Tribute to Sawebou Conateh – Adieus to an icon of Gambian Journalism

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Swaebou Conateh was born in the then rural community of DippaKunda, in the Kanifing Municipality in the 1940s. He attended the local Kanifing Primary School and later on St. Augustine’s Senior Secondary School in Banjul. He was on government scholarship throughout his secondary education up to the sixth form at Gambia High School, which he obtained on merit after he took first position in virtually all the examinations he sat to.

When Sawebou finished the sixth form in 1964, he went to the University of Kansas in the United States to study journalism through the African Scholarship Program of American Universities (ASPAU).  In addition to journalism, he also took courses in creative writing, thus embracing poetry, short stories, drama and essay writing.

After graduating with B.Sc in journalism in 1968, making him the first Gambian to obtain a university degree in journalism, Sawebou returned to The Gambia and was appointed News Editor at the Department of Information and Broadcasting and shortly after that, he was promoted to Broadcasting Officer.  In 1974, he took over as Director of Information and Broadcasting from the late Dr. Lamin Mbye.

Sawebou’s tenure as Director of Information and Broadcasting witnessed many developments in the broadcasting sector, particularly with regards to Radio Gambia, which saw big improvement in its country-wide coverage and scope. He also underwent some professional training including a short stint on a management course with the BBC. He also received an award for excellence in newspaper writing from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation of America. He was also a member of Sigma Delta Chi, the Professional Journalism Society of the United States.

Swaebou was also a pioneer in the promotion of the Gambian literary profile, being the first editor of Ndaanan, The Gambia’s first literary publication, which he founded together with other Gambian intellectuals in 1971. His colleagues in Ndaanan included intellectual heavyweights of the time like Charles Jow, Hassoum CeesaySr, Dr Lenrie Peters and Gabriel Roberts, among several others, and they produced the first volume of Ndaanan, whose objective was to provide an outlet for all creative Gambian writing.

Swaebou also tried his hand in poetry writing, publishing his first book of poems; Great Wrinkles Up The Sky’s Sleeves, the poems describing the process of change that was being witnessed in his birthplace of DippaKunda, which was gradually being transformed from a rural settlement to being part of the urban conglomerate of Serekunda.

When Swaebou retired from government service in 1986, he joined the Pan-African News Agency (PANA) and he was first posted to Lagos, Nigeria, where he headed the first PANA regional bureau in 1986. After Lagos, he went to the PANA head office in Dakar, Senegal where he was until he finally came back to The Gambia in 1991.

In 1992, Swaebou set up The Gambia Communication Agency and Baroueli Enterprises, which started publication of the weekly Gambia News and Report Magazine. One unique feature of that magazine was its “Man of The Year” award to Gambians who had excelled in their areas of competence.

When the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (APRC) took over power from the government of former President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara in 1994, Swaebou was their first choice for Information Minister, but being the principled man that he was, he declined the offer, knowing that he could not work with a military regime.

Sawebou was an all-round professional who never allowed his intellectual achievements to get into his head. He was quite humble and easily mixed with people of all ages and backgrounds. He was also prepared to go all out to mentor young journalists as he always quite jealous of the reputation of the journalism profession. Therefore, he was ready to give all that he had to ensure that the young journalists received the best training in order to maintain the standards of the profession.

Even when he fell sick and was virtually bed-ridden, he continued to give advice to those he had assigned to run the Gambia News and Report Magazine, insisting that whatever happened to him, his intention was for the magazine to continue.

With the death of Swaebou Conateh, the Gambian media has lost an unreplaceable icon. He has gone to join some of his best professional friends like Deyda Hydara, William Dixon Colley and Baikoro Sillah.

Author: D. A. Jawo