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On tribe and tribalism: Letter to my friend

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By Momodou Sabally

Dear Sheriff,

Greetings this early Thursday morning, February 6th, 2020 from my little corner in the cool groves of Kerr Serign.

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In accordance with our pact sealed a decade-and-a-half ago while you sojourned in the realm of the Hanoverian Lady and I was in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, I pen you yet another epistle on a matter of critical national importance.
We live in interesting times; and in this post-truth world, it is a daunting task to deal with sensitive matters in a hypersensitive society like ours. But my mantra is quite clear, a line from the lyrics of your fellow native of Brikama ST: Tonyaa kesso yeh execute (the truth must be executed!)
The issue of tribe has been one of the most contentious matters in what I have been calling our so-called New Gambia for more than two years.  Despite its beauty and enriching quality in our social fabric, the matter of tribe has virtually become a ticking time bomb in our these troubled times.

You are no stranger to this matter for I have consistently seen a quarter page of an advert in your newspaper, The Standard, addressing this matter.
First, I must say that in our desire to dent the potential negative aspects of tribal matters, some of us have taken the escapist and simplistic route of coining the false slogan “my tribe is Gambia!” Oh what a farce! Indeed those who pushed this mantra must have some good intention but this type of approach is characteristic of our typical attitude of trivialising complex matters and hoping to attain solutions to difficult problems by taking easy measures. What has been the result regarding the problem this sloganeering has attempted to resolve?

The problem of tribalism is worsening in our country and if anyone failed to notice this, then the week following the January 26thprotests about our current leader’s contentious mandate has revealed the cancerous nature of this rumour called tribalism.
Indeed this scourge has no place in a nation of believers, Muslims and Christians. For this first time in my life I have heard people calling on their tribesmen and women to go out and attack their perceived enemies who belong to other tribes. This is truly alarming!
Sheriff, it is my belief that our ethnic groups and their diverse traditions and customs are a blessing to this beautiful country whose cardinal prayer is “and join our diverse peoples to prove man’s brotherhood!” So why should we sit down and watch this blessing being transformed into a curse that could plague our society for generations? Have we learnt any lessons from the genocide of Rwanda?

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Truly we must watch our media space, both traditional and new media; especially social media because the amount of hate speech in this country is flabbergasting. With hindsight, we know that tribal or ethnic wars have always been preceded (and ignited) by hate speech so this is where our task of preventing a dangerous ethnic conflagration must commence.
My morning recitation of the Holy Qur’an, today took me to the 17th chapter, called Al Isra (The Night Journey) but also called Bani Israel (the Children of Israel). The 53rdverse of this chapter stood out for me as Allah solemnly warns us: “And say to My servants (that) they speak that which is good and kindlier; surely the Satan sows dissensions among them; surely the Satan is an open enemy to man.”

Shall we not then watch our mouths Sheriff, or would we continue to read these holy scriptures without taking lessons and instructions? Are we going to be like the people Allah speaks about in Surah Jumuah when He asserted in the fifth verse “The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes [of books]. Wretched is the example of the people who deny the signs of Allah. And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.”

Is it not interesting that the previous verse quoted regarding dangerous speech comes from a chapter named after a nation that was set up as a confluence of tribes? Am I then wrong, my friend, in an assertion I made some two years ago, that “in our desire to solve the problem of tribalism, we must not risk to attempt to “kill the tribe for the nation to survive” as preposterously postulated by some sloganeering groups egged on by the fuel of irrational exuberance?

Verily, my position is that we can manage and conserve our ethnic diversity while preserving the ethos of our oneness as Gambians. To quote my late mother’s Mandinka proverb depicting peaceful coexistence, “nyo kaanaa sosso faa; sosso kaanaa nyo faa!”
Is Israel not existing in tact as a nation despite their tribal hues? Why can’t we live together in harmony despite our diversity? Just like the patriarch Israel (or Jacob) and his children produced the various tribes, so have my parents given birth to me and my siblings, blessing me with nephews and nieces who became Wolofs, Jolas, Fulas and Mandinkas. How can I hate my own blood?

Our creation as tribes and nations is indeed for a reason as Allah is never frivolous. In His classic declaration He explained in verse 10 of Surah Hujuraat: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”

Is the reason stated in the above verse not partly captured in the last segment of the verse in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 16: 7: “for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”?
Sheriff, let us admonish each other that we must eschew excessive judgmental behaviours and learn to love and appreciate one another for only Allah can judge who is better. Yet, He (Glory be to Him) embraces us all in his Mercy and Grace; even those who deny His existence and omnipotence receive His love and kindness in this world. Shall we not learn a lesson?

My good friend, I believe that some cynical reader of this epistle will call you or send a message questioning my authority on such a sensitive matter given the fact that I once read an official statement of The Gambia Government that was quite obnoxious and offensive to a particular ethnic group. Yes I did; and I regretted it and apologised for that gross error even though I did detail the circumstances that surrounded that incident in several interviews; I actually explained that I had advised the powers that be at the time against issuing such a statement. I still stand on that apology; but that erratum of mine will never keep me gagged when the nation faces clear dangers and Caesar seems to be fiddling with the distraction of self-perpetuation while the cinders of conflict are being fanned with the waves of hate speech.

Ours is a beautiful country and we have managed to keep our diversity alive as a united country so we should not break this harmony. I have heard some people claim that our neighbouring country, Senegal, is a detribalised society but I think this opinion is both false and misleading. We hear the rumbles of discord beneath the apparent harmony at the surface of that society. At least we have never encountered violent civil strife based on region or language and we pray for our neighbours to sustain and expand the gains made in trying to restore peace and harmony in their own backyard.

The Gambia exudes the beauty of diversity as portrayed by our media, a beautiful mélange, promoted by our state broadcaster, The Gambia Radio and Television Services. They should be encouraged to improve their role in preserving this heritage and be more proactive in shaping the colour and tone of our national discourse for greater peace and enduring harmony “towards the common good!”
And finally, as we approach yet another celebration of our independence anniversary, my good friend, I bid you bonne fete with these lyrics from our national hymn:
“For The Gambia our homeland

We strive and work and pray

That all may live in unity

Freedom and peace each day…”


Momodou Sabally
The Gambia’s Pen

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