By Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu,
Researcher on Contemporary History and
Politics specializing in slavery abolition in West Africa
The adjective “Ngana” is Mandinka for Ghana Empire and also makes reference to the people who left that collapsed Sarahulleh empire to become part of the successor Mandeng Empire.
It is important to note that the Mandeng Charter of human rights or Kuruakan Fuga of the 13th Century codified certain aspects of the caste system and provided room for mutual respect and occupational mobility.
The subsequent inclusion of “Komma” into the “Mandeng Morri” clerical caste proves that the caste system is subject to modifications and amendments.
I am confident that if Mandeng King Sundiata Keita and his contemporaries were alive in this 21st Century, they would rewrite the Mandeng Charter just as we are working on a modern constitution for the Third Republic of The Gambia today.
Classic examples of social and occupational mobility in our modern Gambian politics are former President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara and Honourable Muhammed Magassy, the current National Assembly Member for Basse Constituency.
Both are classed as “Nyamalo/Karanke” (commoners/leatherworkers) caste but they became part of the ruling class of our republican Gambian nation.
“Cham” is traditionally “numo/tagge” smith in both Sarahulleh and Mandinka ethnic group.
We have Lamin Cham, a perceived “numo” as one of President Adama Barrow’s trusted personal assistants at the centre of our national affairs.
The caste system was never designed to be a rigid barrier to social elevation.
Tactically, one has to be careful when describing people since one surname that might be considered noble in one community would be slave “jongho/komme” or cleric/marabout “morro” in another.
The surname “Sillah” can be “horro” noble, “karanke nyamalo” leatherworker, “morro” religious cleric or “tagge/numo” smith.
The surname “Sinera” is a variation of “Sillah” for the smiths. In Sarahulleh and Bambara “Singhateh” is “Nyaxateh.” The surname “Jawara” has both “horro” and “karanke” clans.
The “Tambadou” were the customary medics of the Sarahullehs specializing in fixing broken bones and treating other ailments.
Today, we have Tambadou people who are among the “horro”nobles and common farmers.
“Trera” is often considered as “morro” cleric but I have seen “Trera” people who are “horro” (nobles) and “jaaru” (griots).
In our 21st Century, surnames can be misleading and I would not advice anyone to classify people according to surnames without first understanding their respective family history.
I can vouch that many people don’t know their history and they cannot explain how they became part of a particular caste or ethnic group.
Someone might be ridiculed as slave or lower caste today but in the past his or her grandparents could have been nobles or rulers.
Kunta Kinteh of Juffureh in Niumi was not born a slave.
He unwillingly became a slave through the injustices of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many Arabs today are seen as “horro” royalty and rulers but they all descended from a slave woman called Hagar, the mother of Ismail.
“Xuuto” (grudge), “Amakebaga” (it does not worth it) and “Anlaqen bog adi” (don’t be involved) attitudes in the Sarahulleh communities
Over the generations, the original motive behind the caste stratification towards a functional society was compromised by a myriad of factors.
Principal among them is the restriction on social and occupational mobility by some feudalists. Some of the people in the advantageous positions of the caste system would claim exclusive right to power, wealth and authority for themselves and their off-springs.
This has resulted in mutigenerational grudges, mutual suspicions and outright violence between them and the others who feel they too have right to equal opportunities in society.
As so-called slave or lower caste has no say at important gatherings and even if his or her ideas are smart and useful, they would not be considered as serious. In 2014, there was a case in a Gambian Sarahulleh community in URR (name withheld) were the people refused to start fasting for the month of Ramadan since a so-called slave was the first person to sight the moon in the settlement.
A number of Sarahulleh associations, joint initiatives or projects fail due to unnecessary caste in-fights over leadership. Some of the people in privileged positions would insist on always being in the leadership positions by virtue of their supposedly higher castes even when they are not qualified or destined to lead.
Others would either sabotage or refuse to contribute to any project or initiative led by a person they consider a lower caste.
This has caused a lot of damage to the image and progress of the Sarahulleh communities in business and other domains.
The Lebanese have taken over as the leading importers of rice and other basic commodities in The Gambia since the Sarahullehs who were once leading that trade failed to join forces to maintain competitive advantages in a changing environment.
The Sarahullehs started the real estate business but today none of them has the international stature of new-comers like Mustapha Njie “Taf” and Saul Frazer of “Global Properties” as they are reluctant to promote formidable joint stock companies across castes that would keep them ahead.
Their mutual generosity often manifested during religious events and at religious centres is cosmetic.
The actual unity in the Sarahulleh communities beyond castes starts from the moment they agree to assemble behind a particular Imam for prayers and it ends with the last “Salam Alaikum Warahmatullah” from that Imam.
A lot of energy is wasted on bickering over caste rivalry and the “kaanankaaxu” (front row) versus “hanlankaaxu” (back row) mentality.
The prejudice and mistrust between castes and even within the same clan (kabilo) have proven to be self-defeating for the Sarahulleh communities.
Another factor that produced the grudge was the monopolization of access to knowledge.
For instance, so-called slaves, leatherworkers and some smiths were denied the right to study the Holy Quran deeper and understand Islam better like the “morro” clerics or “horro” noble castes.
I witnessed such cases of educational injustice when I was growing up in the Upper River Region (URR) in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some castes were told that they do not need to study the Quran beyond the short “Suras” (chapters) for prayers.
Thanks to the proliferation of both Western and Islamic “Madrassa” schools across the length and breadth of The Gambia, this restriction is fading away. It is however sad that among both Western and Islamic-educated Sarahullehs, there are radical believers and promoters of caste discrimination in its outdated form.
Of course there are “horro” nobles who are against the caste system and the discriminations but they are silent for fear of reprimand from their clans.
The “amakebaga” (it does not worth it) and “anlaqen bog adi” (don’t be involved) attitudes towards problems and critical reforms are causing a lot of bad blood, mistrust and frustrations across castes and generations in the Sarahulleh communities.
The caste system is exported in its primitive form to Sarahulleh communities in France, Spain, USA, Angola and other places.
In spite of their exposure to modern republican and liberal human rights environments, a number of Sarahullehs born in the Western world grow with the caste prejudice.
Since they have no alternative means of researching their history beyond what their praise-singers want them to hear, they are ill-clad within the stagnant system of discriminating, insulting and ridiculing each other as “horre”, “komme”, “karanke” or “tagge” in their diaspora meetings, ceremonies and associations. It is not surprising that the new anti-slavery movement started from the Sarahulleh diaspora in France.
Religions leaders practising self-censorship
I have compared the arguments of both the abolitionists and the defenders of slavery.
Both camps agree that the type cultural slavery being practised within the Sarahulleh communities is not Islamic and those perceived as slaves do not meet the Islamic requirements to be called slaves.
However, religious scholars who condemn caste based slavery are bullied as apologists of “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement while religious scholars who defend the caste system and slavery are celebrated by those who insist they are above the so-called slaves.
This has resulted in a kind of self-censorship by some Sarahulleh religious scholars. The fear of losing donations for their religious activities from wealthy Sarahulleh feudalists is making them avoid preaching about caste segregation in their regular sermons.
Last year, there was an attempt by some Sarahulleh religious leaders to mediate between the warring “horro” and anti-slavery activists. They formed a WhatsApp group called “Sirrondindanon Kaffo” (better improvers association).
Due to the residual grudges and mistrust within the Sarahulleh communities those religious leaders and their followers ended up castigating each other before being finally hackled by the conflicting parties into irrelevance.
The “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” anti-slavery movement and its “Horro” feudalist opponents
The current abolitionist movement in the Sarahulleh communities started after a rare religious conference in Paris, France, by some concerned Sarahullehs who questioned the caste system in the our modern times.
The idea of a structured anti-slavery movement was subsequently conceptualized and concretized with the formation of “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” which means “association for being equal” in the Sarahulleh dialect spoken in Mauritania, Senegal and Mali.
It is also known as “Ganbaana” (being equal) for short. France being a melting pot for Sarahulleh migrants from Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, The Gambia and the two Guineas, “Ganbaana” found a fertile ground for cost-effective global networking as those in Europe started engaging and mobilizing their people back home in Africa for the common cause of emancipation.
Ganbaana’s initial years were challenging as the subject of slavery is a taboo and not many people wanted to engage in honest conversations about it. Access to radio stations, village platforms and other community fora was difficult for them in the first instance.
However in 2016, some members of “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” in France created a WhatsApp social media group to spread their emancipation messages beyond boundaries.
This novelty sent shockwaves across Sarahulleh communities since for the first time in generations, those who could not speak out due to their supposed lower castes, are now speaking openly without fear.
Within two years of embracing social media as sensitization platform, “Ganbaana” became an international movement with registered chapters in Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, USA, Spain and other places with large concentration of Sarahulleh residents.
Naturally, “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” is meeting resistance from some Sarahulleh “horro” feudalists who bedevil “Ganbaana” militants as trouble makers. At the time of writing this commentary, the leading entities fighting “Ganbaana” are “Horondintabana” (nobles are not equal with them), “Horonkunda” (the nobles quarters), “Kingi contre Ganbaana” (Kingi against Ganbaana) and “groupe noblesse” (nobility group). The insults that the various groups throw at each other in their WhatsApp groups and other fighting tools are disgusting and embarrassing.
The showdown across Sarahulleh communities will continue to dominate the social agenda for the foreseeable future.
The rivalries and conflicts are chronic as they are older than social media, the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the Europeans on the African continent.
Each generation addresses them according to its realities hence these caste conflicts are nothing new.
In The Gambia, the caste conflicts were there during the First and Second Republics.
It is the absence of the ubiquitous social media then that kept the caste problems away from national attention.
To be Continued
Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu, holds among other qualifications, a Master’s Degree in the Arts and Humanities from the University of Stirling in Scotland, UK.
He is applicant for PhD research in Contemporary History and Politics at the Bath Spa University in the UK.
His doctoral research focuses on the abolition of descent based slavery within the Soninkes (Sarahullehs) of West Africa. Sankanu is Prince of the Sankanu Kaggoro clan of Sotuma Sere in Jimara, URR, The Gambia with ancestral roots in Barago, one of the autonomous states of the ancient Ghana Empire.
Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu is an influential young man in the Sarahulleh community and serves as Ambassador for two of the most progressive Gambian Sarahulleh groups – the Dynamic Sarahulleh Association for Change and Development (DSACD) and Sarahulleh Youth Development Organization (SYDO).
He also serves as adviser to the customary court of his native Sotuma Sere community. Sankanu is currently in Germany can be reached on Email: [email protected], Tel/ WhatsApp: +4915219470378
Whereas “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” succeeds in winning global attention and public sympathy with images of their humiliated or battered victims of caste discrimination, the “horro” (nobles) of the above anti-Ganbaana entities have successfully divided the so-called slaves into “kommo dunghanto” (slaves who accept their slavery status) and “komo murutinto” (the revolting slaves).
The latter is often used to ridicule the “Ganbaanaxun” militants. Last year, some of the “horro” (nobles) in Mali sponsored a huge gathering of willing slaves “komo dunghanto” who under the banner of “soxon kommo” (slaves who clap) openly demonstrated their willing to live and die as slaves of their noble masters.
The event was presented to local Malian authorities as a “cultural festival” for it to get an official permit.
It is important to note that due to their common history and the increasing new media connectivity, whatever happens in one Sarahulleh community abroad eventually has spill-over effects on the Sarahullehs in The Gambia.
Pioneering role of Gambian Sarahulleh Youths in eradicating caste discrimination
The fight against harmful and obsolete traditions has been preoccupying the current generations of young and older Sarahullehs over the past decades. In spite of resistance from reactionary quarters, they are making progress.
The Sarahulleh Youth Development Organizations (SYDO) and the Dynamic Sarahulleh Association for Change and Development (DSACD) are two progressive Gambian Sarahulleh groups engaged in productive activities that are gradually rendering the caste system irrelevant. They elect their executives based on merit and competence and not based on caste privilege.
SYDO is promoting skills education while Dynamic SACD is advancing social cohesion through sports. In the Soninkara football tournaments that Dynamic SACD pioneered, all