Reflection: Satang Cham on my mind
By Fatou Jaw Manneh
Gambia is free at last! As we adjust our brains to the fact that tyrant Yahya Jammeh is no more, the surge of what could have happened constantly comes to mind. Reflecting on twenty-two years of drama, hardcore cruelty, Yahya Jammeh brought the worst in Gambians and in every facet of living in The Gambia. Even those who swore off politics and had no relations or affiliations to people in Gambian politics or in the struggle against the dictatorship against Yahya Jammeh were forced into the mix of the Jammeh hate and brutal machine of governance. Satang Cham keeps coming to mind. My niece who put her life on the line for me. I have no idea where the little girl is, I knew am sure now a big woman she is. Hope all is well with her and may God continue to shower her with blessings and protection she once rendered me.
Satang Cham’s mother a Banjul native from Faye Kunda in the name of Haddy Faye came to settle in Sukuta. She is married to a home town brother Ousman Cham (nickname Jung Fajara) who was a longtime teacher before switching to working for nonprofit organizations in the Gambia. Haddy Faye was a Home Economics teacher at Sukuta primary school then I heard, where her husband to be was teaching too. The young couple fell in love and got married. I never asked Haddy about her beginnings with Ousman Cham but will do so in the future to feature a beautiful relationship story of a kind, based on love with longevity. That beats tribal and territorial. Gambia is ONE. I am sure they are almost over 30 years and still going strong.
In March 2007, I was arrested upon landing at the airport in Yundum by NIA officials and whisked in a white pickup truck to their office in Banjul where I was detained for six days. I was rushing to be at my mother’s side after I lost my Father. Because I did not live in the Gambia for a while, It must be around 8/9pm and I could not recognize even West Filed Junction that was a popular crossroads for traveling during my high school days to and from Banjul. We drove on for about 15 minutes picking another NIA member along the way. Before the pickup truck swerved to the left, Gambia High School popped up. My brother went there while I did my high school at St. Josephs High. I recognized the faded, worn-out walls that surrounded the school. It used to be a beautiful, well maintained school ground and the walls that secluded students from the main road was well-built with some plants, flowers and shrubs around it. From the outside, it used to be a beautiful school. It graduated some of the best of the students in the country. I was happy, at least to know that we were in Banjul area. We swerved to the left and the truck slowed down making an entrance as some big green gates opened. On the gates, it read “The Gambia Produce Marketing Board,” if I remember correctly. Later I learned it was the administrative offices of a defunct peanut processing marketing plant at Sarro. It was a good cover for the National Intelligence Service Office as I would have never guessed they would be hiding in that big compound with a lot of dusty awkward looking houses. You can only hear and feel the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It had walls separating it from the ocean. (Another Story).
Satang Cham’s mother Haddy Faye’s grandpa was a friend to my Dad. So naturally when Haddy got married and moved to Sukuta, my father became her father as we do traditionally back home. So Haddy Faye was an instant big Sister and friend when we met. She was deeply religious, modern, traditional, reserved and seriously private. We shared a lot in common. And kind too.
When Haddy Faye heard of my arrest, she was traveling to Europe so she asked her daughter Satang to check out/ look out for me. Not sure If Haddy told Satang to go look for me at the NIA headquarters or Satang , a young girl then in her early 20’s literally thought or got from her mother’s words , was to go looking for me at the NIA headquarters in Banjul.
I was sitting in my detention area, in a torn couch my back against a wall with a broken window, torn window net, mosquito infested room, my face red from mosquito bites as if I was slapped all over with tomato paste. Suddenly I saw Satang standing in front of me, staring and sizing up the place. Unannounced. Later I realized her phone was confiscated, and she also went through some interrogations before she could get to me. I was frightened for her. Oh No Satang you couldn't do this I thought. I recognized her and I thought it was a bad idea that she ventured out alone to this dreary place. They would harass her, fire her from her job, and tail her throughout. To put this innocent young girl in that kind of environment /situation was the last thing on my mind. I recognized her immediately. I was not even sure what Satang got herself into I thought. She must have misinterpreted her Mums errand. She should have waited until I got home if I ever will. I will hate to put Satang or any of my young relatives under the NIA surveillance. That was my second night at the NIA. It was dangerous. It was all over the news. People were scared to death. Apart from my brothers, a nephew and a friend Buba no one dared to come. But Satang was right there. The thought of ruining this promising young girl’s life was heavy on my mind. I tried not to show my worries for her. She said to me with one hand up to her cheek. “My Mum is traveling and she asked me to come see you”. I was thinking that she had misinterpreted what her Mum meant.
She had a stoic and quiet demeanor. She asked me where do I sleep. And I pointed to the floor exactly where she was standing. She paused and said “Aunty Jaw leedei mettinah.neh hutt, meaning that was painful. She asked if she could bring a mattress and a comforter. To put her at ease, I smiled and told her that wouldn’t be allowed and she needed not worry. I would be fine. I saw one detainee going to a room to get a dilapidated mattress. I would do the same at night to see if I could get one myself. Probably some night guards use them. I told Satang I would grab one me too. And she shouldn’t to worry at all.
The next morning, one of the NIA female officers asked me about where Satang worked. I told her she might be a Secretary/Typist/Personal assistant at The Gambia Civil Aviation. I told the agent I wasn’t quite sure and asked why she wanted to know. Well the girl said I should be careful hence I have family working for the government. I refused to show any concern. To take their attention off Satang, I told her Satang’s Dad can take care of his family, they didn’t need the government and Satang was on her way to Europe. They just wanted her to gain a little Job experience.
What the girl did not know was that I saw a young woman working at the NIA. She was my first cousin. As I sat early morning in a plastic chair waiting for the offices to open, like around 7am, I saw my niece pass me by to work. I could tell from her frightened face that she recognized me. She was shocked to see me in the NIA compound. She recognized me, had all her eyes on me in frightened gaze, she passed by, I did not bother her, and never said a word, fearing for her. She works as an administrative assistant and is married to one of the State House Guards I learned later. Another young man who must be from my hometown Sukuta. His name was Foday. I recognized him by his resemblance to his older brother. I ignored him too, but he might think I had no clue who he was. I must spare them from the NIA and from their jobs. So, I pretended I had no clue who they were.
Satang came back and wanted know what food she could cook and bring for me. My brothers came to court with one Lamin Jobarteh, a lawyer. Never met or heard of him. He was a brave lawyer and an Ousaionu Darboe protégé he told me. (More on him later). One day I was prompted to the courts with him. He was hired by my brothers and nephews and OJ and I think. In the chaos of things, I had no idea. I was released on bail in an impromptu appearance, a distant cousin Lamin Sanyang pulled out his ID at court and used his house as bond.
I was later released and a furious legal battle started as I was charged with sedition, insulting the president, lying about the Gambian Government and driving investors away. Not only was I falsely accused, many negative and brutal labels were slapped on me. For almost two years the unpredictable court proceedings dragged on. The case threw the whole family nucleus or distant into chaos. Many went broke on my behalf. Satang read and heard it all but stood firm by me throughout, until her mother got back to the country.
I was released and offered sanctuary at an 8-bedroom home for my brother. Two duplexes, I stayed in one, just me and got all the quiet I needed, the other side was shared by my wonderful nephews, Muhtarr, Taala Boye and Senekeh. My brother from the UK provided me with all I needed to make the situation bearable. We went over my case almost every day, what transpired and how we could be prepared for the next court appearance, if my lawyer was to be trusted, what was going around, what was planned for or against me, as we tried to make sense of it all. I maintained a cool head through it all. Never flinched, watched people going in and out of home and the courts and quietly deducing from what was said and being mentally alert 24/7.
Satang came to see me. I am sure she was relieved that I was out of the NIA. I was comfortable at my brother’s house. But Satang brought a bed sheet, cool wonjo (sorrel) drinks, water bottles, spoons, plates, napkins, and tea cups and a kettle. She knew her mother and I shared some tea drinking siesta (attaya) and satang made the best attaya I had ever known. She brought some mint leaves. Made herself comfortable at my brother’s place and always makes the best attaya for me. On every visit, she would bring a different set of utensils, napkins and everything she thought I would need, because Satang rarely spoke. I would laugh at the appropriateness of the girl after she was gone. She rarely spoke, she had a suppressed smile and she never looked you in the eye much. Anytime I tried to be funny to make her laugh, she would be twitching and suppressing her smile. If she laughed though its wide and loud. it’s a beautiful megawatt smile exposing her beautiful teeth. But then the laugh would be quickly contained. She was overly measured. Trying to figure out her Aunty Jaw as she fondly called me. She rarely spoke or said a word. Even her encounter with the NIA officers was never narrated to me. I was told by other officers. She barely stole glances at people. She tried to figure out my priorities and likes and dislikes without asking me. I call that traits of a good human being and good Muslim behavior.
Satang and her Mum have a secret love for cars. They would rather drive than be driven, they both drove very fast. She would have made a race car driver probably if she was raised in a different environment.
Satang became my driver, my bodyguard, my protector until her mother got back. She would take me shopping to Banjul and the surroundings. She had a tight grip on the wheel as I watch her at checkpoints short cuts, switching routes when I am with her. And she never said a word. She was worried for me and she drove with alertness all the time. Her little car could have been followed or staged in an accident. She was acutely aware of what I was going through. She was too sophisticated for the NIA big girls. They could never figure her out. And she was young and her smarts, beauty and calmness scared the hell out of them with saying a word.
I am grateful to scores of people. I shall reach out to all of them God willing.Satang was in her early 20s, her bravery, quietness, comportment never left me. She was fearless in her own way. I don’t know whether she must keep her mum’s words seriously or she has a quiet disdain for the government for arresting and maltreating one of her favorite aunts, but I will never forget her fearlessness, respect and care during the very first two weeks I was in The Gambia. It continued until her Mum came back and I’m sure behind closed doors she would tell her Mum okay now that you are back I did my part you can take over for your friend as I saw them switch roles, seeing a little less of Satang or more of her Mum or both for almost two years. I am glad to have a great sister and friend in Haddy Faye, and even more grateful for our daughter princess Satang Cham. Satang’s concern and practicality, calm and bravery in the chaotic moments never left me.
Thank you Satang Cham for standing tall by my side. I shall never forget your bravery. You had your life on the line for me and for your Mum. May Allah protect you and bless you abundantly. You also have your story in the Yahya Jammeh tumultuous regime/years. Like many others who did all they could NOT to be caught in any situation that had to deal with Jammeh or the government. But Jammeh’s horror was real and did not escape anyone in The Gambia. His era affected everyone in The Gambia. I am never one who takes relationships or deeds rendered for me lightly. I have many many wonderful people surrounding me and I am grateful but Satang, you will have a chapter in my book. I appreciate you our daughter and thank God for the blessing.
I am still flabbergasted thinking and looking back. Your bravery caught me off guard. I am proud of you. You were mature way above your years when I saw you. I am grateful and thank you so much. Now we can drink attaya and cross notes on shoes when I get back. Haddy Faye brought us a good daughter, good human being and a good Muslim into this world. Keep tight Satang! Thank you.