(part one)

It beats my imagination to see with my ‘Koro Koro’ eyes the unfathomable proliferation of Real Estate Agencies scrambling for land in my dear country, mother Gambia. While other countries in Africa like Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda etc are thinking of Smart City Developments, wherein virtually everything that supports life is incorporated in its master plan and design processes, our estate agencies are busy demarcating every possible land like a piece of Christmas cake. What becomes an eyesore is to realize that the government does nothing about it. All I know is, if we choose not to plan our settlements, our settlements will ultimately plan us.

Let me reflect on the historical pattern of settlement, place, and place-making in the Gambia. Our forefathers at least did some basic community planning and that is crystal clear and could be visible by even the blind.  If you are a keen observer, you will realize the first core compounds in any settlement in the Gambia are where one can see the first Mosque/Church, Graveyard, Bantaba (Village square), Market, and the first Well of the village. Well, even you are not a planner by profession, that is going to provoke your thoughts and beg the question of why. It’s simple like drinking cold water. It shows that settlements don’t exist in a vacuum, it is planned for posterity.

A sustainable community should encapsulate facilities that support and enhance life, stimulate business, reduce poverty, promote physical and mental health (with parks and recreational facilities), mitigate climate change, reduce carbon immersion, and protect the eco-system. In a nutshell, a vibrant community (or estate, as we called it) should and must inject therein essential facilities that will ultimately reflect the needs and aspirations of its dwellers.

I have a fear that my tiny country might have the highest number of unplanned communities (slums if you want to call it) in the subregion if something is not done as soon as possible to stop it. Well, for me I am expecting a conversation between me and my grandchildren like grandpa what were you guys thinking when all these slums were created? Where were you?  Didn’t you guys have Department of Physical Planning or Ministry of Lands, and Development control policies? Was there no Land use regulations or land zoning for residential only, institutional, commercial, industrial, educational, administrative, and recreational so that everything can fall in its right place?’ I will tell them look my grandchildren, many years ago, we had had a ‘Puntun-Pantang’ Department of Physical planning under the Ministry of Lands which also cast blame on the PintinPantang’ governments that were in power but does nothing to address the emerging scourge. Some will tell you that they didn’t have enough resources to deal with the issues as the department was underfunded.

When the capitalist estate agencies saw that gap, they capitalized and scrambled for land at every nook and cranny. That’s what led to the creation of slums in the Gambia because Estate A finally meets with Estate B and Estate C married with Estate D and all of them united with Estate E, F, and H. That’s why you could see over 20,000 people living in a community without parks, schools, hospitals, markets, recreational facilities, graveyards, waste collection points, police stations and you all can see that these settlements are prone to flooding, fire outbreak, predominant crime rate, air and water pollution and there are no parking spaces, no green spaces, mosques, churches etc.’ I will tell them how it happened.

On a more serious note, the way our estates are created peeves beyond human endurance.  It doesn’t only have sociological impact on society, but as well got psychological and cultural dimensions. If I glance at the estates from my sociological microscope, I realized that there are virtually no society or communal activities that are catered or designed in these estates. Yes, dwellers in any sound community need to have a sense of belonging and they should feel that they are part and parcel of society. Tell me, how can one even socialize effectively in a place that is created only for profit without putting into perspective the wellbeing of the residents? I could vividly remember in my Community Design 3 class, my lecturer Mrs. Johnson eloquently told us that the points of socialization in any community are the mosques churches, football fields, “bantabas”, community wells, and markets (which are very suitable for some women to do gossip). I still wonder where people socialize in the already established estates because most of the facilities are not captured in the blueprint.

Psychologically, it’s unhealthy for someone to cage himself in his 20 x 20 Meters compound without socialization in society. All he has to do from the morning is to eat, pray, watch TV, sleep, eat again, and go to the toilet if he like. Even if one wishes to jog on the main road, he must be very careful because that very main road is not standard, probably six meter road because a capitalist estate agency is very conscious of even 1 square meter. The road might not be paved; therefore, one has to expect a gravel road where cars will dance ‘mbalax and Zanku’ and persons will continue to ‘Puchuck-Pachak’ the whole raining season.

Looking at these estates from a cultural spectrum and how they are gradually denudating and extinguishing our precious culture, you might be shocked to know that estate dwellers hardly know each other with close personal rapport. Well, that is obvious since Alhagie Jasong Sanyang cannot meet Alhagie FodayCeesay in the mosque to discuss the affairs of the mosque committee and Rev. Jesse J. Dacosta cannot as well meet with Sister Nina Jatta to exchange ideas on how to do their evangelism, edification, and worship in the church. Aminata fatty cannot gossip with Fatou kujabie on their way to the market or at the tap. In fact, there is no open space where young boys can discuss sports and no hairdressing salons where slay queen and village champions can gossip trending mobile Apps, hairstyles, and their ‘New Caught’. These estates to me depict ghost settlements.

A typical estate agent is an unseen ‘Community Dictator’ who hides behind his masterplan to dictate how people will live for the rest of their lives. He has the powers to silently tell you that ‘I will put you in 15 x 20M plot of land with no electricity and water (sometimes); I will put you in a place where there is no school for your kids or playgrounds; you will not go to mosques or churches because it’s not my business. There will be no waste collection point or a small car park, market, bantaba’ etc for you. He is in charge of your rights to essential services. What an irony. What is happening in these finished estates is what I called ‘FankunFankun’ (on your own O.Y.O). People care less about the community and there is no iota of mechanical solidarity. Tell me, an entity that has no leadership structure, don’t expect much from the people. At least in our traditional settlements, there is usually an Alkalo or Chief who serves as the custodian of that very entity and takes full responsibility for what happens, and they uphold the traditional and our moral values. Well in the estates the key word is ‘maataye’.

To mitigate our carbon footprints, we must unquestionably kowtow in toto to the sustainable development goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 3 (good health and well-being). We must encourage resilient communities that will reflect the needs and aspirations of its people.

Author. Sulayman Jammeh

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