was always valued. Often he could be seen nestled around by people vying for endorsement, a kind of a local celebrity without the trappings. He could often be heard laughing loud. In fact he laughed quite a lot when in Kuntaya. After all, we gave him a wife, a beautiful wife, and so he always insisted in pleasing us by not offending us. His charm was irresistible. Humour was one of his other strength. But in the midst of all that, Lalo would occasionally be reciting verses in remembrance of God. That was his way. It was one he so cherished.

So today, as we mourn the demise of such a truly formidable man, I pray that Allah grants him Janatul Firdaus and provide the family, with the courage to be strong, the strength to live by his example and the platform to appreciate and preserve his legacy. Alhaji Lalo Samateh, veteran Gambian broadcaster, friend of all, was truly a man for all seasons! The adapted poem of Hannah Perley shall do the rest:

Author: Abou Jeng
Source: Picture: Late Lalo Samateh