Our journey from Senegal back to Gambia was superb after succeeding in the orientation. We were on top of the world, but we dared not say a word about our upcoming change of address.
We were all aware of the fluid and tender situation we were in. My wife, Theresa, called it “time bomb.” She asked me to be more careful — the devil was at work. Our prayer times increased. We prayed the Rosary every night, instead of on Fridays as we used to do, on top of our other prayers. The one week until we’d be leaving the shores of The Gambia once and for all seemed everlasting.
Some days it was hard to sleep. We had already told the resettlement team that we knew nobody in America, so we were in God’s hands to place us somewhere. In fact, my oldest daughter Alice and her three-year-old son had left before us, in August. Her mouth could not relax; she may have told her friends about our plans had she stayed, but these challenges were part of the game.
I was hunted by the secret service, though they had no reason to apprehend me. I was gentle and focused. One week.
Augustine’s last chapter: Final Problem Lands Me in Dakar Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
I participated a lot in competitions over the BBC World Service radio network, and won all the time. It was always at the end of the weekend show “Focus on Africa,” in a segment called The Last Word. One could choose any topic. Many a listener knew my name from that point, especially the police. I could not use a nickname — or one of my pen names, like Manlafie Badjie — because I had to quickly cash the money I’d won.
I was tactical. I did not oppose Gambia, I just wrote feature articles that were close to many hearts. But with the connections I had made it was impossible for me to ignore the ugly of that land.
Friends at the Catholic Mission knew I was going through a lot. I had published a lot of positive stories for them, and I was put on their Media Commission of The Gambia. I was the media director during the West African bishops conference [now known as the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa]. Some of the priests were my friends and they knew my worth. They were impressed, as I published their news in the Vatican Radio in Rome. But when earlier I was apprehended and thrown into jail, none of my friends from the Catholic Mission visited me.
There was a hymn we’d sung at Mass: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me. When I was imprisoned you came to my cell, when I was hungry you gave me food, now enter into the home of my Father …” But no one thought about this. I could not blame them, though, because they were afraid to be in the president’s black book. He had many people watching out for him. My suffering was only meant for me.
It was only Tuesday and we were waiting for Sunday.
My suffering continued with misunderstanding engulfing me from my workplace and the Catholic Mission where I thought I would seek solace. I had written another news article about the Catholic Mission, “Shake up at the Catholic Education Secretariat.” This did not go down easily for some but for others I was exonerated for a job well done. I fell out of favor at the Catholic Mission premises. Some spoke in low voices, blaming me for their woes. It was a game I enjoyed. I made a mark in their lives but they could do nothing but whisper.
Many thought I was brave a journalist. Thank God I wrote as it happened. I was visibly hated by some people who would not want me to go close to them. But they dared not stop me from going to church; they only kept to themselves, to protect their personal space, which I respected.
It was midweek now and I had more news from a source in a certain village. I had to protect my source; she was my very good friend and admirer. She worked there as the headmistress. It was a land dispute that resulted in rape and death. I started the investigation and went deep into it. Many were involved. In my mind I knew I had only three days left before I was to leave for America, but I had to pretend having interest. I passed on the news on the day we left, but I expected my editors would not finish the story. They were truly angry with my family once we left. I however had some unfinished investigations before then.
The Point newspaper was afraid of very critical articles, for fear of government reprisal. The news I had about Jarsaja Kujabi, the president’s cousin who worked his Bwiam farm until he went missing in 2005, was too much for them. He had been secretly killed for no apparent reason, and no one would explain. That was the investigation. I already had his picture from a very close source to him who had given me a lot of facts about the case. Again my time was very close.
My source, a big police friend of mine, was disappointed I could not publish the news in The Point. He did not know I was trying to escape from all the struggle for survival. And he didn’t know I could get the story published online in the Freedom Newspaper, where my news was given prominence. It was big and this time the government would surely trace the journalist responsible.
It was Friday, close to our departure. It was the most difficult of times to be engaged in a news problem. But I still had sources — and friends.
I had a call from my neighbor who was a youth minister in the Jammeh government. He was called Sheriff Gomez. He was a kind, quiet man, and he liked me too. He said I should be careful. Perhaps he had heard the president’s men discuss me. The security forces were dangerous and seeking a way to squeeze me back into custody.
I received word that evening from my friend Chief Justice Ajim. We all belonged to the Catholic Church, Star of the Sea Parish. I was among the lectors with Theresa. He loved my reading. He passed by my house to tell me they were sending police Monday morning and that I should meet him in his office instead.
“It is well!” he said as he drove off.
I knew I was leaving on Sunday, the day before. What a relief when that thought lingered in my heart. I was afraid that I could be captured in secret just walking around, as they’d done to other journalists in the past.
I went to work. They did not approve of my writing deep investigative stories. But who cared? I went to search for news and decided to sleep in a village called Lamin with a friend. It was Friday night. I told my wife that it was not safe for me to be home. I told her pretty late to avoid her argument. She accepted but thought I was flirting, without noticing the fear I had in me from the Chief Justice’s invitation.
On Saturday morning our hearts were already inside the plane. We had no work on Saturdays, but we did on Sundays, till 5 p.m. I went home in the morning to my children’s surprise. We had to make a disguised farewell party. We had already celebrated Mary’s 10th birthday on Oct. 3. My wife had kept it all secret, though, so we invited our close friends and we celebrated Mary’s birthday again. The party was superb and unique.
Peter A. Mustapha, a senior teacher in Sierra Leone, was invited. We paid for his ticket to come. Alice had lived with him while going to school. But it was difficult between them. The did not see eye to eye, but Peter did not tell me. All he had was praise for the girl. He knew little, actually, about the girl but he fooled us so as to continue getting money from us for her care. The secret was told to us by Alice, which was a big surprise. We were very generous, because I love my brother. He was in the party as I performed some magic tricks.
It was Sunday morning. We got ready for Mass at 9 a.m. Theresa had to read that morning. We performed our usual functions without saying a word. We left to buy some vegetables for our last lunch in The Gambia.
We were scheduled to meet at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I knew we would leave by 5 p.m. but we were to be there by 3, under UNHCR’s custody. I went to work after Mass as usual. Theresa, who went ahead with Glen, was clever to have taken all we wanted from the house, and close the rest and give the keys to my sister.
It was not time for me to leave work. I told them funny stories as it came close to 4 p.m., time for any worker to leave if your tasks are complete. I told my boss we might travel sometime in the future for my son’s health but did not know where or when. I went to his office and bade him farewell. “We shall see you tomorrow after my appointment with the CJ,” I said. He was glad that I had concern for him.
I went straight home, took my small bag and my daughter Mary, and went to the IOM office where the others waited for us. The senior protection officer had come from Dakar to take us with her. She was bilingual and a very hard woman. We took our medication and entered the minibus. We left slowly and waved to those who came to see other families go.
It was a smooth sail through the airport. Many did not notice we were going for good. They only sympathized with me for my son’s health. We hugged some friends and thanked them without saying a word about our destination. We flew from Banjul to Dakar and transited to a Brussels-bound plane.
Thank God, we got off the shores of immense trouble.
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