8 June 2009

Gambia: A Literary Giant Has Fallen


Mark Anthony said, in Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, that the good is oft interred with the bones of good men but in Dr Lenrie Peters' case, the good will live for eternity in the annals on Gambian literary history. The goods sown by Dr Lenrie Peters in the fertile soil of the Gambian literary field has grown and germinated well. These are the proud children of Peters and of whom he has bestowed a worthy inheritance.


Dr Lenrie Leopold Wilfred Peters breathed his last on Wednesday 27 May 2009 at Hôpital Dantec while undergoing treatment for heart problems. He has struck 76 yet he was sound enough to strike jokes with me when I visited him on Tuesday 12 May at the Westfield Clinic. With Sister Cole's help, I continued to visit him and read poetry to him. When on Wednesday 13 I proposed to read some poems to him, he accepted. It was not necessary for me to guess that his mind whirled him about 60 years back when his father, a master of the classics, read him poetry in a loud voice. As I read 'Parachute Men' and 'Wings My Ancestors Used', I noticed the accelerated heaving of his chest and I panicked. I asked him if I were to stop and he said he only needed more air as the room was getting stuffy. I attempted to open the window but then the nurse came in and decided to put on the air-conditioner.

Dr Peters told me that he wishes to publish some new poems he had collected and upon my request, he agreed that as soon as he comes back from the United Kingdom, where he was to go for treatment, he would give me his manuscript entitled The Way Through for publication. He explained to me that the novel has been written a long time ago but he was waiting for the appropriate moment to publish it. This last discussion took place on Friday 15 May. The following week, his condition deteriorated and he was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit of the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul. By the middle of the week, he was getting better and awaiting his flight to the U.K. if his condition improved. However, when I called back Sister Cole at the West Field Clinic on Thursday 21 May to enquire about his health, she informed me that he had been sent to Dakar in an ambulance for emergency treatment. She gave me the details when I told her I was going to Dakar on Tuesday 26 May and would love to visit him. I arrived in Dakar on Tuesday evening, spend Wednesday in the conference room and scheduled my visit to Dr Peters on Thursday 28 May after the end of the conference. I learnt of his death from an email sent to me by Mr Hassoum Ceesay. Fate dictated that we were to see the last of each other on Friday 15 May 2009.


Lenrie Ingram Peters met and married Kezia in the 1920s. They will be blessed with two boys and three girls: Bijou, Asi Florence, Lenrie Leopold Wilfred, Ruby and Dennis Alaba. Dennis Alaba passed away in 1996 and Ruby, who was working with the United Nations, passed away in Dakar too in May 2008, exactly one year ago this month.

Bijou Peters or Bijou Bidwell is better known as a journalist but her skills are in nursing. Asi Florence Peters was married to Dr John Mahoney and became known as Dr Florence Mahoney. She is the first Gambian woman to obtain a Ph.D and she is a primary source of reference on Gambian History. She is an expert on the Liberated Slaves, the Mullatos and the Signares.

Dr Peter's father, Ingram, was the longest serving editor of The Gambia Echo in the 1930s. He was a fervent advocate for Pan Africanism and Indigenous rights. He was also known for not mincing words where the truth was to be said. If their father has had any strong influence over his children, Dr Peters was the most influenced both by character and by ideology. Ingram used to read poetry to his son as well as involve him in the editing of the newspaper, which was the most prominent newspaper of its time. Such influence was to have a great impact on Dr Peters' literary exploits.

Dr Peters was born on 1 September 1932 in Bathurst, which later became Banjul. He attended St. Mary's Primary school and then the Methodist Boy's High school before going to Sierra Leone to do his two-year science programme at the Prince of Wales school. He then proceeded to the United Kingdom at the Cambridge Technical College to study science and physics before moving to the Trinity College of Cambridge in 1953 to specialise in the natural sciences where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science honours in 1953. He also holds a Masters Degree in Science.

Dr Peters returned to The Gambia in 1969 where he was employed as a surgeon at the Bansang Hospital prior to co-founding the West Field clinic, The Gambia's first private clinic, with Dr Samuel Palmer in 1972.

Among his numerous affiliations and responsibilities can be cited the following: President of the African Society of Cambridge (1954-55); Freelance broadcaster of the African programmes of the BBC African and World Services (1955-68); President of the Historic Commission of Monuments of The Gambia and President of the FESTAC committee (1977); Trustee and then Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Gambia College and the National Library (1979-87); Chairman of West African Examination Council (1985-91); Judge to the Commonwealth African Regional Literary Prize for Fiction (1995); Selection Committee member for the Commonwealth Writers Prize; Chairman and Chief Executive of the Farato Farms (1981-99). Peters also served in numerous other functions such as the National Consultative Committee that studied and forwarded recommendations on the transition to democratic elections in The Gambia in 1996.

He published four collections of poetry and a novel, several poems, short stories and articles in international journals and magazines.

Literary Career

Dr Peters published Poems in 1964. It is a collection of 33 poems published by Mbari Publications in Ibadan, Nigeria. In 1967, he published Satellites, a collection 55 poems published by Heinemann in their African Writers' Series. It has 103 pages. Katchikali was published in 1971 by Heinemann again. It constituted 69 poems in 69 pages. The Last collection was published in 1981 and was entitled Selected Poetry. There are 104 poems and 48 of these are new poems. The remaining 56 poems came from Katchikali and Satellites in equal parts.

Where his West African compatriots were optimistic with the dawn of post-colonialism, Peters' poems are generally centred on African themes with a pessimistic and bleak tone. The strongest message he sends is the role that colonialism, westernisation and corrupt African politicians have played in destroying the African spirit. He moves from expressing youthful love and melancholy in his earlier poems to deception, anger, loneliness, grief and the hopelessness of exiled Africans in his latter poems.

Peters has published extensively in numerous magazines and international journals. Apart from Black Orpheus, he has also published poems in literary magazines and journals such as Présence Aricaine, Ndanaan, Studi Catholici, Callalo and Wasafiri. His poems have also been included in anthologies such as A Penguine Book of Modern Poetry by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, A Book of African Verse edited by Reed and Wake, African English Literature edited by Tibble, West African Verse edited by Ibe Nwoga, Poems of Black Africa edited by Wole Soyinka just to name but a few.

Presently, a selection of his poems is being translated and published by Dr Jean Dominique Pénel with Harmattan. It is entitled Je te parle ma soeur et autres Poèmes and contains 121pages.

Dr Peters published the first Gambian novel in 1965 with Heinemann on the African Writers' Series. It is entitled The Second Round and contains 193 pages. The Second Round is the story of the homecoming of Dr Kawa, a gynaecologist, after his studies in the UK. The story is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It reminds us also of his poem 'WE are coming home' published in Poems or 'Homecoming', his most referred to poem and several of his other publications.

Dr Peters has also published four short stories : 'Recollection of a Beverage' in Ndanaan in 1972; 'The Ride' in 1973 published in Afro-Asian Short Stories: An Anthology; and the last two, 'Hunt for a Turtle' and 'The Local Party Secretary' in 1981 in Black and African Writing: a FESTAC anthology.

He also published four powerful articles: an address he gave at the Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan in the then U.S.S.R published in Ndanaan in 1974; 'South Africa Today and Tomorrow' published in 1978 in a special edition of the Présence Africaine, South Africa Today: We are all South African Blacks; 'Appeal to the Colloquium' in 1980 in the Présence Africaine Special Edition, 1st Colloquium of the 3rd World Festival of Negro Arts (FESTAC): The World Dimension of Black Peoples, Conference of Ministers for Culture of the Black World; and 'Confessions of a Private Man' in 1993 published in Echoes of the Sunbird: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry (Research in International Studies Africa Series. He also published an article online in tribute to Deyda Hydara entitled 'No! To Treachery! No! To Violence!'

Famous quotes

"Africans must face their problems squarely if they are to overcome them. Denunciations and wishy-washy lip-service will not do. The line must be drawn clearly between patriotism and zenophobia ; and if one is to be labelled unpatriotic for searching after the truth in Africa's forward march, so be it ! But I for one offer no apology to the world nor do I hang my head in shame when Africa's record is matched against the emergent histories of other nations." ('South Africa Today and Tomorrow', Présence Africaine, 1978)

"I invite you to establish yourselves once again at the centre of the world stage: that stage erected and conceptualized by Kwame Nkrumah. That stage brilliantly illuminated and its intricacies revealed by Frantz Fanon. That stage on which the choreography of Cèsaire, Damas and Senghor traces large and strong. That stage on which, determined and alone, hammering away at disassociated fragments of raw words, stands Nyerere. These men need not have laboured in vain. But to stand shoulder to shoulder, we must both recognize and respect our common destiny. We must close our ranks against the incen­diary winds of foreign dissention. We must share the pain of each man's aching heart. We must guard ourselves against false friends, ingratiating friends, adulatory friends, lethal friends. Inevitably, we must depend on ourselves and on ourselves alone." ('Appeal to the Colloquium', Présence Africaine, 1980)

"Writers of Africa and Asia as they come together must recognize that their countries must take a large measure of responsibility for the wrongs which assail them. It is mere humbug to pretend that all our ills came borne on the forming nostrils of insane bulls from abroad. There is much we can do for ourselves which remain undone, much we can accomplish on which we turn our backs. [ ] We are pledged as writers to reveal to our utmost capacity, the essence; of the human condition. To illuminate the human spirit and in so doing to lift it out of the bondage of darkness and to drag it towards the light. Let us; let us move towards the light." (Ndaanan, Vol. 4, 1974: Pages 4-5)


Dr Peters had the fervent belief that Africa will regain its glory even if this does not happen in his lifetime. He believed that the Africans have the ideals, the advantages and the competences with them to take the centre stage in self-recognition and socio-cultural and economic development. His questions resonated loud as he asked: If, over the millennia, out of this human cradle in Central-Southern Africa evolved the great human civilizations - Chinese, Indian, Byzantine, Mediterranean, European and now the techno-European - what mutation, what aberration has connived to leave the black race out of this grand reckoning ? ((Présence Africaine 1980: 53)

His appeal is reflected in all his works as he desperately tries to remind Africans that, with time, we tend to be losing the most significant values that have defined our strength and our resolution to move forward. Africa has not only been the cradle of civilisations but it has also been the continent of riches, of kingdoms and of a people well organised and prosperous. Those values are dwindling to insignificance as Africans tend to yield to domination and complete dependence toward the very nations that have always played the major role in the continent's tattered state. He was quick to add though that putting blame of our present conditions upon the former colonial powers and the human exploitation should now become an affair of the past. Moving on is supposed to be our main agenda, and consolidating our forces, putting aside our differences and building a strong and united people of Africa in a world where we are left far behind in all aspects of development, should become our strongest will.

On behalf of the Saint Mary's University Extension Program alumni, the Gambian Writers and the international literary body, I extend our most sincere condolences to the bereaved families and friends. A giant literary trunk has fallen indeed but it has left roots some of which have become, in time, powerful trunks too. May his soul rest in perfect piece. Amen!!!

Cherno Omar Barry is a Lecturer, University of The Gambia

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