By Prof Pierre Gomez
Citing from three significant events in our history between December 2015 and August 2017, one could safely say that Banjul is setting the pace in the area of religious tolerance in The Gambia, leaving a lesson for the whole world to learn from.
The first of these events is the “Brufut Declaration” of The Gambia as an Islamic State by former President Jammeh. The second is the launch of a non-fiction work- Challenges of Gambian Churches During Yahya Jammeh’s Era by Mr Philip Saine. The third event cited in this discussion is the role played in the just 2017 Sang Marie feast by Team Tahawal Banjul, and Banjul Outreach Ideas.
It could be recalled that in December 2015 during a political rally in the Kombo North town of Brufut, former President Yahya Jammeh made a pronouncement that The Gambia would be an Islamic State and that the parliament will work on changing the Constitution to suit the requirements of an Islamic state. The news came as a surprise to both Muslim and Christian communities in The Gambia as it threatens the very fabric that held our society together, tolerance. Here was a country that seemingly does not have any religious divide. The Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia ensures that the rights of every citizen are respected. People from different religions and ethnicities intermarry and socialize at all levels.
However, from the Brufut declaration, The Gambia, a onetime envy of the world for its religious tolerance, was almost plunged into evil days. Our country got to a point where it was at the brink of sowing the seed of discord and religious intolerance.
The uncertainty that the declaration has caused among members of the Christian community in The Gambia and abroad is contained in Mr Philip Saines’s work- Challenges of Gambian Churches During Yahya Jammeh’s Era (2017). In this work, Mr Saine argues that assuming that “all will be well and fine, is to pretend not to know what developments of this nature have produced in other countries”. Apart from the civil strife it breeds among citizens of a country in the most extreme cases, Mr Saine cites Brunei, Tajikistan and Somalia, where the celebration of Christmas was banned, because the feast is for Christians and Muslims constitute the majority of the population.
Mr Saine further argues that in the Gambian context “our fear is not of our Muslim brothers and sisters with whom Christians have amicably lived, worked, inter-married and socialized since living memory; it is the fear of the alien fringe elements, even from outside the country, who will consider this declaration as a window of opportunity to propagate intolerance.” To my brother, Philip Saine, I say to you, Banjul has spoken and with it, we may conclude that The Gambia has spoken.
Our history got rewritten when Gambians decided at the polls for a regime change; the Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia once again became the doctrine that dictates how the state is run. During the countdown of events leading to the Christian feast of Sang Marie 2017, the young people of Banjul who are largely Muslims, in many ways have set an example for the rest of The Gambia and humanity to learn from.
Perhaps it should interest the rest of The Gambia and the world that on the eve of the Christian feast of Sang Marie, Team Tahawal Banjul and Banjul Outreach Ideas have organized an event to clean and even repaint the sidewalks of Daniel Godard Street (former Hagan Street) which happens to be the street on which the Cathedral in Banjul is situated. This spirit of tolerance was further manifested during the Sang Marie procession from Holy Spirit Church at St Augustine’s High School to the Cathedral.
The remarkable events that unfolded during the 2017 Sang Marie procession that are worthy of emulation include but not limited to the distribution of water to people in the procession by members of Team Tahawal Banjul and Banjul Outreach Ideas; Muslim youths joining the procession in the spirit of directly or indirectly claiming “Banjul demba nii la wone & we’ll see to it that it continues and gets passed on to future generations to come.” Also notable was the solidarity shown by the Member of Parliament for Banjul South, Honourable Fatoumatta Njie (Tuma Njie). Hon. Tuma Njie, though a Muslim, might have done this out of tradition reflective of the cordial ties that exist between people of different religious faiths in Banjul; she has also taught a fundamental lesson that leaders are meant to unite their followers irrespective of their religious affiliations. This should be an inspiration for all leaders to draw lesson from.
As if the solidarity shown by Tuma Njie and other Muslim youths of Banjul were not enough, Imam Tafsir Gaye, Imam of Independence Drive Mosque, joined the procession to show his solidarity and to keep tradition as it used to be in the past. The lesson to be gathered from this is that despite the imam’s old age and failing health, he joined the procession to show solidarity and promote religious tolerance.
For this singular deed of Imam Gaye, one can safely say that religious intolerance which has caused so much panic among Gambians ever since the Brufut declaration has no place in the Gambian society. Imam Gaye has shown that the older generation is in for tolerance. Their teachings to the younger generation has produced youth like Aziz Dabakh Gaye, a youth leader in Banjul who is one exceptionally tolerant Muslim youth whose facebook wall post on tolerance reads,
“Whoever loves another for the sake of God, in reality has expressed his love for God.” – Quran
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” – Psalm 133:1 Bible
By this, I wish to conclude that whereas people in other parts of the world kill one another for their religious differences, we of The Gambia have refused to go by that. We are one people and one country! This is where we set an example for the whole world to see. In Banjul, the spirit is and has always been one Banjul, one Gambia, one people!
Pierre Gomez is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Dean, School of Arts and Sciences, The University of The Gambia