To my late friend Dr Lenrie Peters: The Gambian Vessel Emptied of its Poetry

Friday, June 19, 2009
In Appreciation, 

By Dr. Tijan M. Sallah[i]

Dr. Lenrie Leopold Wilfred Peters, the Gambia’s renowned surgeon, poet and novelist, has left us for eternity.  I will borrow from what W.H. Auden said of W.B. Yeats, “Earth has received an honored guest,” and the Gambia has lost a great son.   According to news reports, Lenrie departed from us on May 27, 2009 at Hôpital Dantec in Dakar, Senegal, after health struggles which resulted in his initial admission at the Kanifing-based Westfield Clinic, one of Gambia’s first private clinics, which he founded with Dr. S.J. Palmer, and then the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital Intensive Care Unit, where, because of inability to arrest his deteriorating condition, he was subsequently rushed to the Dakar hospital.  He died of heart failure. He was close to 77.

                Earth has received an honored guest, Lenrie Peters is laid to rest.   Let the Gambian vessel lie, emptied of its poetry.          

                Lenrie is the first son of Pa Lenrie and Auntie Kezia Peters.    His two older siblings are Bijou Peters Bidwell (who was married to the late Ernest Bidwell and was trained as a nurse) and Dr. Florence Peters Mahoney, one of the Gambia’s most eminent historians and teachers who wrote the locally famous national history book, Stories of the Gambia.  Florence’s husband is Dr John Mahoney, son of Sir John Mahoney, whom the British historian, Harry Gailey, refers to as: “one of the leaders of the Bathurst (now Banjul) community in the second quarter of the 20th century. …the recognized leader of the Mahoney family which counted some of the most educated and influential people in Bathurst.”  Augusta Mahoney, Dr John’s sister, became the first wife of then Prime Minister Sir D.K. Jawara and therefore the premier first lady of the Gambia.

In family sequence, Lenrie was first son but third child. He was followed by a sister Ruby Peters who worked for UNDP for many years in an administrative and a program management capacity (and who ironically passed away about the same time last year) and Dennis Alaba Peters (the last sibling) who had a career as an actor and who died several years ago in the United States.  By all accounts, the Peters’ family were a distinguished lot and have left their mark indelibly on the intellectual firmament of the Gambia.

            I recalled a day, almost a decade or so ago, during one of my visits to the Gambia, being given a lift by Mr. M.I. Secka, the ex-Auditor General of the Gambia, from Banjul to Serre Kunda. M.I. Secka was a family friend, whom I had the pleasure of working under as my boss during my brief stint out of high school as an audit clerk. That day, on Independence Drive was walking Dr. Florence Mahoney wearing a Mexican-style raffia hat, waving to catch a taxi. Florence had been M.I. Secka’s teacher and, as it was the courtesy and respect with which teachers were held in the old days, M.I. Secka stopped to give his old teacher a ride.  I had not known Florence but had been familiar with her enormous contributions to Gambian history.  On the ride from Banjul to Serre Kunda, at the fork in the road, near Jeswang or more precisely Sting Corner, Secka diverged to Bakau/Fajara to drop her old teacher close to her house.  I kept quiet most of the time, but enjoyed the conversation.  What I recalled most memorably was Mr. M.I. Secka, asking her who was older, Lenrie or her, and Florence remarking, “Lenrie is the baby. He is the baby”. In a conversation of elders, the “reference” to a “baby” can be tricky.  Knowing Lenrie had received his medical degree in 1959, one year after I was born, I could only silently chuckle from the humor about the “baby” reference.  Sadly, this “baby,” this Lenrie, who was my good friend, has been snatched forever from us by the cruel hands of fate.

            Lenrie Peters’ family has much hidden distinguished history behind them.  The Peters have direct blood relation with the Maxwells, who were the first African graduates of Oxford University. The Maxwells were, by all tests, Afro-Victorians and therefore among Africa’s early westernized elites.  The elder Maxwell was a Sierra Leonean of Yoruba ancestry who had attended Merton College, Oxford, and graduated with honors in Jurisprudence and served in the Gold Coast and later rose to be the Chief Magistrate of the Gambia in 1887.  His son, Joseph Renner Maxwell, was famous for his book titled, The Negro Question, which, in the prevailing racial despair of those days, recognized the equivalence of the Negro’s genius and moral qualities with that of Europeans but advocated “miscegenation” as a way of improving the Negro’s physical aesthetics.  Perhaps it is such predispositions, predicated not on truth and fact but on psychological shortcomings, which has resulted today in that abominable practice of “skin bleaching” locally known as “hesal.” Joseph Renner-Maxwell was only cleverer; he tried to conform to the inadequacies of his times by suggesting to Africans to get rid of their God-given melanin by marrying the lighter races.  Lenrie Peters, of course, was a much more enlightened than his Maxwell ancestors were, and he was also a passionate advocate of black and pan-African courses.  He was too proud and enlightened to subscribe to the shortcomings of 19th and early 20th century pigmentational sociobiology for social uplift.

            Lenrie Peters’ family history straddles between Sierra Leone and the Gambia.  His family were “liberated Africans” or “aku” or “krio” with some Yoruba ancestry. However, the cultural syncretism of “liberated Africans” made it not that simple to trace tribal lineage to some singular source.  Peters, all his life, was aware of this.  At the Berlin First Festival of World Cultures held from June 22-July 15 in 1979, the theme was exclusively devoted to African culture. At that festival, Lenrie admitted, “I don’t belong to a tribe, you see.  My family has been detribalized for nearly four generations.  So really, I am like Alex Haley. I am looking for my roots.”  This search for roots has made Peters overwhelmingly pre-occupied with the theme of homecoming in his stylistically perfected and brilliant poetry.

            On a personal level, Lenrie was my good friend. I therefore deeply mourn his loss.  Apart from being a world-class medical doctor, Lenrie was the Gambia's most renowned writer and indeed the founding father of modern Gambian literature in English. Gambia has lost two big literary giants-- Ebou Dibba a few years ago-- at a relatively young age; and now that marvellous patriarch, Lenrie Peters. I got to know Lenrie in my high school years in the early seventies and he was both a friend and a mentor, and I usually visited him at Westfield Clinic in Kanifing, where on the margins of his busy medical practice, he will take time off and sit in the yard and review my creative writings and offer advice and encouragement.  We became friends ever since.  And virtually, every time I visit the Gambia, I will visit Lenrie at his house at Cape Point and spend some time chatting with him.  He will be greatly missed as a mentor and friend.

            Lenrie’s writings as a novelist and poet were world class.  His first novel, The Second Round, although not so immediately culturally relevant to the Gambia was described by critics like Charles Larson as a “West African gothic,” a novel of homecoming, a novel which attempts first to be a work of art and only secondarily “faithful to an African way of life,”—to quote Larson.  Yet, apart from the Sierra Leone-based William Conton’s, The African, Lenrie’s novel could very well be the first novel written by a Gambian.  Lenrie, however, was best as a poet—and his three poetry collections—Satellites, Katchikali, and Selected Poetry (which included some of his new poems) are among the most intellectual of Africa’s contemporary poetry, compared with the poetry of Wole Soyinka.  The poems span themes of homecoming, political satire of African dictators—whom Lenrie thought had ruined our continent, celebration of cultural relics like the sacred crocodiles of Katchikali, personal and universal themes.  All these are done, utilizing sometimes natural sciences or medical imagery, but always sincere to a Pan-African vision.  The Nigerian Romanus Egudu, a Peters scholar, has noted that, “Of all modern African poets of English expression, he is the least concerned about his own country and most concerned about the fate of the continent as a whole. He considers himself first an African, and secondly a Gambian.”    This sums it all:  Lenrie was a pan-Africanist in his thoughts, writings and convictions.  He dreamed, all his life, of a vibrant and revitalized Africa that uses its vast resources to develop its citizenry and that stands proud and dignified against the rest of the world.  He was a man of substance and hated empty flamboyance. He will be missed.

            What has always impressed me about Lenrie was his entrepreneurial qualities.  He was not just a writer.  He was a polyvalent, renaissance man.  He was one of the first Gambian doctors to get into private practice, after a brief stint working for the government medical service in places as remote as Bansang Hospital.  He was also owner of a pharmacy, a real estate owner (owned Lenrie’s House in Banjul, before he sold it), a former broadcaster over BBC, Chairman of the West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) and the owner of a farm in Yundum/Brikama area.  During one of my visits to the Gambia, he one day took me to his farm which had bore holes and some irrigation equipment.  If I am not mistaken, he was then growing mangoes for the export market.  I always used to joke with him by telling him that, “Gambia needed more Lenrie Peters.  And that if we had more Lenrie Peters, we would be a developed country soon.”  He would smile or chuckle with that characteristic sneaky, belly-laugh, as if he was suppressing a rich African humanity under some Anglo-Saxon reserve.

            Lenrie spoke perfect Cambridge University English; in fact, one could not find an African or a British (for that matter) with an English more polished.  I used to say to myself, if one were to hear Lenrie speaking behind a wall without ever having seen him in person, one would think it was the voice of a high class English gentleman.  His voice was distinctive and silently authoritative; and he read his poetry with a powerful, melodic anglo-saxon cadence.  In fact, given the privilege and elevated status, with which the English language was held in our part of the world, people found Lenrie’s English amusing, if not downright intimidating. Locally, some people used to say in Wolof, “Lenrie kaing, toubab la,” a derogatory reference that Lenrie was a “whiteman” because he spoke perfect Cambridge English and kept himself aloof from local idle chit-chat and casual, social circles. For me, this accusation was mere trivia, for if one truly knew Lenrie, it was never the English sound of his accent, but the deep African humanity and commitment to African culture.

Lenrie knew both of my parents and was also my parent’s doctor, especially when they needed critical surgeries.  He had performed surgery on both of my parents on a few occasions.  The last one was on my father, after dad, at age ninety three, had fallen and suffered a hip fracture. Lenrie did the surgery and, for a while, my dad did well, but later, not atypical of his age, my dad developed clots, and finally his condition worsened and he succumbed to eternity.  I was still in the US, but I was told that Lenrie would come every day to our compound to check on my dad’s progress.  But my dad was battling overwhelming odds, age was not in his favor; finally he succumbed to the odds. What always struck me about Lenrie was his self-effacing kindness.  He was not one given to self-promotion in the repertoire of praise-singers. In much of the medical services he offered to my parents, he would always ask for less or no fees, but my parents, being self-responsible and independent characters, would always insist on paying in full and finally Lenrie would accept payment.  However, that gesture of willingness to help at all costs is the real marker of this great Peters.

Some of my other personal recollections of Lenrie were letters he wrote to me in his own long hand, always encouraging, always like a paternal brother. Upon hearing his passing away, I searched through the clutter of my library and found three.  I know he has written to me many letters over the years, and I will be searching more for all, and may have perhaps lost some through my many apartment moves.  I would like to publish them some day as a testimony to our long, enduring friendship.

One of the earlier letters I could find from him was dated July 22, 1982.  It may perhaps be the longest letter he has ever written to me, and it was a time when I was just completing my undergraduate work at Berea College in Kentucky.   We had met, several months earlier, at an African Literature Association (ALA) Conference held at the Claremont Colleges in California, which was attended by several major African writers: the late Mongo Beti of Cameroon, the late Florent Nwapa and-- Buchi Emecheta of Nigeria, Aminata Sow Fall of Senegal, Dennis Brutus, Cecile Abrahams (brother to Peter Abrahams) and Fatima Dike of South Africa, George Lamming, Maryse Conde and Paule Marshall from the Caribbean, Miriam Were of Kenya, Peter Nazareth of Uganda, Kofi Anyidoho from Ghana, and many more.  Lenrie, Professor Mbye Cham of Howard University, and I were the only representatives, who were Gambian, and Lenrie was the only one who flew then from the Gambia.  He had not known Mbye Cham and asked me privately whether he was Senegalese, which I quickly corrected. There were the usual suspect critics of African literature attending the ALA at Claremont, the popular names being Professors Bernth Lindfors, the late Robert M. Wren, Emile Snyder, Stephen Arnold, Kenneth Harrow, Aliko Songolo, Jonathan Peters, Chinelo Okonjo- Ogunyemi, Donald Burness, Donald and Margaret Herdeck (publishers of Three Continents Press), Lee Nichols from the BBC, and Daniel Kunene.  Following the Claremont event, Lenrie wrote to me the following letter:

            “Dear Tijan, Your letter arrived a few days ago and I felt I must just reply before I leave for Europe in a few days; so do forgive shortcomings.  I am going to Vienna and Saltzburg./Some weeks ago, I met your rather inconsolable father outside the Post Office (ie., in Banjul, emphasis mine), largely on your mother’s behalf, because they had not heard from you.  I consoled them with the probability of exams, etc.   A week later, he was smiling again and told me of your successes.  /The only lone joy is self-fulfillment and I am proud that you’re taking all that comes your way and turning silver into gold.  I can only say as Henry James said to a talented young person, “Your have fashioned yourself a magic carpet, stand on it!”   I endorse the precious letter, which you so kindly sent me. /No, I decided not to attend the ALA this year and read comments in West Africa magazine.  I have had reservations about the trends within.  It is becoming too much of a political forum for some uses, and also too much of a high school performance.  I think the format ought to be looked at again. After my very first visit, I felt certain that to give it meaning, even occasional meetings should be held on African soil.  The suggestion didn’t go down well when I made it.  And the attitude was typical, “Alright! Find the money!”/ I offered a report to Hugh Quashie with all downtrodden and acquiescing authors in mind. Reviewing and criticism used to be an art form once, when the critic expanded and contributed to the creative work.  Alas, cutting corners as we have to do in almost every aspect of African life, anybody with a few letters attached consider themselves competent to lash into critical print.  I feel also that editors have a responsibility towards authors as to whom they invite to review their work and also as whether acceptance of such reviews are automatic./We have had a busy year setting up a museum at the Old British Council Library building— opposite Sam Jack Terrace.  This will soon be completed and opened.  Then after 18 months of closure of the Gambia College, we’re opening in October at the new campus in Brikama.  We have an experienced Ghanaian to help set it up for 2 years with a view to a Gambian taking over at that time. There is a dearth of commitment or sense of vocation to the community.  Everybody is plucking at the next big job; so that there is little continuity.  Reminds me of the weyus throwing stones at mangoes and scrambling after the fallen fruit. Here we have a new college, a new principal, and a new permanent secretary.  It means that one is forever starting again from the beginning./ I can’t talk about poetry this time, except to say that I like and admire your work./  Keep the flag flying./Sincerely, Lenrie P.”

The last letter I could find from Lenrie was dated July 11, 1993 and was on a West African Examinations Council (WAEC) letterhead with a Westfield Clinic address and had Lenrie’s name as Chairman of WAEC. Lenrie’s long association with WAEC demonstrated his devoted commitment to the development of young minds in West Africa. I had just them returned to the US from a visit to the Gambia. His letter read:

            Dear Tijan, That you came and went without my spending another hour with you has grieved me.  Frankly, that was a sad week for me. An estate agent, whom I had asked to handle my property, had swindled me of D65,000.  He is going to be prosecuted, if he doesn’t pay up.  There were also problems in the farm./Not being a reviewer, I did not feel obliged to gobble up “Dreams of Dusty Roads” (Tijan’s book of poems, italics mine). Now, I’ve been through sipping it like good wine, with great pleasure.  I can hear your own authentic voice in (the poem), say, “Shadows of Banjul” and so many other gems./But how does one escape the… with ideas?  Beyond, it seems to me, lies the pure distillation of experience, or whatever you like to call it./I enjoyed your articles in the Observer—a refreshing change from the everyday.  Though we should not complain.  The Observer has introduced a new trend and mental discipline into Banjul Society.  What one never missed before has taken a central place in the life of the community.  At last, one no longer have to learn of the local news through the BBC./Best wishes to your wife and self.  Sincerely, Lenrie.”

In another letter, he wrote to me from Dakar on May 2, 1987, on Novotel letterhead, it read:

            “My dear Tijan, I am in Dakar and brought your letter and publications with me in the hope of having the time to write you a long letter.  This is the 27th Annual Meeting of the West African College of Surgeons, and our Senegalese brothers are giving us taste of their usual arrogance and indifference.  The meetings are held in FIDAC, near the Airport (ie., Aeroport Yoff and now Aeroport Leopold Sedar Senghor, italics mine) where the Social Fairs take place.  No cars are provided, so that when we get there in the morning, we have to stay until evening, whether we are participating or not./Thank you very much for your good works, even more for letting me share your successes in literature. I will try to write a long letter another time; but for now—well done and keep it going./Best wishes, Sincerely, Lenrie P.”

Well, friend, we will try to keep “it” going, but I’m not sure whether it will ever be the same without you.  You meant so much to us, and your departure has taken so much from us.

In my view, Lenrie was one of the Gambia's best and great personalities.  In our short lives, we will be remembered not for how much pain and suffering we have imposed on humanity, but for what good deeds we performed and great thoughts we left behind to advance specifically the welfare of other people, especially our fellow Gambians, and for acts of kindness and positive creativity.  Undoubtedly, Lenrie has left us jewels on all these fronts.  He was hardworking, creative, and committed (he spent his entire life in private medical practice, serving the enormous medical needs of the Gambia population). Lenrie was highly educated for his times and, unlike us the selfish ones abroad, he could have chosen an easier and more lucrative life and worked abroad, but he chose to spend his entire lifetime serving the people of the Gambia.  He was a true patriot and truly deserves our honor.

In many great societies around the world, Lenrie’s house at Cape point, works/manuscripts, photos, correspondences, and personal effects; e.g., his pipe, love of embroidered tie-dye clothes, etc., would have been bought by the government or some private foundation and converted into a PETERS’ MUSEUM or PETERS’ WRITERS CENTER for future generations and visiting tourists to emulate and learn from about the pearl that was in our midst.  I would recommend the Gambian government or some enlightened Gambian social entrepreneur to pursue such an idea. I would be glad to contribute to such an endeavor. One of my positive impressions of countries with rich cultures and civilizations like the UK, Phillipines and Iran was the preservation of the personal effects of their great artists, thinkers and poets, such as Shakespeare museum in UK’s Stratford upon Avon, Jose Risale’s museum in Manilla and the poet, Hafiz’s tomb in Shiraz, Iran, respectively, which are all popular attractions for tourists, researchers, and other visitors.  Does Gambia have anything of these equivalents?  Or are our authorities on culture too dormant to notice?

            Lenrie was one of those few and necessary Gambian men who will be
forever remembered for putting the Gambia on the literary map of the world
.  I will truly miss him.  May his great soul, which has touched me personally and many the world over, rest in peace.

[i] Dr. Sallah is one of Africa’s most important poets following the post-Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka generation, and one of the Gambia’s most important writers after Lenrie Peters.  He is the author of more than 7 books, most recently the biography, Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light, and Dream Kingdom: New and Selected Poems.

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