From the very onset of the current administration, some people felt the need to put on a tribal lens through which to view all issues. When the cabinet positions were first announced some took to social media with a head count of how many Mandinkas were assigned ministerial positions, that debate took place online and it was not that long ago that we need reminders.
When Tanene happened, it was “the Mandinkas think they can push everyone over by laying claim to every land in the country, Manjagoes have rights too.” When we raised pertinent points to debate on issues surrounding the question over birthright citizenship devoid of any qualifiers; it was “look at all those making noise about the issue, they belong to one tribe and think they own this country.”
In early 2017, when the President traveled to either Turkey or France, he held a meeting with the Gambian community where the meeting was addressed in Mandinka, which also generated debate online about the obvious tribalism. A lot of irate citizens took to social media to denounce that ‘single language engagement’. The problem is not that it was conducted in one language, but THE language that dominated.
A meeting held in Badibou Salikenni is expected to be interpreted into at least Olof, but there is no requirement for the same meeting held in Banjul to be interpreted into at least Mandinka. Fact is these two communities cited are predominantly one ethnic group, it does not matter what tribe you are, because of the dominant Wolof culture in Banjul, anyone who grows up in Banjul will be fluent in Olof. The exact same is true of Salikenne and her dominant Mandinka culture, absolutely nothing wrong with settlement patterns making one culture or ethnic group dominant over others. The baffling thing is when that fact becomes a problem in and of itself leading to claims that a certain group is too proud to “assimilate” into another group.
These and so many other instances in recent memory, leaves one asking; are the complaints really about a tribal problem or a Mandinka problem? These also, coupled with Yaya Jammehs open, constant and deliberate vitriol targeted towards the Mandinka is ramping up a defensive posture, a sort of Mandinka nationalism of sorts and it is gaining more and more sympathizers and the rhetoric is getting heated and more confrontational.
When an audio was leaked of a former National Assembly Member of Banjul echoing sentiments similar to those expressed in an interview by late P.S Njie excerpts of which were published in Berkley Rice’s Enter Gambia Birth of an Improbable Nation, one can understand why so many are claiming that the rhetoric echoed by a young uninformed girl at the press conference of the rapper ST is in fact representative of widely held view amongst segments of Gambian society, albeit a latent viewpoint.
The hypocrisy of holding such and similar negatives stereotypes while pretending that we do not, is what enabled Yaya Jammeh to be bold enough to stand on national stage and issue threats towards the Mandinka because he knows a lot of Gambians share in his viewpoint. The familiar line that “Mandinkas feel entitled” hence think they own this country (like Hamat Bah recently reiterated) is the fuel behind bayi ken momut dekabi; this country belongs to all of us; kill the tribe, Gambia is one tribe etc. All of them point to that latent negative stereotype towards the Mandinkas.
Words matter and their meanings are not devoid of the context within which they were formed. If we disregard that context and focus on mere words, it is easy to form a very biased and uninformed opinion of any issue, from religion to culture, to mundane everyday issues. There is a reason why the “N” word is derogatory, the context of its origins matter and is central to its interpretation.
When we hear UDP cares only about palaaso, it evokes sentiments of similar claims made about Mandinkas at the onset of our political evolution and the reactions it triggers are given with that sentiment in mind. We have come to a point where “UDP” is a politically correct way of saying “Mandinka” as far as some people are concerned. We need to honestly open up about issues and sincerely address them rather than taking to our echo chambers just to hear our sentiments reverberate and get that high off of being vindicated. Personal identities are real issues and when people feel targeted, real or perceived, it nurtures a feeling of resentment and when that feeling translates into action, the consequences are catastrophic for all concerned.
We don’t just need civic education, we need lessons in social competence, which requires that we are aware of culturally sensitive issue and how certain words and actions are interpreted within groups in ways different from the intended meaning ascribed to them by the author. We are witnessing in our current discourse deliberate attempts to distort facts just for political capital, distortions that get relied on by lazy and young impressionable minds to shape their views thereby perpetuating the very problem we should all be willing to sacrifice limb and life to uproot because if it grows, it will be ugly.
Yaya Jammeh is an example of a person who nurtured such deep seated hateful sentiments towards the Mandinka and when he had the backing of state power, used it to exert vengeance on a perceived enemy that never was. There are many more Yaya Jammeh’s in our midst waiting to have the means to unleash suffering and misery on innocent people because of some misplaced anger fueled by uninformed negative stereotypes. The clear evidence that there is militant push- back towards what many view as unprovoked attack is evident for all to see and the push-back and militancy is growing. Having the President switching ‘ethnicity’ from one to the other depending on the day is exacerbating the problem even further; tribe is front and center in our expressions whether we admit it or not.
There is a biological tribe that we are born into and then there is the cultural tribe that we identify with. Because you are a Mandinka, Jola, Serer or Fula by name and heritage does not make you one, who you identify with culturally defines who you are. I am Mandinka but I don’t speak Mandinka, biologically you are but culturally you are not. I am Serer but I cannot speak or understand Serer, it means you are born of Serer parents but culturally you are not and so it goes for all other tribes. So because someone claims to belong to a certain group and should therefore get away with saying culturally insensitive things, is equally, if not more dangerous.
The damage that tyranny causes, stay latent because of the suppression that tyranny itself thrives on. It only manifests itself after the fall of tyranny which is what we are witnessing unfold before our very eyes and it needs mature and steady hands to manage it. Sadly, that is not the case with the current head and his nonsense spewing sycophants like Hamat Bah have proven utterly incapable of such steady management capacity.
Yaya Jammeh used tribe to sow seeds of discord between us because it served his needs, those seeds have germinated and instead of uprooting them, Barrow is watering them and applying manure. He wakes up one day a Fulani and another day a Serahule, goes to the media the following week claiming he is Mandinka and the week after that a “N’dongo Banjul”. When a delegation from Foni shows up he brags about his sisters being married to Jolas and how his nephews and nieces are Jola. He is trying so hard to prove a point when all he is doing is widening the chasm.
Hon. Halifa Sallah stated in 2017 that what we have is a “greed problem” as opposed to a tribal problem, which ties into PLO Lumumba’s observation that in Africa, if you want to be rich, join politics/public service. Political positions and political capital are seen as the only source of power and wealth and so it is highly coveted. Like is true of all aspects of covetousness, those who are seen as having a monopoly over the coveted position become the hated ones, but is it really true of our case? Every single ethnic group have a large chunk within it that is suffering under the yoke of poverty and inadequate amenities. So why are we ignoring the culprits and going after victims like ourselves? This is why, besides the satire and harmless banter, we need to be issue centered in our discourse on the affairs of our country and the politics thereof.
Culture is an essential aspect of who we are; expressing our cultural identities should not be seen as a threat to anyone, rather a cause for us all to “join our diverse peoples, to prove man’s brotherhood.”
Just like nature intended, we have been different, we are still different, and we will always remain different but that is no cause for division. If we do not deliberately and tirelessly stem this tide, we will realize too late that we lost too much.