A storm in a teacup

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With Talib Gibran

Now that the dust has settled; no, now that the tornado has settled on what was arguably the most controversial headline in the so-called New Gambia, I had a couple of days to myself to ponder over what exactly caused so much fuss about a headline.
If you missed Thursday’s edition of The Standard, and the subsequent undue barrage of harsh assessment and reassessment of the paper’s ethical standards, here is the MIGHTY headline: BARROW SAYS HE IS A MANDINKA.

Starting off on a lighter note, I don’t think The Standard has managed to write any headline as clear and precise as this in my five-year stint with the paper. There was nothing ambiguous about it. In fact, having taken almost a litre of my Foni bungaab stocked for the last two months, I think the better headline would have been “BARROW: I AM A MANDINKA”. No reported speech, just direct and in first person. But, hey, the same guns would have blazed anyway.

By now you probably have seen two pictures in this article. Two screenshots of the same topic expressed in totally opposing words. The first one, which was published in February 2019, was also a Standard lead story. In this story, The Standard quoted Imam Baba Leigh as saying that Barrow is a Fula. Now, since I find it hard to paraphrase quotes, I would just give you the whole thing, for I don’t want to misquote the venerable imam:“Each of you can support any political party of your choice but you must all recognise and respect your culture and tribe as Fulas. You cannot change that. Adama Barrow is a typical Fula; if anyone wants to make him something that will be just to use him but even his parents, grandparents are all Fulas from Barrow Kunda in Futa Toro.” Oops! Those are not my words, I dare not say them, I would have been hanged on Facebook.

If you look at the top right corner of the picture, you would see that 4,930 site visitors have viewed this story (whether they have actually read it is totally up to them). Let’s assume only half of that number actually read it, that would be 2,460; help me here, I failed mathematics.

Now look at the other screenshot, you recognise it? Of course you do, it has been shared more times than royal baby Archie’s birth. And I don’t need to bring you any quotes from Barrow because you have read the story. Wait, you didn’t read it? If you check for the number of views you would see 1,557, for now at least, because people are still telling each other—and their unborn children as well—about how ‘irrelevant and insensitive’ the story is; so we might end up having 1.9 million views. But, what this means is that, the number of people who took a screenshot of the front page, ‘analysed’ and shared, didn’t actually read it. So how can you conclude that a whole front page lead story was insensitive and irrelevant when you didn’t read it? If the first story caused the same outrage that the second one has, then maybe there wouldn’t have been any second story because even Barrow wouldn’t dare touch on ethnicity. But if you compare the two lead stories, in both views and reactions, they are as different as apples and oranges. The first one, which was a huge claim at Tabital Pulaagu meeting, passed as if it didn’t happen despite having more views. The second one, which was a clarification at a Tabital Pulaagu meeting with the president, refused to pass into the past. The only thing I was surprised about is that The Standard was not set on fire. Wait, it’s a bit early, maybe it will be once the whole country manage to read the story.

The point is, Barrow speaks Serahuleh well but no one ever argued he is Serahuleh. He is fluent in Wolof; again, no one ever suggested he is Wolof. And if he wishes, he can speak all the other local languages in the country; Jola, Aku, Serere, Manjago, and he will only be considered a local polyglot, nothing else. But like it or not, admit it or not, there has always been a contention about Barrow’s true ethnic identity since he took over. Despite bearing a Barrow surname, many people have said it times without number that he is a Fula, just a bit diluted along the way. And from December 2016 to around early 2019, when Barrow was proudly called ‘Our Barrow’, a lot of Mandinkolu in the country simply didn’t argue about his ethnicity. To them he is a Mandinka who happens to speak Fula because he has a Fula mother. Plain and simple. But when the relationship got soured over the last months, the same people who always believed that Barrow was a Mandinka are the same people who constantly peddled around that he is actually a Fula. Baba Leigh said Barrow is a Fula, you think that is relevant and sensitive. Barrow said he is a Mandinka, but you think that is irrelevant and insensitive. How hypocritical! If you say it is sensitive, yes it is, ethnic issues are always sensitive. You are not telling us what we don’t already know. But it has to be reported.

Now let’s softly touch on The Standard’s role in this. When Imam Baba Leigh claimed Barrow is a Fula during a meeting with the same Tabital Pulaagu, we carried it. Why? Because we believed it would either reignite the conversation for clarity or just bring clarity at once. So, if Barrow comes out and tells the same Tabital Pulaagu that he is not a Fula but a Mandinka, well, come on that is newstritious, like Sheriff Bojang would say.
I must admit I was hugely disappointed in a lot of people who I thought don’t just run with the ever active social media crowd.

I have always thought that they have critical minds. But I was wrong, my bad. To be honest, rate and slate Standard newspaper on social media, I wouldn’t care because those who have been constantly questioning the paper’s ethical standards or grammar on Facebook cannot even teach a kindergarten English. So I refuse to let social media determine what I publish or not. If I publish anything and you don’t like it, fair enough but to say it was irrelevant is laughable, when all you do in the morning is to look for fake news that feeds your political ego and share it. In fact, pick any country of your choice where you believe journalism is practised with high ethical standards, and I can assure you that if their president identifies with any tribe for the first time, it would be a front-page lead on all the newspapers and run on news bars for a week.

Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room: TRIBE. I’ve been saying this for a long time and I would write it now: This country is TRIBAL. It’s foolish to believe you can have at least nine ethnic groups in the country and none of them is conscious of their ethnicity. And once you’re conscious of such, then superiority or inferiority kicks in. But our biggest problem is we don’t want to admit that we have an ethnic problem; we just want to pretend that we don’t have any ethnic problems. And those who want us to have frank discussions about our little ethnic problems are branded tribalists or inciters. I will give you an example, if you start a radio programme that is exclusively Fula or Mandinka or Wolof, et cetera, that is fine because you cannot be on air speaking a language most of your listeners don’t understand. However, if you establish any association or any group that is exclusively Fula or Mandinka or Serahuleh or Jola, et cetera,, then that has all the markings of tribalism. You cannot pioneer an organisation of such character under the pretext of promoting culture and tradition, and then you expect no tribal sentiments along the way.

Why do you even need such associations to promote culture and tradition? All you need to promote your ethnic group is wear your traditional apparels, do the plaiting on your kids growing up, speak your language at home, cook the food, et cetera,, that is how you promote culture, not establishing exclusive ethnic associations. If you ask anyone why they think there is no tribalism in this country, the first thing they would say is that ‘well, we intermarry and coexist’. So? You think if we don’t intermarry we would have up to nine ethnic groups here? Hell no, we would have been condemned into regions with tension all over. But that doesn’t mean there is no tribalism here. I know potential marriages that didn’t happen because of ethnic differences. Even in politics, mostly, our dominant default instinct is to follow that which is our tribesman or tribeswoman. Now start counting how many associations we have in this country that are exclusive to particular tribes…and then drink cold water.

Now back to the outrage. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, all flooded with The Standard’s front-page on Tuesday, calling for heads to roll. Some even demanded all the editors be sacked. So Barrow said he is a Mandinka and he continues to be in State House. Standard reported Barrow’s declaration, and we should all lose our jobs. That is the height of hypocrisy!
And a bit of reminder front-page screenshooters, if you think you have the power as citizens to demand the president step down because you voted him in, well for your information, you don’t have any such power to ask for anyone’s resignation at The Standard because you didn’t choose or vote for anyone here. Why are you even angry at The Standard? Is it because the president identifies with a tribe or because we conveyed it to the public? If it is the former, then why didn’t you direct your anger toward him? But if it is the latter, then why did you, yes you, share it on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp? Are you also not extending it to more people? I am very unapologetic about my views and once I gather the courage to write or speak, I would write or speak what I feel no matter whose ox is gored. So if you want to keep sharing the front-page and misleading more people, please frame it and paste it on your wall for the next generation. Maybe with a little more awareness than you, they would realise how low their ancestors thought.