Q | Another problem is the low prices that Africa gets for its resources, isn’t it?
Exactly. It’s like you having a herd of cattle, and there is only one buyer in the village who is always fixing the price, take it or leave it and if the butcher is wealthier than the owner of the herd of cattle, where he is buying the cattle from, then there is a problem, which is what is happening with African resources.
Take for example crops such as cocoa or coffee, the companies that buy coffee from Africa are wealthier than all the African coffee producing countries put together and they are buying their coffee and cocoa beans from Africa. What does it take you to turn a bean into drinkable coffee? It’s just roasting. So I spend all day working on the farm, harvesting the coffee beans, washing them, drying them, and then they come and say I will buy your coffee at so-and-so dollars, that is the world market price. So the buyers of African raw materials are always wealthier than the African producers of raw materials, and the status quo doesn’t seem to change.
Q | As I was being driven in, I saw the arch and the inscription on it says “Behind every successful man, there is a woman”. So how is the issue of gender parity in The Gambia?
This vocabulary – gender – is new. During the colonial era nobody talked about gender parity in Africa. They really thought the matter was not a factor in Africa. In The Gambia, we do not see ourselves, man or woman, as adversaries or opponents or competitors.
We don’t see ourselves as half beings that need another half to make ourselves whole. In the Gambia no decision is taken, even in the villages, without the participation and consent of the wife. That has always been there, and unfortunately today they will tell you the African woman is disenfranchised, that she is not empowered, and has no access to land and so forth. But for The Gambia the issue of gender is not an issue, it has never been, and it will never be.
I have the longest serving vice president in the world, and she is a woman. She is not there because I wanted to please anybody. In this country one’s gender doesn’t matter, what matters is your willingness and patriotism to work for and help develop your country, it’s not a gender issue.
Q | How would you sell the Gambian story, to counter the negativity and bad press that the country and your government gets outside its borders?
I put my faith in the Almighty Allah and as long as I know that what I am doing is right, I fear nothing. I am used to this negativity from 1994 to date, but would that make me back down from my stance to defend Africa, to defend our interests and our independence? No. I will never back down. A Gambian proverb says an enemy is an enemy, and even if you dance in the water he is still going to complain that you are raising a lot of dust and making him cough.
Q | Finally, I know that agriculture is a passion of yours, do we see Africa’s future in an agricultural revolution, and why are you so passionate about agriculture?
I am a natural-born farmer. In my family, from my age upwards only two of us have been to school, the rest have always been farmers, so farming is in my blood. But I can’t believe that after all the arable land we have in Africa and the conducive environmental condition for agricultural production available in Africa, the continent is still a net importer of food such as rice. This is very, very alarming.
So the future of Africa and our independence will depend on our ability to feed yourselves. A prosperous and healthier Africa will depend on Africa’s ability to produce its own food.
Lack of food is becoming a deadlier weapon than anything else. For example, The Gambia is not an industrialised country, but we see children born with deformities that are horrifying, that are synonymous with highly industrialised polluted countries, yet Gambia is not a polluted country. So that can only be attributed to what we eat. And so the only guarantee of good health is our ability to produce what we eat.
Agriculture is very important and that is why I believe in leading by example. And I want to change the notion in this country that if you are a farmer, you are a social failure and that is why you are farming. Yet in most parts of the world the richest people are farmers. So I want to remove that stigmatisation.
Q | Can I comment on the Zimbabwean example, where the white farmers were commercial farmers while the rest of the farming population produced largely on a subsistence level, so, that’s not what you envision.
No, not at all. That is the problem we have in Gambian agriculture too, and it is something we want to change. Agriculture is not sustainable at the subsistence level because not all of us are farmers or can be farmers. So if we encourage subsistence agriculture, we are encouraging importation.
If I grow what I need to eat, then what about the one who is not a farmer who lives in the urban area where there is no farmland? So, let us move away from subsistence agriculture to commercial agriculture.
In fact my policy is commercial agriculture, I want to mechanise it and make it attractive for young people to get into farming and agro-processing. You cannot be independent if you don’t grow your own food. So let’s stop being net importers of food and become net exporters.
Nothing is more pleasant for me, apart from praying than having a long day’s hard work on the farm.