Meet The Gambia's Miss Marple

A throwback from the archives-- a story about one of my favorite women in the world, my formidable aunt, Ayesatou Gillen.

Not much gets past Ayesatou Gillen. A former teacher, one even might say she has eyes in the back of her head. But these days the observation skills once employed in detecting naughty classroom behavior are coming in handy as an amateur detective.

Like the infamous Miss Marple of Agatha Christie fame, Ayesatou has deployed her own talent for sniffing out the truth in her local community of Serrekunda, The Gambia. As the country’s largest urban center, Serrekunda buzzes with activity. But with a population of just under 400,000 people (a third of the size of Washington, D.C.), located in the smallest country on mainland Africa, the town still feels intimate. The neighbors form an extended family full of surrogate “aunties” and “uncles.”

In this close-knit environment, it’s difficult to imagine crime. Yet increasingly, with exposure to global consumer culture, Gambian youth are gaining an appetite for expensive gadgets from smartphones to tablets to flat screen TVs.

With over 48% of the population living below the poverty line, youth have few means to satisfy these tastes. Ranking 165 out of 187 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index, The Gambia has few natural resources and almost no industrial activity. Faced with unemployment, but hoping to keep up with the golden age of connectivity, some youth resort to theft to remain en vogue.

Last March, Ayesatou was the victim of such a theft. As she left one evening to visit a friend in the neighborhood, she spotted a group of young men outside her compound.

“When I saw them, I had an intuition that they were up to no good,” she says.  “I walked past them to visit two friends of mine. When I returned home, I noticed that my window was open and my things weren’t where I had left them. I suspected that one of the boys I had seen was responsible for the burglary. I wasn’t sure, so I went around the house to inspect the scene.”

Remembering a string of thefts at her brother Abdu’s home just a few months prior, she had a hunch that the same burglars might be responsible after noting similar entry techniques and a curious bloodstain on the windowsill.

In The Gambia, where polices don’t have the resources to mount large-scale investigations, most thieves often escape justice.

“If they’re never caught, they can just do it to someone else. I decided to take my time and expose them,” Ayesatou says. Taking matters into her own hands, she employed her detective skills.

“I asked a girl in the neighborhood to watch him for the next few days and note his activities. Anytime the ringleader bought anything expensive, the girl came to tell me. Whenever I saw him on the street, he acted shifty, so I knew he was the one.”

Although the money was taken on a Tuesday, Ayesatou bided her time and waited to capture the culprit until the next Monday. The modern day Miss Marple says, “I believe that you have to be patient to catch a thief. When you talk too much, information gets to them and they can run off or get rid of the evidence.”

As she trailed the thieves for the next few days, her informant noted that the ringleader appeared to recently have come into some new money. He purchased expensive products like a tablet, headphones, and a new phone. When she was sure of the culprit, she went to the police and enlisted their help in apprehending the suspect.

“Before I entered the house to fetch him, I told the police to form a triangle, so that when he exited there would be no means of escape,” she says. “I got his sister to call him, and I lured him out where the police told him he was wanted at the station. Then they arrested him and took him away. Now he’s in prison at Mile Two.”

Since assisting in the arrest of the thief, Ayesatou has offered her services as a community liaison for The Gambia Police Force. “The police are present, but they sometimes aren’t actively engaged,” she says.

“Policing isn’t only about punishment, but also about being in constant conversation with the community. It’s about encouraging people who might engage in crime to direct their energy elsewhere. When you have someone who is familiar with the day-to-day, they can be that liaison.”

While the offer is still under review with local authorities, the Serrekunda community can be sure of one thing: no more thieves will escape justice as long as Ayesatou is on the lookout.  

Akinyi OchiengComment