Book Review: Changing Times

Monday, September 18, 2017

(Friday, 15 September 2017 issue)
A West African Patriach Tells His-story,
Conversations with Bakary Sidibe, Ulla Fels, Trediton, 2017, 213 pages.

Bakari Sidibe’s recorded conversations about his life and career with the German filmmaker and Gambiaphile Ms Ulla Fels forms the basis for this excellent book just published in Germany. In this book, the author who has worked on Gambian matters for 30 years, uses Mr Sidibe’s life story to illustrate the bigger picture of Gambian history, culture and tradition. This is why she hits two birds with just one stone here: she has ably and sufficiently adumbrated the career of a great Gambian historian and curator and cultural administrator while at the same time also elucidating on salient aspects of Gambia’s contemporary history. Yet, the book’s significance goes beyond the mere narration of Gambian history and culture, important as these are.

The book is relevant also because it helps to explain the origins and background to some of the current issues facing our country such as the ‘backway’ youth emigration. The author feels rightly that ‘considering the many (Gambian) refugees seeking asylum in our rich European countries’ and our lack of knowledge about their social background, Bakari Sidibe’s life stories and his pithy explanation about Gambian society helps Europeans to feel more empathy for the newcomers arriving on their shores daily in the boats. In this book, the author ably weaves aspects of Mr Sidibe’s story to outline how colonial rule helped to destabilize Gambian society socially, politically and economically such that we cannot create jobs for our youth and they have to emigrate (p.10).

The subject of the book, Mr Sidibe, was the among the first Mandinka to attend university, went to SOAS University of London in 1949; he was also one of the first Gambians to propose and champion the use and teaching of local languages in our schools in the 1950s; a teacher; an editor; he helped found the National Museum and administered it for many years. He single handedly started and developed our Oral archives in the 1970s and mapped out our ancient historic sites and monuments. These and many other aspects of his varied career are well spelt out in the book.

The early chapters on his boyhood in Georgetown in the 1920s also introduce us to the complex family relations typical of many Gambians; on page 25-28 for example, Mr Sidibe narrates how his Mandinka Sidibes are related to the Fula Firdu Baldehs of Musa Molloh. In his impeccable reckoning, this is what makes Gambia a great country where ethnic and clan ties transcend all boundaries. Unity in diversity!

His adolescent days were spent in Bathurst, where he had to come to attend High school and here the story flashes light into the growth and development of nationalist politics of the 1950s in which Mr Sidibe played a leading role in the formation of the PPP which led the country to full independence (pages 125-130).

In this beautiful book, we hear two voices, distinct yet complementary. First is the voice of Mr Sidibe, which is the leitmotif and sets the stage for our understanding of historical and cultural issues in our country using his life experience as reference points. The second voice is the author’s: she ably prompts the narrator and helps in defining the focus and scope of the book.

I highly recommend the book.

Hassoum Ceesay
Available at Timbooktoo, tel 4494345.

Source: Picture: The Life and Times of Gambia’s great historian and cultural connoisseur