Ebrima was not a good Muslim.
Well, as far as Islam the religion was concerned, he wasn’t.
He drank alcohol if he could get it, gin being a particular favourite, but brandy, whiskey, beer, Guinness, palm wine… Anything would do, and he smoked as much weed or ganja as he could get hold of.
He used to sell it too, which didn’t endear him to the elders of the village too much.
They thought him too wild, too argumentative, too stoned, and so they never seemed to take him seriously unless he got violent.
Then they took him seriously.
They had to.
They really hadn’t too much choice in the matter as somebody could have got seriously hurt if they hadn’t.
A slight rangy man in his late thirties, standing about five feet ten or eleven inches in his bare feet without an ounce of fat on him.
You could look at him sometimes and think that a slight gust of wind would have blown him over, but what there was of him was solid muscle.
The sort of guy who, if he’d indulged in arm wrestling, would have won any bout that he entered just by dint of his size, for nobody would have believed the strength in that slight body.
He’d never finished the basic Gambian school system with the result that he could neither read nor write.
Despairing of Ebrima ever amounting to anything, his family decided the lad should learn to fend for himself and so had apprenticed him to a builder.
That was about the only schooling that Ebrima had been given.
The strange thing was, he discovered that he had an aptitude for building, and since he’d learned his lessons well, in time he started working for himself, earning his own money.
That suited Ebrima.
He may have been totally illiterate but he was beholden to no man, and he liked building.
It seemed to stir something inside him.
I tried to sing him a song once, while over at his compound.
An old reggae tune by The Heptones called Book of Rules.
I told him it was his song and I always thought of him when it got played on the radio which happened rarely, but that I’d got a pretty good version by Bobby and The Midnites, and if I managed to get a cd version, I’d burn him a copy.
The chorus goes something like this…
‘Poor people like you and me will be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools…
Shapeless lives… And a book of rules’
He dug it.
He was a Muslim, remember ?
He could see where it was coming from, even though the original had been Christian in context.
Makes just as much sense if it’s the Koran, so why not ?
He liked building although it was definitely backbreaking labour in The Gambia.
Health and safety isn’t exactly top of the agenda when you’re half way up a wooden scaffold around a two or three storey building, and he’d already lost the use of one eye when a small chip of stone had flown up from one of his hammer blows.
But buildings are something to be proud of, and he took pride in his job.
He was good at it.
He hated having to build on the cheap, and he always counselled against it.
Over in The Gambia the building regulations are quite different to Europe.
You can build something with no foundations.
You can also build using mud bricks as opposed to breeze-block and cement.
But the likelihood is that any building so constructed will come crashing down after a couple of years as the Gambian rainy season which lasts from June through to the end of October is pretty unforgiving, and when it rains it rains, and you better believe it…
He hated building with no foundations.
He hated building with mud bricks, but it’s a poor country and when people need a roof over their heads then needs must, so he swallowed his pride and took the money.
If he hadn’t then somebody else would, but it always rankled.
There had to be a better way…
As for payment, well if it was a government job then he’d get paid…
He didn’t know when, nobody ever does in that game, and he might have to wait a year even, but eventually the money would come and he’d usually spread it around his friends, then buy a bit more weed, take a few days off and then start all over again.
Sometimes people wouldn’t pay for his time and labour.
That wasn’t the best idea they ever had in their lives.
There is a story still told in Fagikunda and it’s not apocryphal…
Ebrima built a two storey house for a businessman who lived about nine miles away.
To save money, he’d get up before anybody else, before the mosque’s first calling to prayer even, to walk the nine miles to start work.
The house was built and the businessman moved in with his family…
But he wouldn’t pay Ebrima for building it.
There was always some excuse.
You know what I’m talking about here ?
We all do, because I’m quite sure we’ve all done it ?
The money is at the bank.
Wait until my wife gets back with the money…
My brother is looking after the money for me…
Come on… We’ve all done it, but out in The Gambia that could be the difference between a family living or starving.
After three months of constant excuses he decided that this guy taking the piss was not an ok option…
So he told his family that he’d be bringing the money back tomorrow.
The following morning he got up before anybody else, stuck his cutlass (They still use cutlasses in The Gambia... The Kankurang has two…) in his belt and walked the nine miles to the guy’s house.
He gets there, and waits quietly outside the compound for the family to wake up.
First one to awaken is the wife who asks him why he has come and tells him that their house is lovely and they are all so pleased with it.
Ebrima tells the guy’s wife that he has come to see her husband on this appointed day to collect his payment for building the house, so she invites him inside to wait until her husband is up.
Ebrima says no thank you, he is dusty after his journey and it would be more fitting for him to wait outside.
So the wife tells the guy that Ebrima is outside, and has come on this appointed day to collect his money, and the guy goes outside to ask Ebrima why he is there, because he made no appointment ?
Of course when he gets outside, the first thing he sees is Ebrima holding his cutlass, and the conversation went something like this…
‘Salaam Aleikum… Why are you here ?’
‘Malikum Salaam… I have come for my money, that is all…’
‘Please come in and I can offer you refreshment’
‘No thank you, I would not like to put you or your family out…’
He runs his fingers over the edge of the cutlass blade…
‘Please wait and I will fetch the money from my house’
Within two minutes Ebrima has the money in his pocket paid in full and is off walking the nine miles back to his home.
That was Ebrima.
He had a way of doing things…
Not necessarily the way other people did things, but reasonably effective nevertheless.
I first met him in January 2008 on my first trip out to see Haddy.
I hadn’t been in the country more than forty eight hours when I got the invitation to go and hang with Ebrima and the guys over the road.
Ostensibly for a chat, but as Haddy said…
‘Be careful… They all smoke over there, and they will try and make you stupid…’
Well that was an understatement for a start.
I figured what the hell ?
It had been a while since I’d indulged, but I’d always had a reasonable tolerance of that stuff.
When in Rome, and all that…
First they invite me to sit with them, then they stick a three paper doob’ in my mouth, and then they start offering the sweet green Chinese tea that they make over there…
The main topic of conversation was this Christian vs Muslim thing that all the newspapers were talking about since 9/11, and the wars that Tony B’liar and Georgie W. Bush had started, which seemed to be interminable at that moment in time…
That bastard Blair… He’s done so much damage to the image of Britain abroad.
One day he’s going to get called to account for it…
But first things first…
‘All Christians are the same’
‘All toubabs are Christians’
‘All Christians are crusaders’
‘All toubabs are crusaders’
All… etc, etc, etc, ad-infinitim.
‘One. I might be a fuckin’ toubab but I’ve certainly never claimed to be a Christian.
Two. I’m just a guy who writes a bit and performs on stage and that’s it. During the day I just work for a local council.
Three. I’m definitely not a fuckin’ crusader, so if all you want to do is insult my colour, which I, like you, can do fuck all about, then this conversation is fucking pointless…’
Some things piss me off, and pig-ignorant insults are one of them.
If you are going to insult somebody then don’t generalise as that really is the pits, and only an ignorant arsehole would do that…
And Ebrima said…
‘You are right Chris’ (pronounced Chrees) ‘They are getting a little stupid…’
And he said something in Wollof and the whole confrontational thing just stopped dead in its tracks.
Then I got passed the second joint…
African weed is definitely different to European… It makes me cough for a start.
So after the second coughing fit I passed it along the line, even though they’d already got two going the rounds…
Then Haddy came over to ‘rescue’ me.
I said I’d be over in half an hour because I wanted to finish the conversation and she said ok and left me to it…
The following day I got invited again, but this time it would just be me and Ebrima…
And slowly, and sometimes with the aid of one of his brothers as a translator, we got to know each other…
There was something about the guy.
He had a code of ethics that would shame some people over here, and yet he dealt dope on the side ?
Here’s an example…
One of his friends asked me once, while I was over in his compound, to see if I could bring him a mobile ‘phone next time I came over ? And Ebrima heard him.
Next thing I know, there’s a furious row going on and Ebrima was frogmarching this poor guy to the front gate and tossing him out into the street…
I asked him when he got back what that was about, and was told that ‘Asking one of his (Ebrima’s) friends (me) whilst in his compound for favours, was very rude and you don’t do that sort of thing, and so he had to go…
Easy isn’t it ?
Now when would that ever occur over here ?
But there it’s regarded as very impolite and you don’t do it…
Even if the bloke concerned IS a toubab, you don’t do it.
Hospitality is sacrosanct, and you do not abuse it.
The more I got to know Ebrima, the more the paradoxes showed up.
Finally, one night I called him a radical revolutionary and he laughed and told me that I mustn’t call him a radical as that was not something that was nice.
I asked why not, because sometimes I was ?
He just said that he wasn’t a radical, but he wanted better…
He wanted a better system to live within.
He saw where things were going wrong, yet was powerless to effect any change so he ignored most of the conventions that his society expected of him and became, in effect, an outlaw in the proper sense of the word (and we ain’t talking Billy the Kid stuff here…)
I chipped in with the old Bob Dylan quote ‘To live outside the law you must be honest…’ and he asked me to repeat it, and so I did…
He smiled, and said that whoever said that knew what they were talking about, and I could only agree.
He thought deeply about what changes were going to be necessary and where and what they could lead to, and yet he was also the one who told me that ‘Women are not conducive to the art of conversation between friends…’
I understood where he was coming from in a Muslim sense, but I said I could never go along with that, although when I got up onstage I could play devil’s advocate and occasionally do take that position, just to wind some people up…
Then I told him that when I was back home in England I had been thinking about some of the things that he and I were talking about while I was here, and that I wanted to write something…
I’d got ideas but I needed a kind of hook to hang them on if it were to be worthwhile ?
So we talked about it for a bit and I had a few ideas, most of which I discounted as soon as I got back home.
The damn thing seemed to be taking forever until I thought of the one tangible thing that really defines that little country…
Oh for Christ’s sake !
Why not use the river ?
The thing is over two hundred miles long, it’s twelve miles wide at the mouth and because of that you can see it from space, so why not ?
I’d forgotten Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad, where they show the escaped slaves the map of Africa and one of them suddenly realises that the big river that he sees on the map is the area where he and some of his companions come from.
So I used the river, and suddenly the whole thing seemed to work…
Well, not quite, because Ebou’ hadn’t heard it, and I wanted some of it in Wollof to reflect his input, but hell… Haddy could do the translation.
And so Ebou’s Song was born.
The first time I think I actually succeeded in marrying what I do here in the U.K. to a totally African, and specifically Gambian, concept ?
We’ll sing our simple folk song while remembering the past
We’ll sing it for the mysteries of life both deep and vast
We’ll sing it with our family and sing it with our friends
Sing it with a happy heart then sing it once again
Dinyn woy pour sunu magie sen jamano bi passey
Teh nu woy pour halle yi ak sen bugal bi warra nyoo
Nyu woy pour sunu janga lehkat yi ak sen hamham bu nui johai
Woy sunu woy pour nyep teh nyu woy ak sunu hol yep
Let our message be of hope and peace that all may understand
Let it resonate from all our hearts ‘till it reaches other lands
Our simple song of freedom
Our song of dignity
Let it roll on like a river as it flows into the sea
So sing it for the black man and sing it for the white
Sing it until everyman has turned toward the light
We’ll sing for Mama Africa and sing for east and West
Sing it loud for everyone who ever felt oppressed
Woy sunu woy nekal sunu bopa ak woy pour am sunu bopa
Woy ko chikou beh nyep muna doh ak orma
Nu woy ko beh chikou nagibi ak nu woy ko chi run tau bi
Woy… Ndah bo yekate bena hol, dor nya ka dara
A simple song of freedom
A song of dignity
Let it roll on like the river as it flows into the sea
Let it roll on like a river as it flows into the sea
Let it roll on like a river until all mankind stands free
He had a lot of time for Haddy, recognising that she was a figure of constant change for the better in local people’s lives, but they used to argue like cat and dog.
At one point she even banned him from her compound for coming over with a lit spliff, and she wasn’t joking either.
So he said he’ll kill her if she goes to his, and he’ll throw out anybody who talks to her, and at that point his wife and his mother say that if that’s the case then they will pack now…
He really was a man of paradox but because of the drinking and the smoking, his own family were ashamed of him.
His attitude was totally alien to their sensibilities and yet he loved them all, although you’d never know it the way he spoke to them, sometimes ?
His stepfather was one of the elders of the mosque who council the local Imam but that obviously just made matters worse.
He knew unerringly where things were wrong and yet if he voiced any of it then people thought him mad or stoned and so they ridiculed him.
Who knows where he got those ideas from ?
Certainly not whilst in the village, that’s for sure.
Haddy thinks that maybe the three years he spent with the mainly Catholic Christian community when he was younger, down in Helol in Cassamance may have had something to do with it, but nobody really knows and Ebrima never said ?
Then I turn up of all people…
The one guy around who can understand the deeper Ebrima.
Why me ?
I don’t know…
Haven’t a clue ?
How one argumentative white Englishman who believes in God(s) but not necessarily any of the Christian dogma and the bullshit that has been attached to it, and who flatly refuses to take things too seriously, and one argumentative black African Muslim who doesn’t give a rats arse about anybody and anything, and who won’t take crap from anyone, could get along like they did is beyond any normal comprehension.
But it’s what happened, so it must have been God’s will…
Ha ha ha…
He married Fatou Manta Jarra against all advice.
She was as illiterate as he was, and came from one of the outlying villages but it was definitely love (or lust) at first sight, as Fatou Manta is a very strikingly beautiful woman.
Then their arguments started…
And they never stopped.
Their first child was a daughter, Ami.
She’s a sweet little thing with two faces.
A big happy smiling one, and a very serious looking one…
Then the troubles really began…
Ebrima wanted a son but his wife just couldn’t seem to conceive again.
He told me once that he was thinking of taking another wife as his was now barren,
so I asked him if he’d ever thought of cutting down on the smoking, as that definitely reduces a man’s sperm count ?
He’d never heard of that and thought I was making it up.
I told him to seek medical advice before he did something he might regret, and I was sure that he would be told by the medical profession that I was not making that up and that it was actually a fact…
So he did.
Next thing I hear is that Ebrima has given up smoking…
Not just the weed but cigarettes as well.
His first son, Samsidine, was born at the end of August 2010.
Three weeks before Haddy took her flight to England.
I sent him twenty five pounds towards Samsidine’s naming ceremony knowing that he’d have next to nothing in his own pot, and got the message back through Haddy’s eldest daughter, Fatou, that he was always thinking of me, and that I was truly his friend.
When Haddy flew in she told me the things that were happening that he’d kept back…
Ebrima was ill.
Nobody knew what it was, but his mother would not let him go to the hospital to find out.
She was convinced that he would get better with God’s intervention and so had arranged for the local marabouts to come and read verses from the Koran over her son while getting him to drink some herbal concoction.
Even Haddy had swallowed her pride and gone over there and begged him to get himself or get one of his friends to take him to the local hospital, or at the very least to the local pharmacy, as the guy who runs that is definitely the next best thing to a consultant locally, and even I would trust his diagnosis, but it was not to be…
Ebrima just got weaker and weaker until in the end I think even he knew he was going to die.
I rang the girls two weeks before it occurred, and they took the ‘phone to him in his compound, holding it to his ear so that he could hear me.
He himself was too weak to speak, but he broke down in tears as he heard me and Haddy begging him to get himself to the hospital.
It didn’t happen.
We received the news at 8.05am our time, on October 31st…
All Hallowes Eve…
You know what ?
If God is going to take Ebrima on Hallowe’en then he’s got himself a serious problem, because that guy will give him as good as he gets…
And Ebrima wasn’t known for taking prisoners.
He was my friend whatever else he may have been, and I was going to miss him.
If what Leon Trotsky said was true, and that there are no small revolutions, only one big one that rolls inexorably onward, then that revolution was definitely going to be a little harder to fight, as now there is one less of us…
What killed him ?
Sticking to the local native and religious customs.
All of these played their part.
Maybe blood poisoning from the symptoms we were told about ?
Nobody will ever really know.
Ebrima finally had his son, and he knew him for just over two months.
Whether Muslim or Christian or Pagan or any other for that matter, God certainly does work in mysterious ways…
But sometimes he can be a right cunt !
A couple of things before I sign out...
The translation of the Wollof in Ebou's song to English is as follows:
We'll sing it for our elders whose race is almost run
And sing it for the children and their wisdom yet to come
Sing it for our teachers and the knowledge they impart
Sing our song for everyone and sing it from the heart
Sing the song for freedom and sing for liberty
Sing it loud 'till everyone can walk with dignity
Sing the song up to the sun and sing it to the rain
Sing... For if you lift one heart it will not be in vain
And two... And this is probably a little more important...
If you are caught with drugs in The Gambia it is an automatic four year sentence and that's just for one wrap, so it's not a good idea especially if you are a tourist...
You have been warned !