Economist Tijan Sallah speaks!!!

“It is  hard to make such blanket generalization as the single underlying motivation for the brain drain.  As  I mentioned, some did go back but find their respective countries inhospitable to them to live. They are now working abroad and sending remittances to their families. Ideally, they should have been home, but we do not live in an ideal world. We  have a lot of poor governments in Africa that don’t welcome intellectuals and that abuse human and intellectual rights. The environment is improving as many African countries  become more and more democratic. The Western world has been developing  precisely because it creates an open society for all citizens and especially intellectuals to develop new ideas and technologies to make their economies grow. African societies have not yet fully matured to that level; although I cannot so generalize, as many African societies are changing and becoming more democratic. As a result, they are also making positive strides at economic development.  South Africa is a good model of a democratic open society that attracts intellectuals and rewards and recognizes them.  It is benefiting a lot from talent provided by brain drain from other parts  of Africa.” These were the exact words of  the leading Gambian Economist and poet Tijan Sallah. He was responding to a question regarding African intellectuals, who settled in abroad for “monetary gains” to the detriment of their respective countries. Mr.Sallah  who works with the Washington based World Bank, was speaking in an exclusive interview with Freedom Newspaper’s Pa Nderry M’Bai. In this master piece interview, Mr.Sallah commented about  his poetry life, brain drain in Africa, the global aids pandemic, gender equality, the Virginia shooting incident, which claimed more 30 lives, among a host of  other issues. Below is full text of the interview. Please read on…..

Freedom Newspaper: Can you tell us a bid about yourself?
T Sallah:  I was born  in  the 1950s in Sere Kunda, where I grew up and later attended St. Augustine’s High School in the early seventies.  I trained as a  professional economist until I received my doctorate from Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) in 1987 and then taught economics at a few American  universities before joining the World Bank.  My professional training is in economics but one  of my side interests is writing.  I have published several books spanning poetry collections, a short story collection, an ethnography on the Wolof, two major anthologies of  African poetry, and a biography of Africa’s most famous novelists, Chinua Achebe.

Freedom Newspaper: We are made to understand that you have published series of books. What’s your best selling book, since you started the writing business?
T Sallah:  Yes, I have published more than 7 books, including a forthcoming book of my selected poetry titled Dream Kingdom.  I also have a book of critical essays and a novel  in preparation.  My best selling  book is probably the biography, Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light.
Freedom Newspaper: Is there anything like Gambian literature?
T Sallah:  Well, this is not an easy question.  In a nutshell, yes, there is.  Some years ago, a group of Gambians in Washington, D.C.—I believe it was Latjorr Ndow and others organized a conference, and invited a number of Gambian intellectuals to speak.  I was asked to prepare a paper and explore this topic, whether there was a Gambian literature—a Gambian national literature.  The paper I prepared which was posted in the Internet was  titled, “The Challenge of Katchikali:  Is there a Gambian National Literature?”  I used Katchikali because it was Dr. Lenrie Peter’s book of poetry on the Gambia which marked the first international collection of poetry by a Gambian writer. Lenrie is the founding father of Gambian national literature in English, and Katchikali marked the beginning of anglo-Gambian national literature. The main issue I explored in my conference paper was  if  there was a Gambian national literature, how was it different from the literature of Senegal?  In a sense, the underlying traditional culture and oratures between these two countries is similar,  so what made their national literatures different?  I think it is a distinction which has to do with the different colonial experiences of the two countries—the fact that the British left a distinct English influence on Gambian culture as did the French in the case of Senegalese culture.
Freedom Newspaper: What inspired you into writing? Why don’t you take up politics as your career?
T Sallah:  I took up writing  while  I was at St. Augustine’s  High School—taking traditional English literature classes where we read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, many of Shakespeare’s plays, and several  British classics—including also the study of the Bible.  Reverend  Father Joseph Gough, an Irish priest, who used to teach us English discovered that I had a knack for language and encouraged me to try my hand at poetry.  At the time, we started a school newspaper that published student writings called Sunu Kibaro.  I published my first poem, “The  African Redeemer,”(a  tribute to Kwame Nkrumah) in the Sunu Kibaro.  I don’t think much of  it now, but it was my beginning as a poet, and one has to respect one’s beginnings, and it  gave me the early confidence to continue with writing.  Of course, Father Gough was an  inspirational figure—he made our little dreams  bigger.  He  made us to aim for  big hopes.  You ask why don’t I take up politics as a career; it really has not interested me.  I recognize its importance, but think we can all contribute to our societies where our strengths  lie.   I think I can make better contributions as an  econonomist and writer.  I will leave politics for the politicians.

Freedom Newspaper: How long have you been living in the United States? What do you do for a living?
T Sallah:  I have lived in the  United States for about  30 years now—about a generation.  It just seems like yesterday since I reached the shores of this country.  I now work as an economist with the World  Bank on designing policies  and projects  for the development of agriculture in poor countries in Southern Africa.
Freedom Newspaper: Brain drain has been a major problem affecting the African continent. Intellectuals are giving their backs to the continent in a bid to render their knowledge and skills to the Western world. That due to poor pay and lack of job security, many African intellectuals traveled to the West seeking for what many called greener pastures.” Do you agree with such critics?
T Sallah:  It is true that Africa—like many other developing regions of the world—suffers greatly from the brain drain.  Better pay is one factor but having the right environment to work in is another factor.  Many well-meaning African intellectuals return out of patriotism to their countries but find that they are neither paid well nor appreciated for their contributions.  Instead, they find their work sabotaged by petty jealousies and petty politics.   Africans sometimes can be their own worst enemies.  It is a sad commentary, but it is something African government’s need to confront.  Building systems based on meritocracy can strengthen African economies greatly and create the institutional basis for creating economic growth, employment and incomes for Africa’s poor.
Freedom Newspaper: In your honest opinion, what would you attribute brain drain to?
T Sallah:  I attribute the brain drain both to poor pay and a poor working environment, where the competent and good are  not encouraged, recognized, and fairly rewarded.
Freedom Newspaper: Critics say African intellectuals are driven by monetary gains and personal ambition to the detriment of their own respective countries. That many preferred to do unskilled jobs in the West than serving their own governments. Your stake on this?
T Sallah: Well, that may be true.  It is  hard to make such blanket generalization as the single underlying motivation for the brain drain.  As  I mentioned, some did go back but find their respective countries inhospitable to them to live.  They are now working abroad and sending remittances to their families.  Ideally, they should have been home, but we do not live in an ideal world.   We  have a lot of poor governments in Africa that don’t welcome intellectuals and that abuse human and intellectual rights. The environment is improving as many African countries  become more and more democratic. The Western world has been developing  precisely because it creates an open society for all citizens and especially intellectuals to develop new ideas and technologies to make their economies grow.   African societies have not yet fully matured to that level; although I cannot so generalize, as many African societies are changing and becoming more democratic.  As a result, they are also making positive strides at economic development.  South Africa is a good model of a democratic open society that attracts intellectuals and rewards and recognizes them.  It is benefiting a lot from talent provided by brain drain from other parts  of Africa.
Freedom Newspaper: Do you have in mind of going back home one day and contribute to nation building?
T Sallah: Yes, I do, but I am not sure when.  I believe I can do a lot for Gambia but I am waiting for the right moment to  return.
Freedom Newspaper: What’s the way forward to tackle brain drain in Africa?
T Sallah:   Our governments must recognize that human capital is the key driving force for economic development  and  governments must strive to reward and create the  enabling environment for skilled  human capital to return and stay. One thing I know is that you can not run modern societies on ignorance.  Look at the United States—one major reason it is a growing, dynamic economy is that  it attracts skilled labor from all of the world—including many Africans– and gives them basic freedoms and rewards  them handsomely for their skills.  As a result, many contribute create a lot of economic value which is fuelling America’s economic growth.
Freedom Newspaper: Lets shift our gears on Gambian culture. HIV/Aids spread in the Gambia, is partly blamed on cultural practices. Female Genital Mutilation is being practiced in many communities. In your own view, what are the implications of FGM?
T Sallah: I’m really not a health expert and so cannot make scientifically confident comments on this.  From my own naïve common sense, I know the practice is an ancient practice in many parts of the world—not only in Africa. Female Genital Mutilation is a backward practice, and like all backward practices, it has a cost to society.  I think the practice of FGM is seen as risky because it spreads HIV/AIDS.  All risky practices that spread HIV/AIDS should be controlled to avoid further spread of a dangerous disease to a larger segment of society.   The practice, also, is really unnecessary because, as far I know, it adds nothing to a woman’s health or wellbeing but has a lot of negatives.   Studies I  have read report that women have many problems later on with FGM, including continuous severe pain during  intercourse.  I don’t, however, like the political sensationalism and propaganda in the West associated with FGM.  I think it should simply be called female circumcision.  The term Female Genital Mutilation is a political propaganda term—it seems to suggest as if the practice is a form of violence against women; but most of the times women undergo circumcision voluntarily out of tradition.  I recognize that, regardless of what it is called, it is an unattractive practice that should be discouraged.
Freedom Newspaper: From the African perspective, what are the reasons given for FGM? Is it traditional or Islamic?
T Sallah:  I think FGM or female circumcision is  traditional.  I is practiced in many traditional  societies and has nothing to do with Islam.
Freedom Newspaper: What’s your own assessment of the aids crisis in Africa?
T Sallah: AIDS is a serious  viral  disease that is having a devastating effect on African societies and  the HIV prevalence rate in Africa is  highest among the young.  More than 3 million Africans are killed annually by AIDS.    The  worst affected regions are Southern and Eastern Africa.  Because AIDS is striking the young  in Africa, it is having a devastating  effect on African economies as it strikes the able bodied at critical stages of their working lives.  AIDS is  also killing a lot of  young African professionals—and  this is creating a  big skill deficit in the worse affected countries, like Malawi.
Freedom Newspaper: What needs to be done to fight the aids pandemic?
T Sallah:  As I said, I am not a medical expert, but the  common ABC approach is a sensible one.  Abstinence, Being faithful to one partner, and Condom use seems to work.  Massive public awareness on how it is spread to prevent being infected in the first place is urgent and so is making available cheap drug cocktails to slow down the march of the disease on the infected.
Freedom Newspaper: The Gambian President Yahya Jammeh recently claimed to have found cure for Hiv/Aids. What do you make out of his claims?
T Sallah:   Well, I am not a medical expert, but as  far as medical reports go, medical science has not yet found a cure for AIDS.  There is the AIDS drug cocktail which can prolong an infected person’s life, but that is not a cure for AIDS.  If  President Jammeh found  a cure for AIDS, then he deserves the  Nobel Prize.
Freedom Newspaper: Do you believe that there is cure for aids?
T Sallah:  No, I don’t believe so. Because if there is a cure, the millions who are currently dying annually will not be dying. But again, I am not a medical expert.  These questions should be asked medical experts working on AIDS virology.
Freedom Newspaper: Herbal medicine has been common in Africa, most importantly in the Gambia. What needs to be done to improve herbal medicine and to avoid mixed signals that might undermine the global quest to tackle the dreadful disease?
T Sallah:   Herbal medicine—like all forms of traditional medicine—needs  to be supported by scientific medical research, testing, and corroboration.   Much of modern medicine was built on traditional medicine.  So we should not discard traditional medicine as entirely wrong, but there should be more research to see if traditional medicine/herbal medicine has the properties to heal that  it claims it  has.  Large segments  of  Africa’s population cannot afford modern medicine and rely on traditional medicine.  And  sometimes, they work  quite effectively.  My Nigerian friend, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, once delivered a paper in which he noted, since they said “AIDS originated from Africa”—a thesis that is highly contestable and has never been adequately supported—then could the “cure for AIDS” also come from Africa?   To find AIDS deathbed in its supposed birthplace—Africa?
Freedom Newspaper: Is HIV/Aids still a major problem for Africa?
T Sallah:  Surely, it goes without saying.   It is our modern plague. Millions in Africa have been killed already, and millions are needlessly underway to their final reckoning.
Freedom Newspaper: Gender inequality has been a debatable issue in Africa. Women folks had time and time complained about injustices, marginalisation, and discrimination among others. In your view, are African women empowered or marginalized?
T Sallah:  The picture about African women’s power marginality or centrality is a differentiated one.  In West Africa, there a many prominent African women serving as Ministers in government, as doctors and engineers, and now we even have an African woman President in Liberia.  In other parts of Africa, there are a lot of women who are marginal and are still treated a beasts of burden.  I think, where African women are marginalized, every effort should be made by government to empower them because women are so central to the development of our societies—not only as child bearers, child rearers, but as leaders and the most stable pillars of our social development.  When you development men, you develop an individual, but when you develop women, you develop a society.
Freedom Newspaper: But on the other hand, in some communities men are dominant at the household. Is this fair?
T Sallah:  Male dominance is often a feature of early biases at the household level in the treatment of the girl-child and the boy-child, in terms of their access to schooling and other opportunities.  If this is a problem in an African society, then it needs to be addressed through enhancing girl access to economic opportunities at a higher rate or at least equivalent rate as boys.
Freedom Newspaper: Well, some used the Koran as a yard stick to rule out gender equality. Their point of contention is that women cannot be equal with men. That men should always lead and women follow. Your views on this please?
T Sallah:   Religious texts, like the Koran or the Bible, can be used to justify people’s fancies.     If you recall, the prophet Mohammad was an employee of his wife, Khadijjah.  So the prophet was a liberated man in the true sense of the word, and never showed preference among the genders.   His test on people was not on inherited particularities like race, tribe or gender, but piety.   The best among us was the pious.   Even in the case of polygamy, he allowed it, because there may societies of more women to men—as happened during times of war in Arabia—in which case, you can have more than one wife up to four—if you can treat them equally.   The last caveat, which is an impossible one, is an important one, because it suggests that monogamy is the more practicable system between men and women, and affords men and women equality.  I believe in the equality of men and women.
Freedom Newspaper: As a former student of Virginia Tech, what’s your reaction to the recent shooting incident, which claimed over 30 lives? The incident was described as America’s worst school violence. Your views?
T Sallah:   Sad, truly sad.  An unfortunate incident in a truly beautiful and peaceful campus located in the heartland of th rural Blue Ridge mountains.  But violence, these days, knows no boundaries. When I watched the tragedy unfold on television at my dear alma mater, it just didn’t seem real— how could human nature be so negatively flawed to embark on such wanton violence.   Why do people who have a capacity for self-destruction not stop only with themselves– why do they externalize the costs also to others?   As a long observer of human nature, I have come to believe that humans are negatively charged— we have an infinite capacity for good and for evil— only that we hope pressures don’t wear on individuals so negatively that they end up accentuating their negative capabilities.   I believe in the progressive assent of our nature towards the good– though those moments as we have watched at Virginia Tech– do cast doubts.   Let’s pray for those innocent lives that have been lost.  It is hard to make sense of senseless violence.
Freedom Newspaper: What was school like at Virginia Tech during those days?
T Sallah:   Oh, truly wonderful.  The school was unique because of its gothic buildings—unlike many other American university campuses which have red-brick buildings.    And the mixture of nature with the color of an internationally community of students and faculty made for a rich learning and living environment.
Freedom Newspaper: In your view, what needs to be done to avert incidences of this nature in the future?
T Sallah: I think gun control is a must.   Why should societies allow civilians to hold guns under the bogus First Amendment Rights claim of  ‘the right to bear arms?”   I could have understood that in the ancient American frontier culture where everyone was against everyone, and where the state was not strong to guarantee civic peace and law and order.  But why should a civilian American in this day and age when you have functioning police systems be holding guns?   I recognize, even if the police system is not perfect, that holding guns is a prescription for stray violence.    Guns simply have to be controlled—and any one who must have them should have his or her background screened, including requiring sobriety and mental sanity tests—and licensing before a gun is issued.  The types of guns should also be regulated—including outright ban of dangerous guns.  Above all, there should be civic education in the media and in films about respecting the value of human life.  Since humans did not create life, then we have no right to take away other people’s lives.—unless in circumstances of a just war.  Even then, the sanctity of human life has to be respected.
Freedom Newspaper: Any message to the bereaved families and the School authorities of Virginia Tec?
T Sallah:   May they all be comforted in these times of bereavement.   And may the industry of life triumph over the industry of death.
Any final word to the Gambian public?
T Sallah:   May the peace, hardwork, prosperity, and generosity towards each other that we are sent here for on earth be the guiding principle of  every Gambian.

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Posted on Thursday, May 03, 2007 (Archive on Wednesday, June 27, 2007)
Posted by PNMBAI  Contributed by PNMBAI
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1 user commented in " Breaking News:The Big Interview:World Bank’s leading Economist Tijan Sallah Speaks!! "

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Fr. Joseph Gough said,
in April 14th, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Tijan, thanks for mentioning me so positively as having an influence on your literary career. You flatter me. Congrats on your success. You were always destined to succeed in life. You had the talent and also the character. I remember you as a fine young man and an ambitious student. I’m very proud of you and all my SAHS past students who have achieved in life like you.
Best wishes
Joe Gough CSSp

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