By Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu, Researcher on Contemporary History and Politics specializing in slavery abolition in West Africa
Question: do you believe that people who trust each other will be humiliating each other, destroying each other’s properties, shaming each other or banishing each other over an obsolete tradition?
Following the public outcry over the latest outbreak of violence in the Sarahulleh (Soninke) communities over caste segregation, some folks asked me why I am not active in addressing this caste problem that is threating our national peace. My response was that I am respected by the conflicting parties: the “horro” (nobles) and the others who are fighting against caste-based slavery. I have to be careful of my words and actions so as not to lose the respect and bargaining influence I have in our society. Though my family’s Sarahulleh customary statuses as “Barago Taggo” and “Sankanu Kaggoro” give me the possibility of serving as mediator and peace ambassador, I won’t usurp and I cannot be active unless I am formally invited to do so.
The purpose of this tell-all popular media commentary is to explain the genesis of the caste conflict with the sincere aim of advancing due sensitization on this harmful traditional practice and helping the belligerents as well as the Gambian authorities in finding a lasting solution to this social change or reform challenge. I am proud of my Sarahulleh identity and I have a responsibility to analyse the problems affecting our Sarahulleh communities without fear or favour. Sugar-coating the rot under the veneer of religious visibility would not solve this caste problem and human rights question.
For more interesting stuff on slavery and caste conflicts in West Africa, watch out for the final version of my PhD thesis on the subject albeit in augmented academic vocabulary.
The caste system and the Arabic origin of the word “Forro/Horro”
From my insider perspectives, the on-going caste conflict within the Gambian Sarahulleh communities between the so-called “forro” or “horro” (nobles) and so-called “kommo” (slaves) castes is nothing new. The Gambia’s demographic composition puts the size of Sarahullehs at about seven percent (7%) of the population or one hundred and forty thousand (140,000) people. Their native villages are located in the Upper River Region (URR) and Central River Region (CRR). As a minority people that was not so visible in the mass media, most of their internal tensions were going unnoticed by the rest of the country.
Now due to social media’s real time distribution of contents, the nation and the outside world are witnessing the barbaric side effects of this centuries-old obsolete social stratification in its crude and abhorrent form. Like the Mandinka, Wollof and Fula ethnic groups of West Africa, the Sarahullehs too have a caste system that categorise them into occupational groups. Intermarriage is not encouraged though adultery and fornication across the castes are condoned. With the exception of the slaves who were either captives of war, victims of slave trade or descendants of domestic slavery, the other occupational groups like the “Taggo/Numolu” (smiths), “Mangou” (delegates), “Garanko/Karankolu” (leatherworkers), “Jaaru/Jalolu” (griots/genealogists) are born free. Therefore, the term “freeborn” can be applied to all others who are not slaves. Smiths, griots and leatherworkers who settle in villages and states founded by the “horro” (nobles) consequently subject themselves to their norms and traditions. In the same vain, nobles, griots, leatherworkers and “nyamalolu” (masters of ceremonies) who agree to live in settlements or states founded by “taggo/numolu” (smiths) would accept the authority of the smiths over them.
The Sarahulleh and Mandinka word “horro” or “forro” is originally Arabic and means “hurri” (free). It is interesting to note that Arabs are said to be descendants of Ismail, son of Haggar, the banished slave wife of Prophet Abraham. This means a slave woman named Haggar was the common ancestral mother of today’s Arab kings, princes, princesses, nobles and emirs. I am making reference to this since some of our Gambian people see Arabs as their superior role models and they feel proud of having “sula” (local parlance for light-skinned Middle Eastern migrants) ancestors from Arabia. “Hurriyat” in Arabic means “Freedom”, the Mandinkas know it as “Foroyaa” and Sarahullehs as “Horraxu/Forraxu” respectively. Through the Trans-Saharan slave trade, Islamization of Africa and other forms of contacts with the Arabs, countless Arabic words and traditions have been adopted by the Sarahullehs, Mandinkas and Fulas. People would be fighting over something that they may consider as African culture but if you do proper research, you could discover that it was a foreign culture adapted to local customs. The mass addiction to Arabic names is a clear manifestation of the erosion of indigenous African self-esteem. Some people fail to realise that bearing just an Arabic name does not automatically make one a Muslim. The Islamic religion accepts indigenous non-Arabic names as long as they are no names of pre-Islamic idols.
That said I am not aware of any Gambian clan or family that has claimed the exclusive copyright over the status and title of “forro/horro” (freeborn/noble) or “foroyaa” (nobility/freedom) in our society. According the Constitution of The Republic of The Gambia, all citizens between Kartong and Koina are born free. It is our various career paths in life that eventually makes us different.
Being noble or freeborn does not mean one cannot have a normal occupation hence we have nobles who became farmers, smiths, singers and traders as well. The original concept of the caste system was not about superiority complex of one group above the others forever. It was division of labour intended to promote social cohesion and the smooth functioning of the state based on the realities of the time in the past. The discriminatory caste system has no relevance in the 21st Century and those trying to preserve it are sweating, in nostalgia, over the last kicks of a dying horse. If Sarahullehs can give up the cultural practice of sacrificing their daughters to their “Wagadou bidda” snake-god, if they can be sleeping with each other regardless of caste barriers nowadays and if they can be gradually moving away from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I am confident that Sarahullehs would eventually abandon the caste Apartheid between them.
Generally, the caste system is dynamic and adaptable to the local realities of the settlement concerned. Additional strata like “modi” or “morro” for marabouts came with Islamization. “Modi” is originally from the Arabic adjective “muadid” and means a “person who is literate” hence the “morro” were part of the clerics in the courts of the rulers. This historical precedence means “Ganbaana” has the possibility of becoming a new social strata or clan (kabilo) of the Sarahulleh community for those who reject feudalistic servitude similar to the “Liberated Africans” or “Aku” in our Gambian ethnic composition.
Mutual respect between the freeborn castes: the example of the “Horro” (nobles) and “Taggo” (smiths)
Ruling a state or community is not an exclusive privilege of the “horro” (nobles) as they are not the only freeborn with nation-building ability. The history of Prophet David (Dawood) shows that a smith “tagge/numo” can become king and also the highest worldly religious authority of the time as prophet. Soumangoru Kanteh was a smith and king. The modern powerful State of Israel was founded by Jews who claim ancestral links to the smith King David whose symbols they are using with pride.
The Ghana Empire, for its part, was a loose federation of autonomous Sarahulleh/Soninke states and clans (kabilos). Prominent among them was Barago: an autonomous state founded by the “taggo/numolu” smiths hence their title “Barago Taggo.” The inhabitants of Barago, led by Bambureh Touray as their ruler, refused to sacrifice their daughters to the python-god (Wagadou bidda) of central Kumbi Saleh, the imperial capital. The growing power and influence of the “taggo” (smiths) made the ruler of the Ghana Empire of the time (name withheld) jealous and thus set a trap that led to the collapse of Barago. As poetic justice would have it, the “Almoravids” (people of the fortress) from North Africa attacked, humiliated and defeated that king’s Ghana Empire which collapsed like the state of Barago he betrayed earlier.
The difference between the “horro” (nobles) and “taggo” (smiths) in the Sarahulleh community is that they don’t intermarry but in other aspects of life they are similar in stature. They are both affluent as fabulously wealthy Sarahulleh tycoons can be found among the “horro” and “taggo” groups. They are both freeborn and do rule over their individual states or communities. “Morro/Modi” religious clerics can be found among both “horro” and “taggo” groups. The surname “Drammeh” can be found among the “morro” clerics, “horro” nobles and the “taggo” smiths. The “Njie” surname in Sarahulleh has both “horro” and smith castes. “Karaga Njie” or “Karaga Duxanchi” is the smith clan. “Janneh” and “Janha” are both “morro” (clerics) and “numolu/taggo” (smiths) in Sarahulleh. There are “nyamala”(masters of ceremonies), “garankes” (leatherworkers), griots and slaves living under the “horro”castes. Likewise the smiths (taggo/numolu) too have their subordinate “Tagandimanu/Garanko nyamala”, “Jaaru” (griot) genealogists and customary servants.
In the Sarahulleh communities, “Sahoneh”, “Sumbundu” and “Magassy” serve as “nyamala” commoner assistant/masters of ceremonies to both the smiths (taggo/numolu) and the nobles (horro). There are settlements in The Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania where the rulers are either smiths or nobles. The customary right to rule a state, village or community rests on the founders and their heirs. If a settlement is founded by “horro” (nobles), they would be the rulers. On the other hand, in a settlement established by a “tagge” (smith), the hereditary authorities rest with the “taggo” elites. My Sotuma Sere community in Jimara, URR, The Gambia, was founded by a smith and cleric named “Sere Sankanu” who was my biological great-grandfather. The hereditary “Alkaloship” and “Imamship” are customarily under the smiths. Anyone, be him or her “horre”, commoner or from another ethnic group who wants to settle among us will have to accept our authority. If you chose to live in say, Kombo Brikama, you would be expected to accept the “Bojangs” as the customary rulers of that area.
Social and occupational mobility of the castes
Traditionally, social and occupational mobility is possible as people from different castes can take up various social responsibilities in the course of time. Before my Sankanu “kabilo” (clan) joined the smiths of the state of Barago, we were known as “Kaggoro” which was part of the nobility of the ancient Ghana Empire. This is why the griots would be addressing me as “Sankanu Tagge” or “Sankanu Kaggoro” depending on the occasion at hand. The “Kaggoro” or as the Malian Bambara call them “Kakolo” were among the original nobles of the Sarahulleh communities before the Arabised strata of “horro” was created after Islamization. The “Kaggoro” dialect is now extinct.
The smith state of Barago provided asylum to other nobles who changed their surnames and adapted the smith names and occupations. The notable smiths (taggo/numolu) in the Sarahulleh society are “Bommu/Tudoga”, “Janha”, “Jankumba”, “Bereteh”, “Masina”, “Garko” and “Sambaxeh.” There are also smiths who became religious clerics. The surname “Bereteh” for instance was a smith from Barago. He confessed to the ruler of the smiths that he could handle hot iron and decided to become a religious teacher and later “Bereteh Ngana Manding morro” clerical caste of Mandeng. The other family names that were part of the Mandeng morro clerics are “Ceesay”, “Touray”, “Janneh” and “Komma.” Sarahulleh surnames like “Janneh”, “Janha”, “Cham”, “Sissoho” and “Touray” are either smiths (taggo) or clerics (morro/marabout) depending on where they settled. “Janha Samajari” is the smith and “Janha boygilleh” is the “morro” or marabout.
The adjective “Ngana” is Mandinka for Ghana Empire and also makes reference to the people who left that collapsed Sarahulleh empire to become part of the successor Mandeng Empire. It is important to note that the Mandeng Charter of human rights or Kuruakan Fuga of the 13th Century codified certain aspects of the caste system and provided room for mutual respect and occupational mobility. The subsequent inclusion of “Komma” into the “Mandeng Morri” clerical caste proves that the caste system is subject to modifications and amendments. I am confident that if Mandeng King Sundiata Keita and his contemporaries were alive in this 21st Century, they would rewrite the Mandeng Charter just as we are working on a modern constitution for the Third Republic of The Gambia today.
Classic examples of social and occupational mobility in our modern Gambian politics are former President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara and Honourable Muhammed Magassy, the current National Assembly Member for Basse Constituency. Both are classed as “Nyamalo/Karanke” (commoners/leatherworkers) caste but they became part of the ruling class of our republican Gambian nation. “Cham” is traditionally “numo/tagge” smith in both Sarahulleh and Mandinka ethnic group. We have Lamin Cham, a perceived “numo” as one of President Adama Barrow’s trusted personal assistants at the centre of our national affairs. The caste system was never designed to be a rigid barrier to social elevation.
Tactically, one has to be careful when describing people since one surname that might be considered noble in one community would be slave “jongho/komme” or cleric/marabout “morro” in another. The surname “Sillah” can be “horro” noble, “karanke nyamalo” leatherworker, “morro” religious cleric or “tagge/numo” smith. The surname “Sinera” is a variation of “Sillah” for the smiths. In Sarahulleh and Bambara “Singhateh” is “Nyaxateh.” The surname “Jawara” has both “horro” and “karanke” clans. The “Tambadou” were the customary medics of the Sarahullehs specializing in fixing broken bones and treating other ailments. Today, we have Tambadou people who are among the “horro”nobles and common farmers. “Trera” is often considered as “morro” cleric but I have seen “Trera” people who are “horro” (nobles) and “jaaru” (griots).
In our 21st Century, surnames can be misleading and I would not advice anyone to classify people according to surnames without first understanding their respective family history. I can vouch that many people don’t know their history and they cannot explain how they became part of a particular caste or ethnic group. Someone might be ridiculed as slave or lower caste today but in the past his or her grandparents could have been nobles or rulers. Kunta Kinteh of Juffureh in Niumi was not born a slave. He unwillingly became a slave through the injustices of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many Arabs today are seen as “horro” royalty and rulers but they all descended from a slave woman called Hagar, the mother of Ismail.
“Xuuto” (grudge), “Amakebaga” (it does not worth it) and “Anlaqen bog adi” (don’t be involved) attitudes in the Sarahulleh communities
Over the generations, the original motive behind the caste stratification towards a functional society was compromised by a myriad of factors. Principal among them is the restriction on social and occupational mobility by some feudalists. Some of the people in the advantageous positions of the caste system would claim exclusive right to power, wealth and authority for themselves and their off-springs. This has resulted in mutigenerational grudges, mutual suspicions and outright violence between them and the others who feel they too have right to equal opportunities in society. As so-called slave or lower caste has no say at important gatherings and even if his or her ideas are smart and useful, they would not be considered as serious. In 2014, there was a case in a Gambian Sarahulleh community in URR (name withheld) were the people refused to start fasting for the month of Ramadan since a so-called slave was the first person to sight the moon in the settlement.
A number of Sarahulleh associations, joint initiatives or projects fail due to unnecessary caste in-fights over leadership. Some of the people in privileged positions would insist on always being in the leadership positions by virtue of their supposedly higher castes even when they are not qualified or destined to lead. Others would either sabotage or refuse to contribute to any project or initiative led by a person they consider a lower caste. This has caused a lot of damage to the image and progress of the Sarahulleh communities in business and other domains. The Lebanese have taken over as the leading importers of rice and other basic commodities in The Gambia since the Sarahullehs who were once leading that trade failed to join forces to maintain competitive advantages in a changing environment. The Sarahullehs started the real estate business but today none of them has the international stature of new-comers like Mustapha Njie “Taf” and Saul Frazer of “Global Properties” as they are reluctant to promote formidable joint stock companies across castes that would keep them ahead.
Their mutual generosity often manifested during religious events and at religious centres is cosmetic. The actual unity in the Sarahulleh communities beyond castes starts from the moment they agree to assemble behind a particular Imam for prayers and it ends with the last “Salam Alaikum Warahmatullah” from that Imam. A lot of energy is wasted on bickering over caste rivalry and the “kaanankaaxu” (front row) versus “hanlankaaxu” (back row) mentality. The prejudice and mistrust between castes and even within the same clan (kabilo) have proven to be self-defeating for the Sarahulleh communities.
Another factor that produced the grudge was the monopolization of access to knowledge. For instance, so-called slaves, leatherworkers and some smiths were denied the right to study the Holy Quran deeper and understand Islam better like the “morro” clerics or “horro” noble castes. I witnessed such cases of educational injustice when I was growing up in the Upper River Region (URR) in the 1980s and 1990s. Some castes were told that they do not need to study the Quran beyond the short “Suras” (chapters) for prayers. Thanks to the proliferation of both Western and Islamic “Madrassa” schools across the length and breadth of The Gambia, this restriction is fading away. It is however sad that among both Western and Islamic-educated Sarahullehs, there are radical believers and promoters of caste discrimination in its outdated form. Of course there are “horro” nobles who are against the caste system and the discriminations but they are silent for fear of reprimand from their clans.
The “amakebaga” (it does not worth it) and “anlaqen bog adi” (don’t be involved) attitudes towards problems and critical reforms are causing a lot of bad blood, mistrust and frustrations across castes and generations in the Sarahulleh communities.
The caste system is exported in its primitive form to Sarahulleh communities in France, Spain, USA, Angola and other places. In spite of their exposure to modern republican and liberal human rights environments, a number of Sarahullehs born in the Western world grow with the caste prejudice. Since they have no alternative means of researching their history beyond what their praise-singers want them to hear, they are ill-clad within the stagnant system of discriminating, insulting and ridiculing each other as “horre”, “komme”, “karanke” or “tagge” in their diaspora meetings, ceremonies and associations. It is not surprising that the new anti-slavery movement started from the Sarahulleh diaspora in France.
Religions leaders practising self-censorship
I have compared the arguments of both the abolitionists and the defenders of slavery. Both camps agree that the type cultural slavery being practised within the Sarahulleh communities is not Islamic and those perceived as slaves do not meet the Islamic requirements to be called slaves. However, religious scholars who condemn caste based slavery are bullied as apologists of “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement while religious scholars who defend the caste system and slavery are celebrated by those who insist they are above the so-called slaves. This has resulted in a kind of self-censorship by some Sarahulleh religious scholars. The fear of losing donations for their religious activities from wealthy Sarahulleh feudalists is making them avoid preaching about caste segregation in their regular sermons.
Last year, there was an attempt by some Sarahulleh religious leaders to mediate between the warring “horro” and anti-slavery activists. They formed a WhatsApp group called “Sirrondindanon Kaffo” (better improvers association). Due to the residual grudges and mistrust within the Sarahulleh communities those religious leaders and their followers ended up castigating each other before being finally hackled by the conflicting parties into irrelevance.
The “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” anti-slavery movement and its “Horro” feudalist opponents
The current abolitionist movement in the Sarahulleh communities started after a rare religious conference in Paris, France, by some concerned Sarahullehs who questioned the caste system in the our modern times. The idea of a structured anti-slavery movement was subsequently conceptualized and concretized with the formation of “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” which means “association for being equal” in the Sarahulleh dialect spoken in Mauritania, Senegal and Mali. It is also known as “Ganbaana” (being equal) for short. France being a melting pot for Sarahulleh migrants from Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, The Gambia and the two Guineas, “Ganbaana” found a fertile ground for cost-effective global networking as those in Europe started engaging and mobilizing their people back home in Africa for the common cause of emancipation. Ganbaana’s initial years were challenging as the subject of slavery is a taboo and not many people wanted to engage in honest conversations about it. Access to radio stations, village platforms and other community fora was difficult for them in the first instance.
However in 2016, some members of “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” in France created a WhatsApp social media group to spread their emancipation messages beyond boundaries. This novelty sent shockwaves across Sarahulleh communities since for the first time in generations, those who could not speak out due to their supposed lower castes, are now speaking openly without fear. Within two years of embracing social media as sensitization platform, “Ganbaana” became an international movement with registered chapters in Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, USA, Spain and other places with large concentration of Sarahulleh residents.
Naturally, “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” is meeting resistance from some Sarahulleh “horro” feudalists who bedevil “Ganbaana” militants as trouble makers. At the time of writing this commentary, the leading entities fighting “Ganbaana” are “Horondintabana” (nobles are not equal with them), “Horonkunda” (the nobles quarters), “Kingi contre Ganbaana” (Kingi against Ganbaana) and “groupe noblesse” (nobility group). The insults that the various groups throw at each other in their WhatsApp groups and other fighting tools are disgusting and embarrassing.
The showdown across Sarahulleh communities will continue to dominate the social agenda for the foreseeable future. The rivalries and conflicts are chronic as they are older than social media, the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the Europeans on the African continent. Each generation addresses them according to its realities hence these caste conflicts are nothing new. In The Gambia, the caste conflicts were there during the First and Second Republics. It is the absence of the ubiquitous social media then that kept the caste problems away from national attention.
Whereas “Ganbaanaxun Fedde” succeeds in winning global attention and public sympathy with images of their humiliated or battered victims of caste discrimination, the “horro” (nobles) of the above anti-Ganbaana entities have successfully divided the so-called slaves into “kommo dunghanto” (slaves who accept their slavery status) and “komo murutinto” (the revolting slaves). The latter is often used to ridicule the “Ganbaanaxun” militants. Last year, some of the “horro” (nobles) in Mali sponsored a huge gathering of willing slaves “komo dunghanto” who under the banner of “soxon kommo” (slaves who clap) openly demonstrated their willing to live and die as slaves of their noble masters. The event was presented to local Malian authorities as a “cultural festival” for it to get an official permit. It is important to note that due to their common history and the increasing new media connectivity, whatever happens in one Sarahulleh community abroad eventually has spill-over effects on the Sarahullehs in The Gambia.
Pioneering role of Gambian Sarahulleh Youths in eradicating caste discrimination
The fight against harmful and obsolete traditions has been preoccupying the current generations of young and older Sarahullehs over the past decades. In spite of resistance from reactionary quarters, they are making progress.
The Sarahulleh Youth Development Organizations (SYDO) and the Dynamic Sarahulleh Association for Change and Development (DSACD) are two progressive Gambian Sarahulleh groups engaged in productive activities that are gradually rendering the caste system irrelevant. They elect their executives based on merit and competence and not based on caste privilege. SYDO is promoting skills education while Dynamic SACD is advancing social cohesion through sports. In the Soninkara football tournaments that Dynamic SACD pioneered, all participating Sarahulleh teams respect the progressive rules of fairness and equality. No football player or official has so far insisted on being a captain, referee or match commissioner based on caste superiority or privilege. I am respectfully an Ambassador of both SYDO and Dynamic SACD: they seek my advice on matters of common interest when the need arises.
“Sumpu do Xaati”, the oldest Sarahulleh group in the Greater Banjul Area (GBA) founded in the First Republic has over the past 20 plus years focused on promoting mainly Islamic education. In the process of transforming itself into a kind of supreme Islamic body for the Sarahullehs, “Sumpu do Xaati” missed the opportunity of developing a sustainable conflict resolution mechanism and school of thought that could help free the Sarahullehs from the trappings of obsolete practice and violence. The phenomenal success of the “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement in breaking the circle of fear and voicelessness is a reflection of the failure of successive Sarahulleh elites in being proactive and preventive in handling of taboos and the retrogressive topics in their communities.
As at now, I am not aware of any coordinated nationwide initiative of the Sarahullehs to address the caste conflicts head on. The problems are left to the villages and the state police face. Notwithstanding, the sensitization efforts by young Sarahullehs are ongoing. Recently, a group of Gambian Sarahulleh artistes composed and released songs against cast discrimination. On the 8th June 2019 young Sarahulleh musicians in Mauritania under the initiative of the “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement launched another compilation of anti-slavery songs. I do not see anyone who can stop the Mauritanian anti-slavery music from reaching Gambian Sarahullehs through mobile phones and the social media. Mauritania officially banned caste based slavery in 2015 but the practice is still alive hence the anti-slavery activists are not relenting in their struggle to change the mind-sets.
As some older Sarahulleh elites shy away from the caste problem, the younger generations are increasingly using the creative arts tools of music, film, graphic design of T-Shirts and caps and social media to speak out.
My defence of the Barrow Administration
I listened to some WhatsApp audios of people accusing President Adama Barrow of being “bias in the ongoing caste conflict, in that he (Barrow) is surrounded by Sarahullehs from the “horro” noble caste who would put their personal interests and those of their biological clans (kabilo) first when advising Barrow”. This they claim “explains the apparent silence of The Gambia Government to the caste conflicts…”
In my defence of the President Barrow administration in this regard, I would like to set the records straight with two facts. First of all, none of the Sarahullehs in the top positions of the Barrow Government has the final say and absolute authority on Sarahulleh community affairs. They can have influence in their clubs, families, clans (kabilo) and villages but that does not mean that all the Sarahullehs from Kartong to Koina and by extension, the diaspora, would listen to them. The Sarahulleh community is not a homogenous property of one large clan (kabilo). The community is like a loose coalition of independent-minded clans and castes. Consensus-building process is complex and sensitive. There are many layers of influences and competences within the community. A decision taken by one clan, no matter how rich or big, does not necessary make it binding to all other Sarahulleh clans. Even among their religious denominations there is no monopoly within the Sarahulleh society as their Tijanniya, Qadiriya, Wahhabi and other sects are engaged in daily competitions for influence and relevance.
Secondly, the presence of only Sarahulleh “horro” caste within President Barrow’s cabinet, core State House staff, donors and others is a matter of pure coincidence and not a deliberate attempt or policy of Barrow to side-line Sarahullehs from other castes. Those Sarahullehs were just lucky to be at the right place and at the right time to be appointed and I believe they know that their public positions are temporal.
President Barrow is the President of all Gambians regardless to ethnicity, religion, creed, family or economic status. I hinted on “Cham” being a “numo” smith in both Mandinka and Sarahulleh. With this assumption, I made reference to Lamin Cham, Personal Assistant to President Adama Barrow, as a proof that the President don’t see caste as barrier to public office.
The slush funds of the belligerents
The caste conflicts between the Sarahullehs are far from over. As I hinted before, caste divisions exist in Mandinka, Fula and Wollof communities. Over the past two (2) years however, it is the Sarahullehs who are openly beating each other, killing each other, destroying each other’s properties, ridiculing each other and dragging each other to the police over the caste conflict before the whole Gambia. Claiming that Mandinkas, Fulas and Wollofs have caste systems and conflicts is not an excuse for justifying bad behaviour and human rights abuse in our Sarahulleh communities.
There are about fifty four (54) Sarahulleh settlements in The Gambia located mainly in the Upper and Central River Regions (URR, CRR). Violent caste conflicts have so far been recorded in four (4) namely, Diabugu, Garawol, Baja Kunda and Koina. The other fifty (50) Sarahulleh communities are NOT immune to the conflicts. The “Ganbaana” anti-slavery movement has chapters in all the settlements: some are active while others are passive. There is a Sarahulleh settlement in The Gambia (name withheld) where so-called slaves were banned from playing football in the village field for being part of the “Ganbaana” abolitionist group. This ban did not make it to nationwide news as it was not followed by violence at the time.
The Gambia Government should be on the alert. I repeat: there are Western and Islamic-educated Sarahullehs who still believe in the caste system both within The Gambia and their diaspora communities in Spain, USA, France, etc. The educated believers in caste system and the old beneficiaries of segregation would fight to maintain it at all costs or deny it when confronted in the court of public opinion. We can recall the post-election violence after the 2017 parliamentary vote when some people violently protested the democratic election of a “Nyamala/Karanke” caste into our Gambian National Assembly. There are still people, at home and abroad, who believe that they have exclusive birth right to Gambian public office forgetting that The Gambia is multi-ethnic republic and not a singular family fiefdom.
The traditional conflict resolution mechanism in our Sarahulleh communities is compromised due to the ingrained mutual distrust between belligerents. Though all groups agree that slavery as described in Islam does not exist within the Sarahulleh communities, the barriers to reconciliation are high.
What we have are the side effects of discrimination and stigmatisation by caste, the slave trade and hereditary slavery. The trenches are deep and the conflict parties have reportedly set up solidarity slush funds for various purposes including publicity, paying legal fees of members who run into trouble with the law, bribing law enforcement officers and policymakers to decide in their favours. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any slush fund set up to promote reconciliation and traditional conflict resolution among the warring Sarahullehs. So far funds raised are being used for fighting and disgracing each other. More worring is the fact that some folks are using the caste conflicts as money-making venture. They would be boosting the egos of the “nobles” opposing “Ganbaana” to access free money and would go to “Ganbaana” to feign solidarity with the hope of getting some funds into their personal pockets. They are like arm dealers selling weapons to warring factions in a battle.
Sarahullehs fear and respect assertive governments and authorities
The Gambia Government should also realise that the strategy of leaving things to the compromised traditional leaders would not solve the caste conflicts in the Sarahulleh communities. In the course of my research, distraught community members call for the final intervention of “Fanka” which in Sarahulleh means the highest authority of the land. They want the laws of the land to be applied without fear or favour. Proactive and preventive diplomacy are needed as well.
Sarahullehs don’t respect a government that is no consequential in applying law and order. They would perceive it as a weak government without “barako” (blessings). Barely some five years ago there were Sarahullehs in the diaspora insisting on practising Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on their daughters abroad. However, the uncompromising stance of the respective authorities in Germany, France, Spain and the UK in prosecuting and jailing guilty parents made others to change and start respecting the law. No Sarahulleh will openly call an African-American on the streets of New York a “Nigger” or “slave” as he or she knows that the New York authorities will make sure the law he or she violates takes its full course.
The “Wahhabism” conflict within the Sarahulleh communities in the 1990s should serve as a lesson. I am fortunate to be a living witness of the fighting between various Islamic religious sects in the Sarahulleh villages that led to killings, destruction of property, insults and other forms of naked violence. The Sarahulleh associations and community leaders at the time including Sarahullehs occupying key positions in both the Jawara and Jammeh governments could not stop the religious fight. The Gambia Government’s rigorous prosecution of law breakers and its emphasis on The Gambia as a secular state with freedom of worship eventually diffused the tensions. Today, we have countless Wahhabi mosques in various Sarahulleh communities that initially fought the sect in the 1990s.
In addition to applying the law without fear or favour, sustained sensitization, mediation and education are needed to modify the attitudes of the people towards the erosion of the caste conflict in the deeply-divided Sarahulleh communities. One cannot deny the fact that people have right to their cultures and traditions. Culture is however dynamic and subject to constant change according the needs of the day. Any violent and dehumanizing tradition, culture, law or mentality that is inconsistent with our republican constitution is null and void. The younger generations of Sarahullehs should be encouraged to keep on using the tools of creative arts to promote sensitization on the toxic nature of the caste discrimination and its cascading layers of derogatory vocabulary.
Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu, holds among other qualifications, a Master’s Degree in the Arts and Humanities from the University of Stirling in Scotland, UK. He is applicant for PhD research in Contemporary History and Politics at the Bath Spa University in the UK. His doctoral research focuses on the abolition of descent based slavery within the Soninkes (Sarahullehs) of West Africa. Sankanu is Prince of the Sankanu Kaggoro clan of Sotuma Sere in Jimara, URR, The Gambia with ancestral roots in Barago, one of the autonomous states of the ancient Ghana Empire.
Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu is an influential young man in the Sarahulleh community and serves as Ambassador for two of the most progressive Gambian Sarahulleh groups – the Dynamic Sarahulleh Association for Change and Development (DSACD) and Sarahulleh Youth Development Organization (SYDO). He also serves as adviser to the customary court of his native Sotuma Sere community. Sankanu is currently in Germany can be reached on Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel/ WhatsApp: +4915219470378
Date: 10 June 2019