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The corrosion of Gambian culture: causes, implications and possible solutions

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By Momodou Buharry Gassama

The religious area is not spared. The search for religious and spiritual guidance and solutions usually leads outside Gambia. The Senegalese religious sector as in many areas completely dominates and manifests itself in many ways. In some extreme situations, Gambian religious occasions and celebrations are postponed because many people travel to Senegal to participate in various celebrations there. Because of the preference for Senegalese religious leaders, Gambian religious leaders have found it difficult to reach prominence. Religious leaders, such as the late Alhaji Babou Samba and many others have not been given the recognition they deserve. As microcosms of The Gambia, Gambian communities abroad repeat and perpetuate the same tendencies. Apart from the Senegalese, Arab and Christian evangelists propagate all types of religious doctrines without challenge. Some of these doctrines contradict and in some instances even negate the basic tenets of Islam and Christianity but are accepted.

Another impact of the corrosion of Gambian culture and the preference for foreign cultures is economic and infrastructural. Because of the investment in foreign cultural products especially Senegalese, the cultural industry there has developed and the Gambian one has stagnated. Gambia lacks basic production facilities because Gambians have not invested in Gambian culture. The total investment in Senegalese cultural products does not reflect on Gambia but helps to put Senegal firmly on the world map. Gambia has played a big part in the catapulting of most Senegalese artists to the positions they hold but this has not benefited Gambia. Apart from the mentioning of Gambia’s name in a song to satisfy and in some instances inflate an ego or two, Gambia and Gambians do not benefit from the success of the Senegalese cultural industry. Every budding Senegalese musician sings about how Gambians are “tabbeh” or generous but is it a question of “tabbeh” or “waaneh”? As the adage goes, charity begins at home. The same applies to religious and spiritual leaders. It is not strange to see Gambians queue with their hard-earned cash when a Senegalese “serigne” or marabout comes to town or send money to Senegalese musicians even without their asking for it. In some instances, these same people have been hounded by requests for financial assistance from their relatives back home and have failed to honour such requests. At shows and private occasions, Gambians “miraas” themselves when a Senegalese musician mentions their name in a song but give coins to a Gambian musician who does the same.

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Another impact is the strangulation of Gambian creativity as creativity is not rewarded. This is manifested in the laziness that characterises Gambian designers, hair-dressers and others who work with the creative arts. This has given rise to a copy culture instead of a creative one. Instead of creating fashion designs, hairstyles etc., Gambians just copy these be it from Nigeria, USA, Senegal or some other place. Because these things are copied from other places, many tend to subconsciously view products that come from those countries as superior whilst Gambian ones are inferior. That is why if one puts a 100% quality product in very nice packaging labelled “made in The Gambia” and a 10% quality product in a less attractive package labelled “Made in Nigeria”, “Made in Senegal” and so forth, the average Gambian would probably choose the foreign product.
In the linguistic area, Senegal and The Gambia share nearly all languages.

The Gambia has lately not contributed to the development of the languages especially Wolof but has relied on the creation of popular expressions by Senegal. Senegalese expressions have made their way into Gambian Wolof from Senegalese music and films. Expressions such as “moko yorr”, and so forth, have become fashionable among Gambians. Even when Gambians want to prove that they are speaking proper Wolof, they acquire a Senegalese accent. When a Gambian and Senegalese are speaking to each other, the tendency is for the Gambian to put on a Senegalese accent and not the other way round. This demonstrates an inferiority complex brought about by decades of cultural domination. The flood of Nigerian movies into the country has ushered in the beginnings of another area of cultural domination. Imitating Nigerian dialects and using expressions, dress styles and other things from Nigerian films is increasing. If caution is not taken, the negative aspects of Nigerian life will soon become a part of Gambian life.

After discussing the corrosion of Gambian culture, some of its causes and the impact on Gambian society, what can be done to remedy the situation? Many solutions present themselves, some easy to implement and others difficult. The need to remedy the situation is however apparent. Whilst some of the following suggestions might not be the panacea to the problems facing Gambian culture, they are at least starting points. While some of the suggestions are mine, others have been derived from the study of national culture policies of Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa, Sweden and the Council of Europe. While the Gambia National Council for Arts and Culture has a culture policy, some of the suggestions herein contained can aid in upgrading it.

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The first is to have a clear set of achievable cultural goals based on a clear vision related to the envisioned Gambian individual. This should be complemented with the necessary structures and mechanisms necessary for their achievement. This means that the national cultural goals should not be vague but should be clear, pragmatic and achievable. The environment under which they are going to be achieved should be conducive. This should be an environment that that fosters, rewards and protects creativity.

As education is a very important component of creativity, cultural education should be an integral part of the national curriculum. This means that music education, dance, drama, creative writing and composition, poetry and so forth should be taught from primary through high school. Students who excel should be encouraged through grants, scholarships, international cultural exchanges and so forth. A national school of the arts should be created to enable students who want to further their education in culture to do so. Art educators and trainers should be professionally trained to provide quality education to aspiring students. Research projects to identify problem areas, identify possible solutions and document Gambian culture and cultural trends should be initiated.
Another important remedy is to build the infrastructure necessary to make it possible for artists to produce qualitative cultural content, effectively market and distribute it. The investment in recording studios, production houses etc. should be encouraged by the government.

Both private and public finance should be sought and invested. The government should create incentives for the private sector to invest in the industry. Investors should be encouraged to invest in the latest technologies necessary to produce products that can compete internationally. Tariff barriers and duties on culture and ancillary products should be removed to encourage both artists and businesses and facilitate investment. The government should also create a cultural fund and encourage businesses, parastatals and NGOs to contribute to it. Artists and other cultural workers can apply for grants to buy needed materials.

As the media plays a very important role in the promotion and distribution of cultural content, the government should create a policy and enact necessary legislation to ensure that cultural practitioners get the exposure they need and to ensure that foreign artists do not dominate the Gambian airwaves. This means that the government should create quotas for Gambian cultural content and make sure that airtime requirements for Gambian culture are included in all radio and television station licensing documents. All stations should be required to play Gambian cultural content for at least a certain percentage of their total airtime. Gambian promoters should be required to include at least one or two Gambian artists whenever they bring foreign artists.

There should be a special tax on foreign artists to be paid by promoters for engaging foreign talent and this should deposited into a special cultural fund to help develop Gambian culture. As The Gambia is facing a cultural state of emergency, drastic measures are needed to at least stabilise the situation as in all states of emergency.
The government should also enact legislation that protects cultural content and practitioners and accords intellectual property rights.

Enforceable instruments and enforcement agencies should be created to ensure that cultural content is protected and that artists are not unduly exploited. These agencies should provide methods to help artists and investors realise potential revenues from their creations. They should also create schemes such as pension schemes and insurance plans to secure and enhance their social and economic status.
Marketing and promotional schemes, activities and projects should be undertaken to enhance Gambian culture and raise the Gambian identity.

These schemes should aim to promote innovation and cultural excellence through for example, the creation of a cultural excellence foundation that identifies and rewards innovators and those who excel. Strategies and programs should be created to promote and raise the culture industry to the level of traditional industries.

A cultural interest group should be formed that comprises a Gambian artists union and representatives from the ministry responsible for culture to put pressure on crucial agencies to further the interests of artists. This group should also serve as a one-stop agency that generates and propagates information about Gambian culture and artists and also provides administrative support for them. The agency should be charged with organising cultural fairs that showcase Gambian talent. It should also be charged with organising a yearly festival that brings the best Gambian artists together.
Another suggestion is the provision of incentives and rewards for artists. This can take the form of providing awards and titles such as “Drummer Of The Year”, “Actor / Actress Of The Year”, “Bassist Of The Year” and so on. Street names should be named after artistes who excel. Monuments and parks should also be dedicated to artists. This will serve as an encouragement to artists.

The film industry should be stimulated. Production facilities should be invested in. Mobile film and video units should be created to travel the length and breadth of the country to spread the creations of Gambian artists. This will help bring artists and the consumers closer and spread the work of the artists.
There should be cooperation between the tourism and culture industries in the form of strategies that mould the final product received by tourists. This would ensure that a clear vision of Gambian culture will be presented to foreigners that will positively reflect on the image of the Gambian individual.

After having looked at the reasons for the corrosion of Gambian culture, the impact on the country and the possible solutions, it can be concluded that the failure to mould the Gambian individual has had a negative impact on various aspects of Gambian life. This has resulted in the decay and stagnation of various sectors. However, not all hope is lost. If the government institutes corrective measures, the situation can be arrested and Gambian culture can be rejuvenated enough to take its rightful place among the cultures of the world.

The end.

This two-part article was first published on 1 August 2006 as a presentation by the author at the Gambian Cultural Week In Oslo, Norway.

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