By Dembo Fatty
I have been thinking about the above assertions by Jammeh for a while now and every time I tried to respond, I hesitated for various reasons. I would have wanted to ask Jammeh himself to answer certain questions for me to be able to provide a response. Secondly, I have to admit, I did not want to be labelled a “tribalist” even though that word should have long since been retired in our vocabulary. This is purely an academic exercise that should normally be conducted in an academic environment but because I have no access to such a setting, I hope some readers will understand.
We have for 22 years been fed tribal rhetoric and which has sunk deep into our memories that many fell for it and began to see an individual by his/her “tribal” affiliation rather than as a human being. Our responses, our reactions and our decisions have for the most part been clouded by this only criterion. Along the way, many good and excellent citizens fell victim not by their actions or inactions but simply because they identified with or were born into a certain ethnic group. Sounds like pharaoh’s decree that the male child of the Israelites must be killed. It was death on arrival if a child was born male. That was the life many Mandinka people lived and endured all the 22 years.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am Mandinka by ethnic affiliation but my identification in no way makes me demean anyone who identifies himself as a different ethnic group nor my being Mandinka takes away anything from you being different. I believe we all can and should encourage our individual, group or national identities and still the world can be at peace. Trouble it seems, is brewed when one group tries to impose its culture and values on to others. In fact, our diversity should be encouraged and celebrated as we have for centuries enjoyed in that tiny strip of land we now call Gambia. There is an old adage that says that we can always choose our friends but not our family because we are born into it.
Good or bad, we have no ability to choose our family before we are born. That is decided for us by our parents. You can attempt to deny your family heritage but you still remain part of the family. Sort of building a castle in the air or make belief approach does not help either. There is an African saying that no matter how heavy the rainfall, it does not wash away the black spots of a tiger.
I am not going to tell you the different ethnic groups in my family to try to prove that I am not “tribalist” or my family is not. I think that is the lowest form of proof. The proof is in our individual actions and not how much of the rainbow colours are in one’s family. People should be judged by their actions period.
I would however hasten to add that some people were targeted not because they were Mandinka, but because they identified themselves with a different ethnic group.
Others, simply because they could not be classified that enough of the group he liked best. Some were punished because they were not Jola enough. So it’s a fallacy to assume that only Mandinkas were targeted for their ethnic affiliation although they got the brunt of the policy. May be the word policy is the wrong word because it was not a written and thought out document with the mechanisms for implementation such that it could be assessed and evaluated for its effectiveness. But certainly it was an unwritten directive that even the blind could see and read.
I believe that it had very little to do with ethnic identity but everything to do with a man who would by all means necessary want to cling onto power pitting one group against another thereby making it difficult for citizens to come together and form a united front to challenge his rule. This has been the biggest arsenal in the political armory of Jammeh. His ability to deflect criticism and make us believe that if we are undergoing hardship, it was not because of him or his policies but because of a neighbor who does not look like you or identifies himself with you ethnically. Therefore, they must get rid of.
Unless our brains are wired to have only short memory, Jammeh himself a few years into his presidency sometime around the year 2001 or thereabout took to the airwaves and told the nation that he was a Mandinka by ethnic affiliation and not Jola. That should have rung a bell to all of us that the rhetoric was not rooted in any good reason why he held the belief that the Mandinka are foreigners or that they do not love the land they were born in or they are not ready to die for Gambia if the need arise. He told us that his paternal ancestor migrated from Baddibu in protest because his kinsmen refused to coronate him king when it was his turn and gave the throne to someone else instead. That’s how his ancestor left Baddibu to settle in Foni.
I wondered why Jammeh took a sudden U-turn in his ethnic affiliation. It was a political move to gain support of the people of Baddibu who we all know posed one of the biggest
resistance to his rule, second to Kiang. So if he was Mandinka as he claimed, why did he persecute his own people. What has changed that your own family have to be put to the guillotine. There is just one simple answer. It had nothing to do with tribe or ethnic affiliation but simply the ballot tokens.
That history was concocted and I must admit many in Baddibu fell for it. Trust me because I held a front row seat to this drama. I put on my history cap trying to dig into his newfound theory of the Jammehs in Foni. I eat and breathe history and so his story fascinated me not because of anything, but I wanted to improve my understanding of our history. It did not take me long to find out that it was a trap and another theatrical from him.
Historically, that story has no basis or foundation rooted in both written and oral accounts but no one dared to tell him otherwise and don’t ask me why unless if you are an extraterrestrial. The Jammehs in Baddibu, pre-colonial time, were not part of the ruling clan in Baddibu. Baddibu had a system of rotating kinship among only five families.
These are the families: Marong clan, Jadama clan, Singhateh clan, Mamburay clan and Colley clans ( I need corrections please. I believe I missed one. Not sure of Colley). Commonly called “Baddibu Sinkiri Loolo”. So, it could not have been possible that his paternal ancestor was denied the throne unless that ancestor was in fact not a Jammeh but one of the above five in which case, it makes his position even more confusing and untenable. The Marongs I am told are the uncles of the Jammehs.
We cannot therefore provide a scholarly response to the allegations/rhetoric/statements above without first asking the following questions and finding answers to them:
1. What does the name Gambia mean?
2. When did we become Gambia?
3. What geographical area constituted Gambia?
4. What/who gave us the name Gambia?
5. How did we change our name from Gambia to The Gambia?
6. What necessitated the change of name?
7. Was the name change tabled in parliament?
8. Were the citizens consulted before the name change was adopted?
9. If so, in what form did the process take?
10. Who oversaw the name change?
In my stint as a history teacher, I never came across any document or policy statement approved by the Gambia Government during the First Republic regarding the official version providing an answer to any of the questions raised above. I believe we need to have answers to these questions if we are to do justice to a fitting response. Because then we will be able to determine whether in fact Mandinkas were either in Gambia prior to 1864 or not.
As to the origins of the name Gambia, there are several different accounts all competing for recognition. One account has it that it is corrupted Portuguese word “Cambio’ which may mean exchange or trade. This a close name to Gambia and the Mandinkas appear to call the country Cambia instead of Gambia. The Portuguese visited our coast around 1452 when Alvise Ca’ da Mosto sailed south. With this theory, it’s safe to say that we got the name Gambia around 1452 or thereabout.
However, the next question would be did the name extend all the way to the interior and if so how far inland did the Portuguese do trade with the locals? Are there accounts in the diary of Alvise as to which ethnic group he found on the coastline? Cambia Weschel which is synonymous to Exchange Bureau appears to also have a Wolof word WECHIT similar to Weschel which accidentally also means change. If we take both scenarios, could Alvise have found both the Wolof and Mandinka in Gambia or perhaps on his stops on the coastline in present day Senegal. Senegal is north of Gambia.
“The country, like the river, was called “Gambra”; its king, Farosangul, lived ten days ‘journey toward the south, but he was himself under the Emperor of Melli, chief of all the negroes”. (The Project Gutenberg eBook, Prince Henry the Navigator, the Hero of Portugal and of Modern Discovery, 1394-1460 A.D., by C. Raymond Beazley, 2006)
Emperor of Melli (Mali) certainly was under the Manding speaking people since Mali never became an Empire until after 1235. Clearly by this account of Alvise’s diary, in 1452, we were Gambra or we could have been Gambia. Perhaps it was his understanding of the name.
Let’s not forget that sometime between the 5th and 6th century Hannon the Navigator sailed south all the way to preset day Gambia but accounts of his journey are scanty and the only reference material was the Periplus which was more like a log of the settlements along the coastline from Carthage down south. Some academics are arguing that the voyage never took place. But according to Emma Gregg, Richard Trillo in their book “Rough Guide to Gambia” pp233, around this time, the area we call Gambia was part of the Ghana Empire and seven centuries later power exchanged to the Mandingka people. We should be careful to assume that just because the Area was part of the Ghana Empire, does not mean that it was inhabited by Ghanaians.
There is another account that goes like this: That when the Europeans first arrived on our shores, they encountered a man called Kambi Sanneh who when asked thought they wanted to know the name of the nearby settlement responded “Kambiya” which in Mandinka means Kambi’s homestead or residence. Now is the name Kambi Mandinka or some other ethnic group? We have the Kambi family in Kiang but also in Kombo specifically in Busumbala (or Busi abala). Some accounts have it that they are owners of Kombo in ancient times and that was before the Bojangs of Sukuta, Brikama and Yundum moved into the area. If Kambi is a Mandinka last name then certainly Mandinkas have roamed this land well before Jammeh’s cutoff date of 1864. Let me not discharge my cannons too soon. I am still very far away from addressing his position. I am just laying the foundation for clarity and flow of the historical narrative.
The land we know as Gambia today was called Gambra including the river. Richard Jobson who sailed to our region between 1620 and 1621 published his memoirs of his journey and titled it “The Discovery of River Gambra”. This memoir is one of the earliest sources on the area.
Questions 5 to 10 above have no bearing on the response. They are based on contemporary history and fairly recent and I would expect that our government forms a task force to adopt an official version of our history. Imagine working in a foreign embassy and in comes a visitor who asks you the above questions and you start scratching your head in bewilderment. An official policy helps clear the air. It also helps the teaching of history and our evolution in schools.
There are professionals who can help us in reviewing the various versions and help adopt an official policy. The University of The Gambia is in a good position to help along with the National Archives and the National Centre for Arts and Culture. Before Banjul became Banjul, it was Bathurst. Why did the Government in 1970 decided to change the name of the capital to Banjul. What is the name? Some accounts have it that someone was asked by a European what he was doing and he responded that he was looking for bamboo ropes-; “Bang Joolo” in Mandinka. But is there an official policy regarding this? We cannot name our capital without having an official policy regarding same.
Having a national policy helps clear the air and avoid rhetoric we witnessed over the years.
Questions 1 to 4 are also in dispute but certainly does not affect the response to the rhetoric.
Note: Please note that this response is purely an attempt to rediscover ourselves and I would not respond to derogatory response nor is it intended to generate one. Please correct where necessary as we learn from each other. My attempt at responding is dictated by the fact that the rhetoric distorts our evolution and we owe it to our children to correct it before it is taken as face value with all the associated consequences.
Be assured that I would have jumped in defense if our history is being distorted or any group targeted in the process. It has nothing to do with me being Mandinka but everything to do with me being a Gambian.