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

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By Momodou Buharry Gassama

The development of a society is determined to a large extent by its culture. Culture serves as the foundation that supports development at all levels as it shapes attitude. In determining the culture of a society, one looks at that society’s way of life at a given time, that is, the way the society lives, worships, dresses and so forth. Based on this, one can differentiate between various cultures. The culture of the Wolofs of The Gambia clearly differentiates them from the Europeans of Sweden. Similarly, the culture of the Indians of North America clearly differentiates them from the whites of the same continent.

The Gambia is made up of various tribes with various customs and practices. It is the sum total of these various ways of life that makes up Gambian culture and by extension the Gambian person. As a partaker in the dynamics of Gambian life, the individual is as important in the creation of Gambian culture as he / she is a consequence of it. That is why it is of vital importance that the shaping of Gambian individuals should not be accidental but should be clearly calculated.

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Great care should be taken to identify the qualities that are desired and ways and means created to bring forth such qualities. These should be nurtured, protected and promoted. In this age of interactivity, it is of utmost importance that Gambian culture is protected from the negative influences of other cultures and creative means instituted to enhance it. This has however not been done with its resultant corrosion. The creation of the Gambian individual has not been properly thought out but has been left to chance.

That is why Gambian society is one of the most porous societies in the world. This has resulted in the corrosion of cultural values and the transformation of the Gambian individual. What has brought about such a state of affairs, what are its implications and how can the situation be remedied?
As alluded to earlier, the failure to actively mould the Gambian individual and by extension Gambian culture is one of the main reasons for the corrosion of the country’s cultural values. The failure or inability of the governments hitherto to create institutions, structures and mechanisms that would shape and influence the Gambian way of life and protect it from the dominating tendencies of outside cultures, has meant that many negative aspects of various cultures have found their way into the Gambian way of life.

The bombarding of Gambians with foreign films and television stations has had an impact. Over the decades, Indian, American, Chinese, Senegalese and now Nigerian and other films have been responsible for the transformation of the Gambian character. The lack of local movies to counter the influence of the foreign ones has meant that people have been fed foreign cultures and many negative tendencies have been picked up. The barrage of materialistic tendencies contained in film and television such as MTV in the midst of abject poverty has given rise to materialism at the expense of cultural values.

The promotion of foreign cultures especially as it relates to the creative arts such as music, at the expense of Gambian ones, is another reason for the deterioration of Gambian culture. The deliberate sidelining of Gambian musicians during the time of the former and current regimes has meant a gradual slide from the heydays of Super Eagles to the current wilderness Gambian music finds itself in. As the first band in West Africa to blend traditional African drums and Western instruments, the creation of the mbalax sound can be accurately attributed to Super Eagles and its offshoot, Ifangbondi.

The popularity of the group grew in West Africa at a time when most African countries were gaining independence and the concept of pan-Africanism was near its zenith. They became one of the hottest groups in the region. They were very popular in Senegal at time when Senegalese musicians were mostly playing Latin music and Senegalese commentators were urging Senegalese musicians to adopt Super Eagle’s approach and play Senegambian music when the group metamorphosed into Ifangbondi.

The then PPP regime, without a clear cultural policy to enhance artistic expression, together with the Gambian populace and other factors resulted in the gradual decline of Super Eagles and subsequent groups. This was exacerbated by the bringing in of Senegalese musicians to perform on state holidays and functions at the expense of Gambian groups, a practice that still continues.

Another reason for the decay of Gambian culture is the lack of facilities and structures that create, enhance and nurture culture. The lack of basic facilities for use by cultural practitioners has resulted in their inability to produce material to feed the need of Gambians.

The lack of suitable training and support institutions has meant that cultural practitioners have basically relied on themselves and the result has in many instances been less than satisfactory.
Lack of finance and the reluctance of the business community to invest in Gambian cultural activities and institutions have resulted in substandard products that find it difficult to compete on equal footing with foreign imports. The failure of the governments since independence to invest in the cultural infrastructure of the country is also a contributory factor. As with all sectors, lack of investment and finance means a lack of suitable facilities with the resultant lack of quality output.

Cultural practitioners also contribute to the deterioration of Gambian culture. The laissez faire attitude and the failure to create a respectable and saleable image are also to blame. The attitude of the early musicians, some of whom would not respect contractual obligations, respect stage etiquette etc. did not help and the negative image created since is still alive and affecting perception. The failure of the artists to research and find out the likes and dislikes of their customers means creating a product based on chance.
Lack of patriotism and the apparent inability of the Gambian individual to support artists based on the desire to contribute to the promotion of Gambian culture is another factor.

Whilst it is the prerogative of the individual to invest in a product that makes one happy, the need to promote the general good should enable people to realise the need to sometimes forego personal desires and support Gambian culture in order to help it develop. Given the fact that Gambian culture has not been invested in for a long time, it needs to be realised that for Gambian artists to compete with foreign imports, they need the support of the population both materially and morally.

Yet another factor is the lack of statutory instruments and bodies to protect artists from exploitation and piracy. This means that artists barely realise anything from their creations. Many cultural practitioners face extreme difficulty scraping together the necessary finance to invest in the creation of their products. After succeeding, they watch in vain as others who have invested in the odd tape or video recorder benefit from their hard work. Information was received that there was movement toward legislating copyright laws (if it hasn’t already been passed). This is good news.

Music promoters and deejays bear a major responsibility for the deterioration and in some instances stagnation of Gambian music. Their investment in Senegalese musicians at the expense of Gambians has meant that Gambian artists don’t have the exposure they need. At Gambian parties, one wonders whether there are any musicians in The Gambia or why the parties are labelled Gambian parties. This applies to both private and public occasions. One attends events such as Gambian Cultural Weeks, ALD and so forth and in some instances not a single Gambian song is played. Gambian music promoters invest so much in Senegalese musicians contracting them to tour and in some instances producing them.

This has meant the enrichment and development of Senegalese musicians and the degradation of their Gambian counterparts. The basic excuse is usually that Gambian musicians don’t play what the Senegalese play and are not good enough but nobody pauses to ask how they can develop given that all their efforts are rejected and the necessary support they need is given to foreign musicians at their expense.

The failure to fully integrate culture into the country’s educational structure also bears responsibility. The elementary arts and craft that is part of the curriculum does not address the competence desired to prepare artists to produce competitive products. The non-inclusion of culture as a subject comprising music education, dance, oral and cultural history and drama from elementary to high school inhibits cultural creativity. These are just a few examples of the reasons for the corrosion of Gambian culture and in some instance its stagnation.

What impact does the corrosion of Gambian culture have on The Gambia and its population?
The underrating and rejection in some instances of Gambian culture has been manifested in various ways from the artistic to the religious to the linguistic. As mentioned earlier, the culture of a society determines the type of individual resident in that culture. The appreciation of the culture of the society results in the appreciation of the individuals in that culture. The underrating of the culture results in the underrating of the individual. The result is a society without heroes, a society that looks outside for its heroes, a lacklustre society devoid of creativity.

The biggest beneficiary in this instance is Senegal that has dominated Gambian cultural life. When Gambians want to seek spiritual guidance, they sideline the spiritual leaders and practitioners in The Gambia and travel to Senegal. When Gambians want to listen to Senegambian music, they opt for Senegalese music. When Gambians want to watch Senegambian films, they go for the Senegalese. While this might on the surface seem harmless, its effects on the national psyche are devastating. The looking outside for solutions has left a society without creativity. This is manifested in many ways leading to the mediocre performance of Gambian society in many sectors.

The lack of development within the musical sector means the appreciation of foreign ones. As it is human tendency to identify with those one holds in high esteem, many Gambians try to emulate not only their foreign heroes but the cultures they represent. This is why one sees Gambian-Jamaicans, Gambian-Americans etc. That is why any dance or chorus line of a Senegalese song is readily adopted and becomes part of Gambian life. Senegalese dance styles such as doh bi, saa nehh dance, ventilateur, hors, leumbeul narr, mbarass and many more have been copied without question. Some of these dances are extremely sensual and antithetical to Gambian cultural values. Their unchecked intrusion into Gambian culture has a negative impact on the Gambian character. The same goes for the MTV-style music videos of skimpily dressed females dancing in provocative fashion and the culture of drug use inherent in Jamaican music.

The film industry also brings with it great dangers especially for young people. In the countries where they are made, most movies are rated by bodies created to gauge what is suitable for viewing by young people. Since The Gambia doesn’t have such bodies, movies are freely watched by all. Movies rated r or even X-rated movies are watched by young people further corrupting their values. Some of these movies are serious threats to the behavioural patterns of the Gambian population in that they carry too much violence, drugs, sex and so forth. This has in turn contributed to the increase in violence, crime and other vices.

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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