For 22 years, Gambians lived under the sway of former President Yahya Jammeh, whose rule was marred by allegations of human rights abuses including murders, witch hunts and labor forced – although Mr Jammeh has previously denied wrongdoing. Since its shock electoral defeat more than five years ago, the country has come to terms with its painful history, including through art.
Fatou Terema Jeng was overwhelmed with emotion when she first saw her photographs inside a museum called The Memory House. But it wasn’t the usual despair and sadness she feels when she thinks about what she said was done to her family by Yahya Jammeh’s regime in The Gambia.
Instead of tears, there were smiles.
“I was so happy when I saw my portraits. They were so beautiful. I couldn’t help but smile that day.”
Her husband, a radio technician, Sankung Balajo, died due to witch hunts allegedly carried out on the orders of Mr Jammeh.
They apparently started in 2009 after he blamed the death of an aunt on witchcraft and are said to have happened sporadically over seven years. They have sown deep terror and divided communities in The Gambia.
The images of Ms Jeng are part of a powerful series of portraits of 11 people who share their stories of the horrific abuses they say they suffered with their families under Mr Jammeh, who was in power between 1994 and 2016.
The We Are Not Done exhibit is on display in the courtyard of The Memory House, The Gambia’s first-ever commemoration centre.
The building is run by the African Network Against Extrajudicial Executions and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED), which lobbies for alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses to be brought to justice and was set up by filmmaker and activist human rights, Nana-Jo Ndow, a few years ago. after a personal tragedy.
In 2013, his father Saul Ndow – a prominent businessman who often spoke out against Mr Jammeh – disappeared while on a trip to Senegal, along with Mahawa Cham, a former politician he was traveling with .
In July 2019, one of the “Junglers” – a paramilitary group that reported directly to Mr. Jammeh – confessed to a commission investigating Jammeh’s regime that he had buried Mr. Ndow’s body in the president‘s cashew farm in The Gambia.
According to the testimony of Omar Jallow, Mr. Ndow had been kidnapped in Senegal and assassinated on the orders of the president at the time.
“Her disappearance really broke our family. She just broke us to pieces,” Ms Ndow says.
“A lot of people have turned their backs on us. It’s like you have something contagious. You’re being blamed too.”
Ms Ndow found that other people, mostly women, had experienced something similar. His work at The Memory House now focuses on “making the invisible visible”, using visual storytelling as a tool to uncover and preserve the story of what happened during Mr Jammeh’s reign – and to help the healing process.
Besides photographs, The Memory House contains personal items, such as identity cards and outfits, of some of the people who were allegedly unlawfully killed and subjected to enforced disappearance.
The museum is also now on the Gambia Ministry of Education’s list of approved sites that schools visit to learn more about their country.
“Most of the students were born during the Jammeh era, so they only knew the dictatorship,” explains Sirra Ndow, Nana-Jo’s cousin who works alongside him. “And we need to make sure students know that dictatorship is not a normal system of government.”
Sirra Ndow calls it “unlearning a dictatorship”. These are workshops in which young people learn about human rights and transitional justice.
The We Are Not Done portraits – made on mobile phones by Rohey Cham, Fatou Ndure and Cecilia Wuday Sanyang – are the result of this training.
During this, Ms. Cham, 18, realized that she too had seen her human rights violated. At the age of 10, she had to go on a school trip to a historic site. Instead, the children were taken to Mr. Jammeh’s farm in Kanilai and made to pick cashews under the supervision of soldiers.
“I never thought it was forced labor, because I was so young.”
“The Witch Hunt”
Six of the 11 stories documented by the photographers relate to the witch hunt.
The victims were arrested at gunpoint and taken to secret detention centers. They recounted being stripped naked, beaten, forced to confess to committing witchcraft murders and forced to drink a hallucinogenic herbal concoction. Some are dead.
Many of the people featured in the exhibit live with physical scars, as well as flashbacks, crippling anxiety and depression caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fatou’s mother was eight months pregnant when she was accused of being a witch and taken away by soldiers. She lost the child and had at least two other miscarriages.
Fatou was bullied at school because of the accusations against her mother and had to leave when she was 10 years old. She ended up getting married at a very young age. While her husband is at work, she spends her days alone: “I don’t have any friends,” she says.
Fatou asked that her identity not be revealed – which is why the photographs of her on display were taken with her wearing a veil.
Like many others in the exhibition, this is the first time Fatou has opened up about the witch hunt.
Before, she was afraid to talk about it for fear that “something worse had happened” to her and those close to her.
She’s not the only one. Many Gambians did not testify before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which heard testimony between January 2019 and mid-2021 about life under Mr Jammeh. Some because it was broadcast live and was therefore far too public a forum to discuss deeply disturbing incidents.
Others because they were afraid of the possible repercussions.
Mr. Jammeh is in exile in Equatorial Guinea – but some of his henchmen remain in positions of authority in the villages, in government, in the army and in the national intelligence service.
Mr Jammeh may have left The Gambia, but the pain many feel remains.
Since then, life has been a real struggle for Ms. Jeng. She earns some money by washing clothes. But she was rejected and shamed by some people: “Our neighbors don’t allow my children to eat with them because they said their father was a wizard”.
But coming to The House of Memory, seeing his portraits and her husband’s haftaan – a traditional outfit she donated to the museum – was cathartic for her.
She feels that she is finally starting to recover.
“It was my first time sharing my story and it helped me a lot to heal.”
We Are Not Done runs from mid-May for three months, or until the rains come.
You can read more about The Memory House in this edition from The Comb podcast.
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All photos are subject to copyright. All photos in the exhibition were taken by Rohey Cham, Fatou Ndure and Cecilia Wuday Sanyang.