By Dembo Kanteh
You probably have watched years ago on TV Jammeh claiming his ancestry to be from Illiasa in Baddibu or at least heard from someone regarding same. Either way, a president did announce to a nation that historically, he had his roots in Illiasa at Jammeh Kunda. It generated both euphoria and apprehension from some quarters depending on how one interpreted the move. I will get to that later. Those who saw the claim as a potential of gaining something, welcomed the claim and facilitated this to a level where Jammeh decided to travel to Illiasa for what was dubbed a homecoming event and ding kuliyo.
Jammeh announced to the country that years ago, one of his ancestors who was in line for the kingship was denied the reign and in response, decided to go on self-exile in Foni. According to Jammeh, when his ancestor was supposed to be crowned, the people did not show up in the morning for the coronation rites; a betrayal of trust and adherence to traditional norms.
Unfortunately, Jammeh never gave us the name of this ancestor nor did I hear (unless you have heard), where in Foni this ancestor went to. Jammeh simply said that his ancestor decided to go into self-exile to Foni leaving it open to further investigation the circumstances of this palace coup, something he would perfect later in life, perhaps in revenge.
As stated above, there were people who welcomed the claim and saw an opportunity to tilt power in the area. Some saw it as perhaps an opportunity to once more bring back the chieftaincy to Illiasa. Certainly, a president who appointed chiefs, and whose Illiasa forebearers held chieftaincy positions in the past, would most likely restore this old glory back to the family. It may also open up further opportunities beyond the chieftaincy. Certainly, being identified with President Jammeh came with a political capital that was underwritten and held its value in every corner of The Gambia and in any establishment.
And so, a president decided to visit his people and indulge in the pageantry and pomp of kingly past that Jammeh was dying to have. To be identified as having blue blood, and accepted into the fold was something Jammeh had long been looking for. He knew what such an approval could give. It would cement his claim and legitimacy to those who opposed his birth and his citizenship. Being identified with the Jammeh of Illiasa, is a seal of approval of citizenship of a noble family.
Another force was also brewing which perhaps was more powerful than those who looked forward to a family reunion. This group saw every threat to their privileges if power shifted to Illiasa and so they got to work to thwart this from happening. Am sure many of you reading this article knew that an advanced party had already been sent ahead of Jammeh’s visit and quite a number of cattle bought for the big celebration of a Prince and President. It was certainly not going to be a pura bengo like they say in Mandinka.
The ferry was packed with vehicles and a large entourage heading to Illiasa. I happen to be in Banjul that day and I saw the crowd at the terminal myself. You could not miss the tainted glass SUVs around. A few hours later, the trip to Illiasa was aborted suddenly. The forces of apprehension had an upper hand and managed to thwart the trip and the rest is history. I am sure you will excuse my not explaining what happened. I was lucky to have ears of a confidant who was in the thick of the organising committee.
Although the celebration did not happen as intended and the forces of apprehension won in the end, I have not heard anywhere that Jammeh abandoned his claim to Illiasa. He did eventually tell a nation that he was not a Mandinka and that Mandinka does not even exist. Those utterances in my opinion do not cancel out his claim to Illiasa.
I have always been curious to get to the bottom of Jammeh’s claim since he mentioned it not because of the impossibility, but because I have always been interested how our surnames developed and why for the most part many of these surnames are found across ethnic lines. The claim to originality was of interest to me. In other words, are there certain surnames which are unique to only one ethnic group and if so why are those surnames found in other groups?
The surname Jammeh is found both among the Jola, Mandinka and Serere as some believe that Jammeh is a Serere surname which evolved during the Guelowar dynasty, a line of kings in both Sine and Saloum of Mandinka heritage through their mothers. That is a different matter outside of this thesis.
And so, when I happened to ask a few members of the Jammeh family about President Jammeh’s claim, the general theme through all the discussions is that they have not heard of a prince in the family who was denied the throne and who went into self-exile to Foni. And so, I concluded that it was not because the people did not disprove Jammeh but they were hesitant for the fact that they could not relate Jammeh’s claims to a historical antecedent.
These two are very different. Not being able to establish an occurrence in the past is not evidence of disproof. It is simply evidence of not being exposed to historical past. With research, this can be overcome and if research showed that it never occurred, then that becomes a proof but merely dismissing it on the basis that one has never heard of an incident is simply not enough to deny a claim as false. There are people born in The Gambia who don’t know which year we gained independence but that is no proof that we never gained independence.
And so I took it upon myself, whenever a possibility rears its head to search for materials on the history of Baddibu with the hope that I may one day chance on a self-exile of a prince from Illiasa to Foni particularly in the Jammeh family. But I was also intrigue by the story of Sankalang Marong, a ruler of the area motivated by my discussions with Jai Marong and Ba Jabbi. Both incidents have sustained me through all this time to dig deeper. I have an aunt who is also Marong and hailed from Baddibu. It would be a great find to share with her if I find anything in addition to a promise I gave to both Ba and Jai that if I ever found anything, I would share with them.
Luck of an Irish
It happened that a month or so ago, I was reading a book on Gambian history and in the bibliographic section, was referenced a source titled: Oral traditions From Gambia Vol II Family Elders by Donald R Wright, Papers in International Studies, Africa Series, Ohio University Centre for International Studies, Africa Programme, 1980.
This intrigued me because I realised that if I ever have to make a dent in this quest, it would have to come from oral accounts captured years ago before they were lost. I therefore ordered the book and as I perused, I was looking for anything on Baddibu especially the Jammeh and bam! there it was. A section dedicated to the Jammeh family and migration. This was all I have been looking for all these years since Jammeh’s claim:
Bio of the interviewee: Landing Jammeh or Mbamba Jammeh
The interview was was transcribed into a section of the book, took place on 3 December 1974 in Brikama, Kombo. Mr Jammeh confirmed that he was 70 years old when the interview was recorded which makes his year of birth as 1904 at Bakindiki Koto in Niumi. Years later Mr Jammeh relocated from Niumi to Brikama to be close to more of his extended family.
Integrity of Landing Jammeh: How trustworthy was he?
I thought it necessary to discuss this aspect of my thesis because credibility of witnesses is key to establishing this historical feat of our time. President Jammeh was a figure that affected every family in The Gambia and naturally any claim of Jammeh must be laser dissected to avoid commotions that almost always follow anything to do with him. And of course, I need to lay a foundation for my thesis hoping to make a dent and eventually lay in the open the claim of ancestry to Illiasa Jammeh Kunda. The following words were those of the author of the book and how he saw Landing Jammeh. There is no need to rush to conclusion. Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid (slowly, slowly, a bird makes its nest).
“Prior to my interview with Jammeh I had been seeking an informant with knowledge of the oral traditions and history of the Niumi Bato area. From previous interviews I had gotten the sense that early Niumi history centered on the more northerly coastal region. In late November (1974), I traveled in the Gambian side of Niumi Bato, hoping to find such an informant, but I was not successful. Nearly everyone living in the area seemed to have arrived there fairly recently. I found no one who knew oral traditions about the early history of the area. However, while I was speaking with residents of the village of Duniajoe, a village about seven miles from the Atlantic and no more than a mile or two from the Senegal border, I received the kind of valuable reference I needed. Among a fairly large crowd of people in the compound of the alkali of Duniajoe an old man told me of Landing (he called him “Mbamba”) Jammeh. “He used to live near here,” the man said, “but he went to Kombo Brikama. He knew more about ‘old things’ than anybody”. When the rest of the people nodded their agreement I realised I might be onto something.
“The interview took place in due time, on the verandah. About half way through the interview it became time for Jammeh to say one of the five daily Muslim prayers. He politely stopped the proceedings, unrolled his prayer rug, and said his prayers; then he continued the interview as before. He turned out to be the only informant who prayed in the midst of an interview; the rest waited until it was completed”. Donald R. Wright pages 75 to 76.
The above testimonies of the interviewee show character and decency of Mr. Jammeh. He was identified by people miles away who in agreement concluded that he was the one with authority to give accounts of that part of Niumi. He certainly must have made a name for himself as trustworthy and knowledgeable which is what every researcher looks for in an interviewee. By the above, I am sold out and convinced that what will follow next, is based on accounts Landing Jammeh must have received or heard from his elders. Being born in 1904, it is very likely that Jammeh saw family members at least 70 years of age who probably would have been born by around 1834, about 18 years after the founding of Bathurst and long before effective colonial rule descended on the Protectorate.
To be continued.