EDITORIAL: Guest Editorial by Dr Nick Maurice
It is a great privilege to be invited to write an editorial for the first edition of @Gunjur-The Voice of Dabanani. I write this as an honorary citizen of Gunjur, a citizen of Marlborough and, I like to think, a citizen of the world. And while we are on the subject of citizens of the world, let me make it quite clear that I was deeply shocked at the outcome of the EU referendum and the vote of the British people to leave the EU.
What an isolationist policy Brexit is! How ironic that while The Gambia is seeking re entry into the Commonwealth and rightly become a member of the international community, the UK is leaving the EU and divorcing itself from the international community.
In some ways I now feel more of a stranger in my own land and more at home in The Gambia where I have been made so welcome since the very first time I set foot on the soil of this wonderful country at the age of 18 in 1961 when I was working my passage on a passenger liner from UK to Lagos in Nigeria on my way to teach English for one year in a school in Northern Togo and we the crew of the ship were given ‘shore leave’ for five hours in Bathurst while the ship took on fuel.
As I left the ship I was quickly accompanied by a small boy who asked me if I would like a tour around Bathurst. And thus, hand in hand with my new friend, I was introduced to my first experience of Africa and The Gambia, an experience which remains with me today as I soaked up the vivid, exotic colours, the unaccustomed heat, the noise, the cries of the market women traders as they transported their wares in vast bowls on their heads along the tracks between the stalls, walking with a grace that would have impressed the teachers of deportment in private schools for ladies in UK; the smells of rice, yams, fish and meat balls being cooked on open fires, the vultures watching closely for possible treats, from the mango and baobab trees, the laughter, the fun and sense of enjoyment apparently by all, made possibly more intense by the presence of a young white British teenager and his Gambian boy companion moving amongst them and engaging with them.
It was a profound sense of liberty that I was experiencing, a feeling that I had divested myself for the first time of the claustrophobia of living for eighteen years and being educated in a small English country town, got rid of the clothing of class and education which in my own culture and social environment were immediately identifiable through the way I spoke, my posh public school accent, my clothes, the way I walked and talked and which in the gloriously fresh, vibrant surroundings of The Gambia were quite meaningless. I did recognise that the colour of my skin was undoubtedly sending out a message which I didn’t, at that stage, understand although it seemed attractive to the local people.
I was perhaps experiencing being and understanding myself for the first time and rather liking what I found and perhaps more importantly, being taken by others for what I was, simply a fellow human being, albeit white rather than black.
And thus began my Gambian life, although it wasn’t for another 21 years that in 1982, thanks to the suggestion from Abdoulie Bojang, then High Commissioner in London we formed the link between Marlborough in which I was by this time a doctor, and the village of Gunjur. And now 35 years later I think back to the impact that the link between our two communities has had.
I often quote the words of the American anthropologist who said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have”.
In our case, I sincerely believe that it is the many people in Gunjur and Marlborough who have been involved in the link whether that be through the exchange visits, the hosting of strangers in their compounds, the work they have done together, the friendships that they have forged, that have helped to make the world a better place. Despite our great differences of colour, race, faith, attitudes to gender, socio-economic circumstances, we have lived together in our families, we have shared our food together, we have prayed together, we have played together, we have explored and celebrated our differences, we have supported each other in our times of difficulty and grief, we have danced, laughed and cried together and I believe we have genuinely loved each other.
This sharing of our lives has enriched all of us. I know of so many young people who have spent time in Gunjur and whose lives have been hugely influenced by the experience and who are now working for international development organisations. They would be the first to say that it was thanks to the people of Gunjur who set them on that road to making the world a better place. I know there are people from Gunjur who would say the same of their time in Marlborough and the influence that living with us here had on them, giving them a confidence to challenge the status quo in The Gambia or make journeys to other countries to live and work and support their families back in Gunjur and wanting to bring about change for the better for everyone.
I am reminded of a friend in Gunjur who said to me many years ago “We didn’t know that we were poor until you came from Marlborough and told us we were poor”. This made me feel acutely ashamed. It made me ask myself the question “What is poverty?”
Is poverty a lack of access to electricity, clean water, a proper sanitation system, a mobile phone? Or is poverty that which we find in so many so-called rich countries, the social poverty of loneliness, old people living alone whose families have broken up and live hundreds and thousands of miles away, or the poverty of the increasing number of young people in UK being confronted with mental health problems because their families are divided, no one cares about them and they are subject to online bullying.
So many times I have heard young people returning from living in Gunjur and saying to me “Nick, I don’t understand! The people of Gunjur are so poor but so generous and kind and so happy!” I respond by asking what they mean by “poor”. “You may find an economic poverty but you will find in Gunjur a social wealth that we have largely lost in UK”.
And so the challenge for Gunjur and more widely in The Gambia is how can we increase the economic wealth of the country without losing the social wealth? And the challenge for us in the UK is how can we develop the social wealth that we seem to have lost and look to the redistribution of wealth from the very wealthy to the poorer members of our society?
I am not sure that I have the answers but as far as Gunjur is concerned it would seem to me that we should do all we can to encourage business development in the community. It distresses me every year when I visit during the mango season to see the number of mangoes lying rotting on the ground whereas if we had the right processes for growing more trees, a proper cold storage system, the facilities and the right training for sorting, drying and juicing the mangoes ready for export we could be employing large numbers of young people, women and men and perhaps dissuading them from taking the back way to Europe. Could this be the challenge for the Gunjur diaspora and for us in Marlborough, to try to find the investment that could make such a difference to the economic wealth of Gunjur and retain the social wealth of its people.
We in Marlborough, meanwhile should look to our many African and Muslim neighbours in UK and learn from them the meanings of the words, solidarity, social cohesion, happiness and the word FUN. Let’s not all be too serious!
Dr Nick Maurice
Dr Nick Maurice is a former Director and founder of the Marlborough Brandt Group and an Honorary Citizen of Gunjur. Prior to founding MBG, he practiced as a Medical Doctor for over 25 years in Marlborough, UK