I last had breakfast in The Gambia thirteen years ago. I don’t remember what the breakfast tasted like, but I do remember feeling both amused and nauseous.
Yahya Jammeh, then president, was making a televised appearance. He directly addressed ‘all homosexuals’ in The Gambia, kindly offering them forty-eight hours to leave the country.
At the end of this generous deadline he promised to hunt any remaining gayers down and decapitate them. If I remember rightly, he said he’d do this personally.
LGBT rights are a complex issue in many parts of Africa. It is easy for those in the Global North to be judgmental: It seems absurd that nations which imposed laws against homosexuality through colonial power now use post-colonial forms of softer power to demand their repeal.
The assault on LGBT rights, whilst upsetting, was somehow dwarfed by the brutality of Jammeh’s proposed decapitation.
I have no doubts about the power, danger and seriousness of the president’s message. Yet his rhetoric, and the practical impossibilities of his plan, made the situation somehow amusing. I imagine Jammeh rushing around the in the sweltering heat, scratching his head, searching for any man a bit like Oscar Wilde, only to swoop down and perform a decapitation without besmirching his presidential robes.
Comedy itself can simultaneously draw attention to, and undermine, the gravity of situations. I have no doubt that Jammeh used police and military force to cause significant harm to many, whether this be LGBT communities, those found promoting Christianity, or others.
Some Gambians received Jammeh’s ‘cure for AIDS’, which involved a naked massage with a secret herbal concoction in his presidential palace, followed by a drink that caused diarrhoea and hallucinations. Many died.
Breakfast in Gambia today is a wholly different affair. There’s no hard evidence of this, but the atmosphere seems to have shifted. People talk about politics, laugh, and joke. Instead of a dose of televised fear, I’m offered fresh bananas and banter.