Remembering the Basse High Level Football Field
By Cherno Baba Jallow
I recall going home to Basse for the summer vacation back in 1990. Arriving a day before a major scheduled Nawetaan match, the town was highly vibrant. The next afternoon, I was among the throng of people, the would-be spectators rushing to the Basse High Level Football Field. I can't fully remember which teams played, but it sure turned out to be a well-attended game. Coming from the western part of town, the Angal-futa area to be precise, cars and motorcycles passed us by, blaring horns and inviting excitement in return. I was very keen about this match, even though I knew I had no money on me. I was a struggling student in Banjul. Back in those days, I was always eager to hop on the earliest bus to Basse immediately after school's closing. I was always looking forward to go home, to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, and to enjoy the beautiful companionship of family members and childhood friends.
Struggling Basserian Students in Banjul (Gambia High School), few days before graduation (1991). Standing L-R: Haruna Farage (in sunglasses) Cherno Baba Jallow and former Gambia High Biology Teacher Abdou Sisay, also a Basse native. Sitting L-R: Saloum Malang, Alasan Camara (not in uniform) and Muhammed Jeng.
Anyway, back to the football field. I milled around the gate, trying to sweet-talk my way into the game. I politely asked the gatekeeper, some unfamiliar, burly man, perhaps a civil servant on posting in Basse, to let me in. Expectedly, he was having none of it. His reluctance hardened each time I gave him more earfuls of solemn appeals. By then, the first whistle had been blown. From the outside, I could hear the rollicking noises, some of which I was inclined to believe, was the manifestation of anxiety and concerns of many boisterous fans on attendance that afternoon. Suddenly my luck arrived. Njanko Kanteh, a veteran Basse teacher and a member of the Basse Football Association at the time, came by the gate. I assumed he must have overheard my exchanges with the gatekeeper, for Njanko was just a stone's throw away from us. He intervened and asked what the problem was. I informed him of my wish to watch the game, but then I had no money on me. He requested the gatekeeper to let me in. Abulla Aye Ta, Njanko ordered the gatekeeper in Mandinka as he beckoned me into the field.
Like a lizard on branches, I made a quick dash into the field, looking for my home boys (Maju "Zico" Bah, Mamadou Maju Bah, Pa Colley, Omar and Modou Jaiteh, and others). Even though I was happy to make it in, I still struggled with my conscience. I thought my action, though helpless, was still wrong. Unfair. I made it in free while others had to pay. But then, I thought about my personal contributions to the growth of the Basse High Level Football Field some long years ago. Like many of my fellow youngsters in the early 1980s and much earlier, I worked hard on those grounds, clearing and uprooting grasses, raking and burning weeds. We ultimately laid the foundation stone for the High Level Field. As a reward for our hardwork, we were promised jerseys and footballs; it is my recollection that the promise was never delivered. No hard feelings. The contributions of the High Level Field to the development of Basse football, and by extension, the welfare of the community, was enough of a reward for me! I am proud to have been part of those little kids in the 1970s and early 80s, who toiled under the burning sun, to give the town of Basse a fitting football field.
The Basse High Level Field wasn't just a soccer pitch. It was like a second home to many of us. After breakfast, during late mornings, we would usually go there to play little leagues under those mango trees. Those trees, a thicket of them, would serve some of us a lot; they were protective shields from the threatening eyes of our fathers. I knew my father was always looking for me in the late afternoons. He thought football was taking too much of my time. I did often have ankle and knee sprains (Kuboo in Mandinka; Fohotch in Wollof). They provided good excuses against going to the farmlands or weeding the backyard (I was never a skillful farmer anyway). I was always lucky to catch a glimpse of my father before he saw me. And I would hide behind the trunks of those mango trees. He wouldn't see me, the evidence of which was to go scot-free when I met him at home in the evening.
The football matches at the High Level Field were always lively and tense, be it Fulladu vs. Manju, Jattas against Kuteh Jong Bullu, Dental vs. Survival or a Basse all-star team vs. visiting teams from Banjul (Roots, Young Africans, Hawks, Wallidan, NPE, Saraba, etc) and all the way from Kayes in Mali, Tambacounda (Senegal), Labe (Guinea Conakry). As little kids, we would swarm around the visiting teams' buses, sometimes jogging behind their tails as they cruised out of town and out of sight beyond the horizons. Basse football was enriched with a medley of skills both homegrown and imported. This made Basse a football powerhouse for the entire provincial part of The Gambia. We sent Star Jallow, and much later, Ebrima Manneh, Star Sainey Sanyang, Sarjo Manneh, Modou (Jabo) Manneh, Marthino Manneh, Nfally "Junior" Manneh and others to the leagues in Banjul and some of them ultimately to the national team. The standards were high; this attracted numerous talents from near and far.
On the Basse High Level Football Field grounds, circa 1990. Standing L-R: John, Wuyeh Keita, Muhammed Jeng, Lamin (Basse) Jeng, Modou Jaiteh, Malick Krubally, Cherno Baba Jallow (in the cap) and Musa Mballow (cut off). Sitting L-R: Essa Jobe, Maju "Zico" Bah, ManSarjo Manneh, The late Sorri Krubally/ITAL (RIP), Omar "Bundu" Jaiteh, and Ousainou Krubally.
Who recalls the days of "Ordering" in Basse football? And who remembers the Hydara brothers and goalie Pappo from Vellingara and the late Rahu Mbye, Star Janneh, Aziz Corr, Biri Biri, Paolo Rossi and that lethal Fulladu striker Muhammed from Mali, all donning boots and playing ball on those High Level grounds? I was always a keen observer of the field, the jollities and anxieties of players and fans, the frustrations and psychologies of coaches tiptoeing on the touchlines either commanding their players or raising concerns with match officials.
During any match, two areas of the Field would attract my interest: the flanks and the goalpost. On the flanks, I enjoyed the goal-poaching skills of Sarjo Mendy. When Sarjo was one-on-one with the goalie at the far left side, you knew it was going to be a goal. He was as reliable as sunrise. His left-footers were too hot to handle! I loved the tussles between Michael "Beya Beya" Secka and Famamadi "Sukuro" Manneh of Kuteh on the sidelines. Mike was sleek. Sukuro was bulldozing. Mike was untouchable with his tiny self. When Sukuro thought he had Mike boxed in, Mike was gone the other way around. And Sukuro would never give up. He would get up and embark on a long chase, like a bull in the hot pursuit of a rabbit. I saw central defender MB Krubally for survival, take on the hare-running Ebrima Manneh on the flanks. It was never easy. MB was good at challenge-headers and clearances. He was a tough cookie. And so, too, was half-back Karo "Ombaysa" Baldeh. And talking about steely half-backs, the late Morro Manneh, Omar "Lappo" Njie, Alhaji Mballow and Sidibeh come to mind.
And for goalkeepers? My favorite was Sulayman "Jangori" Jallow. He was flamboyant and stylistic. He would dangle on the bars of the goalpost like a bat at night. I also have fond memories of the exploits of goalkeepers Samba "Bull" Saidy, Katchy, Buttel and the ever hesitant Essa "Sly" Sankareh for Fulladu, Manju, Kuteh and Survival respectfully. This was before the arrival of goalkeepers Ousman Krubally, Malal and Sossayko.
I saw great football on those grounds. Bodies banging and injuries sustained (Sellu Bah and Amat Jaw alias Captain Moe). They never wilted; they would return to the game with bandaged foreheads and craped-up ankles and knees. Their love for the game was unshakable. I saw Abdou Camara of Fulladu chest-calm long-velocity balls on the ground, deliver quick passes and weave through jam-packed midfields. I delighted in the razzle-dazzle skills of Sinajo Sarjo in the midfield and Ousainou "Bara Bara" Trawally further afield. I also witnessed Cherno Mballow score last-minute equalizers and winners against visiting teams particularly those from Brikama (Justice, Dragons, Joggifans) and Bansang (Termites, Cosmos). I saw wingers Amadou Koinge Jallow, Ebou "Jaboh" Jallow, Gelago Baldeh, Tijan Njie and Mamudu (Sodengay) of Kabakama's Kansala F.C., run fast and deep, and take circuitous curves on the margins. Sometimes, Dengay was too fast, too athletic for the ball. He would be so fast as to leave the ball behind. And that would invite squeals of laughter from the crowd.
I have vivid memories of some of Basse's prolific central defenders such as the slasher Salifu Camara of Jatta's, the menacing Peter "Blood" Baldeh of Mansanjang's Manju, Pa Dodou Sarr and the late Momodou Alpha "Capi" Jallow of Bob Marley. Those were towering giants on the defensive line; you crossed at your own peril.
Basse football was great for the passionate zeal of the players, fans and team officials. Abakarr Krubally, Mamaneh Trawally, Alasan Camara and others much earlier, debated the issues of Basse football and argued passionately with the Basse Football Association for their respective teams. Fans like Balla "Toupay" Jallow, who would blast his big stereo by the bench of the Bob Marley team, and Kuteh's premier fan/manager, Samato, both contributed immensely to the fanfare of Basse football. Samato would fling a shoe high up behind Kuteh's goalpost to ward off penalty goals. He was knee-deep in the artfullness of Njirri (Black magic). Some people actually believed his exploits. Whatever the case, his open Njirri antics were a riveting spectacle. He would attract little kids behind the net. He would throw a shoe up and down in repeated motions. And guess what? The penalty would go limp or goalie Buttel would save it or something else would happen. The penalty was foiled. Samato was the hero.
Writing about fond memories of the Basse High Level Football Field would be incomplete without mentioning the tireless efforts of members of the Basse Football Association, such as the late Medu Jarra, referees Malick Krubally and Jahay Sumareh (both deceased) and the veteran educationist Musa K. Jallow. These people weren't particular about wages and rewards; they were simply being dedicated public servants, driven more by the love for the game and for community development than by anything else.
In 1981, we were playing our usual late morning games between the mango trees by the Field when we heard some sirens on the main road dissecting the town. We ran to see what was going on. It was a convoy of Senegalese soldiers heading to Banjul to put out Kukoi Samba Sanyang's rebellion. By the Dunia Cinema, I caught a glimpse of the soldiers seated neatly in their trucks and wielding their guns close to their laps. Perhaps, their silence and blank stares were a manifestation of armored countenance, a soldier's way of muted bravery. I thought about what might have been going through their minds as their trucks cruised through town to the theater of war, far, far away. A number of Basse mothers came out onto the road, weeping and wailing. They were concerned about the welfare of their loved ones in the Banjul area. I still have a vivid memory of that scene. It was one of sadness.
The Basse High Level Football Field was like a home away from home. It kept a lot of us away from trouble, from the temptations of youthful indiscretions. After fishing and brewing attaya at Nature (a cool place on the banks of the Basse river by the GPMB depot), we would walk to the field, sometimes in wet clothes from the swimming and then, it was time to kick ball.
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