The Chronicle Gambia

The Fallacy Of Non-Tribal Identity In Senegal

Oftentimes, when many Gambians discuss tribal issues affecting The Gambia, they point to Senegal where tribalism, or tribal identity, is supposedly nonexistent or dormant. The prevailing thought is that the Senegalese have risen above tribal identifications and see themselves as Senegalese, first and foremost. But how true is that narrative?

One, I think the contention that Senegalese are “detribalized”, especially in relation to their politics, uncritically simplifies the issue of a tribe in Senegalese politics, and two, the supposed tribal dormancy is not representative of Senegal as a whole. That one culture, tradition, language, or tribe dominates the sociopolitical and cultural landscape of a nation does not nullify the existence of, or identification with, others outside the dominant group.

I find it interesting that many of us are asking that we define or identify ourselves according to arbitrarily drawn colonial lines that mean nothing to many of us beyond the fact that we find ourselves confined within the colonial territorial borders. Why must I define myself by what Europeans imposed on me? I understand that people have issues with the use of tribe to assume superiority over others or deepen divisions between the people for political gain and I have issues with those too. But my issues go beyond tribal affiliations because I don’t identify oneself with a tribe as a crime of backwardness at all. I think we should then focus on the underlying issues that people use to deepen these differences: power and wealth. Believe it or not, but there is so much in diversity. Only those who have severe insecurities try to deny those who are not like them.

My being Gambian, whatever that means, originates from a thoughtless colonial process as far as my being human is concerned in that the Europeans didn’t care how the lines they drew around us affected us. If the lines had been drawn a few more miles up, I would have been categorized Senegalese with the only difference being that I would have aligned myself with French culture and tradition and not the English. Those who carved out this space we call the Gambia did not care whether we live or die as a result of the contours they drew around us. They were far more concerned with their interest, and that was the resources of the land. We the people only happened to be collateral to that interest. If tribal identity is backward, identifying oneself around colonial contours should be criminalized!

Even more sobering is the fact that the Colonialists that drew these lines around us Africans identify themselves as English, French or Portuguese, but somehow we’ve managed to convince ourselves that identifying oneself as Wolof or Fula, or Mandinka, is backward and the cause of all our problems within the colonial lines we are mentally immured in. What differentiates a Caucasian that identifies as English from an African that identifies as Fula? Europe formed countries along tribal lines and just finished a tournament based on tribal lines. Yet they make some of us think that identifying ourselves according to the language we speak is the backyard. What factors do we use to determine ethnicity? If someone else can call themselves French, why can’t I call myself Bainuk or Balanta? Why should someone be proud of calling themselves a Scouser but one shouldn’t be proud of calling themselves a Badibunka. And that’s disregarding my fact that there are no such people as Badibunkas because, in actuality, they’re all runaway Kiankas. You listen to many Africans and you’d think that identifying with an ethnic group is a capital crime and such a person should be convicted of backwardism. Such is the level of our miseducation. The foundations of our so-called education must be dismantled in order to free our minds for freedom. There’s a reason many White Americans fear Critical Race Theory! But I digress.

They say you can go to Senegal and you’ll not hear of or see tribal affiliations, or hear people identifying with particular tribes! But is that so? I hope we are not basing our opinion on what we observe in Dakar or one of the bigger cities because that will be rather shortsighted. Tribal identity tends to be a lot more fluid in urban areas but that does not mean it is non-existent. Jola and Mandinka culture and language dominate Southern Senegal, this is why our own artists like Kitaabu Fatty, Jaliba Kuyateh, and O Boy make inroads in those regions. This is also why some mainstream Senegalese musicians infuse aspects of these cultures into their music for relatability, whether it’s the beat or some words. The recent Ousman Sonko incident in Senegal took on tribal ramifications in communities in the Casamance area where he is reportedly from.

Come to think about it, I have some questions on what we mean by tribal identity. What factors do we use to determine tribal affiliations? Is it language or surnames? Is it based on cultural practices or traditions? Is it based on lineage? You see, ethnic or tribal affiliation is a social construct; it’s neither biological nor is a constant state in which one remains boxed in. The problem is not that one identifies as Fula or Jola, it’s not that one identifies as Serrehulleh or Aku, it is how we’ve been rigidly boxed into “tribes” and conditioned to think that an Aku will or should only care about his fellow Akus, or that the Mandinkas are some monolith that will disband anyone identifying themselves as a Mansuanka. The problem is how we, the so-called educated ones, exploit tribal affiliations to promote our individual and group interests at the expense of the larger community. You know, that thing we call politics! Our politics is the problem and until we dismantle the foundation upon which political aides can mobilize a group of people that call themselves Serehulleh or Fula or Balanta and come visit Adama Barrow, we will continue to have challenges of political greed masked as tribal differences!

In Senegal, as it is in the Gambia, people identify themselves differently and based on various factors ranging from religion, religious sect, region of origin, dialect, and yes, tribe. To what degree these identifications impact on Senegalese politics is debatable, but that does not negate the fact that people identify with and are identified by tribe and that it plays no role in their calculus. There isn’t a country in the world that is purely homogenous and there isn’t a country where people do not align according to who they feel is their type. You see the people that attacked the US Capitol, you would not see too many people in that group that do not identify as White. Yes, you may not see a group of people calling themselves Serehullehs going to visit Mackey Sall but that does not mean that fellow Fulas in Futa do not vote for Mackey because they see him as one of them! Behind every such visit to the president is some half-baked miseducated opportunist who somehow manages to bamboozle our innocent president into believing that exploitation of the people to keep power is admirable.

From the religious leaders we affiliate with to the sect of Islam some subscribe to, people, by nature will always differentiate themselves from others based on common factors they share with others. Go outside of the main cities of Senegal and you’ll see that like the Gambia, there are communities that are formed along lines of a common language or shared heritage.

We want to make it seem like tribal identification is the problem when it’s the way we allow politicians to use us that is causing us problems. Take away tribal identification and we will still find another commonality to rally around, be it religion or the region we hail from. Believe it or not, but as humans, we are tribal (identify with our kind) at our core. For us Africans, we’ve just been conditioned to hate ourselves and everything that’s unique to and about us.

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