Celebrating Yahya Jammeh in his birthplace

In the village of Kanilai, relatives of the ex-president have enjoyed a privileged life but the good times may soon end.

The Gambia
The village is the birthplace of Yahya Jammeh, the former ruler of The Gambia who once claimed he could cure Aids [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Kanilai, The Gambia – Not many vehicles take the right turn off the two lane tarmac road that connects the capital, Banjul, and this farming village in the south of the country, close to the Senegal border. Just a select few – the chosen ones – do. For only those related to the former president by blood, paternal blood, call Kanilai, the village to which this road leads, home.

And the love and admiration the roughly 3,000 residents of this village feel for Yahya Jammeh, the man they still refer to as Mr President even though his 22 years in power came to an end in January, is plain to see.

“Happy 50th birthday Mr President,” declares a large billboard by the side of the road. A second reads: “Welcome to Kanilai.” Both feature a smiling, clean-shaven Jammeh – the “man of the people,” as he is sometimes referred to by the villagers.

Getting to know Kanilai

Kanilai village, the birthplace of The Gambia's former president, Yahya Jammeh [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
Kanilai village, the birthplace of The Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Most Gambians had never heard of Kanilai – some two and half hours’ drive from Banjul – until 1994, when a then 29-year-old military captain led a coup that overthrew the government. In fact, most maps of the country didn’t even acknowledge its existence. 

In those days the sleepy rice farming village had nothing but a life of hardship to offer its residents. But it was the birthplace of Jammeh and he had big plans for it. If The Gambia was his cake, Kanilai would be the icing on top of it; a village that would be the envy of all West Africans.

“We were poor farmers struggling to survive before President Jammeh came to power,” explains Bakary Jammeh, the village chief, as he sits in his large chair in the centre of his sitting room.

Bakary is not just the chief of the village where the former president was born but, like the rest of the villagers, is a member of the Jola tribe to which Jammeh belongs.

“When we heard the military took power and there was a new president we did not know who it was. We then heard on the radio that it was Yahya, our son,” he recalls, a hint of a smile settling across his wrinkled face.

But change did not come overnight for the residents of Kanilai. Jammeh first had to consolidate his grip on power. So he undertook a political purge, sidelining or exiling elements of the previous government that were trying to oust him. 

“Our lives only started changing positively two years after President Jammeh came to power. We were suffering badly before that. No one cared about us,” explains the chief, his hands crossed and his gaze settled on the door and the village beyond.

READ MORE: Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh confirms he will step down

Clean water and free electricity

In 1996, two years after Jammeh came to power, clean running water was installed in the village for the first time. And it was free, which came as a great relief to the poor residents of Kanilai.

“We never thought we could get clean water to drink. We were very happy. And we were not asked to pay anything for the water. No one ever did that for our village,” says the chief.

The villagers slaughtered goats and sheep in celebration. When Jammeh visited the village, he promised further developments. 

Electricity soon followed, much to the surprise of the villagers. And like the water before it, it too was free of charge.

“The president put electricity in every house. We were not charged one Dalasi [the local currency worth roughly 2 US cents] since electricity was installed. He even put electricity on our streets. We have electricity every time,” the chief adds proudly.

Although the tiny west African country is plagued by power cuts, Kanilai is unaffected. The village’s main road is lit at night and with few cars travelling along it after sunset, it often doubles as a football pitch for the children.

The good times kept on coming. Primary and secondary schools were built followed by health centres – all at no cost to the villagers.

Gambians relieved as Yahya Jammeh agrees to steps down

Sitting beside the chief in the sitting room of his three-bedroom brick home is 72-year-old Ebou Jammeh. He remembers life in the village before the schools and the health centres arrived.

“Our children had no schools. And if you felt sick you had to go all the way to the capital,” he says, leaning forwards to emphasise his point. “Now our life is much better.”

His six children, unlike those elsewhere in the country, are able to attend school without paying a penny in fees. And if they pass their exams they will receive scholarships to study at university. 

But things are beginning to change for the residents of Kanilai. After more than two decades in power, Jammeh lost last December’s elections and his attempts to hang on to power were thwarted by the regional bloc ECOWAS. Jammeh fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea.

And now the good times are coming to a painful end for the villagers.

After more than two decades of free water and electricity, the utility companies have informed them that they, like all other Gambians, will now have to pay.

Paying their dues

The elders have gathered in the chief’s home to contemplate what they will do now. With their heads resting in their hands and their eyes staring either into the distance or at the floor, there is a sense of despondency.

“I’m a poor old man,” says Seedy Jammeh raising his voice and his thick greying eyebrows. “I can’t go out on the field and farm as I’m too old. I cannot afford to pay the bills and many people here cannot. They will have to cut water and electricity and take our village back to what it was before President Jammeh.” He breathes heavily as though trying to contain his emotions.

I'm a poor old man. I can't go out on the field and farm as I'm too old. I cannot afford to pay the bills and many people here cannot. They will have to cut water and electricity and take our village back to what it was before President Jammeh.

by Seedy Jammeh, an elder in the village

And more benefit cuts are in the pipeline, the villagers have been informed by the authorities. The hundreds of young villagers who attend Kanilai’s schools or universities elsewhere in the country may soon find themselves pushed out of their classrooms.

“My son is in university with two years left. We think they will also take away the free education. How can I pay for his fees?” asks Seedy.

No sympathy

But sympathy is in short supply among other Gambians, who have for years watched Kanilai in envy.

A five-minute drive south towards Banjul along a recently re-tarmacked road is the village of Kanfenda. This village has no running water or electricity except in a handful of shops by the side of the main road to Banjul. And on the day Al Jazeera visited even those shops had no electricity due to a power cut.

In fact, Kanfenda is the opposite of Kanilai. Life here is slow and the daily grind to eek out a living can be back-breaking. Most do so by growing rice on small plots of land.

Aramata Manneh, a widow and mother-of-six, runs a small shop selling everything from biscuits to cooking oil by the side of the road that passes through the village. Since her husband died a couple of years ago, she says life has become harder and she is now considering pulling some of her children out of school because she cannot afford to pay the school fees.

“Education here is not free,” she explains as she sells sugar to a customer. “I tried to move to Kanilai many years ago but the people there don’t want anyone to come there.”

“For many years everything has been free [there]. But they never shared or allowed us to move there,” she says.

“It was not fair and I think we should all be treated the same by our government. We either all get things for free or we all pay for it. Here in my village life is a big challenge.”

Back in Kanilai, the young people are angry. The elders advise Al Jazeera to leave, afraid that we might be attacked.

Guards still stand at the imposing gate to the former president’s farm. He used to spend his weekends and annual holiday here. It was also the location for an annual beauty pageant in which mainly female university students would compete for a university scholarship or a trip abroad.

Amid impoverished and neglected villages, Jammeh turned Kanilai into a paradise. But its fate now hangs in the balance, much to the concern of its residents.

“Life was good under Jammeh,” says the chief in a low, deep voice. “We hope God sends us another son like him.”

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera