January 23, 2013 was the coldest day of the year in New York, with wind chills hovering around zero degrees. In recent history, this was quite a record of sorts for the Big Apple. It seemed, however, almost prophetic that our protest for the release of a man of God would fall on such a day.
En route to the protest site, a quick glance at the Number 5 train timer made me realize that I had 30 minutes to spare before the official 12 noon kick-off time announced on the flyers. My friend Aminata, who'd taken the 6am bus out of Boston, was already in Manhattan making her way to the protest site. She was always unfailingly prompt while I, more often than not, found myself falling victim to Gambian time.
45 minutes and 15 subway stops later, I got off at Grand Central Station, weaved in and out of the bustling Midtown crowd and strolled towards the group of protesters at the UN Plaza on 42nd Street and 1st Avenue. This location strategically positioned us in direct sight of relevant UN officials as they made their way in and out of the Plaza.
Aminata was setting up her camera and equipment, while Jobis, our Freedom reporter agent and fellow activist was trying to secure the banners on the dividers with the help of Imam Baba Leigh's wife, Ya Adam, and some other protesters. The winds were really strong and they were struggling to get the banners to stay put. The elements seemed to be winning.
I saw the tireless Ebrahim Ndure at a distance having a side bar discussion with Imam Mustapha Leigh and Baba Hydara of Hello Gambia. I waved, mouthed a salamaleikum and proceeded to unload my protest gear and make myself useful. I was glad to see everyone in high spirits.
Scurrying passersby directed curious glances our way. Some quickly hurried along, while others stopped to inquire about our plight; taking along some of our detailed hand-outs.
We exchanged slightly nervous but relieved smiles as the protesters slowly started trickling in. It seemed that Sene-Gambian New Yorkers would come out in record turn-out to protest for the release of the veritable Imam Baba Leigh. Some of the notable Imams in the New York area arrived just as we were finalizing the set-up. With everyone pitching in to help in different capacities, we were able to get the banners firmly in place. Our numbers were simply no match for even the strongest of elements. Saihou Mballow, standing mid-center in the crowd, with his bull horn in place fired everyone up by officially kicking off the protest. Our "Free Imam Baba Leigh Now" chants rang loudly and defiantly into the cold air. It was at once heart-wrenching and inspiring to see our staunch religious leaders standing in solidarity with us.
Baba Hydara and Jobis captured the events of the day on-air; with the protesters taking turns denouncing the unjust detention of the Imam and opining on the increasingly precarious and deteriorating situation back in the Gambia; of which Imam Baba Leigh was the latest victim. Emotions ran from pent up frustration, helplessness, to sheer outrage. The enormity of the event weighed heavily on our minds and echoed in our voices as the event drew to a close.
Later on that day, as Aminata and I rode the train back to my house for a quick stop before her scheduled trip back to Boston, I bit my tongue to curtail the profuse jaramas and jerejeffs that threatened to tumble out of my mouth. We'd been through this before and she simply wouldn't hear of it. This was our third New York protest together and we'd settled on a comfortable protest routine. Depending on her schedule, she'd always taken the bus out of Boston the night before or the day of the protest and leave the same day to make it back in time for either class or work. A small sacrifice she deemed it, but a sacrifice nonetheless. It was our shared sentiment that this was simply our duty to Gambia, and nothing else.
And at that very moment, we wordlessly agreed that all gratitude belonged to Imam Baba Leigh for his enormous sacrifice for the truth.