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Promoting a literary culture in The Gambiathrough Literature: A Gambia of Arts & Culture

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By Almami Fanding Taal

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created. (96.1) He created man from a clot. (96.2) Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3) who taught with the pen.

Language is the vehicle of thought and thoughts are the foundation and building blocks of life. Our ideas about ourselves and the origins of our civilisation are contained in our literature.

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The nature, meaning and significance of our culture can be seen against the background of the historical forces and experiences that have impacted upon the social, economic and political developments of the peoples of the Sahel of which The Gambia is a part of; also we must look at our heritage within the broader national context of the ongoing tasks of renewing and managing a democratic society.

The term “democratic’ here does not refer to any specific model of Western style democracies, but rather to the demonstrated principles, values and laws which the people of The Gambia have come to associate with their way of life.

This includes a responsible government elected by the majority of our citizens, and the realistic, accessible political mechanism present in the system of government whereby the People have become empowered and share in the decisions that shape their lives individually and socially.

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The Art and Culture of The Gambia is the distinctive way our people respond to, reflect upon, and express their experiences of life. The culture of the people of the Sahel emanates from our history and is reflected in our social values, family structure, belief systems, attitudes to authority, sense of social obligation, attitudes to work, the forms and manner of our artistic expressions, the food we eat, the clothes we wear; in short, our behavioral patterns that historically mirror our responses to life.

This has contributed enormously to our personal development and can be used efficiently for the advancement of our national pride, economic development and prosperity.

The present state of the Arts reflects contrasting forces: the rich historic legacy of the country to the relative under-resourcing of this legacy and the cultural industries by the public and private sectors. But I must say that the location of our culture within the context of creating a democratic society is not simply a theoretical approach, but one that is of absolutely necessary.

The modern world presents new challenges for our small and impoverished country. The mass migration of young people across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea into Europe has led to deaths and dislocations in communities as well as in traditional and cultural industries in The Gambia.

Another challenge towards our Independence and sovereignty is the appeal of Euro centric values led by North American culture especially to the youth.

The rise of new media platforms and networks has caused uniformity of thought and life-style accelerated by the mass communication media are slowly creating a Gambian citizen, indeed an African person, who has less and less loyalty to, feeling for and identification with his or her history and environment.

Such an individual has little commitment to the continued development of a democratic society with an authentic, many-faceted culture.

In spite of these challenges, we have comparative advantages and resources today that our ancestors did not have. There is a great opportunity in the twenty-first century, of developing in The Gambia a civilization that finds its highest expression in the idea that people are the centre of all development. It is a philosophy that recognizes the importance of our cultural heritage and the principles and values associated with it.

Our response and reflection on life seeks and finds expression in multiple ways, such as: our design and invention of instruments; often I have wondered what materials were used for the Kora Strings before nylon; in our languages; our ways of praising our creator; our kings and warriors; in our foods; the type of plants we grow; in our song; in our music; and in many other ways in which we demonstrate our cultural uniqueness.

Our Culture has to take into account the challenges and realties of the contemporary global environment. We cannot afford not to embrace modern technology, despite the potential threats to our culture.

Cultural workers must master the multi-media environment and exploit the many possibilities offered by being part of the global village. Special emphasis must be placed on the Internet; digital audio and video technology including the use of blogs and podcasts.

The world is fast becoming ‘flat’ and access to the new technologies offers great possibilities to produce materials and promote and market The Gambia’s unique and diverse culture. The emergence of broadband technologies and such sites like Facebook and YouTube offer exciting opportunities for learning and sharing.

These sites can provide global audiences at minimum cost and provide the opportunity to explore and celebrate previously marginalized communities and cultures.

Technology has spawned tremendous growth in the cultural industries, for the most part as the main driver of transformation.

In particular, digitalisation has created a range of new opportunities for creative expression, production and distribution; and has propelled new modes of business such as computer software, telecommunications, advertising, film production, music production and distribution and architecture.

The Gambia can be a unique nation for cultural tourism because we have produced an indigenous culture of near unparalleled richness in its iconography, folkways and cultural vocabulary.

This abundance of riches has occurred despite limited support to the cultural legislative and infrastructural development. The Cultural Industries of the Gambia require major public sector and private sector support so that it can have an infrastructure and legislative framework that is worthy of its culture and that can withstand international scrutiny and comparison.

The challenge to ensure that The Gambia achieves international stature in the Arts and Culture must focus on 4 major areas.

o          Physical infrastructure such as facilities and institutions. This can be dealt with through the construction of Performing Arts centres; the building of the National Library/Museum/Theatre

o          Legislative support for the establishment of an endowment fund for arts and culture.

o          Documentation, collection, storage, protection, celebration and dissemination of our Heritage and Legacy

o          Facilitation of the human resource through which cultural activity happens

A critical foundation of the cultural industries is copyright, which secures the economic value of cultural commodities. Copyright safeguards the process of knowledge and technology by which these products and services are produced, distributed and traded.

Copyright has become a primary competitive resource and the basis of competitive advantage in the cultural industries.

Cultural industries now operate within what may be characterised as a new Digital Economy’ context that is driven by technological shifts and the business of copyright, which is the monetization of intellectual, artistic and cultural endeavors.

At every stage of the cultural production and dissemination, the intellectual property component is now the key commodity and basis of wealth. As technology continues to change, the value of intellectual property increases.

In the context of the Gambia the Copyright Act of 2004 , must be urgently reviewed to reflect current realities, because it was passed in order for The Gambia to comply with the treaty provisions TRIPPS (Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property and Protection) which formed part of the international agreement that was signed with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1994.

This Act also established the Collecting Society of the Gambia. An umbrella collective rights management organisation: unfortunately, the CSG was not operationalised until May 2012 when the first congress of the Society was held.

Under the dynamic leadership of the then Minister of Tourism and Culture- Mrs. Fatou Mass Jobe-Njie and Alh. Momodou Joof the then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry through the good offices of the National Centre for Arts and Culture-NCAC which serves as the National Copyright Office of the Gambia and particularly the enlightened leadership and facilitation of the then Director General-Mr Baba Ceesay.

The inconvenient truth is that the creative and cultural industries have been neglected for a long time by the Gambia Government thus making paltry budgetary allocations or investments in the cultural infrastructure of the nation: for example in the Gambia there are no purpose built national library/theatres/museums.

This unfortunate situation in the Gambia flies in the face of all the available evidence in respect of the real contributions of the cultural and creative industries in the GDP of all countries developed and developing.

A study by Ernest & Young puts the current value of the creative and cultural industries- CCI:

”CCI revenues worldwide exceed those of telecom services (US $1, 570b globally), and surpass India’s GDP (US$1,900 b). Within the total, the top three earners are television (US $ 477 b), visual art s (US $ 391 b), and newspapers and magazines (US $ 354 b). With 29. 5 million jobs, CCI employ 1 % of the world’s active population. The top three employers are visual arts (6.73 m), books (3. 67m) and music (3.98 m).”

Developed’ countries are maximizing the value located in intellectual property and its attendant rights. Intellectual property rights have assumed a transformational role in national economies with the rapid pace of technological, scientific and medical innovation.

In the twenty first century the music industry has undergone some redefinition moving from an industry primarily selling manufactured commodities, to an industry of services in which “baskets of rights” are exploited. The ‘Baskets of rights’ refers to all the rights held by creators of cultural products and artifacts.

These rights include copyright, publishing rights, mechanical rights, neighbouring rights and performing rights. A creator barters and negotiates away portions of these rights in exchange for resources or access to distribution.

However, our home-grown cultures are not evolving in tandem with global trends due to the challenges brought on by the new values and realities brought to our living rooms by way of new technologies.

Our young seek to embrace these new values more than valuing themselves. Which leads to an authenticity deficit making their creative outputs mediocre and derivative of the dominant cultures. While our young artists may be able to fill national stadiums their crossover appeal is very much in doubt. At the same there are serious infringements of the copyrights of all creators both national and international artists in literature and music.

When a society is bombarded by so many foreign images, it is of utmost importance that we promote our distinctive national values and heritage and develop our cultural goods and services as we explore the need to find a sustainable vehicle for economic development. Special care then must be made on two fronts.

1. The first is preservation of a certain set of aesthetic, moral and economic values through the documentation, housing, preservation, consecration, display and the dissemination of memory and legacy.

2. The second is the facilitation of a strong Cultural Industry that can engage tradition, modernity and the marketplace- made up of practitioners throughout the Folk, Fine, and Classical, Avant Garde and the Popular Arts and everything in between.

In this way there is a balance between the best lessons of the past and the facilitation of the contemporary that can leverage the future.

Another key factor at a time of extraordinary change, when perceived tensions have been intensified is the need to have a greater appreciation of the contributions that each group has made to the society we are building in the new Gambia.

In short, any public cultural policy must always portray the true intent and spirit of our National Anthem:

Let God joined our diverse people………

To prove Man’s brotherhood…….

Renew our firm allegiance to the Gambia ever true.

Therefore, we must start with the premise that culture is the key to our country’s transformation. And recognize the fact that you cannot have legitimate holistic development unless you have a strong cultural base.

Therefore, a new cultural orientation is urgently required to provide the framework for different groups and sectors of our society to find their full expression whilst at the same time providing an umbrella for the fashioning of a national identity.

A new National Cultural Policy for the New Gambia must foster cohesion in our multi- ethnic society by making maximum use of the realities and opportunities of our diversity.

To a large extent, such a policy must be aimed at the primacy of culture at all sectors of our society including politics and governance, technology, industry and business, education and social and community development, as well as the arts. At the same time the policy must strike a balance between national interest and group vulnerabilities.

Such a policy must be aware of the importance of the media in the modern world and its responsibility to reflect the country’s rich cultural heritage.

Such a policy must also elaborate a gender perspective which looks at men and women’s concerns, needs, and interests while aiming to give the youth, the bearers of our cultural heritage a role in our society in new Gambia.

Such a policy must also recognize the need for ongoing, dynamic and relevant research, which will ensure the vitality of the cultural sector. Research will also help to ensure that the Cultural Policy is able to successfully adapt to the ongoing changes in all sectors and in our society at large.

It is in this context, that The Gambia must pursue within its cultural policy not only the promotion of cultural diversity as an important element of its national identity, but also the use of that diversity in its programmes and activities concerned with the development of our cultural industries.

Such a cultural policy must also engage other national development policies and objectives. It must interact with all the other similar policies such as those on Tourism, Education, Trade and Industry, Environment, and Labour.

What can we do in the absence of such a policy to promote a literary culture in the Gambia through literature: A Gambia of arts and Culture as the theme for today states? A few thoughts

1. Creation of a Creative Industries Development Corporation on a Public Private Partnership basis opened to all stakeholders in creative and cultural industries.

2. Conceptualise a renaissance project focused on the existing Gambian copyrights by reprinting republishing and remastering great Gambian works in Arts and Culture.

3. Establish a Kora factory for musical instruments of the Sahel and a Sahel music Festival.

By way of concluding remarks I wish to call on the young generation to act for justice and rights to seek knowledge in every field of human endeavour  and tor all of us to develop a critical historical consciousness and claim our patrimony fully aware that we have a right to be on the Earth.

That we are the descendants of Mansa Musa, Kwame Nkrumah, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, Almami Samari Toure, Leopold Sadar Senghor, Lalo Kebba Drammeh Yaa Asantewaa, Amilcar Cabral Outhman Dan Fodio Fela Kuti Thomas Sankara, Doudou Njie Kumba ROSS, Dr Lenrie PETERS, Chinua Achebe and Dawda KAIRABA Jawara.

I started with a poem so I shall end with one


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore

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