Contrary to what an average European tourist might imagine, the Gambia, a strange country stretching along the eponymous river, has quite a long history connected to the Mediterranean and thus to our own world also in pre-colonial times. The earliest written records of the Gambia come from the Arab authors of the 9th and 10th centuries, for the region was connected, since the earliest times with the trans-Saharan trade routes, a system that appeared, according to some researchers, as early as the 3rd century CE. Yet the region used to have no tradition of independence. It was connected to the Empire of Mali and then, in the 16th century, to Songhai. The Portuguese came here early, but they preferred to establish themselves further south, on the island of Bolama close to the present-day Bissau. Among the colonisers that had been active there were even some subjects of the Polish kind, coming more exactly from the Duchy of Courland, a vassal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After just a few years (1651-1659) they handed over their possessions (some outposts and forts on the islands) to the Dutch West India Company. The outposts passed from hands to hands again, till the English arrived, under the auguries of a colourfully named institution: Royal Adventurers in Africa, or more prosaically, Royal African Company (RAC). For a century and a half the region was the arena of the English-French struggle for the control of West Africa. Finally, towards the end of the 18th century, the British colony of Senegambia had been simply abandoned. Yet the Europeans were to return later on in the 19th century. The main product of the country, the peanut, was to become a lasting element of the British culture.
The contemporary Gambia starts with the independence declared in 1965. One of the rare facts about the country that found somehow its way to my childhood memories was the existence of the Senegambian Confederation (1981-1989). That was all my knowledge till 2016. The travel revealed little more, a couple of dusty misbahas (Islamic rosaries or prayer beads) exposed in a small museum on the top of the arch commemorating the 1994 military coup led by Yahya Jammeh, the serial winner of the subsequent presidential elections. A statue of an itinerant Islamic scholar, with his special bag containing the Quran, stands beneath, subsuming, as I imagine, much of the intellectual life of the country; oddly looking, but undoubtedly serious as to its intention.
In the city of Banjul not only could I observe a profusion of tiny mosques, but also a quite unusual number of schools dedicated to the memorisation of the Quranic text, largely taking place of any other educational establishment. Nonetheless some Gambian literature is also to be found, although it is modest and very little known in the international context. Dayo Forster's novel Reading the Ceiling (2008) seems to be the most visible one, putting in the limelight the entrance of a young girl, Ayodele, into the womanhood, as well as the crisscrossing shadows of tradition and modernity. To stay in Africa means to become a wife and a mother in a polygamous family; to go to Europe and study at the university might be regarded as more attractive choice. But the novel seems to accentuate a very Islamic sort of question: the proportion of volition and fate in shaping human destiny. Does Ayodele really have as much choice as she believes to have?
The reddish-grey coloration of the country is due, as everywhere on the West-African shore, to the finest Saharan dust permanently suspended in the air. But the vegetation is luxuriant and clean; the dust doesn't really descend over things, it is destined to travel farther westwards, across the Atlantic, to fertilise the Amazonian forest. In the last decades of relative stability the country gained some significance as a touristic destination, creating a new range of social problems. In Costly Prices (2005), a tiny novel by Ramatoulie Onikepo Othman, the new reality depicted is similar to that of many African sex-paradises: Gambian men having sex with and even marrying the tourists, while the local brides promised to them remain in the state of perennial expectation.
Overall, the Gambian literature is still regarded as incipient, trying to trace back the country's crisscrossing roots, like in A Cherished Heritage (1999), a tiny research work on "the roots of the Oku Marabou" by the aforementioned author. These "marabouts", i.e. Muslim Oku or Aku, form an ethnic minority of a hybrid origin, regarded as descendants of the liberated slaves and settlers, connected with Freetown and Creole community of Serra Leone, as well as West Indies on the opposite shore of the Atlantic.
In fact, much of the Gambian literary tradition derives from the history of slave trade, like in the case of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), celebrated as the first published Gambian author at the same time as she is celebrated as the first African-American female writer. Sold into slavery in Senegambia at the age of seven or eight, she crossed the Atlantic to be purchased by the Wheatly family in Boston. Having learned how to read and write, she published the famous Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Nevertheless, more consistent beginnings of the Gambian literature are to be situated in the sixties, the time of decolonising awakening, and again, as a case of repeated gestation, in the first decades of the present century. As it seems, in the Gambia as in many other places of the continent, the new wave of writing delves in the controversies around such topics as polygamy, sex-tourism or female circumcision, rather communicating in the global literary space than truly relying on local readership or appealing to local interest and awareness.