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Monday, August 15, 2022

Christmas and what Banjulians have taught Gambians about religious tolerance!

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With Rohey Samba

While I have no qualms with Muslims shelling out for a classy Christmas, we Banjulians are known for celebrating Christmas more than the Christians themselves, but I will just not decimate my hard earnings for a Christmas tree in order to satisfy my kids’ entreaties to honour the day. This is a point I made very clearly to my teary-eyed daughter this week.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not religiously intolerant. Neither am I above the lure of Christmas festivities; I just want to put across a point as an adult with societal and family responsibilities that I can still celebrate the day without engaging in the social norm of Christians. Tolerance is not compromise. To each one, his or her religion. Nonetheless, we must learn to co-habit in peace and mutual respect of one another’s religions and cultures in order to safeguard and maintain our fragile democracy in this nation that is on the cusp of change.
As the generation of Banjulians born after the 1981 coup d’état, my sharpest memories of Banjul are those formed in the early ’90s in the part of Banjul dubbed ‘Soldier Town’. I am very poor in history, so I am not going to claim a historical account of events during those times, neither am I going to get into the nitty-gritties of that period, though listening to Souleymane Faye’s song Diamano Twist reminds me of the ‘benachins’ we used to devour, that were submerged in oil… and ‘nyami mbam’.

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Since I have what I admittedly call a selective memory – I mean many events don’t have a permanent residence in my brain’s memory address – I will defer from making concessions by resorting in any form of research whatsoever. After all, I seek only to create a context within the framework of Christmas, to drive in the relational and local practices of the natives of Banjul around that period in order to understand the role of religious tolerance as it pertains to Gambians at large.


Straight out, I will say it loud and clear that I do not recall the ‘kama pot’ or ‘bordofel’ for that matter. I slightly remember the Bambara boys being mocked for carrying the ‘kama pots’ though. This is partly because of the fact that, coming from a large political family, we had ‘flush toilets,’ television and telephone very early on. I recall these without a hint of superciliousness, for the reason that in the evenings, it seemed like all of Banjul came over to watch TV in our house at 8 Ingram Street, and during the day, most people came over to receive phone calls from their ‘semester’ sons calling from Germany and other parts of the Western world.

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Banjul was definitely the abode of ‘semesters’ during Christmas of those times. These mainly Rasta boys, with their distinctive scents, perfumed with designer colognes were ‘king’, aggressively pursued by bevies of girlfriends. Their glitzy cars, fine clothes, flashy jewelry and gold teeth were the talk of town and of course no match for the decrepit ‘kirintin’ houses where they sojourned. But who cared? The ‘semesters’ oozed wealth and encapsulated prosperity. These mainly young men, though they seemed much older to me at that time, dished out money freely. We were always glad to be at the receiving end of their generosity.

I remember Banjul when neighbours played a major role in the upbringing of children. Recalcitrant children were taught good behaviour even outside in the streets. Elders had unquestionable authority recognised by both parents of the child. There was trust and mutual respect in the community. We left our lunch at Sambene and went over to Lobbene, in the house next door, to partake of their meals without thinking twice. We played at the house of Aunty ‘Guks’ Williams and entered freely into Madame Sisi Mboge’s house to ‘salibo,’ eat ‘cassava bread’ or buy ‘ice’. There was Aunty Kohna, further down the street whose granddaughter, Ola was a playmate. My grandfather I.B.A. Kelepha Samba, may his gentle soul rest in eternal peace, always gave us, his grandchildren and all the young children of the neighborhood, coins each day to buy ‘ice’ or sweets, and so forth.
The culture of giving, without expecting anything in return is definitely very Banjulian. Banjulians are entrenched in two civilisations, which make them very well-rounded people: these are the sophistication of Aku culture wrought by Western/Christian edification and the munificence of Wolof culture. Both cultures make Banjulians uniquely interesting people; very close-knit, open and generous. Indeed if you wish to get married to a gentleman, marry a Banjul man. If you seek to marry a fine dame, ‘baah ak rafet jiko’ marry a Banjul woman…

The Akus of Banjul at that time, such as Madame Sisi, Aunty Kohna and Aunty Guks, who resided mainly in Soldier Town, were a formidable lot, disciplined, discreet and reticent people who trained their children in their ways. Festivities such as Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day were celebrated to the fullest. Christmas in Banjul was unlike any other festival. Early on in December, garlands were hoisted, houses and fences painted, trees trimmed and streets cleared, including the gutters, which we called ‘pahi mbalit,’ in the ’90s; all in anticipation of Christmas day.

On Christmas Day, masquerades of all kinds paraded the streets of Banjul. Kids and elders alike crossed dressed, wore false faces and strutted the streets singing Christmas carols. Dressed up as boys or old men, and singing Christmas carols with our best voices, we received a lot of money and gifts from the homes we visited on Christmas day, both Christian and Muslim homes for that matter.

While I had latent fear for the ‘ogosah’ masquerade, which fear persists up to this very day, I loved the legendary ‘geseh geseh’, a bridal masquerade, which was my favourite of all, for its cadenced dance moves. These ‘geseh gesehs’ were mostly young men who wore ethereal white women facemasks with lovely hairs, and dressed in white bridal gowns and stoles. They paced the different streets of Banjul in their white socks accompanied by young men beating bongos and other makeshift drums made from wooden boxes, singing ‘geseh’ songs sang in chorus.

Perhaps, unnecessarily challenging in our times is the lack of proper distinction between religions in the plethora of private schools we have here in The Gambia nowadays. The fact that most of the school teachers and class instructors are of a different culture than us, mainly Christians from English-speaking countries in the sub-region, makes it even more precarious to teach religion in these private schools.

Reflecting on what transpires nowadays, I recall that while nothing was taught to my kids about fasting during the month of Ramadan for instance, or the feast of sacrifice during Tobaski, the kids were all prepped up for Christmas. Christmas carols are sung in my house all throughout December and the performance of the birth of Jesus Christ done over and over again. My husband who is at the butt of most of the kids’ requests, has bought everything from false faces and fireworks, to Father Christmas hats and jingling bells. It’s definitely a Merry Christmas in the air.

Yes, due to the increasing burden of modern life, we leave most of the tutoring of our kids to their respective schools. When the kids return home after school, they spend a greater part of their spare time on the TV screens watching cartoon networks and Disney channels. Thus our kids’ ideas about Santa Claus and Christmas are a bit different than ours. It therefore came as no surprise to me when the cadet of the family asked about Christmas gifts, Santa’s stocking specifically, earlier on in the week, only to be surpassed by her sister the following day, when she requested that I buy a Christmas tree.

Then I knew the line needed to be drawn. A compromise cannot be made on religious matters. We can celebrate the festive month as much as the atheists living in the West, but we cannot accost a strange ethos to our doorsteps to spell out “Merry Christmas” while we claim to be Muslims. This might be approaching the limits of tolerance.

And yes, there are still ‘semesters,’ not the ‘semesters’ of the bygone days, but definitely many Gambians living abroad who have come over to spend Christmas in The Gambia after many years overseas. The malaise of so-called modern African societies lies chiefly in the loss of cultural cohesion and values due to assimilation of alien and incongruent cultures adopted whilst abroad.

To date, the promulgation of foreign sects and brotherhoods has tainted a rich and diverse cultural heritage that is increasingly a threat to peace and harmony of our religions and traditional norms. Unity cannot occur in the midst of condemnation or by asserting superiority of one’s culture over another. Unity cannot transpire where there are complexes – whether inferiority or superiority. Banjulians have taught Gambians this lesson over the years. It is the lesson that we must celebrate each other without losing ourselves in each other. It is a lesson that is well worth applying in our day-to-day lives; that all may live in unity, freedom and peace each day
In the end, I exist to challenge, not reassure. Merry Christmas y’all!


Rohey Samba is an award winning Gambian writer and author of three books, with experience working as a media analyst, press and public outreach assistant for the EU Election Observation Mission in The Gambia National Assembly Elections, 2017. She owns a publishing company and works as a maritime specialist, specialising in maritime safety and environmental administration at Gambia Maritime Administration.

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