To my late Friend Dr. Lenrie Peters: The Gambian Vessel Emptied Of Its Poetry In Appreciation
Thursday, July 02, 2009
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 his 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 triviaL, 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.
To be continued
Author: by Dr. Tijan M. Sallah