Banjul, May 5, 2012 – When Europeans went to Berlin with their scissors in 1884 to cut up the map of Africa, they played a sick joke which is still felt today. The British wanted the Palm oil from the Gambia River so they took that out of French West Africa and today the place is called a country: 60 kilometers wide at the Atlantic it snakes 338 kilometers up river where it is just a dozen kilometers wide. French diplomats like to refer to it as the finger in the ass of Senegal. The metaphor is à propos this year as the country obsesses over all things anal.
In early April there was a private party at a major luxury hotel in which the dress code for men was transvestite. Someone took photos. Somehow the photos ended up with the police and 18 men and two women were arrested and charged with homosexuality, a crime in the Gambia.
The owner of the hotel was not arrested. Less than two weeks later he was beat to a pulp and flown to Germany to be hospitalized. Two of his employees were arrested for the assault but no motive has been given.
The arrests were widely condemned by western diplomatic missions prompting the President, Yahya Jammeh, to express his anger during a marathon three hour speech (48 pages local reporters tell me) at the opening session of the new parliament on April 20. The president, who calls himself His Excellency Doctor Professor Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, practices witchcraft and says he can cure Aids, told the west they can keep their money if they are going to condition it to gay rights.
“Sometimes you hear of a lot of noise about the laws of this country or my pronouncements,” he told members of parliament. “Let me make it very clear that, if you want me to offend God for you to give me aid, you are making a great mistake; you will not bribe me to do what is evil and ungodly.”
Jammeh said he would not bow down to homosexuality in the name of Human Rights. But that was never his program. Jammeh campaigned in last year’s elections on a platform of “Progress, Stability and Peace.” Democracy and Human rights are not in his vocablulary.
Jammeh is not the only one up in arms over homosexuals having a private party. Ba Kawsu Fofana, a leading Muslim cleric, called for the twenty suspects to be killed. “Islamic Sharia law,” he said, “decrees that homosexuals should be killed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation and torment in the deepest depths of hell fire.”
Fofana told The Standard newspaper “homosexuality constitutes a threat for the future of humanity.”
Fofana’s statements came the day after an opinion piece by the head of the Gambia Secular Assembly called for “tolerance of homosexuality and homosexual persons.” The 19-page open letter to President Jammeh claimed science has proven “homosexuality is biological and therefore natural and does not harm religion and culture.”
Jammeh said “Gambia is a country of believers,” in which, “sinful and immoral practices such as homosexuality will not be tolerated.” But just a couple of kilometers down the road from the Coco Ocean Hotel is the tourist resort Senegambia, a place where not only elder European women, but also European men, can be seen walking with young black bucks. Tourism makes up 20% of Gambia’s GDP and sex tourism is a high-end business which some local newspapers did not hesitate to point out when the 20 were arrested.
Ismaila Sisay, who runs the Sinchu community radio, Taranga FM, believes the noise around homosexuality is a diversion from the country’s real problems. Sisay hesitated to say what those problems are, perhaps the reason is his radio was shut down for two months in 2011 because Taranga was giving press reviews of articles critical to the president. The Gambia, a country with some 60% illiteracy is facing severe food insecurity and abject poverty.
In a country where people cannot read, and those who can often “have to decide between buying a newspaper or eating,” as Sisay put it, radio is a threat. The papers can print it, but beware the radio that reads it.
Nevertheless, those who would like to see more democracy and a greater distribution of wealth in the Gambia are quick to point out that President Jammeh has done a lot in the line of education, infrastructure and health. As a matter of fact, the Gambia is one of the few nations which is on track to achieving at least six of the Millennium goals including that “all boys and girls complete a full course of primary education” and “reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.” He has also made great strides in providing safe drinking water to remote parts of the country.
One western diplomat said she believes “it is Jammeh’s Moroccan wife who has pushed him to ensure girls get primary education.” Yet, the United Nations Development Program points out the country is lagging behind in the goals of poverty reduction and gender equality. The WHO says an astounding 80% of the girls and women in the country have suffered female genital mutilation!
But as one local journalist points out “there are schools in all the regions up-river” which was not the case ten years ago. Over 63% of the one point seven million people lives in these rural areas.
The Gambia remains a deeply indebted country (nearly 700 million dollars for annual budget revenues of 185 million) and it is not peanuts, fish, cotton and palm kernels which will bring it out of the red. President Jammeh’s threat to refuse aid to have a free hand to punish homosexuals could cost the Gambians who need it most very deeply.