Cry the Beloved Country: The Roots Poetry of Tijan M. Sallah

Like the Bronx, the only New York City borough not situated on an island, The Gambia— the West African nation surrounded by Senegal, (except for the coast on the Atlantic)— usually has the definite article in its name. Like the Bronx, the Dutch colonized it, though not only the Dutch. The Gambia became a British colony in 1765, shortly before the American Revolution. It gained independence in 1965.

Since then The Gambia has had a stormy political life, some of which is reflected in the poetry of Tijan M. Sallah, who was born in The Gambia in 1958, a year after Ghana gained independence from Great Britain and Kwame Nkrumah became the first president of the independent nation. For a small nation, The Gambia has produced large number of exceptional poets such as bah momodoup (no capitals) and Marabi Amfaal Hydara who has been called “the humanitarian poet.”

Sallah, who was educated in the U.S and who has a Ph.D from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, is the best known Gambian poet both inside and outside The Gambia. For two decades he was the lead operations officer at the World Bank. He has published five volumes of poetry, plus short stories, criticism, a biography of the famed Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, and a work of ethnography about the Wolof people who live in Senegal, Mauritania and The Gambia. Now 63 years old and conscious of aging—see the poems “Growing Old” and “Meditation on White Hair” —Sallah, it seems, would like to be remembered as a writer as much if not more than for his work at the World Bank.

These days, as a kind of reluctant Gambian patriot – though clearly not a nationalist—Sallah lives on Reach Road in Potomac, Maryland. He has not forgotten his roots, or the history and culture of his homeland. The Gambia is a place with roots that one doesn’t easily forget. Alex Haley set his novel/ family chronicle, Roots: The Story of an American Family in The Gambia, where the young Kunta Kinte is kidnapped, then transported across the Atlantic to Maryland, sold on the auction block, renamed Toby and reborn as a slave.

Maryland has never been far from The Gambia in the annals of American history or in Sallah’s memory and imagination. Indeed, one might say that all of the poems in I Come From a Country (Africa World Press; $16.95), even those like “Washington” that take place in the U.S., are rooted in The Gambia, which is to say they are rooted in a place of great beauty and great pain, of suffering and joy. Sallah can’t help but see the world from the place where he was born and raised by his parents, or from the historical moment that has shaped him.

Indeed, he belongs to a generation of Africans who have witnessed the transformation of The Dark Continent—as imperialists once called it—from colonial to neo-colonial rule. Had he published poetry in the Sixties he probably would have been called a writer of and from the “Third World.” The term seems to have been retired. That’s probably for the good. All nations are beloved and all nations cry out in agony and in ecstasy.

The term “Third World” implies a kind of hierarchy, and, though some nations are more prosperous than other nations, no nation is really richer or poorer than another nation spiritually and culturally speaking. In his poetry, Sallah provides plenty of local color with portraits of women wearing traditional garb: “bright daagit and manaans and flowing grand boubous.” Footnotes at the bottom of the page explain the meaning of the Wolof words.

Still, the Wolof words create a mood and a feeling and are indispensable in the poems in which they appear.

Sallah pays attention to small things—spiders, moths, Geckos, crabs and cockleshells. He expresses empathy for all sentient beings, though apparently not for the Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh ,who ruled the country from 1994 to 2017 when he was overthrown.  Sallah calls him a “brutal” dictator though one wonders if a dictator could not be brutal. Perhaps there are degrees of brutality.

In a blurb on the back cover for this book, George Szirtes is quoted as saying that Sallah is “clearly an important poet.” What could that possibly mean? All poets are important to someone if only that someone is the poet’s mother. There are dozens and dozens of African poets, from Zimbabwe to Algeria and from Angola to Tanzania, all of them revered in their own countries, and also across the continent.

Sallah’s I Come From a Country provides a poetic passport to visit and explore another country. In “Banjul,” the capital of the nation, he explores its history. In “By the Ricefields of Jeswang,” he describes peasants at work, and in “Koto Beach” he portrays fishermen going out to sea and Scandinavian tourists on the beach drinking beer.

In fact, tourism is a growth industry in The Gambia. Round trip airfare from New York is under $2,000. Hotels are inexpensive. The locals are apparently friendly. You can visit Kunta Kinte island and tour the World Heritage Sites as designated by UNESCO. Still, it’s a long flight from JFK to Banjul. For starters, Americans and Europeans might read Sallah’s poem, “In a Tropical County” which is written specifically for tourists and that begins, “When you are airborne/ and about to land in the Gambia…”

Sallah shows what to expect, how to behave, and reminds you that you are not in a tropical paradise, but in a land with “secret agents” and “mob bosses.” In I Come from Another Country, Sallah is “Our Man in Banjul” and in the surrounding countryside. He’s a reliable guide to a small nation where, he explains, “our hearts are big.”



Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.