The Gambia: Innocence lost; how Yahya Jammeh changed a culture and created tribal animosity

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mathew(10)By Mathew K Jallow 

The tribal banter deeply rooted in Gambian history and culture arouses empathy, affection and friendship, yet today the familiar ridicule and jeers seem so unreal. In ordinary times, Gambia’s tribal jokes had been the nexus of a unifying force that never seemed disturbed by the turmoil and challenges of daily lives. The inter-tribal jest and foolery, instead, excited the affinity, which characterized the cultural intimacy that belied Gambia’s unique habituation across the tribal divide. This exceptional cultural affability distinguished the Gambia as a country untouched by polarizing tribal bigotry that continues to define much of the African continent. The origin of this cultural burlesque is unknown, but there is no denying its broader contribution in pacifying Gambian tribes from the dark days of tribal militarism and perennial wars of aggression, conquest and enslavement. Ours was a history painted red with the blood of the vanquished and typified the devaluation of human life by showcasing the worst human instincts. 

Undeniably, our ancestors’ history was punctuated by wars that clearly exhibited the savagery of ignorance and brutality of ethnocentrism, which manifested itself in unimaginable reptilian cruelty; in effect elevating the bloody history of bygone eras into something Gambians would rather not reminisce; something to isolate in the dark recesses of the mind. The pacification and the subsequent tribal reconciliation saw the emergence of inter-tribal bonds of kinship, and created a century of lull from tribal animosity and brutal wars. And until two decades ago, Gambians basked in the bliss of a socio-cultural uniformity unheard of elsewhere in Africa. Today, nineteen years into Yahya Jammeh’s reign of terror, the Gambia is resurrecting the mindset of a history of tribal animosity and infighting of long ago ancestors. But Gambia has never been the same since Yahya Jammeh’s ascension more than a decade and half ago. The suppressed ethnic and tribal xerophobia have again resurfaced as Yahya Jammeh’s policy of tribal gentrification creates massive dislocations of Gambian’s other tribes from their homes, their work and their country. 

Today, unlike before, the Jolas are painted with a broad brush, which at best is nothing more than venting frustration against Yahya Jammeh and at worst, assails the character of a far less homogenous tribe. Yahya Jammeh’s habitual projection of Jolaness, which has failed to impress Gambian tribes who created vast kingdoms through conquests, has, nonetheless, put many innocent Jolas between a rock and a hard place. The close relationship that once underpinned Fula and Jola kinship, has to a degree been stained by suspicion and downright animus; making the age old banter between the two tribes look superficial, if not totally meaningless. But this age-old relation is not limited to just Fulas and Jolas, rather it is a cultural feature that transcends Gambia’s tribal divide. But the old Fula and Jola affinity is borderline infected by Yahya Jammeh’s xenophobia and asinine tribal divisions. The poisoning death of Gambians in the past few years and the creation of a Jola assassin group, has further deepened inter-tribal suspicion and caused anger, rage, terror and fear in Gambia’s other tribes. The jest and banter that helped bring about a century of peace and kinship among Gambian tribes, is dying a slow death, and Yahya Jammeh is the cause.

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