The Chronicle Gambia

The De-Ethnicization of Gambian Society, and the Fluidity of its Tribal Identity

“I don’t have a tribe; Gambia is my tribe”. This slogan, like “what a man can do, a woman can do better” belongs to that category of catchy Gambian slogans which attract attention while in reality have no substance. Unless uniformed, one does not have to misinform to attract attention. There is nothing ingenious about that. 

First, Gambia is not a tribe or ethnicity.  So, it cannot be anyone’s tribe. It is a country. As such, it has to be one’s country, and Gambian as one’s nationality. Ethnicity is the term for the culture of people in a given geographic region including their language. It is also defined as a population subgroup, within a larger or dominant national or cultural group, with a common national or cultural tradition. Tribe on the other hand has been described as an offshoot of ethnic groups, speaking a dialect or having a slightly different sub-culture of the main ethnic group. It is also described as a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader. The word “tribe”, to some, has connotations of being primitive while the word “ethnic group” does not. So, the proposition that Africa has tribes while Europe has ethnic groups. However, to some, the two terms have essentially, the same denotative meaning. In The Gambia, the two are used interchangeably. 

Second, and most importantly, there should be nothing wrong with people belonging to or identifying themselves with a tribe; or the very existence of tribe in the first place.  We need to do away with this notion of anything tribal is bad; and that tribe is one of the major problems or hindrances to Africa’s progress. No, tribe in itself is not bad. Tribes were existing even during the times of great empires of Africa. Our tribes as representation of our cultures are part of our core identity.  And nations are defined by multiculturalism, in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion to which, The Gambia cannot be an exception. The need to promote patriotism and/or nationalism cannot be done in isolation, that is, to the exclusion of the multiple cultures that constitute the national identity. Therefore, a nation does not have to lose its tribal-cum -cultural identity for it to survive. An attempt to eradicate any culture of a nation will result to the loss of its identity. Like Lawyer Ousainou Darboe once said, “Gambia will cease to be Gambia should it lose any of her tribes”. Culture as a core identity is formed and shaped by the sociocultural context one is born and grown up in. This core identity, however, does not die, but can expand and transform. And having a multitude of tribes in a nation is but an enrichment for multiculturalism. Ethnic identity and its celebration, therefore, should be cherished in the context of multiculturalism. Nations with more ethnic complexities than The Gambia have striven and succeeded in putting in place harmonious political systems and putting their countries on path of progress. Therefore, strive in The Gambia should be about maintaining the harmonious tribal relations and interactions; to make sure the differences do not encroach in deleterious way into the political or governance systems. As a people, the focus now should shift from the mere tolerance of our differences, towards the understanding that difference enriches human interactions and are positive assets for progress as recognized in the concept of ‘unity in diversity’. This mantra is recognized and appreciated as a positive tool to make progress.  It is used as the motto of the State of Indonesia as in Bhinneka Tunggal Ika ( “unity in diversity” or “out of many, one”). Indonesia is one of the most ethnically diverse societies in the world. It has about 1,300 ethnic groups. This mantra has enabled the multitude of cultures and ethnicities to live together largely in peace. In Malaysia, it is Kesepaduan dalam Kepelbagaian (‘unity in diversity’). Unity in diversity is the defining characteristics of Nepali and Indian societies, which are multilingual, multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious nations. In varietate concordia (‘United in diversity’), the motto of EU; Europeans, through EU, are united in working together for peace and prosperity, with the recognition that the many different cultures, traditions and languages in Europe are a positive asset for them. 

Therefore, there is a richness and progress to cultural diversity.  We need to do away with mere rhetoric and be realistic about issues we face as a nation. Unfortunately, the manner by which tribal consciousness found its way into our political or governance systems, and the approaches used to handle it were what had been the problem from the beginning of our modern statehood as a continent. This is reflected in the uniformed statement ‘for the nation to live, the tribe must die’ by Samori Machel, the first President of Mozambique; which even his widow, who is also widow of Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, refuted in the address she delivered at the Third Annual Lecture at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) in July 2014 entitled: ‘For Africa to Live, the Nation Must Die? The fluidity of African identity in a Changing Continent’. The elephant in the room here is, simply, the politicization of ethnicity or tribalization of politics; and not the ethnicity or tribe per se. Blood borne diseases are not prevented or treated by avulsing blood vessels from the body. 

So, as a country, the strive should be about accommodation based on the recognition of the essentiality of diversity to make progress. No culture or ethnicity should be considered to be better than the other; as in the context of the nation, out of many, they are one. All contributing to the progress of the country in a complementary way.  As a result, all tribes should be made to feel or made to have a sense of belonging to the nation. While at the same time, nation has to be able to embrace and integrate all the tribes. This will avoid ethno-national conflict, where some ethnicities may feel not to be part of a nation.

Furthermore, in addition to nothing being wrong with people identifying themselves with a tribe, tribal identity is not fixed. It can change over time, usually in a generation or so. And describing a person whose actions and words are seen to be devoid of tribal consciousness, as they being tribalistic, as ‘detribalized’ connotes a negative perception of tribe in itself. One does not have to be ‘detribalized’ so as not to be tribalistic. The two are not mutually exclusive. And looking at the sociocultural dynamics of our societies, one would realise that there is no single individual Gambian who is detribalized. First, tribal classification or grouping is not biological-cum-genetic. It is a social construct. As a result, it can change. One’s tribe can change over time depending generally, on the sociocultural conditions in an area. This is what is responsible for one family name (surname) to be found in more than one tribe in The Gambia. The general understanding or belief has been one’s tribe is determined by their surnames. The reality, on the ground, however, does not reflect that. And this is aptly expressed in the Wolof saying ‘santa amut kerr’.  True, surnames identified with specific tribes at some point in the past may have all originated from an area where they all shared the same culture. But once these people moved from their places of origin, to other areas, they, over time, first through enculturation, eventually adopted the dominant cultures in these areas, completely transforming, to be identified with those cultures in entirety. Thus, identifying themselves with tribal representation of the cultures of these (new) areas. This could explain why Bojang of Kombo is Mandinka, and that of Foni Jola. Colley in Kiang is Mandinka and that of Foni Jola.  Some Jagne and Faye from Baddibu identify themselves as Mandinka while those from Niumi and Banjul are Serer or Wolof. Some Sallah, Kah, Jah, Bah, among others from Niumi, Banjul or Kanifing Municipality are Wolofs while those from other parts are Fulas. Njie/Njai from Kiang and Baddibu are Mandinkas, while those from other parts of the country are either Sereres, Fulas or Sarehullehs. Sanneh, Manneh, Sanyang in Foni are Jolas while those in other parts of the country mostly are Mandinkas. However, not everyone who moved to new areas abandoned their original cultures completely.

At the individual or family level, there are Jallows who identify themselves as Serahulleh or Mandinka.  Badjie, Kujabi, Mendy, Bass identifying themselves as Mandinka. Senghore, Marongs identifying themselves as Jolas. Dibba, Sowe, Gassama, Dampha identifying themselves as Fana (Wolof). Manneh, Gomez identifying themselves as Wolof, just to name a few.  Saidykhan, Saidyleigh, and Saidyjah were originally Fula, but many are Mandinkas now as that is the culture they identify with. Cham is found in Mandinka, Fula and Wolof. Touray and Ceesay are found in Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Serahulleh.

Therefore, understanding that tribe is a social construct and not biological, and that it is the culture people identify with; to which tribe a person belongs should not be forced on them, and may be, should not be assumed too. If you want to know, ask. 

Finally, the establishment of tribal-cum-cultural groups or associations like Fulbe Afrique, Taabital Pulaaku, Soninkara Association, Ajamat Foundation, Kakandang Pulund society, inter alia to promote, preserve, celebrate their cultures and languages is commendable. However, everyone should be wary or concerned should these groups or associations start meddling in national politics or politicians start cozying up with them. 

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