By: Cherno Baba Jallow
My uncle Alhaji Yaya Jallow, who died early Saturday morning in Old Yundum, after a long battle with hypertension, was everything that uncles are known for: supportive, caring, inspirational and amiable.
Uncles, it’s often said, are like junior fathers, and particularly in the absence of the paternal parent. But unlike fathers, who could be stern and authoritative, uncles tend to be genial and broad-minded. They have soft spots for their nieces and nephews. They give you avenues for self-expression, the kind you don’t usually get from your father.
Uncle Yaya was, by nature, mild-mannered. He was generally quiet and easy-going. He made me feel comfortable talking to him and expressing myself. He would say to me: ‘so what do you think?’ ‘Ok, it’s up to you.’
He was born in Basse Santa-su on February 9, 1949, two years after the nationalist leader Edward Francis Small won his first direct election to the colonial legislative council. He was the third and youngest child in a small family household. My late mum Mariama Jallow preceded him in birth. And Uncle Mamadou Naphew Jallow, a veterinarian by profession, was the firstborn. Just as in birth, the three siblings died in successive order. Uncle Naphew was the first to go, then Mummy and now Uncle Yaya. Of the three of them, he lived the longest. He was 74.
Uncle Yaya attended St. George’s Primary School in Basse Mansajang Kunda. He later attended Armitage High School in Georgetown, now called Jangjangbureh. When he left school, Uncle worked in government, beginning as a junior clerk. He was once stationed in Jenoi, Mansakonko, in the Lower River Region. He also worked as an auditor with the Internal Audit department and as an accountant in various ministries in Banjul. He became a principal accountant, his last stint in government before going on an early retirement. He also did occasional collaborative work with the African Development Bank.
Uncle Yaya was an embodiment of honesty and integrity in public service as well as in his daily dealings with the people. At both professional and personal levels, he demonstrated impeccable character, and you couldn’t help but be awed by a man with a deep sense of right and wrong, and with an unwavering commitment to his conscience and to ethical standards. High-minded public servants, like him, were an oceanic supply in The Gambia Civil Service in the days of old. They don’t mint them anymore in today’s Gambia.
After my parents, Uncle Yaya was the most instrumental in my formative years. He was the one who paid my way throughout high school. He allocated me a monthly allowance during my high school days in Banjul. He made sure I had everything I needed or wanted for school.
A voracious reader himself, Uncle Yaya helped firm up my reading appetites and curiosities during the years I stayed with him in Serekunda. He was a regular reader of the-long defunct Africa Now magazine, a London-based pioneering publication on African news and commentary and on Africa’s place in global affairs between the 1960s and 80s. When I joined him from Basse, I found piles of old copies of the magazine stashed inside the house. I burrowed through them all, introducing myself to the writings of the magazine’s legendary Nigerian editor Peter Enahoro and his colleagues, the Ghanaian Cameroun Doudou, the Kenyan Phillip Ochieng and the Tanzanian Abdourahman Babu, a former economic planning minister under Julius Nyerere. Those were seasoned writers and analysts on post-colonial Africa.
One of the domestic chores Uncle Yaya assigned me during my student days with him was to, once in a while, prepare for him a summary of the African news from the BBC’s flagship Focus on Africa program in the evenings. He would read through my summaries, or he would ask me to recall the news on that day’s events around Africa.
On one afternoon in 1995, agents of the then National Intelligence Agency (NIA) picked up several staffers of The Daily Observer. I was among them. The managing director, too. The BBC’s Focus on Africa announced something like this…. “almost the entire staff at the Gambian Daily Observer was today taken to the country’s national intelligence headquarters for questioning.’’ I knew Uncle Yaya would know about it because he religiously listened to the BBC. When I got home, he had been eagerly waiting for me. He sounded very worried. ‘’So, what happened?,’’ he asked. “Were you among those picked up?’’
Uncle Yaya was always worried for me, but he was understanding. He knew I wanted to be a reporter. When I told him in late 1994 that I was quitting my government job at the Agriculture Ministry for a reporting offer at The Observer, he didn’t raise any objections. He and his late childhood friend and namesake, Alhaji Yaya Jallow, the then Permanent Secretary at Agriculture and formerly deputy leader of the United Democratic Party, had helped me secure that job at the ministry. But I wasn’t happy there. The job wasn’t challenging enough.
As a regular reader of my writings, Uncle Yaya was an occasional critic. ‘’Cherno, you know, you like to use a lot of big words,’’ he would scold me, and he would occasionally consult a copy of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in the house.
In December 2016, and during the height of the Gambian political impasse following the electoral defeat of the former dictator Yahya Jammeh, Uncle Yaya led the family to the Senegalese border town of Manda Diouane, west of Madina Gounass and a 30-minute bicycle ride to the Gambian border. I had been waiting for them, having arrived from Conakry, the capital of Guinea.
It was the first time in 20 years that I had seen my family. My parents weren’t on the trip. They had died during my exile years in America.
It was the happiest of family reunions. But Uncle Yaya wasn’t satisfied. “I am very happy to see you Cherno,” he said, barely able to contain his emotions. “But I would be happier if we met inside The Gambia one fine day,’’ he added.
We did in 2019.