By Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu,
Researcher on Contemporary History and
Politics specializing in slavery abolition in West Africa
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 participating Sarahulleh teams respect the progressive rules of fairness and equality.
No football player or official has so far insisted on being a captain, referee or match commissioner based on caste superiority or privilege.
I am respectfully an Ambassador of both SYDO and Dynamic SACD: they seek my advice on matters of common interest when the need arises.
“Sumpu do Xaati”, the oldest Sarahulleh group in the Greater Banjul Area (GBA) founded in the First Republic has over the past 20 plus years focused on promoting mainly Islamic education.
In the process of transforming itself into a kind of supreme Islamic body for the Sarahullehs, “Sumpu do Xaati” missed the opportunity of developing a sustainable conflict resolution mechanism and school of thought that could help free the Sarahullehs from the trappings of obsolete practice and violence.
The phenomenal success of the “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement in breaking the circle of fear and voicelessness is a reflection of the failure of successive Sarahulleh elites in being proactive and preventive in handling of taboos and the retrogressive topics in their communities.
As at now, I am not aware of any coordinated nationwide initiative of the Sarahullehs to address the caste conflicts head on. The problems are left to the villages and the state police face. Notwithstanding, the sensitization efforts by young Sarahullehs are ongoing.
Recently, a group of Gambian Sarahulleh artistes composed and released songs against cast discrimination.
On the 8th June 2019 young Sarahulleh musicians in Mauritania under the initiative of the “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement launched another compilation of anti-slavery songs.
I do not see anyone who can stop the Mauritanian anti-slavery music from reaching Gambian Sarahullehs through mobile phones and the social media.
Mauritania officially banned caste based slavery in 2015 but the practice is still alive hence the anti-slavery activists are not relenting in their struggle to change the mind-sets.
As some older Sarahulleh elites shy away from the caste problem, the younger generations are increasingly using the creative arts tools of music, film, graphic design of T-Shirts and caps and social media to speak out.
My defence of the Barrow Administration
I listened to some WhatsApp audios of people accusing President Adama Barrow of being “bias in the ongoing caste conflict, in that he (Barrow) is surrounded by Sarahullehs from the “horro” noble caste who would put their personal interests and those of their biological clans (kabilo) first when advising Barrow”.
This they claim “explains the apparent silence of The Gambia Government to the caste conflicts…”
In my defence of the President Barrow administration in this regard, I would like to set the records straight with two facts.
First of all, none of the Sarahullehs in the top positions of the Barrow Government has the final say and absolute authority on Sarahulleh community affairs.
They can have influence in their clubs, families, clans (kabilo) and villages but that does not mean that all the Sarahullehs from Kartong to Koina and by extension, the diaspora, would listen to them. The Sarahulleh community is not a homogenous property of one large clan (kabilo).
The community is like a loose coalition of independent-minded clans and castes. Consensus-building process is complex and sensitive.
There are many layers of influences and competences within the community. A decision taken by one clan, no matter how rich or big, does not necessary make it binding to all other Sarahulleh clans.
Even among their religious denominations there is no monopoly within the Sarahulleh society as their Tijanniya, Qadiriya, Wahhabi and other sects are engaged in daily competitions for influence and relevance.
Secondly, the presence of only Sarahulleh “horro” caste within President Barrow’s cabinet, core State House staff, donors and others is a matter of pure coincidence and not a deliberate attempt or policy of Barrow to side-line Sarahullehs from other castes. Those Sarahullehs were just lucky to be at the right place and at the right time to be appointed and I believe they know that their public positions are temporal.
President Barrow is the President of all Gambians regardless to ethnicity, religion, creed, family or economic status.
I hinted on “Cham” being a “numo” smith in both Mandinka and Sarahulleh. With this assumption, I made reference to Lamin Cham, Personal Assistant to President Adama Barrow, as a proof that the President don’t see caste as barrier to public office.
The slush funds of the belligerents
The caste conflicts between the Sarahullehs are far from over. As I hinted before, caste divisions exist in Mandinka, Fula and Wollof communities.
Over the past two (2) years however, it is the Sarahullehs who are openly beating each other, killing each other, destroying each other’s properties, ridiculing each other and dragging each other to the police over the caste conflict before the whole Gambia.
Claiming that Mandinkas, Fulas and Wollofs have caste systems and conflicts is not an excuse for justifying bad behaviour and human rights abuse in our Sarahulleh communities.
There are about fifty four (54) Sarahulleh settlements in The Gambia located mainly in the Upper and Central River Regions (URR, CRR).
Violent caste conflicts have so far been recorded in four (4) namely, Diabugu, Garawol, Baja Kunda and Koina.
The other fifty (50) Sarahulleh communities are NOT immune to the conflicts. The “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement has chapters in all the settlements: some are active while others are passive.
There is a Sarahulleh settlement in The Gambia (name withheld) where so-called slaves were banned from playing football in the village field for being part of the “Ganbaana” abolitionist group.
This ban did not make it to nationwide news as it was not followed by violence at the time.
The Gambia Government should be on the alert. I repeat: there are Western and Islamic-educated Sarahullehs who still believe in the caste system both within The Gambia and their diaspora communities in Spain, USA, France, etc.
The educated believers in caste system and the old beneficiaries of segregation would fight to maintain it at all costs or deny it when confronted in the court of public opinion.
We can recall the post-election violence after the 2017 parliamentary vote when some people violently protested the democratic election of a “Nyamala/Karanke” caste into our Gambian National Assembly.
There are still people, at home and abroad, who believe that they have exclusive birth right to Gambian public office forgetting that The Gambia is multi-ethnic republic and not a singular family fiefdom.
The traditional conflict resolution mechanism in our Sarahulleh communities is compromised due to the ingrained mutual distrust between belligerents.
Though all groups agree that slavery as described in Islam does not exist within the Sarahulleh communities, the barriers to reconciliation are high.
What we have are the side effects of discrimination and stigmatisation by caste, the slave trade and hereditary slavery.
The trenches are deep and the conflict parties have reportedly set up solidarity slush funds for various purposes including publicity, paying legal fees of members who run into trouble with the law, bribing law enforcement officers and policymakers to decide in their favours.
Unfortunately, I am not aware of any slush fund set up to promote reconciliation and traditional conflict resolution among the warring Sarahullehs.
So far funds raised are being used for fighting and disgracing each other. More worring is the fact that some folks are using the caste conflicts as money-making venture.
They would be boosting the egos of the “nobles” opposing “Ganbaana” to access free money and would go to “Ganbaana” to feign solidarity with the hope of getting some funds into their personal pockets. They are like arm dealers selling weapons to warring factions in a battle.
Sarahullehs fear and respect assertive governments and authorities
The Gambia Government should also realise that the strategy of leaving things to the compromised traditional leaders would not solve the caste conflicts in the Sarahulleh communities.
In the course of my research, distraught community members call for the final intervention of “Fanka” which in Sarahulleh means the highest authority of the land.
They want the laws of the land to be applied without fear or favour.
Proactive and preventive diplomacy are needed as well.
Sarahullehs don’t respect a government that is no consequential in applying law and order.
They would perceive it as a weak government without “barako” (blessings).
Barely some five years ago there were Sarahullehs in the diaspora insisting on practising Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on their daughters abroad.
However, the uncompromising stance of the respective authorities in Germany, France, Spain and the UK in prosecuting and jailing guilty parents made others to change and start respecting the law.
No Sarahulleh will openly call an African-American on the streets of New York a “Nigger” or “slave” as he or she knows that the New York authorities will make sure the law he or she violates takes its full course.
The “Wahhabism” conflict within the Sarahulleh communities in the 1990s should serve as a lesson.
I am fortunate to be a living witness of the fighting between various Islamic religious sects in the Sarahulleh villages that led to killings, destruction of property, insults and other forms of naked violence.
The Sarahulleh associations and community leaders at the time including Sarahullehs occupying key positions in both the Jawara and Jammeh governments could not stop the religious fight.
The Gambia Government’s rigorous prosecution of law breakers and its emphasis on The Gambia as a secular state with freedom of worship eventually diffused the tensions.
Today, we have countless Wahhabi mosques in various Sarahulleh communities that initially fought the sect in the 1990s.
In addition to applying the law without fear or favour, sustained sensitization, mediation and education are needed to modify the attitudes of the people towards the erosion of the caste conflict in the deeply-divided Sarahulleh communities.
One cannot deny the fact that people have right to their cultures and traditions. Culture is however dynamic and subject to constant change according the needs of the day.
Any violent and dehumanizing tradition, culture, law or mentality that is inconsistent with our republican constitution is null and void.
The younger generations of Sarahullehs should be encouraged to keep on using the tools of creative arts to promote sensitization on the toxic nature of the caste discrimination and its cascading layers of derogatory vocabulary.
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