In the span of a week, I found myself invited to four weddings in The Gambia. Each of these celebrations spanned four days, adorned with well-groomed and manicured attendees, joy, and the commemoration of love. Yet, amidst the festivities, a peculiar phenomenon caught my attention—the ritual destruction of wealth. If someone described this to me outside of The Gambia, it would read like a chapter from Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence,” chronicling the lives of the uber-wealthy in postbellum 1800s New York, or a tale from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opus: The Great Gatsby.”
Regardless, what unfolded before me was an extravagant display of money. As a member of my society, I gleefully participated in it. Loved and enjoyed every bit of it—absent the spending part. Some weddings, hosted by affluent families, sparkled with the who’s who of Gambian new money. Conversely, other weddings were orchestrated by those surviving on minimal resources. Yet, the pomp and pageantry manifested by both groups, in my perspective, served the same purpose—a ritualistic destruction of wealth as an expression of giving and love. In The Gambia, whether wealthy or not, hosting weddings or naming ceremonies demands spending obscene amounts of money. Moreover, societal obligations like funding weddings and naming ceremonies pose significant challenges to wealth accumulation among Gambians. This cultural practice echoes traditions found in indigenous societies worldwide, such as the potlatch in the Pacific Northwest of the United States—a grand display of wealth through feasting, gift-giving, and even the deliberate destruction of valuable items.
Observing how money is managed by many Gambians, it becomes apparent that many Gambians allocate their resources not for income-generating projects but primarily for consumption spending. While consumption smoothing aids survival, this shift signifies a notable departure from how advanced economies built and maintained wealth.
Challenges like financing weddings remain pivotal in Gambian society. George Dalton, in his influential anthropological work “Tribal and Peasant Economies,” underscored a crucial aspect of many African economies. He highlighted that the absence of market exchange as the predominant economic organization allows indigenous African economies to take distinctive forms. These forms involve social control of production, kinship, and religion. Hence, any alteration in traditional economic processes implies an inevitable shift in social organization.
The ritual destruction of wealth, therefore, emerges as a collective and necessary societal ritual. Altering this practice would necessitate a profound overhaul or, perhaps, the dismantling of a longstanding tradition. However, wiser minds than mine have posited that tradition is not an absolute moral truth; rather, it comprises practices that may yield great results or prove futile. In essence, cultural practices are not sacrosanct—they were created by human beings and can be amended or discarded if they no longer serve their purpose. Which begs the question: should we halt the ritual destruction of wealth, maintain the status quo, or put it on steroids? I don’t have the answers, I’m just observing, scribbling, and asking questions! Until then, more weddings, please—we love them. From the southern banks of the Gambia river.