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The Minister of Education and the Jaliya/Nguewel Comments

Claudiana A Cole, Gambia's education minister

There was a video of our very Honorable Minister of Basic and Secondary Education extolling the many “story building” schools they’ve built since Adama Barrow became president. To say the video is embarrassing is an understatement. That our minister responsible for our future generation’s education can be so willfully ignorant is embarrassingly sad. But what was also sad and hard to swallow are some of the commentaries comparing the Minister to a “griot” (Guewel, Jali). It’s not the first time I’ve heard my people say “so and so has reduced themselves to a “griot” for someone else. The implication is that if all you do is praise someone, you’ve REDUCED yourself to a Jali and you’d be exhibiting some form of Jaliya or Ngehwel as if the Jalis or Guewels are beneath us! It is as if Jaliya is all about praise singing! The true Jalis of yore are known for speaking truth to power! And if they have to appease someone for the sake of peace, they do so with honesty and integrity.

But is the belief that Jaliya is all about praise singing and beneath “us” a reflection of our ignorance of what Jaliya actually entails and means, or do we simply misunderstand these ancient social constructs? Do we, at some deep level, think that the Jalis are beneath us? To tell someone that they’ve “reduced” themselves to a Jali is the height of ignorance because it shows a profound misunderstanding of the Jalis and what Jaliya entails. Granted, some Jalis of today may be contributing in perpetuating this stereotype by focusing all their energy on money making ventures but there’s much more to Jaliya than praise singing.

Before going further, let me make the disclaimer that I, in no way, assume any authority, eminence or expertise on the art or traditions of the Jalis.  I’m only a student of this tradition that I admire and love so very much. I seek the forgiveness of the Jalis if I come across any other how. Kuma mang di (“speaking” is not easy).

We tend to think of Jaliya or nguewel as musician or playing music. I admire those who love and appreciate our ways and none more so than Sidia Jatta who wrote that “The Mandinka conception of the terms “music” and “musician” is profoundly different from the European one.” Sidia questions whether the word “griot” even captures the meaning of Jaliya or Ngehwel. You see the Jalis are not only the repositories of our history, as Sidia wrote: “A Jalis function goes far beyond the sphere of playing music and singing songs for entertainment…. they also mediate between disputants to bring about peace and happiness.”

Seedia further writes that “contrary to what some Europeans believe, Jalis are not paid for their performance. That is why in Mandinka we say: Ka jaloo so… similarly, its gross misinformation to say each time a Jali sings a person’s praise and praises his deeds, that person is obliged to give him something…” It is unfortunate that nowadays when we praise, we expect some form of reward and so we confuse this with Jaliya but we can certainly own up to our greed and wayward thinking without having to associate such to the Jalis for that’s not who they are and that is not what Jaliya entails.

It’s unfortunate that we have allowed ourselves to regard Jaliya as mere “praise singing” when there is much more to it. It is our ignorance of our history and lack of appreciation for us we are that we have a bagpipe player accompanying our university graduates on their graduation day! Apparently, the Kora, Halam, Ritti or any of our instruments are too “local” and so we go with the bagpipe. Talk about mental slavery at its finest! But while at it, I suggest that we do not demean the Jalis to the unfortunate comments of our Minister of Education. What she said is not what Jalis do at all!

Alagie Barrow is a former Captain in the US Army and former Director of research and investigations at the TRRC. He is currently an independent consultant focusing on Leadership, Investigations, Security and Strategic Communications.

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