Encounter: Daily Observer
In a humid summer night in 1998, Alkali Samateh placed a 12inch black and white television set on an empty barrel as people thronged his terrace in Jali, 153 kilometres from Banjul, to watch the World Cup finals between France and Brazil. In order to get quality images, an extended wire was connected from the television set to a long wooden bamboo stick. The sound quality wasn’t perfect, largely due to the distance from the Gambia’s capital to this Kiang West settlement of a 3-hour drive.
After 90 minutes of pulsating football at the Stade de France, there was a somber mood as the hosts annihilated the defending champions 3-0, secured by two towering Zinedine Zidane headers. This was not scripted and against all the odds, it was this team made up of multinational players that celebrated, and a nation was united.
When Jalinkas watched again as a Spain team dominated by Barcelona players ruled the world in South Africa 2010, the image this time was in colour and free from hassle as The Gambia Radio and Television Services had a year earlier gone on satellite. When the cameras caught Iker Cassillas kissed his journalist girlfriend Sara Cabonero live on TV, as the captain made his way to the podium for his winners’ medal and the Jules Rimet Trophy, there was a sense of excitement. Cabonero was earlier in the tournament condemned; accused of distracting Iker as La Roja lost 1-0 to little fancied Switzerland in the opener.
Today, most of the villagers have television sets and in my many travels there, I cannot remember the last time I watched TV on black and white. But a national television was deemed unthinkable in April 1994, just two months short of the Second Republic. Robert Gahan was the deputy director general of Public Affairs and chairman of Radio Ireland and with over 45 years of experience in broadcasting at the time, he said it was too early for Gambia to establish a television station. In a Daily Observer edition of Tuesday April 5, 1994, Gahan who was on a weeklong consultancy mission on broadcasting in The Gambia was briefing journalists at the Department of Information and Broadcasting in Banjul. The now retired executive warned that the challenge and priority for the country should be a modern equipped radio station with enough qualified staff to serve the length and breadth of the country.
Several months earlier, a national debate over the same issue was held and until that time, the relevant ministry or ministries do not seem to have a definitive conclusion on the matter. At the time, the anti-TV pundits often swing their arguments around Radio Gambia; they believed before anyone can think of a TV, they should first understand that Radio Gambia, established in 1962, was on the brink of collapse and it needs a great deal of outlay to make it work more effectively in covering the country with their programmes. For them, until this was done, radio coverage is reliable only in Banjul/Kombo areas with Radio 1 FM and perhaps up to Soma with Radio Syd. The rest of the country was often in a communication abyss whenever Radio Gambia was going through its many problems.
Digging into the Observer archives, it was revealed that some NGOs and government departments like Agricultural Services and Community Development were experimenting with all sorts of innovative extension and communication methods in a desperate attempt to inform the population about their work and to learn from the communities what they must include in those programmes.
At the time, the conclusion was that for a country that cannot maintain a radio station, putting up a TV station is madness, considering the cost of installation, maintenance and programme development. Even the unit cost of a TV set for s typical Gambian household was considered prohibitive at the time. There was a massive communication gap in the country. That gap was even more glaring in April 1994 when the country graduated from a very painful adjustment programme and has mounted an expensive sequel – the PSD. It was difficult to engender the appreciation, understanding and involvement of the population in all the myriads of programmes that the government has prepared.
After several months of deliberations and consultations, the government at the time concluded that in the short term, Radio Gambia should be fixed but in the medium and long term, a definite plan for TV should be in place; in order words, setting up a national television station wasn’t their priority.
Ten weeks later, against the backdrop of exponential corruption, there was a peaceful change of government when a group led by a 29-year-old army Lt. Yahya Jammeh successfully staged a bloodless coup. As promised, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council fought corruption with the setting up of commissions of enquiries and those culprits were made to pay the public funds they stole. Another priority for the Council, cum government was to set up institutions that would contribute to the socio-economic development of the country.
When President Jammeh rekindled the debate of a national TV, the so-called experts totally discouraged the idea as if to say it was a taboo to discuss it. Jammeh is known to be tenacious and his persistence paid off when the government commissioned The Gambia Television in December 1995 under the auspices of The Gambia Telecommunications Company (GAMTEL). Test transmissions from a 5KW transmitter in Abuko in the western part of the country covered the Greater Banjul Area. Shortly after, two more transmitting stations were built in Soma and Bansang in the East to attain nation-wide coverage.
Gam TV was since merged with Radio Gambia to become The Gambia Radio and Television Services and the TV will celebrate 20 years this year end. With proper management and programming capability, the growth and output of domestic resources is today maximised whilst minimising the use of foreign exchange available for the financing of further development.
Today GRTS TV programmes are touching every facet of national development and this coupled with broadcasts from foreign partners, Gambian viewers have guaranteed access to ‘live’ satellite transmissions of significant world events. Gambians have access to their national development from everywhere in the globe. As more and more television sets become available, Gambia Television has become an increasingly important and uniquely effective medium of communication. Its contribution to public education and awareness building campaigns leading to the 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 Presidential and National Assembly Elections have been hailed as a great stride in the democratisation and good governance process of the country. Generally, significant progress has been achieved since 1995 and the station has consolidated on those gains.
In 2002, government completed building a multi-million dalasi Headquarters to house the GRTS’s technical, administrative and operational requirements. The broadcaster and government, President Jammeh particularly, has send hundreds of staffs to oversees trainings and degree programmes and with more employees studying diverse courses at the University of The Gambia, the national TV can today boost of the qualified human resources for quality programmes.
The importance of Television broadcasting for socio-economic development of The Gambia cannot be overemphasised. Knowledge and information are fundamental drivers of increased productivity and are seminal to invention, innovation and wealth creation. A country that provides proper and timely information to its citizens possesses advantages for sustained economic growth. To disseminate appropriate knowledge, the TV runs programmes on new innovations in appropriate technology in agriculture as a way of educating our farming communities. This has tremendous impact on agricultural output of farmers and has resulted in improved production, especially in rice and vegetables.
Agriculture being the backbone of the country’s economy and employing over 85% of the rural workforce, it is imperative to show programmes that can improve farming methods, increase yields and ultimately increase food sufficiency and food security. This in turn is believed to reduce poverty levels, improves health status of the Gambian people, in line with the goals and objectives of our Poverty Reduction Strategy.
Twenty-one years after a so-called expert of nearly five decades experience in broadcasting in a developed country said it was not feasible for a national TV station, the verdict is out. His so-called warnings were sent to the thrash just 20 months later and to think that the government has since spent over US$16 million to put the station on satellite has gone to ridicule Gahan’s analysis. But just like those against the idea of setting up a national university in 1999, the retired Gahan would no doubt today regret the recommendations he made in Banjul in April 1994.