Thursday, May 30, 2024

In Communion with History: Of Lady Fanta Basse, Of Sir Farimang, Of Love and Oral Traditions

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Photo: Lady Aja Fanta Basse Sanyang and Sir Farimang Singhateh, Courtesy of the Singhateh/Jawara family.

In Communion with Lady Aja Fanta Basse. While researching my ‘Communion with History’ series, I discovered that Lady Fanta Basse, the first Gambian-born First Lady and wife of the last Governor General of the Gambia, Sir Farimang Singhateh, is alive and currently residing in Bakoteh with her family. This piqued my interest, so I reached out to a couple of journalist friends to inquire if they knew anything about her or if they knew anyone who had interviewed her. However, they all responded that they had no information on her, and some were even unaware of Sir Farimang’s role in our nation’s history, let alone Lady Fanta Basse’s. 

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Nonetheless, her granddaughters kindly facilitated a FaceTime call, allowing me to be in the presence of the first Gambian-born First Lady — a political activist from an era predating the social media phenomenon. Lady Fanta Basse, a woman older than my nation by a whole generation and then some, informed me that while she couldn’t recall the exact year and date of her birth, she was born in Georgetown, McCarthy Island, as she referred to it, to Tenengba Conteh and Banding Sanyang.

As a researcher, I came fully prepared, having conducted extensive research on her years as a PPP stalwart, political activist, philanthropist, and First Lady. Following the Western tradition of structured interviewing, I was trained to prepare questions in advance and adhere to the script — asking questions and expecting answers, then following up to clarify any discrepancies or significant points. However, during my conversation with Lady Fanta Basse, she reminded me of the beauty of oral traditions, specifically praise-singing, as a means of narrating history. The First Lady illuminated this age-old tradition, breathing life into history.

The Importance of Praise-Singing and Oral Tradition. As the conversation progressed, I set aside my prepared questions and let Lady Fanta Basse guide the discussion. She enthralled me with her rendition of “Farimang Singhateh, Kambano Nata: Kodo Keta Sang-jio Tee” (Farimang Singhateh, the young man, has arrived — money has turned to rain). Through our conversation, I discovered her deep affection for her beloved husband, Sir Farimang, evident in her recollection and performance of praise songs dedicated to him. It was a language of love, a captivating blend of spontaneity and tradition. Despite the weight of memory and the passage of time, there were things she could express through song that she found difficult to articulate, compelling me to decipher meaning and read between the lines of her melodic stanzas.

Interwoven with the praise-singing for Sir Farimang, Lady Fanta Basse would intermittently reminisce about their life before moving to the State House when “the Queen of England” appointed Sir Farimang as the Governor General of the Gambia. She recounted their time in Georgetown prior to the grandeur and ceremony, as well as their family home on 48 Grant St., Banjul.

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“Farimang Singhateh, Kambano Nata.” By the time I interviewed the First Lady, she was already a nonagenarian, burdened with the weight of memories that come with her age. However, she vividly recalled various aspects of Sir Farimang’s life, most of which were passed down through oral tradition — praise singing and poetry. For instance, she explained how the youth of Georgetown revered and admired Sir Farimang, recalling the chants and songs they would sing for him.

While I didn’t need anyone to emphasize the importance and necessity of praise-singing and oral tradition in storytelling, as it is arguably the oldest form of history, a reminder is always valuable in our world of ivory towers and modern modes of communication for preserving historical records. Drawing inspiration from the brilliant composer and poet Muhammed Fairouz, I would assert that Lady Fanta Basse reminded me of the timeless presence of praise-singing and oral tradition in human existence. It has accompanied humanity since time immemorial, entwined with our society from the very inception of our journey.

Separating praise-singing and oral tradition from societal aspirations — the utilitarian uses of singing in our cultures, be it marching off to war, celebrating the harvest, serenading loved ones with “Farimang Singhateh, Kambano Nata,” or lulling a child to sleep with a lullaby-like “Ayo Neneh” — is, therefore, ahistorical. Thus, through this communion with history and the remarkable Lady Fanta Basse, I was reminded of the inherent storytelling nature of our lives, connecting us to the past and future of our society, transcending the tumultuous present.

This conversation left me with a renewed appreciation for the importance of praise-singing and oral tradition as powerful and necessary tools for preserving history. It reinforced the central role of oral tradition in African history and its resilience in upholding itself through praise-singing.

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For Posterity. It is my hope that our society, encompassing our education system, national television, and radio, will undertake the study, preservation, and widespread narration of the lives of such important individuals in our society, documenting their stories for posterity. Unfortunately, The Gambia is one of those countries where the stories of its first native-born head of state and the First Lady have been obscured by time and imagination, largely absent from our collective memory and history books.

Thus, as I highlighted in the initial piece of the “In Communion with History” series, my journey of discovery, research, and storytelling is an endeavour to document and catalogue not only my personal history but also that of our society for future generations. It places me in conversation with both the living and the deceased, connecting the present generation with those preceding it and those yet to be born.

Farimang La Muso Nata. Throughout our conversation, Lady Fanta Basse, like many of our elderly, prayed for my well-being. Now that she belongs to the ages and can no longer offer her prayers, it is incumbent upon me to return the favour. Therefore, may Sir Farimang warmly welcome Lady Fanta Basse to the highest realms of heaven with the evocative words, “Fanta Basse, Farimang La Muso Nata” (Fanta Basse, Farimang’s wife, has arrived).

So Long, First Lady. My heartfelt condolences go to the Singhateh/Jawara family, particularly her granddaughters, Chilel Jawara and Fanta Jawara, who graciously organized and facilitated this meeting with their remarkable grandmother.

Rest in Peace and farewell, First Lady — Godspeed!

Sulayman Njie, PhD

Dallas, Texas


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