By FRITZMYRE CHERUBIN
The tall African intellectual walked around the Brooklyn radio studio with his chest upright and his head held high as if he’d just won the “Most Confident of the Year” award.
Dressed in his bright white shirt, neatly pressed, finished with a black bow tie, Cheikh Baila, 52, has a face full of scars that remind him of his traumatic past.
Baila, who was tortured for speaking out against a tyrannical government in Mauritania, is now the talk host and president of the Brooklyn-based Pulaar Speaking Association’s Radio PSA, located at 1169 Fulton St. PSA is a radio show that promotes African cultures in general and the Fulani culture in particular, and develops educational projects to benefit its members. Radio PSA provides programming that entertains and educates the African community, while at the same time seeking to become a part of the larger American culture.
As different hosts are open to discussing any political subject occurring in Africa, Baila chooses to talk about an issue that hits close to home: the oppression faced by the citizens of Mauritania,the country in which Baila was born.
Every night as Baila prepares the rundown for the show, he reminisces about the time he was held in captivity, and it explains why he is a part of the organization in the first place.
During the harsh rule of President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya of Mauritania, a country in West Africa, many were afraid to question his political stances.
In 1996, Baila decided to become a political activist opposed to the segregation, discrimination, and racism under the Taya rule. Slavery has persisted in Mauritania, which has a mixed Arab and black population, and human rights activists say many blacks are enslaved.
Baila could not continue to witness what was going on before his very eyes, so he decided to develop concerts in which these different ethnic groups would unite. These ethnic groups consisted of the Fulani people, Wolof, Soninke, Bambara, Hratine, and the white Arabs. They would come with songs and Baila would be the emcee, presenting the different groups on stage. It was not long before the Mauritanian government came looking for Baila.
He says that while the African peoples were finally coming together under one roof, undercover cops disguised as audience members would report the concert activities back to Taya. Baila said he was not aware of this until two detectives came knocking at his door late at night, as his pregnant wife, Niouma Kante Baila, stood in the background with a face full of panic. He and his wife were helpless as the two men blindfolded Baila and threw him into the backseat of a van.
For three whole days, a group of men kept Baila him in a dark room with little food and tortured him until he gave answers, he said. One common technique they used was the “jaguar” torture method; he was tied upside down from the ceiling until the blood rushed to his head, leaving him close to unconscious. They then beat him to the ground, which eventually left long-lasting scars on his face.
Baila said he would not succumb to the pressure. He said he simply told them the truth, which was that he was not a member of any political party and was just trying to convey a message through musical outlets.
As if to say it was obvious, Baila raised his brows and smirked. The message, he said, was to “invite people to be one people and to love each other.”
Baila was let off the hook that night. But many Mauritanians who were opposed to the government did not live to tell their story.
After that night, Baila says, “My mission wasn’t complete.” He continued to organize concerts, but as a disguised audience member. His success was short-lived as the government was notified once again.
It was then that Baila had to flee Africa for good, with the help of a former classmate.
After making a successful escape, he landed in Brooklyn, and would not see his family for the next five years.
“Of course I missed my family, especially my wife, but I knew this was something I had to do,” Baila says.
Although Baila was devastated at being far from his family, he felt that it was worth the sacrifice because it was his calling, he said, adding that if he had just walked away, he wouldn’t have been able to live with that decision.
When asked if he has any regrets, Baila replied, “It’s the best choice I ever made. Somebody had to do it.”
Although Baila now voices his opinions about the government on the Pulaar Speaking Association radio show, 8,000 miles away from Africa, his wife says, “I still fear for his life.”
Baila says that he understands his wife’s concerns, but feels he is considerably safer here in America.
Although Taya was overthrown in 2005, the modern day government does little to engage in the matter of slavery, says Baila.
For this reason, Baila continues to address the problem on the Pulaar Speaking Association.
“People need to stand together to fight against the practice of slavery,” he said. “And by people, I mean everyone!”
Photo: Cheikh Baila.