Aug 2, 2010, 1:16 PM
The Worn Out Dream, Demba Ceesay, Fulladu Publishers, 2013, 85 pages
The sorry saga of a wacha bes (rural urban drifter)
Dreams and drawbacks
When dreams are worn out despair reigns and nightmares set in taking hold where only moments before lofty dreams of prosperity and good life pervaded the sleep of the young protagonist of the story, Omar.
But before I dissect the theme, plot and characters of this beautiful first novel by Demba Ceesay, I wish to state a few introductory remarks: firstly, I have known the author since 1985 when he found me at Armitage High School, and since then our paths have continued to cross at College, University and as neighbors; I therefore count him as a friend. Second, I have closely followed the development of the novel from its gestation, conception and publication as he was kind enough to update me on its progress; the progress expected of a writer trying to get a work published in our very meager publishing environment. So one can hardly overestimate the sense of satisfaction I have in seeing the book ready for the reading public. I wish to therefore convey my profound congratulations to Demba for a job well done.
He has done well because in this novel he has skillfully weaved an omnibus story of many and varied but interconnected issues ranging from poverty, the idyllic village life, the push factors of the rural urban drift, youth unemployment, the role of women in Gambian family survival, the evergreen and pervasive belief in the occult and marabouts, the nerves syndrome etc. You will agree with me that it will indeed require a master weaver to skillfully interconnect all these threads into a seamless cloth of a novel. And believe me; Demba has succeeded in this task. How?
Principally, he chose a current and cross cutting theme of rural urban migration. ‘Current’ because it happens even now, and seems unstoppable, and ‘cross cutting’ because this drift of the youth to the urban centres is linked to a lot of underlying facts and factors, what geographers like to call ‘push’ and ‘pull factors’. In a nutshell, the author tells us the escapades of Omar of Sinchu Gallo village, somewhere in the backwoods of Gambia, fresh from high school, full of dreams of a new and better life from his meager educational achievements, pushed out of the village by harsh economic conditions, into the city in search of jobs, and who falls victims to the heartlessness and frustrations of the urban sprawl only to be redeemed by a return to the village where he had ran away from. This irony of retuning to whence one started from makes me conclude that another title of the book could have been ‘Once from Village, Always to the Village’. But I will address this issue of the village later.
The author captures ably the innocent, autarkic ` and idyllic village as spatial setting of the novel: ‘Sinchu Gallo is three hundred kilometers from Banjul….. the people of Sinchu Gallo earned their living from tilling the land and rearing animals…..Nearly all the families were able to fend for themselves’, p.7. He soon contrasts this peaceable atmosphere with the fearful and dreadful condition of drought, crop failure and food shortage which caused ‘hunger and starvation (to) linger around the village’ , p.8, knocking at the flimsy doors of the villagers. It is this wrath of hunger and deprivation that pushed Omar out into the cold embrace of the urban sprawl.
The temporal setting of the story is the early 1990s when Gambia like many other countries in Africa, was reeling from the pangs induced by the merciless fangs of the IMF/World Bank mentored Economic Recovery Programmes (ERPs) aka SAP, of mass redundancies of public service workers, zero growth in employment by government and similar austerity measures meant to rejuvenate the atrophying economies. These were indeed bad times to be a job seeker of any sort.
The novel has only few characters. They range from the rounded such as Omar flat such as Abou his host in the city, and the fleeting such as the nameless politician who makes a brief appearance at the very end of the book, p.84. In Omar the author is able to personify hope, despair, near total collapse then redemption at a go. As Omar travels from the village to the Kombos for his life changing experience, he comes out as demotic and unsophisticated despite his modicum of school education; however, as he understands the nooks and crannies of the urban milieu, its admixture of the beautiful and the baneful, personalities and nonentities, charlatans and charmers, Omar slowly but surely gets more sophisticated and starts to ask the profound questions about the sources of some of the fabulous wealth he sees around, and also that of the penetrating poverty he had ran away from.
In Abou, we see a humane and helpful host of Omar’s who guides and goads him into productivity, and who eventually saves Omar from mental doom by evacuating him to the village to get treatment for a nascent neurotic breakdown. In Abou we see humanity and love for fellow humans. In contrast, the author brings in a callous and corrupt persona in the name of the Real Alhaji, a swindler and visa fraudster who took the money from the poor village boy, Omar, and fails to give him a visa which led to his mental collapse. In him, we see all the corruption and amorality of the urban sprawl where charlatans and subalterns hold sway in almost every sector preying on unsuspecting naives like Omar.
This abject contrast in characters extends to the two female in the story. Fatou the mother of Omar comes out as a rustic, trusting hardworking village woman who lives by her husband’s dictates and her own sweat and labour. She loves her neighbors and her relatives. The nameless wife of Ousman, Fatou’s city bound Director brother, however is scheming and offish, if not snobbish, of relatives especially her husbands kith and kin from the village, p.35.
Style and Diction
Demba has an excellent command of English. The diction is simple and free flowing. He uses proverbs amply to give the story a demotic and Gambian signature, p. 14, 15. The book is resplendent in beautiful use of figures of speech such as personification, p.7; suspense, contrasts and even cliché such as ‘food insecurity’, over worked horses whose meaning has gone lame.
Before I end, I wish to say that in the book the author has raised an intriguing issue about the stature of the village in present day Gambia. In the story, the Gambian village has a double persona: the village as a feared, forbidden, backward, ominous and gossip ridden enclave where any who leaves it does not like to look back, where many wangle to extricate themselves from its oppressive clutches. Yet, Demba also paints the village as the pristine and idyllic corner in a chaotic world, the great healer and massager and comforter where it’s run away children run back to in times of crises such as dismissals from job, sickness, or where they end up to be buried. Therefore the story raises the question of what do we do with the village to make it livable so that the likes of Omar do not recur. Or is it the city which needs reorienting or the village which needs reviving to prevent the recurrence of Omars? If it is the latter, how do we revitalize the village? By building cement block houses there? By occasional visits for funerals or ceremonies? By sending monies to our relatives there regularly? Or should the village be left alone to trudge on and continue to churn up good children who even though may sooner than later abandon her for the city, would always return to her may be in a big four wheel drive car or in a casket? What is clear is that as in Demba’s book, the life stories of most Gambians start in the village, revolves around the village and must surely end in the village.
This is a fantastic work of creativity: jocular, fast moving and gripping story told in accessible language. The author has written a fine novel which should have a pride of place in the growing cornucopia of Gambian fiction. The author’s own rural roots, experiences as a teacher, and educationist have left their imprint in the work.