By Dembo Fatty I have for many years been trying to establish if the above position as taught in our schools and published in official government brochures is in fact true. The position that the country, Gambia, was named after the river sounded quite an easy way out for history teachers and for far too long, many, including teachers themselves have not challenged this dictum and put it to a test. This mini-series is going to do just that. Put to test our common and shared understandings of our evolution over the years and seek to put these to stress tests and see if they will stand scrutiny. History is an important subject if taught correctly. It can make or break the foundation of a nation and can threaten her peace and stability. We saw how history was abused in Rwanda, in Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Liberia. I do not need to delve into the consequences. The question we have to ask about the above is that what name our river was given over the course of our history. I have been searching for years and could not find any name for the river. Now, if our country was named after the river, then it naturally follows that the river was called Gambia. Simple? Unfortunately no. If the river had no name, how come the country can have a name if the river from which the country got her name has no name in the first place? Humans, sometimes just tag along what they have been told and because we have been programmed for far too long to be conformists, many of us would not bother to ask questions or challenge the general belief. The closest account I was able to find which also attempted to find the real name of the river was in the accounts of Richard Jobson writing in 1623 in The Golden Trade, the following: “This River…. Is…. by some called, by the name of Gambia, by others Gamba, and by another sort set downe Gambra, to which latter name being most frequent, I doe apply my selfe, for by the naturall inhabitants, either belowe in the mouth of it, neither it above to the farthest I have travelled, being upon the trust accompt I could keepe, some 320 leagues….. could I ever heare any proper name, but only the word Gee, which in their language, they use to all rivers, and waters….” Gambians as a people do not appear to have a name for the river and therefore, it would be wrong to teach that the country got its name from the river. Naturally, one shares the same name with the thing one is named after. If the only name that was used was Gee, which in Mandinka means water, then it should follow that the country is actually Gee and not Gambia because the name of the country should reflect the name it was named after. My position is that the roles were reversed. It probably was the case that the river was named after the country. Oral account has it that the name Gambia was during the reign of Seneke Jammeh of Niumi if we are to believe the accounts of Alhaji Fabala Kanuteh, a renowned Gambian jali of blessed memory. We will get to that in part two but for now, I think it is time we retired this fable that The Gambia got her name from the river. Up to this date, I have not seen or heard of any official pronouncement with regard to the name of the river both during the colonial era and after independence in the form of a proclamation or a publication in the Gazette, the official position of these two governments. Kambi was a Bainunka who met the Europeans and gave us the name Gambia This dictum has been with us for years now as to how our country called initially Gambia and later The Gambia came about. It appears that our Independence Instruments referred to us as The Gambia to differentiate us from the independent state of Zambia. The story goes that when a group of European adventurers landed on our shores, they were approached by a group of natives and when asked the name of the settlement, one of the natives replied “Kambi Yaa” in Mandinka, meaning “Kambi’s abode/settlement”. Now the rest is history but not so fast. And so some held the belief that it must be a Bainunka individual (since we are not sure if this person was a man or woman) because Kambi is said to be a Bainunka name. My attempt is to put this story to a stress test and see if it will stand the tremors of both historical and linguistic assaults. First things first. 1. It appears the phrase “Kambi Yaa” is generally accepted by many to be Mandinka language which makes the person who responded to the European adventurers spoke the Mandinka language and most definitely had a good grasp of the language. This goes to almost confirm that he/she was most likely a Mandinka by ethnicity otherwise why must he respond in Mandinka instead of Bainunka if his native language was Bainunka? It does not provide any sensible reason unless we assume that he was under pressure to speak in Mandinka given that probably those natives this person was with at the time, may have been largely Mandinka and so succumbed to sheer numbers. In that case also, we can say with all certainty that a Mandinka was present while these words were uttered. It then now becomes the case of the chicken or the egg which came first although this has now been solved by science that the chicken came first. 2. Linguistically, in the Mandinka language, the possessive word “Yaa” is reserved for first names and not last names. It is grammatically inappropriate to refer to my place as “Fatty Yaa” but correct to say “Fatty Kunda” or “Fatty Kabilo”. If you want to make a reference to my person, then it will be correct to say “Dembo Yaa”. Kunda is a collection of households much similar to kabilo, the latter in many cases consists of many households but with many different last names. A kabilo is a self-sustaining unit in a settlement. It has its own leather workers, smiths, jali, etc such that each kabilo frowns on going outside of its unit to seek help from another kabilo in the same settlement. And so, the notion that “Kambi Yaa”, in this particular setting was a last name is not supported by the rules of the language that was used as the medium of communication. So we have no choice but to adhere to the grammatical conjugation rules of the language which in this case is Mandinka. “Kambi Yaa” would most definitely not be a Bainunka phrase and so we must begin to retire this notion as it is not supported by evidence. We must also retire the notion that it was a last name in this context. Yes there are Kambi last names but the way this native responded was in the context of a first name and not a last name which throws dust in the air as to whether Kambi as a first name belongs to a particular ethnic group. This is why for all the versions like Pa Kambi, Kambi Jassey, etc, the most plausible I find historically possible is that of Kambi Manneh from the state of Niumi. I’m sure you are saying to yourself that Kambi Jassey, a Bainunka, has his first name as Kambi and so I must give it to him as the person who met the Europeans. Not yet. In all my research and readings on the history of our country, I am really struggling to find any first encounter between the Europeans and the state of Foni. Some people hold the belief that Foni is a Bainunka state and extended from the current boundaries of Foni at Kalagi to Banjul and that Foni was later divided and Kombo was carved out of the state as was the case of Pakistan and India. At this stage, let’s pretend that it was true that Foni extended from Kalagi to present day Banjul and all that was Bainunka territory with the seat of ruler at Sanyang. This will perfectly make it possible for the Bainunka state to have access to the coastline and thus the possibility of a European encounter. The unfortunate reality is that such an encounter had been on the northern bank of the Gambia river, which was the state of Niumi. Virtually all ships anchored in Niumi first, because Niumi is closest to Europe and you cannot get to the state of Foni without first passing through Niumi. This will therefore make Foni state a second possibility and not a first and therefore, there is a high degree of possibility that the first encounter happened on the northern bank and not the south bank of the river. This will defeat the Bainunka story and perhaps it’s time to retire it as well. Let’s assume for purposes of fairness, that the first ship that arrived passed through Niuimi and landed on the south bank on the shores of Foni (Bainunka sate), the question that will be asked is why did the Bainunka not reply in Bainunka language that the land was Kambi’s but chose to respond in Mandinka with the phrase “Kambi Yaa”. Perhaps, there was no Bainunka at the scene but there certainly was a Mandinka at the scene to the extent that he spoke to them in his native Mandinka language.]]>
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