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The danger of a single story: Kambi was a Bainunka who met the Europeans and gave us the name Gambia

The danger of a single story: Kambi was a Bainunka who met the Europeans and gave us the name Gambia

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This dictum has been with us for years now as to how our country called initially Gambia and later The Gambia came about. It appears that our Independence Instruments referred to us as The Gambia to differentiate us from the independent state of Zambia.

The story goes that when a group of European adventurers landed on our shores, they were approached by a group of natives and when asked the name of the settlement, one of the natives replied “Kambi Yaa” in Mandinka, meaning Kambi’s abode or settlement.  Now the rest is history. But not so fast.

Some hold the belief that that Kambi must be a Bainunka individual (since we are not sure if this person was a man or woman) because Kambi is said to be a Bainunka name. My attempt is to put this story to a stress test and see if it will stand the tremors of both historical and linguistic assaults.

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First things first

1. It appears the phrase “Kambi Yaa” is generally accepted by many to be Mandinka language which makes the person who responded to the European adventurers spoke the Mandinka language and most definitely had a good grasp of the language.  This goes to almost confirm that the person was most likely a Mandinka by ethnicity otherwise why must he respond in Mandinka instead of Bainunka if his native language was Bainunka?

It does not provide any sensible reason unless we assume that he was under pressure to speak in Mandinka given that probably those natives this person was with at the time, may have been largely Mandinka and so succumbed to sheer numbers.  In that case also, we can say with all certainty that a Mandinka was present while these words were uttered. It then now becomes the case of the chicken or the egg which came first although this has now been solved by science that the chicken came first.

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2. Linguistically, in the Mandinka language, the possessive word yaa is reserved for first names and not last names. It is grammatically inappropriate to refer to my place as “Fatty Yaa” but correct to say “Fatty Kunda” or “Fatty Kabilo”.  If you want to make a reference to my person, then it will be correct to say “Dembo Yaa”. Kunda is a collection of households much similar to kabilo, the latter in many cases consists of many households but with many different last names.

And so, the notion that “Kambi Yaa”, in this particular setting was a last name is not supported by the rules of the language that was used as the medium of communication. So we have no choice but to adhere to the grammatical conjugation rules of the language which in this case is Mandinka.

“Kambi Yaa” would most definitely not be a Bainunka phrase and so we must begin to retire this notion as it is not supported by evidence.  We must also retire the notion that it was a last name in this context. Yes there are Kambi last names but the way this native responded was in the context of a first name and not a last name which throws dust in the air as to whether Kambi as a first name belongs to a particular ethnic group.

This is why for all the versions like Pa Kambi, Kambi Jatta, Kambi Manneh, Kambi Jassey and so forth, the most plausible I find historically possible is that of Kambi Manneh from the state of Niumi and if there was to be a second, then it would be Kambi Jatta of Busumbala.

I’m sure you are saying to yourself that Kambi Jassey a Bainunka has his first name as Kambi and so I must give it to him as the person who met the Europeans. Not yet. In all my research and readings on the history of our country, I am really struggling to find any first encounter between the Europeans and the state of Foni. Some people hold the belief that Foni is a Bainunka state and extended from the current boundaries of Foni at Kalagi to Banjul and that Foni was later divided and Kombo was carved out of the state as was the case of Pakistan and India.

At this stage, let’s pretend that it was true that Foni extended from Kalagi to present day Banjul and all that was Bainunka territory with the seat of power at Sanyang. This will perfectly make it possible for the Bainunka state to have access to the coastline and thus the possibility of a European encounter. The unfortunate reality is that such an encounter had been on the northern bank of the Gambia river, which was the state of Niumi. Virtually all ships anchored in Niumi first, because Niumi is closest to Europe and you cannot get to the state of Foni without first passing by Niumi.

This will therefore make Foni state a second possibility and not a first and therefore, there is a high degree of possibility that the first encounter happened on the northern bank and not the southern bank of the river. This will defeat the Bainunka story and perhaps it’s time to retire it as well.

Let’s assume for purposes of fairness, that the first ship that arrived passed through Niumi and landed on the south bank on the shores of Foni (Bainunka sate), the question that will be asked is why did the Bainunka not reply in Bainunka language that the land was Kambi’s but chose to respond in Mandinka with the phrase “Kambi yaa”?  Perhaps, there was no Bainunka at the scene but there certainly was a Mandinka at the scene to the extent that he spoke to them in his native Mandinka language.

Either way, the Bainunka story of Kambi is not supported by common sense, language and historical antecedents and should be retired for good.

And so, on a recording by Samuel Charters (Folkway Records FE4178A) from Fabala Kanuteh that the encounter happened on the side of Niumi and that the person who spoke to the Europeans was one Kambi Manneh appears to hold more water than any others out there. Last time I checked, Niumi was not a Bainunka state. (See A General Bibliography Of Gambia Up To 31 December 1977 by DP Gamble and Louise Sperling page xiii).

Fabala further stated: “When the Portuguese came, they brought their ships to St Domingo Island, they left their ships, and went ashore and raised their flag on the island. The king, Seneke Jammeh, sent messengers to the island to see what was happening. They found Europeans there… The man they first saw, his name was Kambi, Kambi Manneh. They asked him ‘What is the name of this place?’ He replied, ‘My name is Kambi’. They wrote that down.”

Could Seneke Jammeh be the same as Samake Jammeh of Bakindiki? A typo perhaps? If so, then Fabala Kanuteh may have the correct timeline because Mansa Siranka Wali Jammeh of Bakindiki ruled between July 1736 to 1750 (See Gambia Castle Charge Book, 1736 Public Records Office, London T70/1452, pp 190-216; or Memoire sur la cote d’Afrique, 1750, Archives Nationales de France, C629; or Detailes sur l’establissement rois de ce pays ANF C017 or Oral Traditions from Gambia Volume II: Family Elders pp 209).

Siranka Wali was the seventh king from Bakindiki, the first being Samake Jammeh and if we establish 40 years between each king that will be 280 years.  About 280 years from 1736 will be around 1456 just almost one year shy of the first travels of Alviso Cadamosto. In fact it will coincide with his second visit because he first visited in 1455.

This story was also confirmed by another Gambian jail, Foday Musa Suso but he mentioned Kambi Sonko which still places the scene of encounter in Niumi and not Foni.

Either way, both stories point to Niumi and not Kombo which is the object of this piece. European activity in Kombo/Old Foni is very scanty and it should be a challenge to all our historians to dig it up if any indeed exist.

If the “Kambi yaa” story is associated with Santo Domingo, then it is almost safe to conclude that the name came about during the first visit of Cadamostco in 1455; because English contact with our country was known to have started in 1587.  (see The Gambia: Earliest British Settlement in West Africa; Journal of the Royal Society of Arts; Vol. 91, No. 4647, September 3, 1943, page 532).

The earlier Portuguese contact in 1446 could not have been the beginning of the name “Kambi Yaa” because Tristao and his men were repulsed and out of a crew of 28 men, 21 died of poisoned arrow wounds. They did not establish contact with the natives. (see The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest  of Guinea by Gomes Eanes de Azurara edited by CR Beazley and E Prestage, 2 vols, London: Hakluyt Society, 1896-99, 2: 252-57)

Although Cadamostco further sailed to ‘Vintang’, (which would have been Foni, if we believe the Bainunka state to have extended from Kalagi to the current location of Banjul), it would not make sense for the Portuguese to not have asked the Niuminkas the name of the land when they first established contact and then decide to go further inland to ask for the name of the land. Besides, even if ‘Vintang’ was part of old Foni, that is a far cry from Sanyang or Kartong. If we cannot find a first contact between Kombo and the Europeans then the Bainunka story falls flat and so Kambi was not a Bainunka.

There once was and still is a Kambi Kunda: Destination Busumbala

Busumbala in Kombo (ancient Foni if we believe that Foni extended to present day Banjul) holds the key  to many of the historical evolution of Kombo. At some point, it was dubbed the capital of Kombo. It’s an old settlement by the Jatta clan initially at where Kaamalo is today and was called Jatta Sangsang (fortress).

Old Busumbala had three kabilolu namely: Mansa Kunda, Kambi Kunda and Mampata Kunda but the interesting thing is all of these kundas are of the Jatta clan perhaps due to the size of the households, it had to be broken to three kabilo units.

These Jatta family are not Bainunka or Jola by ethnicity but Mandinka most probably from Djenné in present day Mali. Jola Jatta are called Jatta Sambou. These Jatta in Busumbala are not Sambou.

Why am I bringing this up? The reason is at the heart of a Bainunka story, is linked to the settlement of Busumbala. Oral accounts, which most historians have now accepted as the course of events, hold that Karafa Yali Jatta of Busumbala (old Busumabala which is way off the main road towards Latriya) was a hunter who one day, chanced on a civilisation called Sanyang, which was the residence of Queen Wulending Jassey. When the people of Sanyang saw Karafa, the Queen and her children ran and entered a cave. This means then that Sanyang settlement or at least the residence of the royal family was inside a cave.

The next day, Karafa told the people of Busumbala about the new settlement which was barely 15 kilometres away. They visited the Bainunka queen and long story short, Karafa married one of the princesses and that’s how power transferred from Sanyang to Busumbala Jatta Kunda.  This is why to this day, there is a joking relationship between the people of Busumabala and Sanyang. The former teases the latter that they took them from the Stone Age into civilization as they lived in caves. Ask around, you will hear the same jokes.

Now here lies the question. If at all we believe that Foni, a Bainunka state stretched from Kalagi to present day Banjul, and having its capital at Sanyang, was incapable of knowing that a settlement as big as Busumbala existed just a stone’s throw away from the seat of power, how did the Bainunka state manage to sustain a functioning bureaucracy to exert its powers and influence over a vast area as big as described above?

Over which settlements did the Bainunka rule over if they cannot even know that Busumbala existed right next to their seat of power? This, in my opinion makes the story of Kambi Jassey meeting the Europeans a fable. Yes, granted, they may have lived in Kombo a long time ago, but they may have also been living alongside other ethnic groups at the same time and it becomes quite a feat for anyone to claim they were the first settlers in Kombo if in fact at the height of their rule, a settlement as big as Busumbala and as close as 15km was unknown to them.

Furthermore, in the absence of a well-defined border, it is all a wild guess as to how far and wide the Bainunka state of Foni stretched.

Finally, the Bainunka story is a story of Foni and or Kombo and not Gambia. There was no place called Gambia by then and it’s a historical dishonesty to paint the whole country with the Bainunka story. What happened in Foni or Kombo must be treated and understood as their story only.  It cannot be applied to Niani, or Saloum or Jimara for example and vice versa. There were about 14 independent pre-colonial states here. The sad reality is we are teaching pre-colonial history as colonial history. These two must be treated separately.

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