My experience with ethnic groups and their values and beliefs is a unique one. My mother and father belong to different ethnic groups, which is unusual (but not prohibited) in my society. My mother is Wolof and my father is Mandinka. Most marriages during their teenage years were intra-ethnic. With the evolution of society, that has ceased to be the norm. With my society being patriarchal, the ethnic group of the father gets ascribed to newborns. Following that logic, my society labels me as Mandinka, even though I am more fluent in Wolof, the language spoken by people that belong to my mother’s ethnic group. I do not identify as Mandinka and nor do I identify as Wolof or a member of any single ethnic group in my society. “Why is that?”, you might want to ask. It perhaps has to do with the way I was being taught about ethnic groups as a child and the things I learned growing up.
My first interaction about ethnic groups took place in primary school. I can vividly remember my Population and Family Life Education (PopFLE) teacher Mrs. Sarr introducing us to the different ethnic groups of The Gambia and their features (commonalities and differences). When it came to the commonalities, the one thing that stood out was the values. Irrespective of one’s ethnic group, Gambians hold dear values such as respect for the elderly, honesty, hospitality, coexistence, and hard work. On the other hand, the differences amongst the ethnic groups lie in the belief systems of the various groups and their structures. Groups such as the Wolof and Mandinka are predominantly Muslim while others such as the Manjago and Karoninka are Christian. We also have some that subscribe to the traditional African religion as well as one or two that do not profess to follow any of the religions mentioned.
The other difference is the composition of the ethnic groups. Some are stratified while others are not – at least not in the past. The Wolof for example has the nobility, warriors, clerics, artisan caste, and slaves. The Jolas on the other hand do not have a stratified system – not during times of peace. However, they do constitute an ad hoc system during times of war. These values and beliefs that we were introduced to us in school were the things we were being taught in our homes in a subliminal way. We were brought up to greet our parents and elders every morning and to not raise our voice when we talk to them; to share our food with family, friends, and strangers; to be respectful and honest; to be hardworking, and to be steadfast in our religion. Our parents will take us to the mosque or church with them depending on what religion they subscribe to or was ascribed to them. In school, our teachers will have us take Islamic Studies or Bible Studies classes based on our first names and or last names. First and last names are usually associated with our ethnic groups or religions for the most part. Hence, one can take a guess about what ethnic group or religion someone belongs to just by using their name as a clue.
Being children, we were being socialized into these different facets of our society. As a kid, I had noticed that whenever there was a ceremony or function, there were specific groups of people carrying out certain tasks. Each of these groups had unique labels. Being young, I did not take time to think much about it. However, as I grew older, everything started to become clearer to me. I started realizing that my society was operating just as I was taught in my PopFLE class. Furthermore, I realized that all along, my family and society, in general, were passing down their values and beliefs to me, but that was just a part of the story. We did not live in isolation. We shared an economic, social, and political space with other ethnic groups. Our interaction with these groups has impacted and influenced my values and social relationships.
When it comes to the influence that sharing an economic, social, and political space with other ethnic groups has had on my values and social relationships, the one with the most profound impact on my life is the social realities. As far as the economic and political spaces are concerned, Gambians no matter what group they belong to have had or are having their fair share of both. No ethnic group has dominance over those. We had one of the best (so they say) democracies in sub-Saharan Africa until the early 90s when a group of soldiers overthrew the government and instituted a dictatorship and entrenched its tentacles on our society for 22 years. Under dictatorship, all ethnic groups suffered both economically and politically. Albeit the military junta’s efforts to sow seeds of discord amongst the groups, the peaceful coexistence of the groups which was cemented by the social relationships that were developed made those efforts futile.
The intermarriages of people from the various ethnic groups and their participation in one another’s festivities led to a closely-knit society. Growing up in a diverse society, I had friends who belonged to other ethnic groups and religions. I realized that they were no different from me. With that realization, I began asking questions. Why do we belong to different ethnic groups or religions? Would we have belonged to a different religion if we were born in a different family or society? Would we have been religious at all? These were just some of the things that often preoccupied my mind. I would even discuss it with family and friends at times. My friends tell me they fear I will go insane if I do not stop asking “complicated” questions. I honestly do not know what they mean, and I have no intention of knowing. Anyway, due to such experiences, I found myself looking at my family and friends as just Gambians regardless of one’s ethnic group or religion. If the people who belong to other ethnic groups or religions can share the same values with me, why can we also not share an identity?
I remember discussing Cheikh Anta Diop’s “The Cultural Unity of Black Africa”, “Precolonial Black Africa”, and “Civilization or Barbarism” with a friend who is quite the opposite of me when it comes to ethnic identity. He strongly identifies as a Mandinka, the ethnic group my father belongs to. He would always tell me that I am a Mandinka just like him and would insist that I speak that language when conversing with him. And as always, I would refuse. So, we always have what our other friends call the weirdest conversations. With us, it is always one seamless conversation done in multiple languages. He sticks to Mandinka, and I would be switching between Wolof and English, both of which he speaks fluently. I got under his skin on one occasion and made him livid. He ignored me for a couple of hours and the first thing he said when he was ready to talk to me was, “Are you not proud of who you are?”. I knew that came from the depth of his heart. Alas, my friend has expressed the thought he had harbored for so long.
I told him I was very proud of who I am, and I am proud of who he is too. I am proud of all my friends who identify as members of a particular ethnic group. I do not identify with one ethnic group because I identify with all. My mother is Wolof, and my father is Mandinka. Why would I just identify with one when they both have a profound impact on my life? We have friends who belong to other ethnic groups who we see as equals. Why then would we not identify with their ethnic group? We share the same values and rejoice in one another’s festivities. After all, are we all not humans and Gambians first? And it was not just about the values we shared. I have learned about the horrors of the Nigerian Civil War of 1976; the Somali Civil War of 1991; and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994; and the Serahule caste conflict in The Gambia; all of which were ethnic in nature. It is due to these reasons I refuse to identify with just one ethnic group.
If there is one thing that I will feel shame about, it will be how my fellow Africans lost themselves in the ethnic narrative. It is not bad to identify with a particular ethnic group if it does not make one lose sight of the bigger picture: one’s nationality, race, and humanity. As people, we receive different messages from family, friends, and society about other ethnic groups. Many a time, those messages are stereotypical. One must be very careful in how we consume such messages. Most of the messages I received about other ethnic groups were in the form of inter-ethnic banter. It is common to hear people talk about how hardworking the Jolas are; how a Manjago’s fight never ends; how Fulas never marry outside their ethnic group; how the Mandinkas cannot put on facial makeup; how the Wolofs tend to have many children; and how frugal Akus are. Of course, these are all stereotypes. However, when I was young, I believed them. It was only when I grew up that I realized that all these traits can be found across the board. In the same vein, I will continue to find messages of such nature about people in my society. You will too. As people, we should endeavor to keep ourselves culturally attuned so that we can best serve our community.
So, what really is my ethnic identity? I do not know. What is yours?