Seems the current narrative is set to endure for a while; “tribalism this, tribalism that, that’s tribalist, you’re a tribalist, blah blah blah… We won’t delve into what tribalism really means for it matters little to those who choose to stick to it to further their agenda. But it seems also that we are averse to learning from history or pondering on the deeper meaning of issues. There is an old Mandinka adage from the elders of the days of yore that goes thus; “Regardless of how long a monkey’s tail is, if you pinch it, it hurts the monkey.”
But like most things, we sing the lines repeatedly and fail to ponder on the deeper meanings of this wise saying. Either that or we deliberately confine them to times before ours and thereby failing to see their relevance or application to any current situation, a foolish error!
Why is that relevant to this write-up, because whatever is happening around that issue today has only one culprit to blame; Yaya Jammeh. But despite his machinations for political survival, what Yaya has succeeded in doing, albeit unwittingly, is to awaken within the Mandinka a sense of pride and patriotism, even those who have hitherto been blind to ethnic differences or nonchalant about it. Now before you go on to sensationalize “Mandinka patriotism” and how it negates patriotism to country, take a look in the mirror and do some deep reflecting. Assuming that being one negates the other is shallow thinking and biased. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, here’s why.
As suggested, take a cue from yourself by relating the situation to something we all share in common; for the most part – Islam. With the constant negative publicity and portrayal of Islam and Muslims as evil on the 24 hour Western news media, how does that make you feel? What questions do you ask yourself of your faith? What research did you do to gain more insight and prove that the terrorists are in fact psychotic sociopaths who, through their actions can lay no claim to what you profess to believe in? Now forget the fact that you are only a passive/seasonal Muslim, probably non-practicing even, that is irrelevant. Truth is you became concerned, frightened, and curious even. Chances are, these feelings awoke in you a sense of responsibility, so much so that you tried to be that moderate Muslim who is trying to say to his close circle of friends and neighbors that you are the face of Islam; caring, loving, moderate and not a sociopath like the terrorists. You didn’t denounce Islam because of it, but you embraced it a little more in spite of it by researching those lines and examples of good Muslims to use to defend your faith.
In this case, you are the proverbial monkey (non-practicing, passive, unconcerned Muslim; completely or mostly detached from the faith you profess, at least seemingly). The detachment from your faith denotes the tail of the proverbial monkey; despite the detachment, you felt a pinch when it seemed under attack and willfully misrepresented. So with that said, don’t fall into the same trap as the racist Islamophobes who claim you are either Muslim loyal to Islam or American/British/French loyal to the country but can’t be both as the two are incompatible. You know that is false.
The irony in this analogy is that Islam is a choice. You chose to be Muslim for whatever reason and can denounce it anytime. But your ethnic identity is an accident of nature, like it or not it is who you are. So consider how much more an attack on that aspect of your identity will hurt.
Vitriol and hateful words spewing from the mouth of tribal bigots like Yaya Jammeh engenders a sense of curiosity albeit motivated by anger. So those who feel targeted because of some connection or claim kinship to the Mandinka dig their heels in and refused to be misrepresented in that fashion. They look back to history to see if such ignorant claims have any basis in history, and… bingo! The digging reveals much to be proud of. Most of that history has been suppressed to a large extent or confined to certain quarters. Because of the sensitivities of some aspects of history in certain quarters, those aspects have been suppressed, partly that and partly because the elders teach you to be humble. “Kaa-wa mang nying!- Pride and boastfulness are not the domain of a mere servant of The Creator. That may not be an exclusive Mandinka view but they sure hammer it to permanence into your psyche resulting in lifelong humility even when one is entitled to brag.
As an example to highlight these historical sensitivities; Sir Dawda and his government banned Berkeley Rice’s ‘Enter Gambia…’ partly in recognition of these sensitivities and their potential for sowing discord and hampering national unity, so much for a tribalist. (Don’t believe me; read P.S. Njie’s interview with the author).
Even in the religious domain, highly spiritual and versed scholars who’d be venerated and sanctified in certain communities are just ordinary men in their communities respected as elders and scholars. Encounter them outside of their communities and you’d have no regard for them or accord them any status. Just to cite two examples, the late Jasong Touray and Bun Jeng encountered such scenarios in their lifetime. Their humility could be attributed to their faith but we know of people in similar stations (or less spiritual/knowledgeable) who grace life differently.
Point here is, this by no means is an attempt to tout the Mandinka as the high and mighty people that everyone should bow to, that would be silly; quite the contrary. It is an attempt to explain why the sudden awakening among Gambian Mandinkas of a sense of pride and patriotism. Yaya Jammeh made sure of that. With his vitriol, open display of hate and condescension towards that segment of the population and even outright threats of extermination and exile was greeted with concern at the very least. So you can see why his defeat and banishment was celebrated more within those communities and revived that sense of pride, it spelt SURVIVAL and RESPECT and a sense of RESILIENCE considering the power and reach of the self-proclaimed enemy, above all it was RELIEF.
What we are witnessing is a pat-on-the-back of sorts; “we stood up to the arrogant tyrant and lived to tell.” That’s all it is and nothing more; a moment of reflection on what could’ve been, of achievement and celebration displayed in the form of embracing that culture that was under threat of eradication (and no I’m not being melodramatic, Yaya meant every word he said and he is bigoted enough with the wherewithal to carry out his threat). So like anyone in a similar situation, the Mandinka are simply proclaiming WE BELONG and WE ARE HERE TO STAY AND BE PRESENT.
An example in our shared identity yet again – Islam; the early Muslims prayed in silence and secrecy, concealed their faith to avoid persecution, but with the more converts and the eventual conquest of Makkah, the prayer was called to from atop the Ka’aba; triumph!
Do not be fooled by those calling for a denunciation of ‘tribal identities’ in favor of adopting and embracing a “Gambian Identity”. A Gambian identity is all individual identities combined, take one out and you’re short. That approach always leads to the dominance of one culture over the rest; we are an amalgamation of ethnic groupings all of whom deserve recognition and celebration on the national platform. Embrace and celebrate your Bainunka culture, your Balanta, Manjago, Serer, Bambara, Aku, Serahule cultures, and all the other cultures. Fail to do so and you’re depriving us all and taking away from that Gambian identity. Don’t let your individual culture drown in the sea of the larger (in numbers) cultures but don’t be threatened by their embrace of their culture either nor should any of us be disrespectful to one another.
Being proud of and celebrating aspects of your identity is not synonymous to hatred for or bigotry towards others. It is in fact highlighting aspects for which others can look at and respect you, and every ‘tribe’ has those aspects and should celebrate as such rather than taking the ill-informed and shallow stance that always cries tribalism at every and any opportunity simply because the other person displayed his pride in his culture.
Let us not advocate for a melting of the contents of the Gambian pot, it’s a blend of ingredients all complementing each other and the result can only be a tastier and more succulent Gambia, culturally speaking.