A Gambian village mourns its most famous son – a dictator in exile
Gambia Letter: Former leader Yahya Jammeh still has support in his home village
Women walk past a billboard bearing a picture of former Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh in his home town of Kanilai. Photograph: Seyllouseyllou/AFP/Getty Images
He smiles out from giant posters on either side of the palace gates, watching over the locals as they go about their daily business under the bushy mango trees. A couple of men wear T-shirts featuring his face above the words “With Allah on my side, I will always win.”
Yahya Jammeh, autocratic former leader of Gambia, may be exiled thousands of miles away in Equatorial Guinea, but his presence lives on in the hearts and minds of adoring fans in his home village of Kanilai, near the Senegalese border.
“We feel depressed,” says Binta Fatoumassi (40), a stallholder. “He was a good man 100 per cent. I don’t know if he will ever return.”
Nearby, two donkeys and some goats mooch around near a dusty tractor. Even the chickens look downcast.
UN-backed Senegalese troops, greeted as heroes across the country, are stationed outside Kanilai, waiting for the go-ahead to search the village for weapons and rebels. The “jungulers”, a paramilitary hit-squad, who tortured and murdered at the dictator’s bidding according to Human Rights Watch, were based near here. And the village harbours countless separatists from the Senegalese enclave of Casamance, largely drawn from Jammeh’s Jola tribe.
Nobody knows what surprises might be in store in Kanilai. In Jammeh’s era, nobody could tell the difference between the army and the paramilitaries, between immigrants and rebels, says Halifa Sallah, spokesman for the country’s new president, Adama Barrow.
Gambian soldiers, generally out of favour across the country, still seem in charge here, guarding the entrance to the palace and refusing access to the kleptocratic Kanilai Farms. Jammeh’s personal business, which controls much of the nation’s bakeries, butchers and taxis, allegedly thrived on tax-funded subsidies and land-grabbing.
We accidentally venture into a family compound. Children run out to greet the car, reaching through the back windows for the bags of oranges on the back seat. They are followed by a man, who shouts angrily, batting them away. He seems high, red-eyed and ranting. “We are one Gambia,” he keeps saying, before warning us away. “People are very angry Jammeh has gone,” he says. “They could turn against you.”
Everywhere in the village, the green flags of Jammeh’s APRC party hang listlessly in the afternoon heat. SB Bojang, a 25-year-old shop owner, insists we join him for domoda, a peanut and chicken stew. “We don’t need the Senegalese troops here,” he says. “Jammeh was a big man. He was a hard worker. He made Gambia known in the world.”
Bojang is annoyed about the 45,000 who fled the country, according to UN figures, when Jammeh refused to step down after December’s elections. “The unfaithful got bad information that made them run,” he says. All of Gambia, not just Kanilai, is now mourning Jammeh’s departure, he says. He still has hope that one day Jammeh will rule again. “We will love him forever.”
We are joined by Alasane and Baba, who both say they are from Senegal. From Casamance? “No!” says Baba, with a horrified expression on his face. Going by what he says, both come from Dakar and have no connections with Casamance. Baba has been here since 2000 and owns one of the corrugated iron-roofed shops outside the palace. He is wearing one of the shop’s biggest sellers, the Jammeh T-shirt.
Alasane swears that Jammeh never favoured his minority Jola tribe with top jobs. But, what about that speech last year when he called the majority Mandinka tribe “enemies” and “foreigners”, threatening to place them “where even a fly cannot see them”?
“Jammeh brought togetherness for all the people,” says Alasane. He was very fair. All those who say differently are liars and thieves.
We’re beginning to get the drift. Before leaving, we ask Baba if we can photograph him in his Jammeh T-shirt, but he scuttles off into his shop. He crouches in the darkness behind a pile of clothes, completely still. “Baba?” we call. Eventually he comes out and removes his T-shirt so we can get a photo of it hanging on a chair.
“Report the truth about here or Allah will know and he will punish you,” says Bojang before we leave the village. The villagers watch us sullenly as we leave. It’s clear we will not be missed.
On the road out of the village, we stop and talk to a man on a bicycle, sweat pouring down from his woolly hat. Lamin Tamba, a 27-year-old carpenter, admits that he is from Casamance. He fought with the liberation movement. There are many Jola rebels in Kanilai, he says.
In the neighbouring village of Bwiam, where Jammeh attended St Edward’s school, people speak more openly. “We still love him, but he disappointed us with the human rights issues,” says Ousman Drameh, the 68-year-old owner of the Million Stars Home of Beauty shop.
He’s just getting into full flow, explaining how, exactly, Jammeh let the country down, when a boy wearing a Jammeh T-shirt walks into the shop.
“No man is perfect,” shrugs the shop owner. “Jammeh was a good man.”