Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Point of View--- A Talking Point With Cherno O Barry

An in-depth discussion on Gambian writers welfare and current issues with Gambia University lecturer Cherno Omar Barry.

Cherno Omar Barry has played a pivotal role in the creation of the new Writers' Association of The Gambia. He has also, through the inspiration and the guidance of a French academic, Dr Jean Dominic Pénel, created the Gambian writers’ website which regularly popularises books authored by Gambians. This interview is intended to reveal more about Gambian writers and their works. Along the way, we will also try to establish the obstacles the writers face and how ordinary Gambians can easily benefit from the work of their fellow countrymen.

Interview conducted by Suntou Touray for his column, the point of view- (A Talking Point)

Q&A Tell us a bit about you?
Cherno: Not much to say. I am an academic whose main interest is resuscitating the association of writers in the Gambia, improving the reading culture by promoting creative writing on themes interesting to our young readers. I try to advocate for quality and relevant production. I read and write as much as time can permit me to. My reading interests are vast but I am specifically interested in children’s literature, women writers and themes close to our socio-cultural and historical context.
Q&A What is your current engagement?
Cherno: I am a lecturer at the University of The Gambia. I am a researcher too presently involved in completing my doctoral thesis.
Q&A Who are the Gambian writers?
Cherno: There are many writers and some of these have succeeded in publishing their works making them authors. That having been said the question seems too vague for a simple answer. I will say Gambian writers and authors are those who have penned good works on issues of interest to The Gambia and to the world at large.
Q&A Why did you create a website for Gambian Writers?
Cherno: The interest started when I began doing my Maîtrise-ès-lettres in Semiology. I began to discover books by other Gambians other than Dr Peters and Ebou Dibba. Upon discovering Dr Tijan Sallah, Nana Grey-Johnson, Sally Singhateh, Ebou Gaye and Essa Colley but to name a few, my interest deepened. However one major problem was works by these writers were hardly available to us and Gambians seem unaware of the existence of most of these writers. Then Dr Jean Dominique Pénel organized the first exhibition of Gambian writers on 19 April 2002 at the Alliance Franco-Gambienne. It brought together several writers and I was honoured to be the Master of Ceremonies. Using Dr Pénel’s extensive research, I started translating some of the book reviews in English and adding a little of my research, started publishing these on the Daily Observer newspaper early 2004. The website came into existence first as a blog in 2005 and became developed into a site in 2007.
Q&A How do you sustain the site for the Gambian writers, considering the fact that, you are a busy man?
Cherno: Most of the information was already available and just needed uploading. What’s more difficult today is keeping up with the recent publications. It is unfortunate that very few Gambians are ready to be committed to this. I have made appeals to Gambians for assistance and some of the reaction is I should maintain a blog. It is my humble believe that a blog is fine but a website makes the shared information more appealing. Nonetheless, as it is a passion I wish to nurture, I will continue to nourish the website until an association takes it up.
Q&A Where can one obtain books authored by Gambians?
Cherno: This is becoming difficult, Suntou. The only available outlet in The Gambia is Timbooktoo and even Timbooktoo has few or none of the renowned authors such as Dr Peters, Dr Tijan Sallah or Nana Grey-Johnson. Ebou Dibba’s books are still provided by Macmillan The Gambia. All others are out of print except those who have published outside The Gambia.

Q&A To the best of your knowledge, what sorts of subjects are the common currency among Gambian writers
Cherno: Socio-cultural issues mainly. Recent writers are trying their hands in folklore too. Few really tried dealing with political issues and some of these are Gabriel Roberts with the Goosieganderan Myth and Baaba Silla with When the Monkey Talks.

Q&A Which author has written the most books?
Cherno: Hard to say when one does not have all the statistics but I prefer to compare two authors. Nana Grey-Johnson is the most successful self-published author and Dr Tijan Sallah the most published. Each has published close to ten books.
Q&A Are you an exclusive association of like minds, how does one qualify to be in the Gambian writers association?
Cherno: The present association encourages all writers, Gambian or non-Gambian residents to be subscribed members. If one is interested in writing and hopes to contribute to knowledge production, then one can be considered as qualified. The association is trying to bring on board aspiring writers too who may eventually have avenues to publish their works.

Q&A What criteria does the association use to determine an author/writer?
Cherno: There is no particular criterion. One is an author if one has published and one is a writer if one is indulged into knowledge production and sharing.

Q&A Why is it difficult to come across serials or reviews of books by Gambians?
Cherno: I believe Gambians should take up that challenge. We have several Gambian experts who are critics, analysts and essayists. They must come on board to help promote as well as critique works of Gambians. This is more vital today than ever where the University of The Gambia is the main champion.

Q&A What are some of the inherent difficulties writers in the Gambia face, what ways do you believe those obstacles can alleviated?
Cherno: The following in their order of difficulties: publishing, marketing and protecting their works. Self-publishing is the easiest avenue yet this has its setbacks. Some of the setbacks are financing the product and producing a work of international standard. Marketing is difficult because effective distribution means there are consumers. Unfortunately, with the dying reading culture and the difficulty in living standards, the consumers are far less than expected. Though the copyright bureau already exists, it is yet to fully institute a system of protection for authors. Hopefully the association can help alleviate these obstacles once it is officially instituted.

Q&A What advice do you have for a beginner in the field of writing?
Cherno: There is a fallacy that writing is very simple. Certain skills need acquiring for good works to be produced. Aspiring writers need to read a lot especially in their areas of interest. Let them not be discouraged by the obstacles faced in publishing. There is also the possibility of co-publishing which would probably simplify the burden of publication.

Q&A Is there a peer review panel in the Gambian writers association?
Cherno: There is an editorial sub-committee, if that is what you mean. This sub-committee is mandated when the need arises, to edit works the association may require to publish. It can also review and recommend works suitable for consumption in the schools. However, if you mean a peer-review magazine or journal, then that stage has not yet been attained. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out completely.

Q&A How daring are the topics covered among Gambian writers? For instance, Can anyone ridicule religious or cultural practices? Bearing in mind, Baba Galleh debit book was about the subject of female circumcision?
Cherno: It is the belief of the association that writers who write on themes that will cause a national unrest will be dissociated from the association. Understand me well here. We encourage Gambians to write on issues harmful to our health and our well being. Female genital mutilations, forceful marriages, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, rape, murder, irresponsible accidents, drug abuse, delinquency, the Bumster issue, women’s delicate issues, and et cetera are very important and contemporary. Writers can write maturely on issues affecting the Gambian society, Africa and the world at large without being disagreeable. Other writers have set the pace to emulate.

Q&A Literary freedom is an issue in most parts of the developing world, is the Gambia any different?
Cherno: Writers in general have issues with their country particularly in third world countries. Yet these writers have a moral responsibility to translate the hopes and aspirations of every nation. It is incumbent upon them to pen to posterity the daily events of those people as well as the history and beliefs. Writers can be wrong particularly when their works are purely subjective but nonetheless, they serve a fundamental purpose in changing history. In The Gambia, however, no Gambian writer has been arrested or intimidated so far for exercising one’s literary freedom. I know our journalist colleagues have had a large share of this, but it is not uncommon to hear of writers in our sisters countries living in exile for expressing those thorny issues their country’s governments are not willing to hear about. Yet, once we attire ourselves with the mantle of ‘voice for the voiceless’, we expect to face such challenges even if we are living in The Gambia. What the association intends to promote foremost is to help enlighten its general populace. Issues can always be handled intellectually without disseminating misinformation or causing anger, uprising and dissent.

Q&A Can you give an example.
Cherno: Before Africans can properly develop their countries and bring positive changes, they must be educated. Others cannot fight our causes so let us take up our problems ourselves and the best way to find these solutions is to educate our own people. It is no use crying ‘wolf wolf’ when the sheep one is trying to save continue grazing languidly impervious to your cries and the looming danger.

Q&A Any final words on the wider issues of writing in The Gambia?
Cherno: We call upon Gambians abroad to support the association. The first form of support is financial. All other forms of support, such as marketing Gambian works, seeking less expensive publishing houses would be encouraged. Donations of books to schools and higher institutions, photocopying and printing machines to the association to raise funds, and other learning materials shall be most welcome.
Thank You Cherno Omar Barry for the opportunity
Cherno: It is my pleasure!
Suntou's final words
The Gambian writers’ website can be browsed at It has rich resources on the works of people like Dr Lenrie Peters, Dr Tijan Sallah, Dr Sabarr Janneh, Essa Bokar Sey, Cherno Omar Barry himself, Baba Galleh, Gabriel Roberts, etc.
In this age, all efforts should be made to support our nationals in this noblest of professions. Societies advance through reading, and the appropriate starting point should be from works authored by our fellow countrymen/women.
The site contains vast arrays of poems, short stories and mini adventure tails. I would recommend it to all Gambians.
Cherno Omar Barry can be reach at If you have a work needing advice on or if you have the capacity to enhance the future progress of the Gambian writers Association contact him. I found him to be extremely humble and intellectually astute, let us network and create a better Gambia.

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