On 19 May 2010, the community of Gambian writers lost one of their members, Mr Hassum Ceesay. He died at the age of 66 after a brief illness at the Ndeban Clinic.
After his return to The Gambia in 1996, he contributed immensely in different ways to the Gambian society by donating his books and giving financial assistance to schools, mosques and individuals. So humble was he that he refused to be acknowledged for such financial and material aid. He bought several compounds in the greater Banjul area and gave them out to people from whom he knew he would never ask for rent and he disbursed huge funds for the construction of important mosques in the same locality. Some of these revelations only came out after he died.
Along with his diplomatic career, Ceesay developed a keen interest for literary production. In the early seventies, He joined a group of Gambian writers to create the first literary magazine, Ndaanan for which he was a co-founder. Ndaanan is the first literary magazine published in The Gambia in 1971. He published 8 of his poems and a short story in it. From its creation to 1973, Ceesay remained the Advertisement and Circulation manager and until it stopped being published in 1976, he was part of the editorial board along with Dr Lenrie Peters, Swaebou Conated, Charles Jow, Gabriel J. Roberts, Dr Wally Ndow, Esther Sow, Marcel Thomasi and Margareth Jallow.
The eight poems he published in Ndaanan are Fugitive & Manifa Musu (Vol. 1, issue 1, 1971), The Cotton Tree, The Palmwine Vendor’s Son, & Behind the Looking Glass (Vol. 2, issue 1, 1972), and Waves, Stigma & The Sun Stood Still and the story Caught in The Crossfire were published in the last volume (Vol. 5, issue 1 & 2, 1976).
Hassoum has written extensively and it will be difficult to enumerate all his publications here. He has numerous unpublished works too such as his novellas Farm, Sisters of a Kind, What’s a Mother to Do? and The Origins of a Song. His first published work is Seeking to Please, published in 1974 in Banjul. At the time, Ndaanan was facing financial challenges. It deals with a variety of subjects: beauty, settling of scores, the dirty tricks of a prostitute, inflation of prices. In the forward he wrote on the subsequent series of Seeking to Please, he had this to say:
When, as a very idealistic youth, I published SEEKING TO PLEASE 1 in 1974, there were no newspapers, only about six hours of air time from Radio Gambia, and no TV. There was an acute general public craving for something, anything, to read, especially Gambian creative writing. Amazingly, with five hundred copies of that publication, distributed free, I not only intended but expected to satiate that craving! (Ceesay, 2003: p iii)
The first volume is made up of five short stories and twelve poems. Soon after, he published several other short stories, poems and plays. Seeking to Please has ten volumes. The first six volumes are published by Macmillan UK and the four others were published locally. The last published and distributed novel is The Power of Ngewel or Banjen’s Honour (2007). Ceesay has, in his archives several unpublished works in manuscript form (novellas, short stories, poems) some of which are already typed and under edition while others are in long hand. One of his published but undistributed books is entitled Things happen on the way to the well.
From his poems one easily recognises Ceesay’s love for the Gambian people and his concern for their well-being. All his poems observe those issues that one hardly notices even though they directly affect our lives. Ceesay took it upon himself to entertain through his writings but not forgetting, like a true caring person, to enlighten and educate, to warn and counsel. He felt, as a writer, a poet and a dramaturge, it was his duty to send a message to all, both in The Gambia and elsewhere, on the issues and concerns affecting our societies and of the beauties that lie within.
It is in this view, that upon publishing the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th collections of Seeking To Please, he donated a large bulk of it to the Government, the Department of State for Education, for distribution to all the school libraries throughout the country. An official letter from the Department of Education, written on 18 May 2005 and signed by Mr Baboucarr Bouy, acknowledged receipt of 2,400 books donated by him and expressed appreciation for contributing to the education sector. He also donated books to several libraries and institutions.
Seeking to Please (the series)
I am giving the title ‘SEEKING TO PLEASE’ to this collection as that is precisely what I am doing to the Gambian public in this endeavour. As I see it, the avidity around us to read anything creative and with local origins is something of a stigma on any one of us who can do anything about it and, contrary to belief, there are many of us who can. Ability is certainly not lacking.
The four last books of the series published are a collection of poems (Seeking To Please 9 and 10), prose (Seeking To Please 8) and drama (Seeking To Please 7). Below we give a brief review of each of these.
We with service reverent Great Bacchus make contend. Not by pleasing all, But seeking to please. For what pleases the gods Pleases not men (Extract from The Palm Wine Vendor’s Song by Hassum Ceesay)
DRAMA: Seeking To Please 7: You Will See for Yourself
Allah made me who I am and what I am. A scholar in the Holy Quran, and a teacher of the religion of Islam. What am I suppose to do? What am I suppose to say, when a parent brings his child to me with that message? Shall I say no I will not be able to provide for his upkeep? Then I would not be a believer… (Act 4, Scene 1, page 38)
You Will See for Yourself is a piece of drama in four acts with almost a dozen characters. The setting is in ‘a sizable multi ethnic village with a population of four hundred people, mostly fulas, wollofs and mandinkas in the Central River Division’. (Act One; Scene 1; p2). A Quranic teacher cum Imam cum Alkalo, Baa Foday Jabbi, is the main character. There are 11 scenes. Act One (2 scenes) introduces Baa Foday and his talibehs. Juldeh Jallow, a senior talibeh over three decades old, will have a special chat with his Master. A particular question on women will arise as Juldeh is recently married and solicits guidance in maintaining a good marriage. In Act 2 (four scenes), certain issues will arise. The first is the question of the music in Baa Foday’s courtyard. Mayamel (Juldeh’s wife) and Hijinka (Baa Foday’s wife) will play music and they both love it. Baa Foday councils Juldeh to admonish his wife and help guide her to stop indulging in sinful habits. In this act too, parents of one of the talibehs will arrive. They will discover their talibeh child turned into a dirty scrambler of thrown coins in a fight in the streets. The question of the state of the Almudo arises. The parents are welcomed in Act 3 (three scenes). Juldeh will have a lengthy discussion with his wife as he tries to inculcate some of his master’s principles in her. The closing act, Act 4, presents two very interesting scenes. The first is a lengthy discussion on the question the Almudo (a begging talibeh) where heavy irony is observed as the author tries to portray the reality of the situation, and a curious scene between Baa Foday and his young seductive bride Hijinka as Juldeh and Mayamel watch secretly through the complicity of Hijinka.
Hassum Ceesay tries to portray, in this story, the irony behind certain believes and practices. He intends to provoke the spectator (or the reader where the play is read from the book), to reflect on certain social and cultural issues. He obliges the spectator to question three particular things: the complete veneration of certain religious people particularly local quranic teachers where one’s life is dictated (as this is probably the case between Juldeh and Baa Foday) and the question of the ‘Almudo’ and its raison d’être. Juldeh is persistently cautioned about the evil intends of women and advised to strictly apply measures to correct or moderate them. And who is to blame for the Almudo’s situation? The play is thought provoking. Ceesay builds a lot of humour in the play and equally uses simple understandable English as usual.PROSE: Seeking to Please 8: Have Friends, Will Win
“All we parents are saying to you children is to be more thoughtful. Be more slow to judge. Weigh the effects of your words. And why do we keep saying so? […] We love you and we want to keep you out of trouble. […] But above all because God enjoins it upon us to bring you up well.” (p48)
This is a story of a university student, Pa Ndongo, who completed his undergraduate studies and leaves the university to return to his family in Sukuta. Pa Ndongo, a BA student in Agricultural Science, have just completed his final exams and was waiting for the end of year events: the end of year debate where he is to present a paper, and the end of year agric and debating club parties. Pa Ndongo, commonly called Faana Faana Soona farmer, supported by his close friends Mansawula commonly called Wula or De Gaulle ears, Njilan Joof and Jelleh Ndure, he will make an impressive presentation at the debate and be declared the winner.
The 62-page story deals with many social issues particularly that of the undergraduate student and university activities. Ceesay, I believe, intends to delve into pertinent social issues through an easy-to-read short text with a lot of entertainment. One cannot help noticing the ‘kal’ attitude between the schoolmates; particularly, how much it will be effective in helping Pa Ndongo overcome his shyness during the debate competition.
POETRY: Seeking to Please 9: Sewruba Rhapsody and Other Poems
“A convention and child rights / Is incomplete unless/ It says no more war. / Why do I say so? / The first right is the right to life. / Adults declare war / then they stay at home / And send the youths to fight / The war they didn’t declare. ” (Child Rights, p19)
Ceesay proposes two books on poetry. The poems, like his books on prose and drama, deal with social issues and expose some of our social ills. In Sewruba Rhapsody and Other Poems, Ceesay proves a good observer of our contemporary society and translates his observation in simple and easy to read poems. He centres his concern on youth matters, children’s affairs, national issues, nature, etc. Ceesay goes further by writing poems in Wolof and Mandinka, which he includes in these collections.
POETRY: Seeking to Please 10: Our River and Other Stories
“Lo giss wanneh/ Lo gaeg netili/ Lo kham wakh/ Lo mann def./Lunj neh yaa ko def/ Yaa ko def/ Lunj neh yaa ko wakh/ Yaah ko wakh.” (Sanj Sanj, p11)
This 34-page collection of poems regroups 34 poems dealing with issues such as nature, cultural manifestations, new technology, relationships, leisurely activities, current issues and four poems in Mandinka and Wolof. Each poem traces a specific line of thought and tries to leave the reader the choice to judge. Ceesay is careful to use easy language as always and to provide thought provoking verses.
The Power of Ngewel
This is the story set in a fana community where values and traditions are the guiding principles of the community’s way of life. Ngange Demba and Daado Kura are married but on the day of the ‘moor’ and ‘jebbaleh’ (a common yet significant stage of the marriage process among the wolof where the bride is transported to the her husband for the last and final time) Daado wakes up to find herself on the bed of Njaga Hinch in Pallen Sanjal far from Simbara in Lower Saloum, beside her husband. This story affirms the positive social and historical roles Gewels (griots) play in our society, using as a vehicule, the challenges that parents and their young adult children have to overcome to live together successfully in an environment that preserves and respects our traditions, customs and indigenous values.
ConclusionHassum Ceesay ‘had a big and generous heart’. His concern for young Gambian children was quite apparent in his philanthropic actions geared towards their well-being. Ceesay’s concern, unlike most writers and poets, was not to enrich himself. He had chosen to invest heavily in children’s education by donating almost all his books to the schools, institutions of higher learning, libraries and the Ministry of Education. That is why he wrote in his forward, which is duplicated in all his collection of Seeking to Please,: “Like the first Seeking to Please, the present ones are free, and may be sold only to raise funds for students and student associations.”
In the new Education policy for 2004-2015 published in May 2004, it is clearly mentioned under section IV of Chapter 11.2.3 on page 36 that “Textbooks written by Gambian authors will be encouraged and utilized where appropriate and relevant.” I believe that today Gambian writers are important stakeholders in the development of education.
Death spares nobody and has not spared him. Knowing Hassum Ceesay, he was certainly far from imagining that it would end too soon and must have had several good surprises coming. Yet, every soul must taste death, the Holy Quran witnesses. Many will miss Hassum Ceesay. The writers’ community too, for his unique demonstration of what a true patriot and a good writer would aspire to be. He is undoubtedly the success story for his input in fighting against the dying reading culture.
The Writers’ Association of The Gambia, through its Interim President Mrs Ralphina da Almeida, wishes to extend their heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family and friends. We all pray that he be offered Janna! Amen!
I personally thank Kebba Ceesay and Fana Ceesay for providing the much needed information and the pictures.
By Cherno Omar Barry,
General Secretary Interim, Writers’ Association of The Gambia,
Lecturer, University of The Gambia.