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Samba was – as far as records show - the first Gambian to be ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church and the only Gambian Roman Catholic priest in the 19th century.
The Spiritan archives on the Gambia contain precious few details on Samba. Most of what is known about Samba comes from a confidential file dated 1879, which contains letters and other materials pertaining to Samba’s conduct and his suitability for the priesthood. Sources also seem to contradict each other. Hence it is difficult to deduct a coherent biography from the sources.
Samba was a Gambian and probably born in Bathurst but neither his date of birth nor his Christian name are certain. Secondary literature cites 1842 or 1845 as possible dates of birth, but it is unclear on the basis of which primary sources these claims are made. According to Joseph Roger de Benoist, Samba’s first name was Jean, but no primary sources are referenced to substantiate this. His family name suggests that he was of Wolof descent.
In 1870 Samba arrived in Bathurst to serve as parish priest on St. Mary’s Island. Soon, his colleagues – African as well as European – began to make critical remarks about his conduct: he was considered to be negligent in his devotions and they considered his mother’s influence over him too strong. At some point between 1871 and 1873 Samba fell ill and was sent to France to recuperate. Possibly he entered the Congregation of the Holy Ghost during this period, because from his stay in France onwards he is mentioned as a Spiritan- rather than a diocesan priest.
In 1873 Samba, now a member of a missionary congregation, was sent to Sierra Leone. There are two different narratives as to what happened in the years that followed. According to Henry Koren, who takes the Bulletin Général of the congregation as the basis for his biography, Samba continued to work in Sierra Leone, suffering from an undiagnosed illness and repeatedly falling ill. Koren interprets Samba’s stays in Banjul and Joal as well as his time in France as periods to recuperate. Confidential archival sources however seem to tell a somewhat different tale than the published materials. They suggest that Samba ran into problems with his superiors in Sierra Leone, who criticized him for twice leaving his station without the permission of his superior. At least one of these occasions seem to have concerned a family matter. The Senegalese Spiritan Jean Lacombe, who served as parish priest in Bathurst between 1865 and 1876, reported that Samba travelled to Bathurst in 1874 to console his mother after the death of his father. The archival sources also suggest that because of what the sources call Samba’s “repeated disobedience,” Samba was dismissed from the Congregation of the Holy Ghost and was sent back to his bishop in Dakar. There, the Vicar Apostolic Jean-Claude Duret (1873-1875) re-stationed him at Joal.
Siméoni decided differently; neither Duboin’s nor Samba’s wishes were honored and in 1880 Samba was back in the Gambia. It is uncertain, whether the letter sent by Samba’s mother to the Vicar General of the Spiritans, Ignace Schwindenhammer ,had any influence on the decision to send Samba to the Gambia. Mrs. Samba, who was seriously ill, had begged Schwindenhammer to allow her son to visit her. Shortly after Samba returned to Bathurst, Mrs. Samba died. A number of incidents shortly after her death in 1880 gave rise to a new series of complaints about Samba. According to his superior Alois Meyer, Samba had quarrelled with a woman over the inheritance and had bought large quantities of liquor for his mother’s charity. Both incidents were used by the Protestants to discredit the reputation of the Roman Catholic mission. Also the fact that Samba, no longer a member of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, was not living with the other priests, was material for Protestant anti- Roman Catholic propaganda. According to Meyer, the Protestants used this to spread a rumor that Samba was creating a schism within the Gambian Roman Catholic Church. Neither Meyer’s desperate pleas to recall Samba to France nor the petition of the Roman Catholic community of St. Mary’s that Samba not be expelled from the priesthood required a response. On January 9, 1881, Samba died of pneumonia. Just before he died, he made his confession and is said to have expressed regrets about his disobedience. In his letter to Duboin Meyer wrote: “Many people attended the funeral and think God did well to recall him in this situation.’’
It is difficult to give an assessment of Samba’s years as a priest. The available sources are fragmentary, pre-dominantly European, and mainly written by his superiors. There are no indications that racism was a factor in the strained relations between Samba and his superiors; Senegalese contemporaries of Samba served the churches in Senegal and the Gambia for many years. Rather, the sources seem to suggest a certain forbearance on the part of his superiors; Samba was given several opportunities to make a fresh start in new context. Whether Samba was still too immature for the priesthood, whether he was unsuitable for the priesthood or whether he had mental problems as Benoist seems to suggest, remains uncertain. Obvious is that Samba’s example did not inspire vocations to the priesthood in the Gambia. It would take another forty years before the next Gambian priest – Joseph Charles Mendy – was to be ordained.
J. R. de Benoist, Histoire de l’église catholique au Sénégal. Du milieu du XVe siècle à l’aube du troisième millénaire, Karthala, 2008.
This article, received in 2016, was researched and written by Martha Frederiks, Professor for the Study of World Christianity at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Research foci include West African Christianity, Christian Muslim relations and religion and migration. Frederiks worked in the Gambia between 1993 and 1999 as adviser of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa.
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