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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Violence is alien to Africa


One could find a settlement of people with different ethnic groupings, speaking different languages, yet harmony and peaceful co-existence was the order of the day. One would wonder how these people, with so many differences, could manage to achieve such unity in diversity. There are many contributing factors to this trait in African societies. This article seeks to focus and throw light on one of those mechanisms used by our ancestors to maintain peace, tolerance and cooperation among themselves.

Peaceful co-existence and tolerance are inherently imbedded in our culture and tradition. Our ancestors had established joking relationships (sanawyaa in Mandinka, kal in Wolof, dendiraagal in Fula, seemir in Serere) between various ethnic groups and different regions and localities, and in some cases, professions and even people with different surnames. The scope is so wide that it’s almost all inclusive in nature so that no individual, ethnic group, profession or locality is left out. This relationship we call ‘joking relationship’ is meant to do away with the formality which serves as an obstacle to people becoming friends and enables people who are complete strangers build mutual relationships to promote peace and love in an instant, as it were. Studying the different cultural settings of the different ethnic groups will reveal that each ethnic group has a very strong sense of respect for these relationships. It transcends religion, culture, age grouping, social standing and caste settings and that is why one observes peaceful co-existence between people of different religious beliefs, ideologies, social classes and age groups. 

In The Gambia for example, there is a link between the Fulas as an ethnic group with the Jolas and the Sereres. Likewise, this relationship exists between the Jolas and the Sereres, the Fulas and the Mandinkas from the historic Kaabu Empire. This relationship also exists between the Fulas and the Joulas, commonly referred to as Bambarangs or Tillibonka due to the fact that they come from the east “where the sun rises”. Also, this relationship exists between the Fulas and the blacksmiths and leather workers and all those whose work has to do with artistic craft.

Among the same ethnic groups also, those with the name Jallow have this relationship with those whose name is Bah, those whose name is Joof and Faye, Bojang and Camara, Darboe and Ceesay, Trawally and Njie, Fatty and Jammeh, Kassama and Darboe, Kandeh and Jawo, Sowe and Jawo, Kah and Bah… the list goes on to include every tribe, ethnic group or name in this country.

Going to the regions and towns, people from the Niumis are linked with those in Jarra, those from Baddibu with those in Kiang, Gunjur with Sukuta, Farafenni and Saba, people from Baddibu with the Sarahules and so on and so forth.

When people from the various ethnic groupings meet, even if they are total strangers to each other, once their names are mentioned, they become immediate acquaintances and start joking with each other. No one can get angry with someone who comes from an ethnic group with which one’s ethnic group is linked. I remember when last year I was in Sweden with some of my students who come from different ethnic groups, one particular student, being from the Serere ethnic group had a more free approach towards me even though I am older and his teacher, as well. One of the Swedes observed this difference in the way this student and the others relate to me and asked why the other students treated me with so much deference and this particular one with – not disrespect – but more upfront, so to speak. I then had to explain that in African tradition certain ethnic groups are linked with others and they joke with each other. I explained that one is not allowed to get angry at a person if one’s ethnic group is linked with the other’s ethnic group. Even when angry and in a quarrel, a person from a different ethnic group can come and tell you to calm down and tradition demands that you do. This is why pre-colonial African societies did not need armies or police stations. They could solve their problems; resolve their differences using this mechanism. Africans also have great respect for elders and thus each settlement had a council of elders whose biddings were always done by men and women, young and old. When there is a dispute or quarrel, if all negotiations fail and one party remain recalcitrant, a person from an ethnic group with which his ethnic group has this linkage is summoned to come and have a discussion to him or her. This always succeeded where other methods had failed. Once when I was a child, I was beaten up by a man from the Serere ethnic group. When the news reached his father, he was so mortified of his son’s action that he bought cola nuts and came to apologise to my father saying that a Serere should never fight a Fula. Of course, my father accepted the explanation as tradition demanded and no one ever mentioned the incident again. What a way to maintain peace in the society!

Had these mechanisms been preserved in today’s Africa, a lot could be achieved in conflict resolution, saving the continent the hundreds of thousands of lives which are lost in these mostly ‘senseless’ wars. If Africans used this as a way of mediating between the various disputants both national and internationally, peace would have prevailed and thus progress and development will follow. It is sad to say that these cultural values are fading in today’s society. Most young people are totally unaware of this most valuable tool to maintain peace. One thinks twice nowadays before joking with anyone in public if you do not know him or her, he/she may turn out to be one who does not have an inkling of this and thus cause you embarrassment. But all is not lost as there is also a good percentage of the population who know and practice this to great advantages. It can get you past many obstacles if you know your culture well. It helps people in the same office relate in such a way that peace prevails and thus make the work more efficient and enjoyable. 

There is therefore an urgent need to teach the youths these cultural values at home and in schools so as to restore the peacefulness that once obtained in our beloved continent. The question is how do we achieve this in a largely polarised world of globalisation and cultural assimilation? In my humble opinion, the answer lies in language. Language is the vehicle that transports culture and once people forget their language, they lose their culture and thus identity. Most people in this country and many other African countries have forgotten their languages and taken up other languages. Those who still speak their language mix it with so much English or French or Arabic that you can’t even know whether the person is speaking his language or any of the above foreign languages. People have become so enamoured by these European languages that they consider it out of fashion to speak your own. There is a proverb in Wolof; ‘linga doon soo ko bange dafa fekka nga gen chee nyaaw’ (if you hate who you are it is because you are the worst of your people). Why can’t we be proud of who we are? Identity is very important and the person who takes pride in who he is is likely to be more respected by others than the one who seeks to portray what he is not. 

Parents should therefore make efforts to speak their language to their kids at home. The first school of a child is the home. Mothers and fathers should speak their languages to their children at all times and instil in them love and respect for what they are and who they are. This helps build their self esteem and make them better people. Journalists, and radio broadcasters, writers and poets, literary artists and traditional leaders all have a role to play in this revolution. Information is the most powerful tool for transformation. If one think in English, they become English, if they think in Chinese; they become Chinese, if they think in Wolof, they become Wolofs. W e can only retain and preserve our cultural values and ideals if we speak and think in our own languages. This is not in any way saying that we should not learn and speak other languages – I am a great admirer of languages, speaking at least four of the local dialects, Mandinka, Wolof, Fula and Serer – but that people from the same ethnic group should speak their languages to each other. When they meet others from different ethnic groups, they can find a common one that they all speak so as to ease communication. Government and other education stakeholders are therefore urged to intensify efforts to introduce our languages in our school curricular so as to preserve our cultural heritage among other things. Books on history, mathematics, religion, culture and other areas should be made available so that those who are desirous of learning their languages can have access to materials they need to do so.

Revitalising our culture therefore has to begin with reviving our languages because this is the only way we can transport those ideals and values from the distant past to the present which cannot be learnt in any other way.

There is a common saying, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, go back to where you are coming from.’


Musa Bah is the author of several books and an English teacher at Nusrat Senior Secondary School.


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