Our politics is a reflection of our society; and Gambia, by all accounts, is a nation of insulters. “Insult is a disrespectful or scornfully abusive remark or action”. As such, it is a form of remark or action aimed to cause anger, disrespect, feeling worthless, demoralization or belittlement to an individual, a group, a society, a people or a nation.
Although, there are specific insult words and actions, any word or action can be an insult. Usually, what becomes an insult varies from society to society, or from nation to nation. It depends on who says it, where it is said and how it is said. The same applies to an action too, as to who does it, where it is done and how it is done. I remember when learning Chinese (Mandarin), I was told that the word for ‘lady’ (??/xi?oji?) in Chinese in Taiwan, means a ‘prostitute’ in Chinese in China. A youngster making the first attempt to shake the hand of an elder is considered a show of respect in The Gambia, but an insult in some parts of Nigeria. I got insulted by a lady, asking me sarcastically, if I was taught ethics in medical school during the doctors’ strike in The Gambia, in 2018.
When it comes to the reason for the pervasiveness of insult in our politics, one has to look at our society to understand why. Politics is brutal, especially in Africa. The culture of our politics being intertwined with insult is a manifestation of how we have been prepared by society to deal with anger or frustration; or sometimes just to simply make a point. We are conditioned as a people to vent out our anger or frustration by insulting. Virtually, there is no community or society or household where insult is not used. As babies, some are ‘breastfed insults’, using the local parlance. Children are taught and encouraged to insult since when they are in diapers.
In many communities, most of the first words learnt by a child are insult words. So, as a people, we learn to talk by insulting —and the first people we usually insult are our mothers. During this time, the mother will not discourage it because of the excitement that her child is getting somewhere in attaining his or her developmental milestones (saying words or making simple sentences). The next in line to be insulted are one’s siblings. And, should an older sibling get offended, it will be the parents who would tell them not to be, as he or she is only a child. Interestingly, the only person who should not, and cannot, be insulted is the father. Then as one grows older, your family will encourage you to insult. You would hear children being told, if so–and–so insults you, insult them back; if someone insults your mother, insult back if you cannot do anything physical about it. And of course, you get insulted by your parents when you do certain things. Your siblings insult you every day; your friends and sometimes your teachers would insult you for saying or doing things they disapproved of. Even ‘karantaa to’ or at ‘dara’, one gets insulted by their Ustass. So naturally, as a child growing up in The Gambia, one is programmed by the society to insult. Essentially, we end up becoming ‘prolific insulters’—with nothing beyond and above insult for us. So, we insult everything including dead bodies.
In some societies, people who can insult very well or those who are great at rubbishing people are ‘celebrated’. Some of these insult celebrities would literally wear that status as badge of honor. These are the ones you don’t want to mess with. And one’s mother and siblings would advise them to avoid. In fact, they (the insult celebrities) will give you a warning-cum-advice before you do. They will tell you: “with all your issues, please avoid me, because if you touch me, I will tell you who you actually are, or how you were born”. For some reasons, in our societies, females seem to be the best insulters. I don’t know how they get ‘honor’ degrees in this area; because when they start raining it on someone, all you can do is put your fingers in your ears and just keep saying “astaghfirullah! astaghfirullah! astaghfirullah!”.
Even though insult is well entrenched in our societies, the level to which a child is exposed varies from household to household and from community to community. Notwithstanding, almost everyone insults in The Gambia in one way or the other.
The first natural reaction of a Gambian who is offended is to shower the offender with invectives. It is instinctual, I would say. Visceral. So, it is this ‘inherent characteristic’ of Gambians that naturally manifests in our politics. It has been that way from the beginning— from the time of UP in the 1960s, through PPP’s to APRC’s and now Barrow’s time. There was never a time when our politics was insult free. Whether it is the use of insult words, or using terms or characterizations or simply actions to try to put down or make one’s political opponents feel worthless; but it has always been there. We all heard or read how it had been between UP and PPP; PPP and NCP; and then when APRC came, it went to the next level; and with Barrow the floodgates opened. So, I tend to disagree with the assertion that the level at which it is now is because of the democracy we have. No. All democracy is doing is amplifying it. I have been in democracies where people do not insult to the level or the manner we do; simply because insult is not part of the fabric of those societies like it is in The Gambia.
However, should one ask if we still have to condone insult in our politics; probably, everyone will say no. But then how do we go about achieving an insult-free politics? This, we may not be able to achieve at all levels of our society. Nonetheless, I believe we can make a headway in it, especially at higher levels where the focus should be more on substance and about real issues rather than about the persons of politicians, the region they come from, the name they call God with or who they believe or not is the last messenger, or the language they speak at home, etc. As a nation, we may need to have a conversation, beginning from our households to our communities and then the nation at large— to enlighten one another about being more responsible with what we say when we interact even if we become angry or offended; that people who have points or better ideas or things to put across should not or do not insult. And that when you insult, that says more about you than it does about the one insulted.