News of the death of Kenewa Gamanga shook my soul, and continues to weigh heavily upon my heart!
My well-remembered Bo School English Literature teacher, Yemi D, as we used to call him, whose every ornament of wisdom I grabbed with thirsty ears, once taught me a lesson I never forget.
“In the world of languages”, he said, in characteristic jaunty and easy going demeanor, “there are three classes of people: Those who speak a language excellently but are not good at writing it, those who write well but cannot speak as much, and there is a third group”, he continued, “those who are awesome writers and at the same time command equal power at speaking whatever they put on paper”.
Kenewa Gamanga, to the best of our discussions undoubtedly belongs to the second.
Public speaking was never his lane. As a matter of fact, he was a slow and taciturn speaker, so that each time he spoke, he churned out his words, making a deep guttural sound from his throat. In other words, he growled each time he spoke. But don’t be fooled, he commanded an astonishing facility for words. He spoke with courage, balance and aplomb. And those words sometimes carried the impact of a sledge hammer blow, especially if he goes on the offensive.
But there were other qualities to this brand: he possessed the enormous verve of a consumate freedom fighter, made manifest in those formative college days. He was one of those students on campus who had the courage to question a distressing status quo, birthed and sustained by the One-Party system of governance, characterized by brazen and unfettered looting of the national coffers. It was in this spirit that our paths crossed, and we got to know each other deeply with the passage of time and events.
Gamay, as we fondly called him, eventually became my Secretary-General when I was elected President of Fourah Bay College Students Union in March 1991.
It was customary 8that the President and the Secretary-General attend a fortnight meeting with the college authorities, including the Principal, then Professor CP Foray, whom we endeared as CP (of blessed memory). Our role there was to serve as liason between the student body and the college administration. To a large extent we were advocates of student welfare, presenting their concerns, ranging from power and water shortage, food and sanitation, transportation, allowances – sometimes the laundry list could stretch as far as Satan’s headquarters. No pretty times to be a student!
We were two young idealistic liberal minds planted in conference among a bunch of right-winged neo-fascist intellectuals, who viewed students as anti-authority trouble makers. They were the kind of meetings that Gamay and I hardly looked forward to. They were mostly long and protracted, charged and argumentative. Sometimes meetings seemed like a game of chickens – for each party understood the other’s powers and therefore not willing to dare any reckless line-crossings. As students, we were fully aware of the college administration’s power to hold us accountable for any outbreak of chaos on campus, that might result in our rustication – and there were times the authorities gave us the warning shots by reminding us of the 1984 students riot and its aftermath. However, the authorities were equally well aware of our enormous popularity and power wielded over the student body – to even call for a boycott of lectures, or close down campus. I still remember the times Gamay and I spent outside the Registry entrance waiting for the meeting to start. At times it felt as though we were two convicted criminals waiting to enter a courtroom to be handed down our sentences . But we managed to hold our own, trounced some of the administration’s orthodox views and freed some students, from especially the notorious Administrative Committee.
One phenomenal event that continues to re-echo in mind like a favorite scene in a movie is, “Operation Towel”.
It was one morning in April, the season Mount Aureol is at its choke point of water shortage. Gamay and I had issued several warnings to the Principal, telling him we might have to call off classes one day and match students to his residence if the water crisis is not adequately resolved. And the big day arrived that eventful April morning, there had been no water in the hostels since 5am, and about 7am nearly two hundred students with Gamay and I in front, with towels around our waists, holding toilet bags in hand, matched up to the Principal’s residence, thundering the words, “Principal, we wan wass “, Pigeon for, “Principal we want to take shower “. Poor CP! He was probably rattling his bed for his morning “alleluia” when his wife jolted him into consciousness, before he learned that students were at his door.
He immediately summoned myself, Gamay and the few student cabinet members present to his living room for an emergency meeting. After a few phone calls here and there, CP assured us that water will be available in few minutes, and encouraged us to return to our hostels and get ready for lectures. It was on my way out that I witnessed a spectacular incident that made me giggle like a kid. While in the meeting, unbeknownst to us, some students had invaded the Principal’s private bathroom and were busy taking turns to shower. Even more interesting, as I stepped outside I saw a larger number having a shower carnival everywhere on the premises – in the garage, using water hose, garden hose, buckets, and any container students could lay hands on. Some even shouted my name on top of their voices telling me they didn’t care for water in the hostels anymore since they already had their shower.
I guess we all got to happy land that day – students got water flowing everywhere in the hostels like manna from heaven for nearly the whole day. What a happy day! After this incident water shortage became the least among our concerns – at least for a while. And CP? He too had a good bargain – no vandalism or any property damage – only a handful of miscreants taking shower in his bathroom? Not too bad! Especially for a man who had lost a Mercedes to hell-fire during a student riot only eight years ago.
Later in the evening, Gamay and I would meet and share some laughs over the incident.
When I learned about Gamay’s death, memories of our stint at the Students Union government became alive again. I reflected upon our days in the trenches, when we were professional trouble makers, fighting against student oppression, or advocating for political pluralism for Sierra Leone. I reflected upon the vision we both shared for our country, the bread we broke together, the laughs, the bonding – all those days have vanished now – tone and tints. Yet those were days of wondrous beauty, now glimmering through the things that were, and through dreams that never were.
A few years ago we spoke on the phone, more than a decade since we separated after college. We had planned to hook up during my planned visit to Australia. But plans fell casualty to the wrath of Covid19 – two ghosts of a troubled past meeting in Down-Under, so much to catch up on, what a happy day it would have been! But little did I ever know it was the last time I would hear the Lion growl.
Kenewa Gamanga is a scion of the Gamanga family, a ruling house in Simbaru Chiefdom, headquartered in Boajibu, in the Kenema District, in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. My sincere condolences to the family and to all those who depended on this great upstart for his love and kindness, and who looked up to him as a symbol of hope and a great future.
Lying down on his deathbed in 1931, Thomas Edison’s wife, Mina, approached him and asked him in her casual, low sympathetic tone, “Are you in pain, or any suffering?”
“No”, replied the Wizard of Menlo Park, as Edison was also called, “Just waiting “.
The great inventor then looked over his bedroom window and uttered his last words: “It is very beautiful over there “.
I do believe it is still beautiful over there! Well, only perhaps to those who deserve it, who lift the heavy burdens off the shoulders of men, who light candles wherever they find darkness, and who help open the prison doors to set the captives free! As for Gamay, I’m sure he showed up – perhaps even in a big way! And may God in his loving mercy aportion him a spot along that beautiful shore until we meet again!