Below, you’ll find a short summary of the poem ‘Gambia’ by Jackie Kay; includes a breakdown of the stanzas, an insight into the speaker + voice of the poem, and an exploration of the themes and deeper meanings. This is only a quick overview to help you get to grips with the poem; you can access a full in-depth breakdown of the poem on the link below.
The day I go into the witness box
I am better dressed than I`ve ever been:
white linen –
white linen dress, white linen headgear,
and I wear
(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright restrictions)
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STORY + SUMMARY
As I step into the witness box, I realise that today I am dressed better than ever. I’m wearing white linen clothes, including a dress and headgear, and (as an accessory) a delicate filigree necklace around my neck.
I’m here to speak out about the abuse I endured while working as a kitchen maid. My name is Gambia, and I’m only thirteen years old. My master brought me back to the bungalow after he’d travelled along the Gold Coast. I never received any wages for my work, or any formal education.
My mistress was cruel to me from the start. She tore up my Bible, then set it on fire, laughing as it burned. She took pleasure in destroying everything I owned, which wasn’t much except my faith and my prayers.
One day she thought I was insulting her, so she beat me with her husband’s walking stick, and the crook at the end hurt me the most. I screamed as she held up my clothes and beat me, then stepped on my back, causing me immense pain and distress. The sky outside was ashen grey, and my screams echoed back to me like ghosts.
When the cruel man arrived, my mistress threatened to flog me every minute, every hour, and every day if I didn’t obey her. To him, she said she would “please herself” by hurting me whenever she liked, but she didn’t dare say that when she was on trial in the witness box. Instead, she cried and lied through her teeth, even though she swore on the Bible. I don’t know whether the court believed her, or the cowkeeper who testified against her.
Regardless, I take comfort in the fact that my mistress will think twice before abusing another girl like me. I’m going away to some other place, and I don’t know where. I heard that they called what my mistress did “cruelty,” and I smile quietly to myself as I finger my fine filigree.
SPEAKER + VOICE
The poem “Gambia” is told from the first-person perspective of the speaker, who is a young African girl named Gambia. As she is testifying at a trial against her former mistress, Gambia tells the story of her life as a kitchen maid in colonial Africa, describing the cruelty and abuse she endured at the hands of her white masters. The tone of the speaker’s voice is one of quiet resignation and stoicism, as she describes the horrific events she experienced without excessive emotion or self-pity. She also speaks in an ungrammatical dialect, phrases such as ‘the cruelty man’ conveys the idea that she is not comfortable expressing herself in the English language, as it is a language learned from her colonisers rather than one that is natural to her.
|The persona ‘Gambia’ may be interpreted as a metaphor for the country itself. In this sense, we can reinterpret the entire poem as an extended metaphor about the cruelty of colonial rule, where white European colonisers took over poorer developing world countries and started to exploit the native populations there, as well as take their resources.|
- Abuse of power