By Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu,
Researcher on Contemporary History and
Politics specializing in slavery abolition in West Africa
Question: Do you believe that people who trust each other will be humiliating each other, destroying each other’s properties, shaming each other or banishing each other over an obsolete tradition?
Following the public outcry over the latest outbreak of violence in the Sarahulleh (Soninke) communities over caste segregation, some folks asked me why I am not active in addressing this caste problem that is threating our national peace.
My response was that I am respected by the conflicting parties: the “horro” (nobles) and the others who are fighting against caste-based slavery.
I have to be careful of my words and actions so as not to lose the respect and bargaining influence I have in our society. Though my family’s Sarahulleh customary statuses as “Barago Taggo” and “Sankanu Kaggoro” give me the possibility of serving as mediator and peace ambassador, I won’t usurp and I cannot be active unless I am formally invited to do so.
The purpose of this tell-all popular media commentary is to explain the genesis of the caste conflict with the sincere aim of advancing due sensitization on this harmful traditional practice and helping the belligerents as well as the Gambian authorities in finding a lasting solution to this social change or reform challenge.
I am proud of my Sarahulleh identity and I have a responsibility to analyse the problems affecting our Sarahulleh communities without fear or favour.
Sugar-coating the rot under the veneer of religious visibility would not solve this caste problem and human rights question.
For more interesting stuff on slavery and caste conflicts in West Africa, watch out for the final version of my PhD thesis on the subject albeit in augmented academic vocabulary.
The caste system and the Arabic origin of the word “Forro/Horro”
From my insider perspectives, the on-going caste conflict within the Gambian Sarahulleh communities between the so-called “forro” or “horro” (nobles) and so-called “kommo” (slaves) castes is nothing new.
The Gambia’s demographic composition puts the size of Sarahullehs at about seven percent (7%) of the population or one hundred and forty thousand (140,000) people.
Their native villages are located in the Upper River Region (URR) and Central River Region (CRR).
As a minority people that was not so visible in the mass media, most of their internal tensions were going unnoticed by the rest of the country.
Now due to social media’s real time distribution of contents, the nation and the outside world are witnessing the barbaric side effects of this centuries-old obsolete social stratification in its crude and abhorrent form.
Like the Mandinka, Wollof and Fula ethnic groups of West Africa, the Sarahullehs too have a caste system that categorise them into occupational groups.
Intermarriage is not encouraged though adultery and fornication across the castes are condoned.
With the exception of the slaves who were either captives of war, victims of slave trade or descendants of domestic slavery, the other occupational groups like the “Taggo/Numolu” (smiths), “Mangou” (delegates), “Garanko/Karankolu” (leatherworkers), “Jaaru/Jalolu” (griots/genealogists) are born free.
Therefore, the term “freeborn” can be applied to all others who are not slaves. Smiths, griots and leatherworkers who settle in villages and states founded by the “horro” (nobles) consequently subject themselves to their norms and traditions.
In the same vain, nobles, griots, leatherworkers and “nyamalolu” (masters of ceremonies) who agree to live in settlements or states founded by “taggo/numolu” (smiths) would accept the authority of the smiths over them.
The Sarahulleh and Mandinka word “horro” or “forro” is originally Arabic and means “hurri” (free).
It is interesting to note that Arabs are said to be descendants of Ismail, son of Haggar, the banished slave wife of Prophet Abraham.
This means a slave woman named Haggar was the common ancestral mother of today’s Arab kings, princes, princesses, nobles and emirs.
I am making reference to this since some of our Gambian people see Arabs as their superior role models and they feel proud of having “sula” (local parlance for light-skinned Middle Eastern migrants) ancestors from Arabia.
“Hurriyat” in Arabic means “Freedom”, the Mandinkas know it as “Foroyaa” and Sarahullehs as “Horraxu/Forraxu” respectively.
Through the Trans-Saharan slave trade, Islamization of Africa and other forms of contacts with the Arabs, countless Arabic words and traditions have been adopted by the Sarahullehs, Mandinkas and Fulas.
People would be fighting over something that they may consider as African culture but if you do proper research, you could discover that it was a foreign culture adapted to local customs.
The mass addiction to Arabic names is a clear manifestation of the erosion of indigenous African self-esteem.
Some people fail to realise that bearing just an Arabic name does not automatically make one a Muslim.
The Islamic religion accepts indigenous non-Arabic names as long as they are no names of pre-Islamic idols.
That said I am not aware of any Gambian clan or family that has claimed the exclusive copyright over the status and title of “forro/horro” (freeborn/noble) or “foroyaa” (nobility/freedom) in our society.
According the Constitution of The Republic of The Gambia, all citizens between Kartong and Koina are born free.
It is our various career paths in life that eventually makes us different.
Being noble or freeborn does not mean one cannot have a normal occupation hence we have nobles who became farmers, smiths, singers and traders as well.
The original concept of the caste system was not about superiority complex of one group above the others forever.
It was division of labour intended to promote social cohesion and the smooth functioning of the state based on the realities of the time in the past.
The discriminatory caste system has no relevance in the 21st Century and those trying to preserve it are sweating, in nostalgia, over the last kicks of a dying horse.
If Sarahullehs can give up the cultural practice of sacrificing their daughters to their “Wagadou bidda” snake-god, if they can be sleeping with each other regardless of caste barriers nowadays and if they can be gradually moving away from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I am confident that Sarahullehs would eventually abandon the caste Apartheid between them.
Generally, the caste system is dynamic and adaptable to the local realities of the settlement concerned.
Additional strata like “modi” or “morro” for marabouts came with Islamization. “Modi” is originally from the Arabic adjective “muadid” and means a “person who is literate” hence the “morro” were part of the clerics in the courts of the rulers.
This historical precedence means “Ganbaana” has the possibility of becoming a new social strata or clan (kabilo) of the Sarahulleh community for those who reject feudalistic servitude similar to the “Liberated Africans” or “Aku” in our Gambian ethnic composition.
Mutual respect between the freeborn castes: the example of the “Horro” (nobles) and “Taggo” (smiths)
Ruling a state or community is not an exclusive privilege of the “horro” (nobles) as they are not the only freeborn with nation-building ability.
The history of Prophet David (Dawood) shows that a smith “tagge/numo” can become king and also the highest worldly religious authority of the time as prophet.
Soumangoru Kanteh was a smith and king. The modern powerful State of Israel was founded by Jews who claim ancestral links to the smith King David whose symbols they are using with pride.
The Ghana Empire, for its part, was a loose federation of autonomous Sarahulleh/Soninke states and clans (kabilos). Prominent among them was Barago: an autonomous state founded by the “taggo/numolu” smiths hence their title “Barago Taggo.”
The inhabitants of Barago, led by Bambureh Touray as their ruler, refused to sacrifice their daughters to the python-god (Wagadou bidda) of central Kumbi Saleh, the imperial capital.
The growing power and influence of the “taggo” (smiths) made the ruler of the Ghana Empire of the time (name withheld) jealous and thus set a trap that led to the collapse of Barago.
As poetic justice would have it, the “Almoravids” (people of the fortress) from North Africa attacked, humiliated and defeated that king’s Ghana Empire which collapsed like the state of Barago he betrayed earlier.
The difference between the “horro” (nobles) and “taggo” (smiths) in the Sarahulleh community is that they don’t intermarry but in other aspects of life they are similar in stature.
They are both affluent as fabulously wealthy Sarahulleh tycoons can be found among the “horro” and “taggo” groups.
They are both freeborn and do rule over their individual states or communities. “Morro/Modi” religious clerics can be found among both “horro” and “taggo” groups.
The surname “Drammeh” can be found among the “morro” clerics, “horro” nobles and the “taggo” smiths. The “Njie” surname in Sarahulleh has both “horro” and smith castes.
“Karaga Njie” or “Karaga Duxanchi” is the smith clan. “Janneh” and “Janha” are both “morro” (clerics) and “numolu/taggo” (smiths) in Sarahulleh.
There are “nyamala”(masters of ceremonies), “garankes” (leatherworkers), griots and slaves living under the “horro”castes. Likewise the smiths (taggo/numolu) too have their subordinate “Tagandimanu/Garanko nyamala”, “Jaaru” (griot) genealogists and customary servants.
In the Sarahulleh communities, “Sahoneh”, “Sumbundu” and “Magassy” serve as “nyamala” commoner assistant/masters of ceremonies to both the smiths (taggo/numolu) and the nobles (horro).
There are settlements in The Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania where the rulers are either smiths or nobles.
The customary right to rule a state, village or community rests on the founders and their heirs.
If a settlement is founded by “horro” (nobles), they would be the rulers. On the other hand, in a settlement established by a “tagge” (smith), the hereditary authorities rest with the “taggo” elites. My Sotuma Sere community in Jimara, URR, The Gambia, was founded by a smith and cleric named “Sere Sankanu” who was my biological great-grandfather.
The hereditary “Alkaloship” and “Imamship” are customarily under the smiths.
Anyone, be him or her “horre”, commoner or from another ethnic group who wants to settle among us will have to accept our authority.
If you chose to live in say, Kombo Brikama, you would be expected to accept the “Bojangs” as the customary rulers of that area.
Social and occupational mobility of the castes
Traditionally, social and occupational mobility is possible as people from different castes can take up various social responsibilities in the course of time
. Before my Sankanu “kabilo” (clan) joined the smiths of the state of Barago, we were known as “Kaggoro” which was part of the nobility of the ancient Ghana Empire.
This is why the griots would be addressing me as “Sankanu Tagge” or “Sankanu Kaggoro” depending on the occasion at hand. The “Kaggoro” or as the Malian Bambara call them “Kakolo” were among the original nobles of the Sarahulleh communities before the Arabised strata of “horro” was created after Islamization.
The “Kaggoro” dialect is now extinct.
The smith state of Barago provided asylum to other nobles who changed their surnames and adapted the smith names and occupations.
The notable smiths (taggo/numolu) in the Sarahulleh society are “Bommu/Tudoga”, “Janha”, “Jankumba”, “Bereteh”, “Masina”, “Garko” and “Sambaxeh.
” There are also smiths who became religious clerics.
The surname “Bereteh” for instance was a smith from Barago.
He confessed to the ruler of the smiths that he could handle hot iron and decided to become a religious teacher and later “Bereteh Ngana Manding morro” clerical caste of Mandeng.
The other family names that were part of the Mandeng morro clerics are “Ceesay”, “Touray”, “Janneh” and “Komma.” Sarahulleh surnames like “Janneh”, “Janha”, “Cham”, “Sissoho” and “Touray” are either smiths (taggo) or clerics (morro/marabout) depending on where they settled. “Janha Samajari” is the smith and “Janha boygilleh” is the “morro” or marabout.
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
Date: 10 June 2019
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