Choose Your Group, Or Your Group Will Choose You
Transcript (edited for brevity and clarity) of my speech to graduands at the Anglican Mission Institute (formerly called ATC), Farafenni, Upper Badibu, North Bank Region, The Gambia on Saturday, July 30, 2022
Good afternoon everybody.
Thank you very much Mr. Mbye, the MC of the occasion. I think it’s obvious that we didn’t consult; that’s myself and him, because if we did, I would have asked him to tone down a little bit his enthusiasm so that I would not disappoint the crowd.
All the same, thank you very much, Mr. Mbye, for a very, I would say, flattering introduction that you had of me. Thanks very much and I’d like to say good afternoon to the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the ATC, my Big Brother Mr. Oremi Joiner, we go back a very long way. I’m so happy to see you here because for a long time we haven’t seen.
I’d like to say good afternoon also to the rest of the members of the Board of Directors of the ATC (AMI), as well as my brother and relative and everything from very long ways ago, Alhaji Sait Saine, who invited me and of course I had no choice in the matter but to accept gladly at that, his invitation to come here to share a few words with you.
I’d also like to say good afternoon to the parents of the students that are graduating today, and to the representative of the Commander of the Farafenni Barracks, Mr. Bah, is the officer’s name, and I’d like to say good afternoon to you students as well as the staff of ATC.
It is indeed a very great, great pleasure for me to come to ATC to attend your graduation ceremony and give a few remarks and share my thoughts on where I’ve been and what I think are very important and critical issues that you might want to consider moving forward in your lives, which I hope would be so successful beyond your wildest imaginations.
What I’d like to do is just to touch a little bit about my background and then having done that discuss a few issues or few points which I think would be lessons that I, at least, can say I have learned from my experience.
As Mr. Mbye said, I’m from Ballanghar which is just next door to Farafenni, just about a few miles from here, a few kilometers from here. That’s where I started. And I always keep reminding people I never went to kindergarten. I never went to nursery school. I started straight like everybody else, and Mr. Saine here, your Principal, will bear me witness. Like everybody else, I started with Primary one and took it from there. And from Ballanghar Primary School, we sat to the Common Entrance Examinations, that’s what we called it back then.
In 1969, I went to Armitage High School, [a boarding school in Janjanbureh, Central River Region] which, I always tell my friends, I call the University of Life, because at a very early age we were thrown in the midst of kids like us from all over The Gambia, and we basically were living with each other for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as long as the term was on. Now, what this did was it allowed you to learn from each other because you came from different backgrounds. There were people from rural areas. There are people from urban areas. They were Mandinkas, there were Jolas, there were Serahules. But in all entire time that I was there not once did I hear anybody being criticized or being praised by virtue of their ethnicity or the tribe that they belong to or the area they came from, or the language they spoke. In other words, I always tell people that it is not possible, in my judgment, for somebody to have been to Armitage or a school like it and become a tribalist. It was completely an impossible characteristic to have [because] we all were very much on top of each other and living as brothers and sisters.
From Armitage I went to Gambia High School [Banjul]. That’s where I did my Sixth Form and then from there I continued to Nigeria, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus. That’s where I studied for my undergraduate degree in agriculture specializing in soil science. Now, besides the agricultural training I had there, Nsukka was also very interesting from the late 70s to early 80s because it also was a ground where I was exposed even further to people from different backgrounds. [This is] because Nsukka, and the University of Nigeria more generally, also happened to be the destination for many, many students from different African countries. So, we were all there together, not to mention the fact that we also were living with Nigerians from all corners of Nigeria. For this reason, I feel perfectly comfortable, I think, interacting with and dealing with and working with people from all corners of Nigeria as indeed all other parts of Africa because it’s been an experience I was exposed at a very early age.
Then I returned home in 1981, and got employed by the Ministry of Agriculture to work with the Soils Laboratory in Yundum where I was employed as Scientific Officer. After that, I went to the United States [in December 1984] to do my Master’s degree in soil science at Montana State University, [Bozeman].
Again, that was a very interesting experience because I was one of very few Blacks there and all of a sudden, I had to adjust the idea that there were some people that would take their fingers and rob your skin to see whether your dark skin will rub off on their fingers. And that’s how low the level exposure that many of them had to African cultures. So, it was also an opportunity for me to only get an education, but also to in turn educate a lot of people, especially Americans about Africa, our cultures, our values, and things like that.
I was once invited to a school, a Grade School [with pupils] who are about eight years old or younger, and I told the children that in The Gambia where I came from a man can have more than one wife. And this was really mind-blowing for young Americans like that. One of them raised his hand, and I said “Yes, you have a question?” He said, “No. I want to move Gambia!” because I said that in The Gambia, you can have more than one wife! So those were valuable experiences.
I came back home [in 1987] and worked again for the Ministry of Agriculture, and went back [in 1990] to the States to do my Ph. D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison [UW] in soil science. And there again, it was a very interesting experience. As a matter of fact, just my going to Wisconsin was an eye opener. First because it wasn’t supposed to happen, because at that point in time we had a boss who said that there is no way in hell he would sponsor anybody to go do his [or her] Ph. D. So I was fortunate to have had a sponsorship from the university itself to do my Ph. D.
The second reason why it was also just quite an experience was that when I finished my bachelor’s degree from Nigeria and I wanted to do my Master’s program in the States. I remember applying [for admission] to the University of California, Riverside. I got a letter from them rejecting my application for admission. Furthermore, the guy who wrote the letter, I still remember his name, said “Mr. Touray after a careful review of your papers, your transcripts and everything we have determined that you don’t have the potential for Graduate School.” In other words, [I didn’t] have the potential to go study for a Master’s or a Ph. D.
As it happened, when I got to Wisconsin to do my Ph. D., I found that the same guy who wrote that letter denying me admission to Riverside to go do my Master’s and telling me I [didn’t] have the potential that he himself got his Ph. D. from Wisconsin. Even more interesting was the fact that he got his Ph. D. from the same Department I went to, the Department of Soil Science. Even more interesting is that he got his Ph. D. in the same room, that is from the Soil Physics group, that I went on to get my Ph. D. [from]. And I’ll say a little bit more about this because it’s very instructive that very particular experience that I had in going to Wisconsin.
Now Wisconsin was also a great opportunity because Madison is a very liberal town, and one of the things I just really plunged into was the volunteerist spirit that Americans are very famous for. It just happens, again by Providence I suppose you could say, that I volunteered to do a radio program. Believe it or not, I was a DJ doing an African music show for like six years at the WORT FM Community Radio [in] Madison, and I also was a talk show host [there] for like three years
All of this experience actually will go on to have very significant impact on my life much later, something that I did not think of when I went to volunteer at WORT FM. I volunteered at WORT precisely because I wanted us to maintain a voice on the airwaves as a community of Africans in Wisconsin. So that’s what happened and of course, what led to a whole bunch of other stories.
Now, the life stories I [got] out of these experiences.
One is the issue of graduate scholarships. Like I told you when I was going to do my Ph. D., somebody said that there was no way that they were going to sponsor people to do their Ph. D. It just was his policy; it wasn’t going to happen. But as God wished it, I ended up going to do my Ph. D. Somebody said that I didn’t have the potential to do a graduate degree program and I ended up getting my Ph. D. from the same Department, [and] the same room that he himself who wrote that letter got his Ph. D. from. So I think the point there to learn is that it’s going to happen if God wills that it’s going to happen, I don’t care who says that “No, it’s not going to happen,” it is going to happen.
Another story I should regarding my graduate studies is that when I got admission to Wisconsin, I was an employee of the government, and like everybody else I applied for a study leave with salary because I needed additional funding to supplement the stipend I was [going to be] paid because I still [had] to pay my tuition, buy books, [pay] rent, and all of those.
So I went to the to the PSC or the Public Service Commission and met the guy who was [the Permanent Secretary] then, and I told him I want to apply for a study leave with salary. He asked me “For what?” I said I was going to do my Ph. D. He said “You’re not coming back, and for this reason, I’m not going to give you a study leave with salary.” I said, “really?,” and he said “Yes.” I said “Well, thank you very much,” and walked out [of his office.] I got [loans] from a friend and my father and got a ticket to the States to continue my education.
Twenty nine years later [in September 2019 in The Gambia], I met this guy [who said] he was not going give me a study leave with salary, because he said I was not going to come back because I was going to do my Ph. D. And that was a very interesting experience, because I didn’t want to go into the details with him to tell him why it was such an amazing experience for me to meet him. I hope to do that someday, Inshah Allah! But it was enough for me to prove to myself that this guy who said that I was never going to come back [after my Ph. D.] had been proven wrong.
Now the other issue also is that when I came back home [from the US] in 2002, I found myself in a situation where the Gambia was a very difficult country to be in, especially if you had certain rules and regulations and certain principles you wanted to abide by because we had [a brutal Dictator], Yahya Jammeh, as our president.
And so I had to decide what to do.
And I just decided I didn’t want to work for the government. I wanted to be on my own and so that’s how I got into consulting. As I said before, when I was volunteering at WORT FM … I never thought in my wildest dreams that that volunteer work was going to impact my life down the road because some of the consulting assignments I had [were] based on and influenced and impacted by the [experience I had from] volunteer work I did oh so many years ago in the United States. So that was also a very, very interesting experience.
Now, by staying as an independent consultant … I think I was able to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that a lot of my friends got themselves into, finding themselves in a revolving door. You are hired today, fired tomorrow, and sometimes even jailed. I’ve had friends who were jailed unfairly sometimes, and you know, because they did not want to, I guess, keep their distance and they were too enamored by the trappings of our public service: you know your vehicles, your drivers, your privileges, and all of that.
So I turned my back to all of that satisfied that I am happy doing what I’m doing and content with whatever it is, by way of remuneration or whatever that came with what I was doing. And I was so glad that I did because at the end of the day, Yahya Jammeh left us, and I could hold my head high as I still do because I don’t have to account for anything. I don’t care the TRRC [Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission] or the Janneh Commission … could have held their hearings for the next 10 years, [because] they will never call me [to testify] because I had nothing to do with Yahya Jammeh. I thanked God when Yahya Jammeh left because all the years that had been here with him, I had never been [at] the same table with him. So I thank God for that.
So what, in my opinion, can I draw for these lessons; my experiences?
One is [that] education is priority; [it] is key. You would remember, as young as you might be that one of the first instructions that the Holy Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, got from Allah was Iqra, that is “study.” You should read. It’s very important that you study, so it’s very important that you people, especially you students in the day and age we live in have been able to sacrifice and struggle and come to this point that you are graduating.
But I want … you [to] please see this graduation as a step to even higher heights; it is not the end. Indeed, education is never a process that ends. It is life-long and continuous. I’ve always said that if you see anybody who tells you that they’ve had enough education then they are not educated enough because the more you get educated, the more you realize that you don’t know anything, and the more you want to get the educated. So it’s very important that you stick with it, stick with the program, as they say, and continue with [your] education.
If you consider the fact that The Gambia is one of … over 100 countries and that we are in competition with them [including] our neighbor right next door … Senegal. Look at China, how [they dominate] the world. China last year graduated 10 million graduates from university with their first degrees. Now 10 million graduates, is about five times the population of The Gambia. So that goes to show how in The Gambia we have to struggle. We have to really struggle hard to make sure we have as many of our people as possible [educated].
You are our hope. You are the future of this country and I want you to every day put that into your minds and drum it into your minds that you are the future of the country. We are relying on you to go study, go equip yourself so you can be productive and useful citizens later on. But I also like to remind you that it’s important to understand what matters is not really … the paper qualifications you have. What matters is how you apply [the] education you have; how you grab the opportunities.
I always remind my friends and kids especially, that when we were going to school in Gambia High School, we had our Vous where we sit down and drink our attaya [Chinese Green Tea]. But what happened was that when we graduated from school … almost all of us went for further studies. We went to do our bachelors [degrees], came back, worked little bit [and] went to do our Masters [degrees]. Some of us went to do our PhDs.
Now, you have to understand that back then it was a big deal to travel out the country to further your education because what would happen is if they say Musa is traveling tomorrow to the States for further studies, your friends would come overnight and spend the whole night drinking attaya with you to do a send-off. And the following day, they will hire taxis, and they’re all escort you to the airport. So it was a very, very big deal.
So while we were going and coming, there was only one of us who never had a scholarship to go [further his studies]. So all this time over a 10 year period, if not more than that, we’re all going and coming. He was stuck in The Gambia. As a matter of fact, he graduated with us from Gambia High School and one of the subjects he did was woodwork. He went to Saint Peters as a carpentry teacher. And then from there when they started building the Atlantic Hotel in Banjul, which is now the Laico Atlantic Hotel, he got into the construction industry. OK, maybe by now you probably have an idea of who I’m talking about. Do you know who I’m talking about? Well, I’m talking about, Alhaji Mustapha Njie that everybody knows as “Taf.”
Taf was our high school friend; we all went to high school together, but we all had our scholarships [to study abroad] and left him here. But he was serious about what he got into: first the woodwork and second the building industry, and of course Taf you all know. You all know Taf? Anybody who doesn’t know Taf, can you please raise your hand? Is there anybody here who does not know Taf? [No one raised a hand] Exactly, that’s my point. He doesn’t have a degree like we did, but look what he’s done with his life.
Look at Youssou Ndour. Youssou Ndour has never been even to high school, I think. But look at how successful he is. What’s important is what you do with your life, not the cards that life deals you. OK, it’s not important whether you have a Ph. D. or your bachelors, what’s important is what you do with the resources and the opportunities you have. I want you to keep that in mind so you can be as successful as you want if you apply yourself to the opportunities that come your way.
After education, I think it’s important to think big. One of our biggest problems in this country is that we think very small because we are small country. One of my friends once told me in Mandinka that doya mou douno letti, which means in English that being small is a load; a heavy load on your head. You can see that way we think small in our public services you can see it in [the] public sector.
Like just yesterday, I was telling somebody you know when the [Gambia Ports Authority] bought the Kanilai ferry, they bought one ferry. Why didn’t they buy two ferries? When they bought Kunta Kinteh, the bought one ferry. By the time those [new] ferries are [brought into service] the old ferries are all gone kaput, so they run the new ferries down far faster than their design life.
So I think big, if you have a budget in front of you. The other day I was at a retreat looking at the budget for the higher education sector strategic plan. I think [the budget] for like four years [was] $120 million or whatever have you. I said “This is nothing!” So you have to train yourself, get this attitude that if it is small, you need to make it bigger because at the end of the day if you’re going to compete against the rest of the world, it’s not gonna help you to start thinking in terms of small numbers. Nobody is going to talk to you.
Many years ago in the US, I tried to start an Internet company and I wrote to a company that was investing in other companies providing [them] money for them to start. So I wrote to them I told them that I wanted $250 thousand, which a lot of people would say is a lot of money. But they wrote to me and said, “Mr. Touray, what you are asking for is too small; its not worth our time. If you had asked for $1 million, we would have talked to you.” Because, you understand, these are very busy people and they have very expensive lawyers. So I thought to myself, “Oh, so people who ask for $1 million!” and that was quite a lesson. So keep that in mind … moving forward, you have to think big.
You also have to be patient.
That’s one thing I learned from the University of Life, and that’s Armitage. [When you go to Armitage] in your first year, you are nobody; they call you a Green Leaf. I can be sitting down on my bed, and I’ll call you and for no reason, [ask] you to clean [the] room because the motto of the school was: “Obey and complain.”
You have no rights over the people who are your seniors, but after the first year, you go to the second year and then a new batch [of students] comes in and you are their boss. After the second year, you go up another step and then by the by you gradually climb the ladder of importance in the school. By the time you’re in your final year, you are Top Dog. The point here is that as you grow as you go in life, you have to understand that there are things that take time, privileges that take time, and that come only with a lot of hard work and patience.
The other thing I’d like to say is that you have to work hard. We all know that the alternative word for when somebody dies in Wolof is nopaleh kou (to rest), in Mandinka they say adaha taleh (to take a rest), and in English they say “Rest in peace.” That means that life is a struggle.
You know, there is one guy I see around the Serrekunda/Manjai area. He is what we call a merchant ambulant (street vendor) [with] goods that he’s going around selling. [He’s now] lost weight, but the first time I saw him, I really felt sorry for him, because this is a very heavyset guy and he was an older guy. One day he passed me [while] I was in a shop and I told this guy at the shop that “You know, anytime I see this guy, I feel very sorry for him” and he said, “Why do you feel sorry for him?” I said “Well, because he’s old, he’s heavy set, he’s doing work that’s meant for [younger people] because this its tough work going around in this hot Sun, selling shoes and things like that.” And he said, something that really was very interesting. He said, “You know? I don’t feel sorry for this guy.” I said “Really, why don’t you feel sorry for him?” He said, “Because these are the people that when they were young they did not work hard. If he worked hard when he was young, he would not have [had] to do this in his old age.
So you have a choice. It’s a choice that you have to make: you either work hard when you are young, when it’s time for you to work hard, when you have the strength and energy to work hard, or if not, you’re going to suffer in your old age and blame people for no reason whatsoever.
And another thing, I should say, in that regard. I know a lot of you are very much into football. I’m not that much into sport myself. Not that I have anything against football. But I’ll tell you, I always tell people when I see kids playing football in the hot Sun, I tell them that look, while you are playing football in the hot Sun, there are other children who actually busy studying in the shade. And those few of you, [the] very, very few of you that would be the Sadio Mannehs that would sign somewhere on the dotted line their contract that will give them the thousands of dollars and thousands of pounds or whatever a week with their Manchester Uniteds and whatever have you, I tell those people that are lucky [that] the first thing that they do when they have a contract is not to call their mother or to call their father, but they will call that child who was studying while they were playing football. Because [it is that] child who grew up to be an accountant, its that child who grew up to be a lawyer.
And you know what? As a professional footballer you are going to be useful professionally, for like 5, maximum 10 years. As a lawyer [or] a doctor, you can be doing your service by virtue of [your] training practically for the rest of your life. So you think about that, Number 1, if you want to get in professional sports, your chances [of getting a contract] are very, very slim, and Number 2, the fact that your professional career is very short. And many of them [professional sports people] end up blowing their money, so … ten years [or so] after retirement, they are actually dirt poor and back to where they were. So think about that. Work hard and work smart, being sure exactly what you get yourself into.
You should count your blessings. Thank God for the blessings and the privileges you have. Once in a while [on hot days] I call my friends from Ballanghar [and living] in the Kombo’s and say “You know what, can you imagine [that] a few years, we would have been in the [farm], cultivating our millet, our groundnuts (peanuts) … but here we are in our air-conditioned offices because we were fortunate and blessed to have been to school and enjoy all these privileges and perks, [leaving] our folks, families and relatives behind.
So please, please, please, I implore you to please count your blessings. Consider yourself fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to, go to school and succeed. And when you do that, [you should] also please keep in mind those people who are less fortunate. Do not ever be so arrogant that you forget the people that you left behind.
And finally, I would urge you to choose your group, or your group will choose you. Let me explain. I always tell kids that wherever you are in the world, I don’t care where you are, whether [you are] in Tokyo, in Ballanghar, in New York, in Farafenni, or in Washington DC, … in Brazil, any neighborhood, any compound, any community, you can divide the society into two groups, exactly two groups. OK?
And who are those in those two groups? The first group are those people you know, and as I’m saying this, think about people you know in your community and place them in [one] of the groups that I’m talking about.
The first group are those people you know [that] whenever something happens in the community before anything is done, they’ll say “Where is Musa, what does he think?” “Where is Fatou, what is her idea?” Those are the people that the Community respects and listens to what they have to say and those are the people that are the decision-makers in the community.
Then there is another group, the second group. Those the people, that when something happens in the community, they’ll say “Where is Malick?” They’ll say “Forget about Malick, he’s not serious.” They’ll say “Where is Jankeh?” And they’ll say “Jankeh, are you mad? What’s she got to do with it?” Those are the people that nobody cares about. Nobody is expecting to, and nobody cares to hear what they have to say about anything of importance in the community.
What I mean by one group choosing you and you choosing the other group is that if you want to join the second group of those people that nobody listens to, that group chooses you because you don’t have to do anything to join them. All you have to do is to fold your hands and become wasted, and become a failure. Then you join that group. That group chooses you because you don’t do anything to join them.
If you want to be part of that group that people listen to, that you have a say in the community, people are interested in your ideas and they’re not going to do anything without you agreeing with it, that’s the group that you have to apply to join. And you apply by working hard.
And you know what? If you look at people in those two different groups if you want to join either of the groups, all you have to do is to follow the footsteps of people in those groups. If you want to join the group of people that people listen to, you have to follow their footsteps and work hard. If you want to join the group of people that nobody listens to, that everybody [in the group] is a failure, you have to just do nothing. You just have to fold your hands, and do nothing and you will fail. And, God forbid, you [will] join that group. So, the lesson, the moral of the story here is that choose your group, and choose your group carefully and choose well.
God bless you. I wish you all the very best. I want to tell you that we have very high hopes in you [and] I wish you the best.
Note: an audio recording of my speech is at archive.org