By Alieu Manjang
Gambian political and social discourses have recently been arrested by advocates for ditching one’s tribal identity as a compulsory stair towards nurturing our democracy and re-clueing our social ties, which are being ripped by tribalism garmented in politics. Ironically this temptation is not only spotted in writing of activists on social media who are calling upon Gambians to disregard tribes, and to consider adopting The Gambia as an umbrella terms that will parasol all tribes, but it has been noticed in poetries of who are believed to be fine politicians and intellectuals. While rhythms of these calls on this particular issue should be understood in the context of the disturbing trend of tribalism in the Gambia, their calls for ditching our cultural identities is tantamount to disregarding our reality. Apparently, two concepts i.e. tribe and tribalism, are purposefully or ignorantly used interchangeably in reference to the persisting phenomenon of offering political supports to a candidate or party based on acquaintance, proximity, kinship and membership in the same tribe. This unfortunate social and political phenomenon in our society should not warrant calls for ditching our tribal identity, which is an inescapable reality.
Generally, wherever people live, their various cultural and social identities inevitably exist. From the outset, family is the first institution in which these cultural and social identities are formed; and in our societies, we are only remarkable for the manifold way in which we express ourselves in culture as manifested in our dresses, languages, music, foods, cuisines and lifestyle in general. Therefore, being a member in 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 symbolic cultural system of your group. In light of this, identity is not condensed to how you vocally defined yourself or 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 mosques or churches is sufficient to communicate your religious identity to others. Likewise, in many African countries identity performance like dressing is a satisfactory communication about the tribal groups one belongs to.
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 authenticity of his or her claim. Thus, a self-claim Muslim who doesn’t practice Islam will subject him or herself to never-ending question if he or she presents him or herself or known to be a Muslim. Similarly, 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 was born and raised outside British and French territories.
The above examples illustrate the fact that we, as human beings, bear identities and that these identities come with role, performance and expectations. In the view of this, a middle class man in Britain is expected to do what middle class folks do in that particular social setting. Likewise, an individual who identifies 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 cultures. Although identity performance and cultural expression of individuals is often inherited in the society in which they live, in some cases, these identity performance and cultural expression are adopted if a person moves into another society. Factors behind this include, but not limited to, internal migration and rapid forces of globalization, 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 them and distinguish them from others.
Despite this, membership in a tribal group remained to be defined by a shared symbolic system such as religion, language, mythology and 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 towards adopting new identity which belongs to other groups.
In the modern societies though, there are cases in which people assimilated and milt into other groups. This happened in societies and communities wherein systematic practice of discrimination by majority group against minority led the later to ditch whatever represents them to emulate or assimilate into the majority as a strategy to avoid being discriminated as minority. Similar phenomenon occurs when positive meanings are attached to languages and cultural heritages of certain group in certain communities or societies, or when a group’s cultures are set as standard, 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 as standard.
The entrenchment and the normalization of this unfortunate social reality creates a fertile ground to label individuals and groups who resist to be absorbed by this dominant cultures as tribalist and racists and other negative terms. In extreme cases, and due to false consciousness, those who melt into new group tend to have a high tendency to frame members of their own group negatively as they resisted compromising their culture for the dominant one. Likewise, an attempt by conscious folks to question the standardization of one particular culture post a threat to the owners of this dominant culture as they will shiftily label such attempt 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 being terms by some as tribalism.
What should be acknowledged by all is that 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, Gambian government, who sought legitimacy through their claim to represent the whole Gambians, should strive to nurture this tribal diversity in its functioning of fulfilling its duty of provision and protection of people. At societal level, Gambians should stop discounting this diversity as well as halting their attempt to find a valid standard, in terms of languages one ought to speak in offices, media and social gatherings, as the yardstick of the unified nation. Gambian national identity reflects this social and cultural diversity; 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 to all tribal groups to see and hear themselves in those media in accordance to their proportion to the population, as this is the only logical and realistic way to serve justice to everyone. Equally, events, occasions associated with Gambia should reflect this diversity. The fact that something has been practiced for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean that it is void of wrong practices as far as reflecting diversity is concerned.
Overall Gambians should be tolerant to alternative political views and cultural giving; likewise, subjective interpretation of events, opinions, and people actions, especially those of politicians, should be minimized. Finally, and attempt to label an individual as tribalist simply s/he supports a party that happens to be led by his tribe men should be eclipsed in our political discourse. These are the issue we have to discuss genuinely instead of calling upon people to ditch their tribes in order to achieve social cohesion.