By Professor Sulayman S. Nyang Howard University
Bamba Njie was born in the year 1928 and died on September 9, 2015. Born and raised in the city of Banjul, Bamba Njie belonged to a generation of Gambia who lived under British colonial rule. In order for us to offer our condolences and to remind his beloved darling Dianna and the surviving children who are now in mourning of a loving dad, it is necessary for us to review his life and times in The Gambia and the United States of America.
In writing this obituary several aspects of his life present them immediately. First of all, Bamba belong to that generation of Gambia who were old enough to remember the Second World War and had familiar stories and anecdotes about colonial rule in The Gambia. This special dimension of his life put him in the same generation of educated Gambians who travelled on the pathways towards modernization and Islamization in The Gambia and beyond. Since The Gambia was effectively colonized by 1900, the generation of Bamba Njie lived under British rule. Interestingly, he lived long enough to witness the transition from colonial rule and decolonization on February 18, 1965. It was his generation, who were old enough to rise up and cheer the Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and the likes of Pa Edward Small, Reverend J.C. Faye, Pierre Sarr Njie, Ibrahima Garba Jahumpa, and Kairaba Jawara during those critical moments in our history.
Bamba Njie was a contemporary of decolonizing youth and his biography is full of narratives about Gambian youths and the lessons from the Seringe Dara or the missionary teacher impacting Western knowledge to young Gambians. When Florence Mahoney wrote her dissertation and several publications on government and opinions in The Gambia she spoke about social changes and transformation. The biography of Bamba, like those narratives about Banjul and the Gambia captured in the telling of our individual and collective stories, is part and parcel of Gambian history.
When Arnold Hughe, for example, wrote about the Gambian leaders, his narratives written in collaboration with Norman Perfect, described certain personalities. Many of these individuals were contemporaries who knew Kortor Bamba Njie. To contextualize Mr Njie and his life and times in The Gambia, we must go back to the observations of historical writers such as Andrew Roberts who spoke about the colonial moment in Africa. Focusing on the period 1900 to 1940, the forces and factors that combine to shape and affect African lives come to mind. Bamba was caught in the coexistence of Islam and Westernization. Born in a Wolof-speaking community, he went to Quranic school (locally called Dara) and acquires a command of the English, which enabled him to gain access to the job market in the country. In Quranic school he learned from the scholarship of Tamsir Demba Mbye, who worked effectively with Imam Muhammad Lamin Bah and other elders of the Mosque Committee in Banjul.
As one of the small but growing numbers of Gambians with primary and secondary education he got jobs with the trading companies such as the United Africa Company (UAC) and later served in another capacity with Gambia Oil Marketing Board (GOMB). It was in these capacities when his life intersected with people like the Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, who had also worked with the UAC before joining the emerging People’s Progressive Party (PPP) headed by former President Jawara in the year 1959.
After serving with the GOMB whose name changed to The Gambia Produce Marketing Board (GPMB) soon after independence, Mr Njie embarked on another journey to improve his life and circumstances in the U.S. These changes in his life were occasioned by the new ideas coming from the small but growing numbers of Gambians in the United States of America. The success story of Mr Ousman Sallah was beginning to ring a bell of welcome to Gambian ears. Sallah, who arrived in the country under the formative years of John F. Kennedy was a beneficiary of the assistance and generosity of Paul Paddock, a former American diplomat now better remembered by his book on China, Hungry Nations in the World, Ousman Sallah helped bring to the U.S. many family members and other Gambians. That demonstration effect from Sallah inspired me and several others who brought aspiring Africans. What the late Tom Mboya did for President Obama’s father and many others, Paul Paddock and Sallah did. Bamba too did similar things for his family and others. Prior to his decision to go to America before the end of the first decade of Gambian independence, Mr Njie had married the late Aji Ndeye Saine, who bore him the faithful and devoted Ba Sin Njie. This young lady known to many Gambians and others in America wears the uniform of her Islamic identity and tries to be the living human embodiment of her first name Basin (this is to say) the two alphabet in the al-Fatiha of the Quran.
When Mr Njie landed in the Washington area, he shared rooms with many Gambians living on 1724 17th. Street, NW, Washington D.C. The first Gambians living in that apartment building were Cheyassin Secka, Babou Saho and Hassan Harding. Soon after Secka and Harding left the country and returned to The Gambia, the likes of Mr Njie shared quarters with Babou Saho, the three Sallah brothers (Tijan, Jabel and Mawdor), Bala Chune and several other young Gambians. During this period of residence at 17th, Street, many of the abled bodied Gambians offered their services to the contractors who were building what we now called the interstate highways linking the District of Columbia and the states of Virginia and Maryland. Whenever a comprehensive story of Senegambian immigrants in America is written the likes of Bamba Njie will be remembered in numerous capacities.
After working with many Gambians and other employees of the contracting companies in metropolitan Washington, Bamba relocated in Atlanta, forming a part of the new wave of Senegambian settlers in the hometown of Martin Luther King and Mayor Andrew Young. These were the new days for the African immigrants whose lives were destined to define and colour what most people now referred to as African immigrant Diaspora in the land of former President Jimmy Carter. Not only do these Africans acknowledge this association with him, several other groups in Atlanta recognized and honoured him. While working with these partners in social mobilization and community building, he Bamba joined hands with the founding fathers and mothers of AGERA (Atlanta-Gambian Emergency Relief Association). Not only did he give time, money and energy to advise and guide younger and older Gambians, but also he exercised tact, experience and sagacity under sometimes trying and puzzling challenges. His passion for things Africa from his Gambian upbringing was evident in his cooperation with secular and religious organizations among the Gambians, Senegalese and other residents in Atlanta. Building on his past skills as a leader of men and women in the cooperative unions in The Gambia, the late Bamba joined those who served the Dariyyah (Sufi bodies) operating among the Muslims in Atlanta and beyond.
In reconstructing the life and times of Mr Bamba Njie, we must inform other Gambians and other human beings who knew him or did not know anything about, who he was and what were the contents of his character, as once formulated generally by the late Martin Luther King. Truth be told, Bamba was a gregarious person who knew how to make friend and influence people. Not only did he befriend Gambians and others, he worked his way to the management of the hotel industry in Atlanta. His relationship with the operators of the Hilton Hotel in Atlanta led to his secured and effective career as an employee of this Atlanta enterprise. Not only was he visible at his job, but he also served as a guide for the perplexed Gambians looking for employment. He was found willing and helpful. There are countless anecdotes to support these claims.
From Atlanta he once again relocated to New Orleans. This is the third chapter in his tales of three cities. This American Journey is filled with personal successes and tragedies. Like countless others, he and wife Diana suffered from the slings and arrows of Katrina when nature flooded the city and threw thousands to faraway places. Suffering from these blows, the family moved back to Atlanta. Fate and history in their mysterious ways kept him in his second American city until illness began to inch its way into his strength and powers. With its disabling powers, a stoke hit home and he learned to cope and survive. For several years, he limped and persevered with the support of wife and children. To the best of my knowledge, he left us with serious appreciation of his wife and children,
In concluding this obituary, a few points need to be left to fellow human beings about the man and his works: Kortor Bamba was our elder both in words and deeds; he was rich both in his command of our Senegambian traditions and cultures but also in his familiarity with modernizing ways as he educated his children in The Gambia and here in the United States of America; finally, it must be added here that Bamba Njie was one of the few Gambians who went through the ordeal of colonial rule without losing his pride and feelings of being useful and relevant wherever he was. Coming to America was a challenge, his wife and children will forever serve as his magnifying mirrors as well loud speakers reassuring world as to he was and what he accomplished in his lifetime.