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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Disregarding our tribal identity is not the solution

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By Alieu SK Manjang

For the past eight years following the fall of Jammeh’s regime, existed in social media has been all-embracing discussion about the temptation to ditch one’s social identity as a compulsory stair towards nurturing our democracy and re-clueing our social ties, which are being ripped by tribalism-garmented in politics. This temptation is recently honed amid the call for disregarding tribes in the upcoming national censuses to take place in May 2024. Hence, adopting The Gambia as an umbrella term that includes all tribes is suggested to be sufficient to reflect our socio-political reality.

While the rhythms of these calls and concerns on the issue of the tribe should be understood in the context of a disturbing trend of tribalism in the Gambia, the call for ditching our cultural identities is tantamount to disregarding our reality. Two concepts, i.e., tribe and tribalism, are purposefully or ignorantly used interchangeably about the persisting phenomenon of offering political support based on solid relations of proximity and kinship and membership in the same tribe. This unfortunate social and political phenomenon in our society is different from being a member of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties with a common culture and dialect.

Generally,  various cultural and social identities inevitably exist when human beings exist. From the outset,  family is the first social institution in which these cultural and social identities are formed. In our societies, we are only remarkable for the manifold way we express ourselves in culture, as manifested in our dresses, languages, music, foods , cuisines, and lifestyles in general. Therefore, being a member of a tribal group ( e.g., Aku, Fula, Jola, Manjako, Mandinka, Wolof, Serahulleh, and Serer, as in the case of the Gambia) necessitates that you embrace a symbolic cultural system of your group. In light of this, identity is not condensed to how you vocally define yourself or how you are defined by others; rather, identity performance is another sufficient element of showing your identity and proving your belonging to any social group.Thus, praying in a mosque or churche is sufficient to communicate your religious identity to others. Likewise, in many African countries, identity performance like dressing and language one speaks at home are satisfactory for communicating to others the tribal group to which that person belongs to.

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Conversely, a failure to perform cultural practices that identify the social group to whom an individual claims his or her belonging puts that individual under constant quarries about the authenticity of his or her claim. Thus, a self-claim Muslim who does not pray  will subject him or herself to never-ending questions if s/he presents him or herself to others as  a Muslim.

Similarly, the authenticity of the identity of a French or British man who cannot speak French or English languages will be questioned until it is proved that he or she was born and raised outside British and French territories.

The above examples illustrate that we, as human beings, bear identities and that these identities come with roles, performance, and expectations. Given this, a middle-class man in Britain is expected to do what people from the middle class do in that particular social setting.

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Likewise, an individual who identifies him or here or is identified as Aku, Fula, Jola, Manjako, Mandinka, Wolof, Serahulleh, or Serer is expected to do what members of these tribes are expected to do in terms of expressing their distinctive cultural identity including speaking their languages. Although identity performance and cultural expression of individuals are often inherited in  society in which they live, in some cases, this identity performance and cultural expression are adopted if a person moves into another society. Factors behind this include, but are not limited to, internal migration and the rapid forces of globalisation, which have increased the pace of acculturalization and assimilation of individuals into new groups. This might result in losing some or all of their cultural heritages, which define and distinguish them from others.

Despite this, membership in a tribal group remains defined by a shared symbolic system of religion, language, mythology, ritual, cuisine, dressing style, and art. Individuals’ keenness to maintain or express this in public or private spaces should not be deemed as tribalism. This is even more acute in the case of the Gambia, in which shared language and dialect persist to be the strongest identity marker of individuals to a larger extent. Therefore, ditching this language or dialect will automatically lead to adopting a new identity that belongs to other groups.

In modern societies, though, there are cases in which people have assimilated and melt into other groups. This happened in societies and communities wherein the systematic practice of discrimination by majority groups against minorities led the latter to ditch whatever represents them to emulate or assimilate into the majority as a strategy to avoid being discriminated against as a minority.

A similar phenomenon occurs when positive meanings are attached to languages and cultural heritages of certain groups in certain communities or societies or when a group’s cultures are set as standard by state institutions , which dictates members of other groups to compromise their cultural identities in a bid to adopt others’ cultures which are portrayed by media and other social forces and state institutions as a standard. The entrenchment and the normalization of this unfortunate social reality create a fertile ground to label individuals and groups who resist being absorbed by this dominant culture as tribalists and racists and other unfavorable terms. In extreme cases, and due to false consciousness, those who are melting into new groups tend to have a high tendency to frame members of their group negatively as they resist compromising their culture for the dominant one. Likewise, an attempt by conscious folks to question the standardization of one particular culture poses a threat to the owners of this dominant culture as they will shiftily label such attempts as racism and tribalism.

Given the level of political and cultural consciousness brought by the political development in the Gambia, it could be argued that this has urged many to question wrong social and cultural practices, which are wrongfully termed by some as tribalism.

What should be acknowledged by all is the brute fact that Gambia is a multi-tribal country wherein different tribal groups exist with their distinctive cultural practices, the performing of which makes them who they are. Thus, the Gambian government, which sought legitimacy through its claim of representing all  Gambians, should strive to nurture this tribal diversity in its functioning and fulfill its duty of providing for and protecting people. At the societal level, Gambians should stop discounting this diversity and halt their attempt to find a valid standard in terms of the languages one ought to speak in offices, media, and social gatherings as the yardstick of a unified nation.

Gambian national identity reflects this social and cultural diversity; the Gambia as a country cannot be imagined without each of these tribes, whose members are sovereign people. Any patriotic Gambian should accept this diversity, and any attempt to reduce Gambia to one dominant culture should be challenged at all levels. Towards this, our media, both private and public radio, and TV, should maintain and nurture this diversity and create equal opportunity for all tribal groups to see and hear themselves in those media in accordance with their proportion to the population, as this is the only logical and realistic way to serve justice to everyone.

Equally, events and occasions associated with Gambia should reflect this diversity. The fact that something has been practiced for a long time does not necessarily mean that it is void of wrong practices regarding diversity.

Overall, Gambians should be tolerant of alternative political views and cultural giving; likewise, subjective interpretation of events, opinions, and people’s actions, especially those of politicians, should be minimized. Finally, an attempt to label an individual as a tribalist simply because s/he supports a political party that happens to be led by his tribemen should be eclipsed in our political discourses . These are the issues we have to discuss genuinely instead of calling upon people to ditch their tribes in order to achieve social cohesion.

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