The Gambia is a “sovereign republic” so says the constitution of the state. A nation state, according to Merriam Webster is “a form of political organization” inhabited by a “relatively homogenous people”. In essence, being subject to colonial exploitation, the nation state now called The Gambia, was carved out to create a political organization that the British could lord over in furtherance of their colonial project. This demarcation of course gave no consideration or regard to existing socio-cultural realities of the area and people they were imposed upon.
However, those realities never left, and the colonial project upset those existing realities. Because of cultural variations and different value systems, autonomous cultures were amalgamated into one unit lorded over by foreign influence that never gave or recognized their voices. Their identities and interests came to be viewed as “tribal”. If we understand the basics of colonialism, we will understand that the colonized are viewed as less than the colonizer in all spheres.
Therefore, what the British consider as culture was the only set of norms they will recognize as culture, and the colonized people of Africa; “savages” as they were wont to be called, had no culture as far as the colonizers were concerned. So, their value systems were never recognized.
These distinct cultures define our ethnic groups, which are erroneously called tribes. Whereas tribes reflect shared interests, ethnic groups highlight shared values and cultures, and because such cultures were not recognized, the people were conveniently called tribes. The two terms could be used interchangeably, but a more appropriate term in reference to our diversity as a people, in my view, is ethnicity/ethnic group.
I understand the logic behind “Gambia is my tribe”, in the sense that it is the common interest we should all share and one that binds us in that we are condemned by history to live together. Cushioning up such arguments with statements like the “tribe must die for the nation to survive” is not only contradictory, but ridiculous. The Gambia is our common charge, granted. Her advancement and progress should be our collective concern and endeavor. The collective here being the “diverse people” that the nation itself recognizes from its birth in 1965; “…and join our diverse people…”
Who are these diverse people then? They are the native Jola, Mandinka, Wolof, Fulani, Serer etc. These are all distinct ethnic groups with very distinct languages and cultural norms and values. When we say “tribe” within our political discourse, these are the groups being referred to. The problem we confront therefore, is that these ethnic groups are not only confined to The Gambia as native inhabitants. What then of their kinfolk and those who share the same ethnic identity in other parts of the sub region?
It is against that back drop that when aspects of our individual cultures are presented to us from outside of the borders of The Gambia, they are quickly embraced because we recognize them as our own and value them thus. And there is nothing wrong with that.
I sympathize with the concerns expressed that visiting Senegalese artists being favored over Gambian artists is unfair, in fact I am of that school of thought. There is a thing called national pride and artists flying our national flag on the global stage would be a source of pride for us all. But this is only looking at the issue from that ‘nation state’ perspective. A broader look at the issue, reveals cultural affinities that cannot be ignored.
Whereas the artist performing under the banner of The Gambia brings us national pride, the artist that represents and speaks to our culture brings us personal pride. Nothing wrong with that either.
Senegalese artists like Youssou Ndour, Pape Diouf or Wally Seck appeal to the dominant Wolof culture with their Mbalax or Ndaga style music which is culturally Wolof. Similarly, growing up, we had a lot of Senegalese nationals who made home in my town due to their trade as fishermen. they hailed from the Tukulor/Chubalo ethnic group, and no artist moves them like Baba Maal. Up to this day, Baba Maal is one of my favorite artists thanks to the exposure I had from my neighbors. Of course, there are other neighbors from Guinea who like Baba Maal a great deal, but the likes of Peti Yero and Saikouba Bambino Diabate offered them a cultural and a national affinity respectively through the music they played. There was hardly ever an event in the Serer dominant town next door where you will not hear Mbaye Njie played a few times before the night ends.
Our own Jaliba Kuyateh has a huge presence in Guinea Bissau, as does the late Tata Ding Ding Jobarteh in Sedhiou. Of recent, ST and O Boy and Gambian Child are making huge inroads in regions of Senegal where the Mandinka are the dominant culture.
Conversely, beyond embracing our cultures across imaginary lines drawn by colonizers as national boundaries, we witnessed migration patterns influenced by no other concern than to preserve one’s cultural identity. When the nation state does not recognize you as an equal citizen by virtue of your ethnicity, what we witness in almost all such cases is migration away from persecution. No one ditches their cultural identity to adopt a national identity. National identity, is in fact characterized by a dominant culture out of the many.
The case of the establishment of the Jewish state as a home to persecuted Jews from Europe comes to mind. As you read this, Uyghurs are fleeing China to preserve their cultural identity and run away from persecution. The same is true of Myanmar. Closer to home, we heard stories of people migrating to The Gambia because they felt targeted by the regime of Sekou Toure and attributed that to their cultural and ethnic identity.
Our present-day nation states may have emerged as a result of arbitrary lines drawn on a map, but who we are culturally, is much deeper seated than national pride. There is nothing wrong with that either, trivializing that in the name of some common national identity is an impossible proposition. Recognizing and celebrating each culture and giving them prominence and a sense of inclusion is the only way of ensuring that the nation is served. People will voluntarily preserve and protect that which accord them recognition and a sense of belonging, if the nation can offer them that, they will serve such a nation and give it their all, for that nation will truly be home, and we are all predisposed to defending our homes.
The evil is when those ethnic identities get politicized as we saw Jammeh do and Barrow following suit.
So, keep and celebrate your cultural identity. Don’t shy away from it, don’t hide or be ashamed of it, but in doing so, recognize that others deserve to do the same, and together, we can all strive and work and pray to live in unity and freedom to be who we truly are, each day. If we can achieve that, we will remain ever true to The Gambia for according us that opportunity to be at liberty to celebrate who we are as Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Jola, Serahuleh etc. Your ethnic identity precedes your national identity, don’t shun it, but don’t hold it over anyone else as a badge of superiority, that too is evil. Hold on to it and pass it down, you owe it to future generations to teach them who they are.