Alhaji Abdou Kadiri Sankanu, the alkalo of Sotuma Sere and patriarch of the Sankanu Kaggoro dynasty in Jimara said the recent detention of six young people from his community by the Basse police was a result of youthful exuberance and disregard for customary dispute resolution mechanism and not caste dispute.
Speaking on Tuesday, 14th March, the alkalo expressed his surprise “every small misunderstanding among Sarahule these days is exaggerated across various spheres as caste dispute”.
“There are about 54 Sarahule settlements in The Gambia. Though they share a common language, they have various forms of social stratifications and customary administrations. It is therefore wrong to penalise all Sarahule communities as backward slavery-promoting settlements. We at Sotuma Sere Sankanu are enlightened people of the books and law and order. In regulating our affairs, we rely on the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia especially section 7(e) on customary law, decisions of the traditional council of elders of our House of Sankanura, relevant aspects of the Islamic sharia, the Kurukan Fugan Mandeng Charter of 1235-36 which was inscribed in 2009 by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and, the progressive opinions of our wise sons and daughters,” Alkalo Sankanu explained.
He appealed to people and institutions to understand the history, norms, traditions and worldviews of communities before blindly condemning them.
“The person rushing to the police and shouting ‘castes dispute!’ might not always be the innocent one as it is now fashionable to hide behind anti-slavery slogan to raise funds, seek asylum in the West or escape scrutiny,” he stated.
Elaborating the recent fight among youths in his community leading to a minor injury of one person, the alkalo said the natives of his community in the diaspora sponsored a street light project and during the ceremonial installation exercise, a griot from another community came to entertain the people who were busy at work.
“This is customary in all our collective communal activities. It is understandable that griots in our West African societies, like all other performance artistes, enjoy high level of freedom of expression both under Section 25 of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia and Articles 7 and 13 of the Mandeng Charter. The griot sang that he was proud to be a slave and anyone who refuses to be called a slave does not know his or her parent’s history. He did not mention names and did not qualify it like slave of Allah (Abdullah) or slave of someone. We in the ruling family are used to court jesters known as worroso in Sarahule saying provocative things so we saw it at that moment as his artistic freedom of expression. However, some people at the solar light installation site took it personal. Those who felt offended by the song hurriedly took the law into their own hands by kidnapping the singer and taking him to the police without waiting for the alkalo and his adjudicators to meet and decide over the matter.”
He added: “You took the law into your own hands by hijacking the rights of another individual and you turn around to present yourself as victim of caste dispute. Is this right? You bypassed the authority of your alkalo and rushed to the nearest police station when we have, as first instance, an established customary mechanism for conflict resolution in our village that is over 200 years old and still relevant. Is that right? If you are not a slave why should you be offended by the mere mention of the word, which is available in all other languages – jongho in Mandinka, jaam in Wolof, kommeh in Sarahule and machudo in Fula? Here in The Gambia, people name their male children Abdou which means slave in Arabic.”
Interestingly, the alkalo disclosed that the person who got injured during the confrontation among the youths and ran to the police travelled back to Europe leaving the others behind. “In our rural settings, people move around with cutlasses and other farming tools and it is obvious that whenever a fight breaks out unexpectedly, someone would be found with a cutlass. If there was serious intention to harm anyone with a sharp object, the injured person would still be in intensive health care or dead by now and would not have lodged a complaint at the police or gone back to Europe,” the village head explained.
Alkalo Sankanu advised young people of his community to desist from listening to people from outside who will incite them to break the law only to leave them with the consequences. He disclosed that some of the parties involved in the fight over the griot’s song have been spreading hateful WhatsApp audios inciting others to kill people and set houses in Sotuma Sere on fire. A complaint against the people behind the hateful audios has been lodged at the Bakadagi Police Station which covers the Jimara district.
He thanked the Basse Magistrates’ Court, the police and State Intelligence Service officers at Bakadagi and Basse for diligently investigating the matter and recognising the role of theirr customary adjudication system in Sotuma Sere.
“Initially the fight was presented to the Police Prosecution Unit in Basse as a lethal confrontation between nobles and slaves but investigations showed that it was a common classless fight among young men over the interpretation of the song of a visiting griot,” the alkalo said. “We don’t have a slavery problem in Sotuma Sere Sankanu,” he asserted.
He disclosed that Sotuma Sere community is over 200 years old. “We have an established customary court system that adjudicates matters among our people and also those who voluntarily subject themselves to the customary rule of the House of Sankanura. Our son Bubacarr Sankanu is an adjudicator in our customary court of Sotuma Sere and Barago. We are grateful that Section 7 (e) of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia recognises customary law as one of the sources of our Gambian law.
“We want to thank Jimara District chief Alhaji Kanimang Sanneh, Chief Hammeh Krubally of Basse Koba Kunda, the Basse Magistrates’ Court and by extension the government of President Adama Barrow for giving our customary court system the chance to mediate on the matter before final ruling. The Gambia Government and concerned organisations should come up with a project to strengthen customary courts in our communities as they play key roles in promoting social cohesion and reducing the burden on both the police and the central judicature of The Gambia. We appreciate Jali Mba Kanuteh, the traditional griot of our Sankanu clan for providing expert opinion on our Sankanura customary laws and traditions to the Basse Magistrates’ Court,” he added.
Alkalo Sankanu further explained: “The chattel slavery being presented to the public does not exist in our Sotuma Sere community. We cannot deny the African history on descent-based slavery and caste systems that are part of Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Sarahule and other people of the Manding Empire. In this 21st century, we at Sotuma Sere have no one under servitude. I invite all reporters, human rights activists and all those whom it may concern, to visit Sotuma Sere and see if they will meet an individual who can say that he or she lives in discriminatory bondage or works full or part time for a master as unpaid servant.”
“Historically, like all other aristocratic houses in West Africa and elsewhere, the House of Sankanura did not escape the slavery discourse then. In those days slaves or captives were included in the collection of wedding gifts for the Sankanu princes and princesses. This was how we the Sankanus found ourselves in possession of slaves back then. The other way was that people came to our royal court for protection and voluntarily chose to identify themselves as jonkuru ceremonial slaves. Both categories were treated with all rights and privileges defined in Article 20 of the Manding Charter which states: “Do not ill-treat the slaves. We are the master of the slave but not the bag he carries.” They guarded the throne when a ruler dies and ensured that the rightful heir takes over leadership of the Sankanu’s area of influence. It is now that the word slave is given too much negative connotation as it is often discussed from the perspectives of the barbaric trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic slave trades and the repugnant modern-day human trafficking that dehumanized people.”
Still on the interesting history of slavery, Alkalo Sankanu revealed: “The last ruler of the Sankanus to end the practice of adding slaves to the wedding gifts of princes and princesses was Babakoli Sankanu. Babakoli gave land to those people to settle after liberating them as they lost connections with their various homes of origin. However, those freed families decided to follow the symbolic and traditional way of buying colanuts and paying about D60 in today’s value for each person to their Sankanu masters to codify their liberty. Their descendants are living among us in dignity and for the last four generations we have not had any issue of slavery or caste discrimination as we have more progressive things to engage on.”
Furthermore, the wise man from Sotuma Sere said the use of the words slave-master should be understood in the context of our joking relationship known as kaal in Wolof, sanawwya in Mandinka and kanlungoraxu in Sarahule. According to Article 7 of the Manding Charter, ‘The sanankunya (joking relationship) and the tanamannyonya (blood pact) have been established among the Mandinka. Consequently any contention that occurs among these groups should not degenerate the respect for one another being the rule. Between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, between grandparents and grandchildren, tolerance should be the principle’.
“It is common to hear cousins jokingly calling each other slaves-master in our local languages during weddings, naming ceremonies and other social events and no one takes offence or sees it as personally denigrating. I cannot therefore understand how some people get offended anytime the word slave is mentioned when it is part of human linguistic dictionary. We are grateful that the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission recommended the revival of our joking relations as it is important in building peace and social cohesion. If we can adapt the foreign English traditions into the Common Law and principles of equity in settling disputes why shouldn’t we be proud of our useful traditions?” Sankanu argued.