Deciding who belongs to what tribe


Dear editor,

Ethnicity or tribe or whatever one chooses to call it matters. A lot. To a lot of people. However, defining who belongs to what tribe can sometimes be complicated especially where a person comes from mixed ethnicities. I have seen some people simply assign others to ethnicities or tribes without ever asking the person what tribe or ethnicity they identify with, if at all. Cue The Gambian team at the AFCON and some of the nasty comments about people who are of this tribe or that tribe!

In the old days, what you call tribe was much more fluid for many Africans. It is your tribal opportunists and politicians that try to box you as if your tribe is some rigid natural creation.


In this colonial space we call The Gambia, some think they have a book listing who qualifies for what tribe based on their own expert tribal assessment, or based on the person’s surname. That’s as ignorant as they come. My maternal lineage goes back to Manden and my paternal lineage goes back to Futa Torroh.

Due to migration, my folks assimilated with Mandinkas and adopted the language. But does that mean that I have to shed my Futa Torroh lineage and limit myself to the Manden lineage? You hear others claiming to be Spanish-Italian or German-Swiss but somehow, Gambians can only be Papel or Mankangne. Simply can’t be both. Ignorance is so deeply entrenched and we never even bother to seek why we simply adopt our paternal surnames. We simply accept that that’s the norm!

For those of you boxing people into tribes, how do you determine who belongs to what tribe without ever asking the person? Do we have the right to force our definition of who is Mandinka or Mansuanka, on others? Are ethnic identities solely based on last names or skin tone or language? How does that explain surnames that are found in at least three ethnicities?

How do you explain a Drammeh or a Touray or a Ceesay or a Barrow that is found in several tribes if surnames are your parameters?

And that brings me to the issue of origin. What is one’s place of origin? Is it where you were born or where you were raised? What if you are like me, given that my mom hailed from Sandu Kuraw and my dad hailed from Wulli Jahkunda but I was born in Kiang and raised in Bundung and Basse before spending majority of my life in the USA? Would I be wrong if I claim any of these places?

My point is, I have no right to tell someone what they should identify as because there’s no universal manual that delineates who belongs to what tribal box. Segregation and Apartheid are outliers but even those idiotic policies were not based on any sound reasoning. So Simbara is Mandinka or Fula or Bainunka should not be our decision to make for Simbara. We should let him decide what he wishes to identify as, provided he wants to be labeled to begin with. Critically, you would be a fool to hear a last name or surname and quickly assign it to a particular tribe.

As they say Santa daykoot fen! Boxing people in a box you nicely created based on your own assumptions is what they call stereotyping! Let folks be mein!

Alagie Saidy-Barrow