“THE DRUMMER CALLED JOHN THOMAS “
– A report from a prison in The Gambia, West Africa –
Dawn slowly descended as the penetrating rays of the sun settled over Banjul, the capital of the tiny African country, The Gambia. My calendar dated the 18th day of the month of May, 2002. My rough calculation now indicated that nine weeks of my internship with the “Field Office” of the UNICEF, were now gone by. I drew up the curtains of my window, and threw my eyes on the colourful scenery. On the other side of the street there were women carrying big sacks of rice on their heads, babies on their backs, and conversing loudly as they presumably made their way towards the market place. Besides them were wheel barrows filled with oranges, a herd of goats, and some children who were kicking around a ball made from an old coca-cola can on the dusty street, all in a friendly and peaceful scenario. As I sat down to my quick breakfast, I was provided with a gratis background melody that came from a nearby mosque who’s muezzin greeted the young day with his intriguing chromatic sounds.
The yellow taxi dropped me at the gate of the central prison at 8.55 a.m., somehow too punctual. Here, and in keeping to our appointment, I met a Gambian priest, Ted from America, as well as a young man from Sierra-Leone called Alex. They had just stepped out of the white jeep bearing the logo of a Non Governmental Organisation. Coincidentally I had gotten to know one of the members of this group some few days ago at a conference in the Ministry of Justice in Banjul. They regularly visit different prisons in the country to offer spiritual assistance to the prisoners. I wasted no minute in taking the offer made to take me along into the prison as a “UNICEF Legal Consultant”.
At the entrance of the white-grey stone building that was carefully fenced with barbwire, we were controlled by a rather fat and seemingly bored officer in brown uniform and a beret. She took down our names on a twisted piece of rotting paper. A few minutes later the gate painted green with a small door and a tiny peephole opened to let us in. As I walked across the bars of the gate I kept wondering what would happen if the people decided not to let us out of the place after our visit. One can never know what could cause the lady at the gate to refuse letting us out. How long would it take for the German embassy in Dakar to be informed, so that the impudent German student is eventually freed from the prison cell? My wild imaginations were suddenly interrupted by the wardress who ordered us to get in. A few meters to our left, some tow wardens were sitting on a big stem. Next to them were four prisoners who were using their axes to split a similar stem as the one on which the wardens were sitting. It was not so difficult to realise that these men labouring in the hot sun were prisoners. They were dressed in grey suits with long white criss-crossed lines and a V-neck.
As we walked a few more steps forward we came across three wardens, who opened another iron gate for us, while greeting us with the common African cheerful handshakes. In the main yard that lay in front there was a roughly tarred football field on which a handful of prisoners were kicking around with an old football. There were about 50 more prisoners sitting in circles against the walls of the fence around the field. They were chatting and laughing in an atmosphere portentous of a market or café rather than a prison. Our sudden appearance on the scene brought the conversation to a pause in some of the groups. They watched us curiously, but in a friendly manner and I was naturally a curiosity for them as a result of my white colour. As the ball was kicked towards the goal it hit me on the leg. The guy who had kicked it came running towards me with apologies. The metal board that was on the left side of the wall bore the number “291”, written in chalk. The current number of inmates. The guys who were closer to me came over to shake my hands, and to express their gratitude for my visit. A bit out of the circles there sat a gentleman of about 40. His hair was being shaved by another prisoner with a simple razor blade. The fact that a warden was standing by and having small talk with them did seem to suggest that it was not forbidden to have a razor blade here.
- Quote paper
- Master of Arts in Diplomacy, Law and Global Change Gabriel Vockel (Author), 2002, The drummer called John Thomas - A report from a prison in The Gambia, West Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/66219