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Silent villagers living in the shadow of former Gambian president
The asphalt road to Kanilai seems to lead to one place, the residence built by ex-President Yahya Jammeh. The complex contains a palace and zoo which dominate the village where the former president was born in 1965. Following the departure of Jammeh and expected arrival of new President Adama Barrow, however, residents are not welcoming visitors and do not want to talk about recent developments in Gambia.
“Get out of here, we don’t want to see you here anymore,” one villager shouted, after several attempts to talk with residents about Jammeh. People in Kanilai were not angry or aggressive, but allusive, evasive and clearly not happy discussing Jammeh’s exile or the new government.
Kanilai is a small village some 100 kilometres from Banjul, about a two-and-a-half hour drive. The road is quiet and journey from the capital uninterrupted, except for several police checkpoints along the way.
A Senegalese parachute battalion is camped out a few kilometres from Kanilai on the main road leading to the village. They are part of the military deployment in the country by the regional bloc Ecowas. En route from the capital the Senegalese are also camped in strategic locations at Brikama and Bwiam giving them control of the entire region south of the River Gambia.
Kanilai itself is typical of any Gambian village - breeze block houses with corrugated iron roofs. But it stands out because of the ubiquitous green flags representing Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party. The village is also overshadowed by the strongman’s residence.
Four Gambian soldiers sit in the shade guarding the looming gate which stands adjacent to a small hotel. They direct all enquiries to the village chief. In the past, visitors could book a stay at the hotel and arrange to visit Jammeh’s palace and zoo, “well worth a trip”, one tourist notes on a travel forum.
Kanilai’s village chief is out of town attending a funeral and nobody wants to talk. Brief discussions yield nothing after speaking with a dozen villagers, courting their opinions on recent events, on Jammeh, on life in Gambia. This is a village that does not want to talk to the press. People are polite, but reticent.
Several billboards and signs are adorned with Jammeh’s face presenting him as a son of Kanilai. Some villagers wear green tee-shirts proclaiming the successes of the APRC in the campaign for December’s elections which Jammeh lost.
There are a number of Gambian soldiers inside the residence, according to a senior Senegalese army officer, and the Ecowas force has not yet received the order to take charge of the residence. The battalion at Kanilai arrived at the weekend.
The presence of foreign troops nearby probably contributes somewhat to the uneasiness with journalists in Kanilai. But in the longer term the villagers are likely to question how they will fare in the future without Jammeh’s patronage.