- By Penny Dale
- The Comb podcast
For 22 years, Gambians lived under the sway of former President Yahya Jammeh, whose rule was marred by allegations of human rights abuses, including murders, witch hunts and forced labor – although Mr Jammeh has previously denied any wrongdoing. Since its brutal electoral defeat more than five years ago, the country has struggled to come to terms with its painful history, particularly through art.
Fatou Terema Jeng was overwhelmed with emotion when she first saw her photographs inside a museum called “The Memory House”. But it wasn’t the usual despair and sadness she feels when she thinks about what she says has been done to her family by Yahya Jammeh’s regime in The Gambia.
Instead of tears, there were smiles.
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“I was so happy when I saw my portraits. They were so beautiful. I couldn’t help but smile that day.”
Her radio technician husband, Sankung Balajo, died as a result of the witch hunts allegedly carried out on the orders of Mr. Jammeh.
These hunts apparently began in 2009, after Mr Jammeh attributed the death of an aunt to witchcraft, and are said to have taken place sporadically for seven years. They have sown deep terror and divisions within Gambian communities.
The images of Ms Jeng are part of a powerful series of portraits of 11 people who recount the horrific abuses they say they and their families have suffered under the regime of Mr Jammeh, who was in power between 1994 and 2016 .
The exhibit, titled We Are Not Done, is on display in the courtyard of the Memory House, The Gambia’s first-ever commemoration centre.
The building is run by the African Network Against Extrajudicial Executions and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED), which lobbies for those responsible for human rights abuses to be brought to justice.
It was created by Nana-Jo Ndow, filmmaker and human rights activist, a few years after a personal tragedy.
In 2013, his father Saul Ndow – a well-known businessman who often spoke out against Mr. Jammeh – disappeared during a trip to Senegal, along with Mahawa Cham, a former politician with whom he was traveling.
In July 2019, one of the ‘Junglers’ – a paramilitary group that reported directly to Mr Jammeh – confessed to a commission of inquiry into the Jammeh regime that he had buried Mr Ndow’s body at the walnut farm. president’s cashew in The Gambia.
According to the testimony of Omar Jallow, Mr. Ndow had been kidnapped in Senegal and assassinated on the orders of the president at the time.
“Her disappearance really broke our family. She broke us to pieces,” says Ms Ndow.
“A lot of people have turned their backs on us. It’s as if you have something contagious. You are also made to feel guilty.”
Ms Ndow found that other people, mostly women, had a similar experience.
His work at the House of Memory is now about “making the invisible visible”, using visual storytelling as a tool to uncover and preserve the story of what happened under Mr Jammeh’s regime – and to help in the healing process.
Besides photographs, the House of Memory contains personal items, such as identity cards and outfits, of some of the people who were allegedly unlawfully killed and subjected to enforced disappearances.
The museum is now on the list of sites approved by the Gambian Ministry of Education, which schools visit to learn more about their country.
“Most of the students were born during the Jammeh era, so they only knew a dictatorship,” explains Sirra Ndow, Nana-Jo’s cousin who works alongside him. “And we need to make sure students know that dictatorship is not a normal system of government.”
Sirra Ndow calls it “unlearning a dictatorship”. These are workshops where young people learn about human rights and transitional justice.
The portraits We Are Not Done, made with mobile phones by Rohey Cham, Fatou Ndure and Cecilia Wuday Sanyang, are the fruit of this training.
During this, 18-year-old Ms. Cham realized that she, too, had seen her human rights violated. When she was 10, she was supposed to go on a school trip to a historic site. Instead, the children were taken to Mr. Jammeh’s farm in Kanilai and had to pick cashews under the supervision of soldiers.
“I never thought it was forced labor, because I was so young.”
“The Witch Hunt”
Six of the eleven stories documented by the photographers relate to witch hunts.
The victims were rounded up at gunpoint and taken to secret detention centers. They recounted being stripped naked, beaten, coerced into confessing to witchcraft murders and forced to drink a hallucinogenic herbal concoction. Some are dead.
Many of the people featured in the exhibit live with the physical scars, flashbacks, crippling anxiety and depression due to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fatou’s mother was eight months pregnant when she was accused of being a witch and taken away by soldiers. She lost the child and had at least two other miscarriages.
Fatou was bullied at school because of the accusations against her mother, and had to leave school at the age of 10. She ended up getting married when she was very young. When her husband is at work, she spends her days alone: ”I have no friends”, she says.
Fatou asked that her identity not be revealed – which is why the photos of her on display were taken while wearing a veil.
Like many others in the exhibit, this is the first time Fatou has opened up about the witch hunt.
Previously, she was afraid to talk about it for fear that “something worse had happened” to her and those close to her.
She’s not the only one. Many Gambians did not testify before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which heard testimony between January 2019 and mid-2021 about life under Mr Jammeh.
Some because it was broadcast live and therefore far too public a forum to discuss deeply disturbing incidents.
Others because they were afraid of the possible repercussions.
Mr. Jammeh is in exile in Equatorial Guinea – but some of his henchmen still hold positions of authority in the villages, in government, in the army and in the national intelligence service.
Mr Jammeh may have left The Gambia, but the pain many feel over his regime remains.
Since then, life has been a real struggle for Ms. Jeng. She earns some money by washing clothes. But some people avoid it and stigmatize it: “our neighbors don’t allow my children to eat with them because they say their father was a wizard”.
But coming to the House of Memory, seeing her portraits and her husband’s haftaan – a traditional outfit, which she donated to the museum – was a real catharsis for her.
She feels that she is finally starting to recover.
“It was the first time I shared my story and it helped me a lot to heal.”
The exhibition We Are Not Done runs from mid-May and runs for three months, or until the rains come.
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All photos are subject to copyright. All photos in the exhibition were taken by Rohey Cham, Fatou Ndure and Cecilia Wuday Sanyang.
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The witch hunts that left a nation traumatized – BBC News BBC Homepage
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