The fallacy of a name
1. Our next question we need to ask is what are the geographical limits of the area called Gambia, Gambra or Cambia? Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the word Gambra and found that it is associated with a Spanish last name. I was surprised and shocked. Have we ever been visited by the Spaniards? If that were the case, then we have a lot to dig up.
The Portuguese traded long enough to leave impacts on our culture and language. The local word kalero (cooking pot) are borrowed Spanish words.
My take on this is that the names Gambia, Gambra, Cambia have nothing to do with the indigenous people that inhabited that part of West Africa. Every time the name Gambia comes up, research tends to give its genealogy to foreign contact. So Gambia, Gambra, or Cambia are foreign names given to us by outsiders partly (my belief) to problems in translation. We never gave ourselves this name. In ancient times, oral history is very scanty about a region called Gambia. It never existed. We had our own kingdoms like Walo, Saloum, Niumi, Baddibu, Niani, Jimara, Kantora, Niamina, Jarra, Kombo, Eropina and so on but never Gambia or Gambra or Cambia.
Senegal, it appears to have only one narrative regarding their name: Sunu Gal, corrupted from the Lebu phrase which means “our canoe” who according to some accounts were docked at a shore from Cap Verde and as always, it was an encounter with outsiders and a loss of translation which gave rise to the name Senegal. At least, they have worked hard to narrow their evolution to a single event. We have not because we are too lazy to do it and expect outsiders to come and do it for us.
It might sound radical, but may be its time to retire the name Gambia and we call ourselves what we have always called ourselves by choosing one of the many kingdoms in the area. It may be tough sell because we seem to be dogged in tribal identities more than a national identity. But if we are to be proud people, we have to take a name our ancestors gave us not what appears to be a corrupted translation problem. What have we done for ourselves at the time of independence? We could not even write our own national anthem and yet we keep talking about independence, sovereignty this and sovereignty that. So our name Gambia is an inaccurate translation of events. Who wants to bear a name that is deficient?
So if President Jammeh says that Mandinkas were not part of The Gambia before 1864, I wonder which Gambia he was talking about because we have never called ourselves Gambia and so if his premise was about who are the indigenes, my response will be that the indigenes he was trying to promote and sell, will be surprised and would ask him where Gambia is because they never were Gambian and have never named any region called Gambia. Can you begin to see the fallacy in the name Gambia? It is not based on any indigenous event, activity or anything of that sort. It almost always takes a foreign dimension to a local event. So Jammeh is wrong about Gambia because prior to foreign contact, there never was Gambia and if he is a true pan-Africanist as he claims, I wonder in awe, how he can, at best, tout a name that is foreign in the first place and at worst deny an indigene (the Mandinka) an identity by using a foreign name and an imaginary boundary that most probably was drawn by a foreigner who had no right or privilege in the area in the first place.
2. Kandema Silo Lay Sila Baa (Mandinka initiation song)
Another surprise to Jammeh would be that the region called Casamance which he was trying to promote was not always called Casamance. That land was Manding territory under the Mali Empire, with Kaabu as an overseer. To appreciate this history, please watch the YouTube video. To my female readers, please do not watch, because this video is rooted in an oath I took as a young Mandingo boy while on a three-month initiation training in the thickets of my village to never divulge what I learnt (don’t take it seriously). But circumstance is forcing me to come in the open. For the men, please watch especially where they are singing “Kandema Silo lay, Sila baa…”. The song is nothing but a reinforcement of the evolution of the Mandinka people in our sub-region and to teach initiates the migration routes and a reconfirmation to them that what they were being subjected to, were in fact sanctioned by their forefathers centuries ago and so they must strive to continue the tradition. The song is simply a validation of the history of the Manding migration.
I would apologise to my Kintangno (name of an initiate’s prefect) because he will be disappointed in me sharing this publicly but I am sure he would also be happy that I have not wasted my three months training in the thickets where I was taught to defend myself, my family, my community and my ethnicity. Where I was trained self-defence, hunting, respect for the individual I come into contact with, and also sign language that could only be decoded by initiates. This was Mandinka secret society at its best.
May be Jammeh never realised that the Mandinka people have for centuries taught their young their history or perhaps, there are not any left now to narrate it. I can assure you that this history is still alive and kicking especially if you are from LRR, CRR or URR. The bulk of the impact of Kaabu and Manding migration were in these areas as this was the route used by Tiramakang on his assault on Walo kingdom.
That land called Casamance in modern times was called Kandema according to legendary Sidiki Jobarteh, a celebrated jali in Mali, Gambia, Guinea and Senegal. Kandema was administered from Pakau, a part of Kaabu. Kaabu was annexed by Tiramakang on his way to fight the King of Walo, Ndiadiane Ndiaye who provoked Sundiata when he seized Sundiata’s horses and sending his men to report to Sundiata that he never knew a Mandinka with horses and gave them a dog instead to take to Manding. Those familiar with ancient Manding songs “soosa le jo Tiramakang…” was invented as a result. I will get back to this in more detail in Part 3. This is a snippet.
If you are still not satisfied with the origins of Casamance, please watch the video from the perspective of the Fulani who lived in the area and how Fulladu as a kingdom emerged in the area. Fulladu is by all accounts not a Fulani name but a name given to the Fulani in the area by the Mandinka to mean the place where the Fulani live when they migrated from Macina. The narrator who is Fulani by ethnic origin, and of the Baldeh family, who dominated the area, admits to the fact that it was Manding territory. I am sure we can all agree that Kolda is part of Casamance. So if Jammeh is trying to promote a region that most probably did not exist in its current form by 1864, I don’t know how he could deny the fact that the people who controlled the area were not indigenes.
Further evidence of the Mandinka control of what is now known as Casamance can be found in the book Historical Dictionary of Gambia by Arnold Hughes and Harry A Gailey pp104 confirming earlier accounts by Mungo Park (1795), and Francis Moore both alluding to Mandinka control of the area. Mungo Park travelled in our region in 1795 and his confirmation clearly predates 1864 which is the subject of contention. So how can the Mandinka be strangers or foreigners in a Gambia that never existed? Gambia is a myth in so far as our indigenous history is concerned.
To appreciate the writing, you have to travel to the region and you will be surprised how mixed Casamance is. The Fulani and Mandinka appear to be in the majority. History can be cruel and I am sorry if I rubbed your shoulders badly. This is why our elders for the most part, have kept historical accounts to their chest to ensure a peaceful coexistence, instead of touting accounts of the past which only breed suspicion and unearth old wounds. Enjoy the video. Warning, it’s long though.
3. What is a tribe?
We cannot also do justice to the response if we do not define the meaning of the word tribe. The best definition obviously may not be in an English dictionary but from the perspective of anthropology which deals with the origins, the physical and social customs, cultural development and biological characteristics of mankind and how they evolve over time. I looked for the definition of tribe in an encyclopedia and this is what I found:
“A tribe is a human social system existing before the emergence of nation-states, and, in some cases, continuing to exist independent of the state structure. Historically, tribal societies consisted only of a relatively small, local population”.
This definition of tribe clearly does not fit the Mandinka people. So one thing Jammeh said above and he was right about is that the Mandinka people are not a tribe. That I agree. Please take it as a compliment. For a group of people to be classified as a tribe, they had to be small and in most cases operate outside of formal structures. I don’t need to talk about the formal bureaucracy that evolved throughout Manding history. From the Manding Charter proclaimed in Kurukan Fuga in 1235 (was inscribed in 2009 (4.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity kept by Unesco), to the formation of one of the most influential empires in Africa, the University at Timbuktu with over 10,000 students studying literature, astrology and algebra well before the emergence of universities in the West and the advancement of military science, Manding people certainly cannot and should not be classified as a tribe because they operated formal institutions not outside of a state structure. They had coded laws with functioning judiciary as “primitive” as one may want to describe them but certainly well advanced for its time and period in comparison to what happened in other societies around the world during a comparable period.
You hear me right. A war plan and battle field formation studied still to this day. There is a reason why some regiments are called the “Quiver Carriers”. Manding army had 16 divisions each headed by a clan and her military was called the “Djon-Tan-Nor-Woro”. They were the Conaté, Coulibaly, Traoaré, Koné, Dannyoko, Magassouba, Jawara, Dabo, Jallow, Diakité, Sidibé, Fakoli, Sangaré. The remaining three clans were each represented by two as follows: Dereba-Kamissoko; Camara-Komagara; Bagayogo-Sinayogo.
With a written N’KO language in use for nearly 68 years, certainly a Mandinka cannot be described as a tribe. The language is gathering speed and popularity and taught at university.
In fact, it’s safe to say that there is no tribe in The Gambia and it should be made a derogatory term to describe any group in The Gambia as a tribe. It’s offensive because we have a central government and we are all subservient to the supreme law of the land and that is the Constitution. We are affected by the decisions of the central authority irrespective of where we live within the territorial boundaries of that land called Gambia. So it’s also a fallacy to address anyone as a tribe or belonging to a tribe in the current Gambia. There are few people around the world that qualify to be called a tribe and they are certainly not in The Gambia. Perhaps a few in the Amazon jungle who still live in small groups and almost unaware of the bigger society outside of the Amazon may qualify.
4. Are you sure of your last name?
We sometimes seem to classify people just by looking at their last name. But the fallacy is that many people adopted different last names as they moved around the region for various reasons. Some did it to blend and find acceptance especially among a dominant group, some for security while others simply changed their last names because they were slaves who gained their freedoms and adopted the last names of their patrons. These things happened. So we have to be careful in quickly categorising people based on last names.
What if I tell you that the Joiner in Banjul are in fact Mandinka people. I read it somewhere years ago that the patriarch was a Mandinka slave sold in the Americas but who was able to gain his freedom and return to Gambia in 1805. His name was Thomas Joiner and he died in 1842. He traded upcountry and became a very successful businessman even before Banjul was founded in 1816. He had over 100 employees working for him and his business extended all the way to Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Isles de Los and the Maideras. This is also confirmed by Arnold Hughes and Harry A Gailey.
So we have to be careful of categorising simply by a last name.
To be continued