Ballanghar!

Silhouetter of a young man perched on the Ballanghar Lower Basic School perimeter wall, looking in on a drama group performance, with baobab trees in the background. Photo by the author, January 9, 2021

I wanted a write an article this week to provide a light-hearted look at this holy and serious month of Ramadan. However, I changed my mind, following my visit over the weekend to my home village, Ballanghar, to cast my vote in the National Assembly elections held on April 9th, 2022.

As is always the case, my latest visit to Ballanghar provided me a great opportunity to learn and share the little I know with the many people I met. So I thought I should share the experience I had, and what I learnt on this trip with you.

Ballanghar, in the Lower Saloum District of the Central River Region of The Gambia is in fact a valley filled with over 16 hamlets (13 Wolof, and 3 Tukulor) of varying sizes. My own hamlet is Xoi gu Ndow (Small Xoi), which together with its bigger neighbor Xoi gu Makk (Big Xoi) form the Xoi agglomeration.

Ballanghar is a very old settlement, and a very important one in The Gambia. It is also on the southern border of the former Kingdom of Saloum (1494–1969), named after the great Islamic scholar, Saloum Suwareh of Badibu Swareh Kunda, who was the spiritual mentor of the King of Saloum.

The former Kingdom of Saloum straddled the border between The Gambia and Senegal, and as such, Ballanghar has strong historical, family, cultural, social, and economic ties with neighboring villages such as Passi Ngayene, and Ngayenne Sabax in Senegal. Indeed, many in Ballanghar belong to the Wolof Passi-Passi clan who often, like me, have a Touray (or Touré in French, and Turay in Sierra Leone) last name.

The earliest mention of Ballanghar in the colonial literature I could find was in report on the 1842 trip up the River Gambia by Governor Thomas Lewis Ingram. Governor Ingram referred to Ballanghar, which he called Balana as a “small town in a very picturesque spot at the foot of a high hill …” Balana is also mentioned in an 1875 Governor’s trip. By 1900, Ballanghar was one of the only four stations of the Methodist Mission in The Gambia, the other three being Bathurst, Kombo, and MacCarthy Island.

Ballanghar Wharftown, so-called because it was located on the north bank of River Gambia, went on to become an important trading town (especially for groundnuts), and was mentioned in a 1911 in the British Board of Trade Journal. In addition, it became a hotbed of activism during British colonial rule in The Gambia. Indeed, the first political party in The Gambia was formed in Ballanghar, according to the late Professor David P. Gamble in a phone conversation I had with him around 2002.

Perhaps the most famous Gambian who cut his teeth in activism in Ballanghar is Edward Francis Small (1891–1958), who has been referred to as the father of Gambian politics. When Small arrived in Ballanghar in 1917 as a Wesleyan minister, he quickly became disheartened by the exploitation of illiterate farmers by Bathurst-based groundnut traders, with the tacit approval of church leaders. Although it is not clear if he started organizing a farmers’ union at that point, his activities were disturbing enough to the Commissioner of the Province that he informed the Governor in 1918 that Small “lack[ed] judgement, courtesy and self control [sic]” and that the Wesleyan Church should remove him from Ballanghar.

Although Ballanghar Wharftown became a ghost town, most of the other hamlets of Ballanghar remain. In the early 1950’s, the first Primary School was opened in Ballanghar by the late, great Gambian journalist and educationist, Alhaji Baa Musa Tarawalley who was then a fresh teacher-training graduate.

Ballanghar has continued to develop, and now has electricity, a clinic, and many of its population have access to safe water supply. The Farafenni-Lamin Koto trunk road that runs through the valley was paved back in 2009, thus facilitating the movement of goods and people.

In the religious sphere, Ballanghar which has had strong Islamic roots, has become even more renowned. In 2003, Alhaji Habibou Touray, son of the late Islamic leader Alhaji Sering Houly Touray of Darou Rilwan, in the North Bank Region, founded Ballanghar Arafat, on top of the “high hill” Governor Ingram referred to his report on his 1842 trip up the River Gambia. Alhaji Habibou’s disciples from The Gambia and Senegal now form a steady stream of travelers on the highway to Ballanghar.

Every trip I make to Ballanghar is an exciting one in more ways than one. There’s of course the matter that I get to meet many family members and relatives, and I get to fulfill my socio-cultural obligations such as extending my condolences to families of those who died in my absence, as well as congratulating newlyweds and new parents.

I also enjoy visiting Ballanghar because of I get to literarily drink from the fountain of wisdom of my people, and share with them my little knowledge about science, technology, and the outside world. It’s a give and take which I thoroughly enjoy every day I spend in Ballanghar.

My visit last weekend was no exception. I went to Ballanghar to cast my vote in the National Assembly elections on Saturday (April 9) and stayed until the following Monday. As usual, I have many interesting conversations with people of all ages, mostly men. Naturally, we talked about the election results, following the loss of the candidate from Ballanghar to the incumbent from Kaur.

A brilliant uncle of mine told me that he predicted that the candidate from Ballanghar was going to lose because people in other Wards in the District were going to vote massively for the incumbent. But perhaps his most important observation was his remark that it was important to understand the difference between wealth and knowledge. He said that although a wealthy person can buy many things an educated person cannot buy, the person with wisdom often has insights that a rich person does not have.

My uncle was a former student at the Quranic school of the late Alhaji Sering Houly Touray and talking to him is always a joy because he peppers his conversation with snippets of quotations from Alhaji Sering. In our conversation about the prevailing political situation, he quoted “Mam Sering” as he calls Alhaji Sering: Lou yaxxu rekk, nyakaa yeggo lah (in Wolof); whenever things don’t work out, its because there has been no consultation. If only politicians could heed such advice!

An Iman, and older cousin of mine said to me that when the Toubabs (White people) wanted Africans to buy their medicines, they turned them to three things: cotton, sweet things, and money. He said that when you put on cotton clothes, your sweat does not dry quickly causing you to fall ill. Similarly, you will fall sick when you are addicted to sweet things, while the love for money drives people to overwork themselves, thus falling sick. You might say that his is a very un-scientific and rudimentary view of the world, but you can bet they are strongly-held views.

My visit was also, as always, an opportunity for me to educate my people about the world, especially with regards to science and technology. Fortunately, this time, the International Space Station (ISS) was to appear over Ballanghar while I was there. Although I have on many occasions alerted some people in Ballanghar about the impending arrival of the ISS over their skies, this was the first time its appearance found me in Ballanghar.

We were able to see the ISS on two nights, Saturday, and Sunday. The view on Sunday was especially great because the ISS was visible for 7 minutes in the clear night skies over Ballanghar. The ISS orbits the earth at an altitude of 400 Km, and with a speed of over 27,000 Km/Hr. The ISS thus orbits the earth every 92 minutes, meaning that when they see a sunrise, they will see a sunset 46 minutes later, and another sunrise another 46 minutes later! I also explained to them that we saw the ISS because it is so high in the sky and for this reason, the Sun was still shining on it.

They asked if the ISS had people on board and I said, yes, the ISS had people on board, and its crew sometimes includes women. For a highly patriarchal society, this was something for them to digest. I tried also to discourage them from their belief that the Toubabs were able to do these things because they were blessed by God. I told them that there’s nothing the White people have been blessed with that us Africans have not been blessed with. Furthermore, I said, they are able to do these things because they are educated, and that it is for this reason why Black people have also gone up to space, and can do anything that a White person can do if given the proper education and opportunity to do so.

Although I stayed in Ballanghar just over two days, I enjoyed every second I had with my people, never mind the oppressive and dry heat. As the adage goes: East or West, home is best, and Ballanghar is, for me, the best!

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