The “vous” is a derivative of “rendez-vous” and has long been a Gambian social institution. It is an organization of peers with shared interests, where men, and in some instance women, irrespective of social status, walk of life and political affiliation once loosely organized themselves into a social support group. In turn they would sometimes share the same “grand palace” where they can be found on most evenings chatting over attaya, a game of cards or board games such as checkers.
These get-togethers were where lifelong friendships were formed, mentoring the next generation, business partnerships formed and perhaps more conspicuously, the biggest political, economic and social debates took place before becoming mainstream subjects. This gave members of these “vous”, whether in public service or otherwise a great sense of responsibility as people, especially young people, looked up to them. In turn the sense of responsibility and mentorship acted as a bulwark against abuse of any kind. That is not to say abuse of power and prestige didn’t take place back then; just that it was collectively frowned upon and society made no excuses for people who engaged in it no matter who they were.
In addition to being incubators of social and political discourse, these “vous” also served as political contact groups that gave the citizenry access to elected leaders directly or through intermediaries. On the other hand, it also gave politicians and civic leaders the unique opportunity to have their hands on the pulse of the population; thereby mitigating the possibility of getting out-of-touch with the goings on around them. In other words, these groups carried great social and political clout and the faint details I recall about them is that these powers were exercised in ways that, by and large, benefitted the public good and ensured that people in positions of authority were grounded and attuned to the priorities of the population. This social cohesion was achieved because membership of the “vous” ranged from the cleaner to the Managing Director of institutions.
The environment was open, the discussion was uncensored, the breadth of the topics discussed were virtually without bounds and that is what put them on a collision course when the military dictatorship took over the government of The Gambia in July 1994. The first victims of Sana Sabally’s brutality, as Vice Chairman of the AFPRC military junta, were older men who were members of some of the most influential “vous” in the greater Banjul area but held no political office whatsoever. This struck fear in the populace and especially those who were members of any such groups. After the fall of Saballay and Jammeh’s strengthening, there was this unwritten rule that indicted a whole “vous” should one member run afoul of the dictatorship for any reason and that was when people started to feel unsafe openly associating with groups; even those with no political affiliation. That was clearly a harbinger to what we see today with the illegal detention, humiliation and torture of Gambian citizens whose only crimes are being family members of those alleged to have taken part in the December 30, 2014 insurrection in Banjul.
Although the disappearance of “vous” and “grand palaces” have left a vacuum in the social space yet to be filled, the way forward is already being paved thanks to the wide reach and the nature of social media. A new generation of ascendant Gambians have used social media platforms to ensure Jammeh’s worst fears and suspicions of what “vous” could breed actually becomes his reality. Today, the animated nature of Gambian activists, especially diaspora Gambians, far exceeds anything Jammeh could’ve imagine to be his worst nightmare so much so that we get special mentions in Jammeh’s regular rants on national TV and radio. The fight to bring back the influence of the regular man and woman who organized themselves into a pressure group is being won not at the “vous” and “grand palaces” but from our cell phones, microphones and word of mouth. Power to the people!