Language Enhances the Dynamic Spirit of Society

Gambia FlagBy Ebrima Kamara

In these times of transition, no stone should be left unturned if beneath it could lie the key to our salvation.

Language as an analytical perspective heightens the dynamic spirit of society while the notions of tribe and ethnicity reinforce division and construes society as static/primitive.

Therefore, the need to understand Gambian-ness from a language(group) point of view is more inclusive. For the sake of understanding ourselves better, it is time to initiate a debate about some of our taken for granted ideas like language, tribe and ethnicity.

Language opens doors

We come to this world with the ability to speak any language. It is the environment that dictates and limits the languages we speak. In Senegambia we are members of language groups, not tribes or ethnic groups because when a Mandinka settles in a Serrahullé community, s/he becomes serrahullénized in the same way a Pouloh settling in a Wolof community is wolofnized. Language opens doors – Ebrima is a Gambian by birth, a Belgian citizen, speaks Mandinka, Poularr, Wolof, Jola, Serrahullé, English, and French. Ebrima defines himself as a speaker of a language, not a member of a tribe or ethnic group. His ability to speak many languages gives him expansive access.

Language illustrates our relationship better

The many languages spoken in Kaabu fertilize each other spiritually, morally, economically, and politically. In that sense being a speaker of one language is situational, circumstantial, not inherent. So, the language we choose in a conversation is dictated by what needs to be communicated here and now. Put in another way the language we choose to speak in a specific context is negotiated. Senegambian people are genuinely interwoven. Hence, family names like, Touray, Kamara, Jammé, Njie, Saané, Baldé, Jallow are found in all language groups in the region. The Saanés, Maanés, Jaatas, Jaajus identified themselves with their Jola heritage in the effort of reshaping and tuning their identity to fit the Jammeh regime. While 50 years earlier they identified with Mandinka because it was good for business. We speak a specific language in a specific context to maximize communication. In Kabakama, for example, it is quite common to have a conversation in two different languages. Utilizing multiple languages in a conversation means switching to the language that effectively expresses a rationale better at a specific juncture in an ongoing conversation.

Tribe and or ethnicity is insignificant

The fact that a conversation can be held in two or more different languages suggests flexibility of identity. Secondly, the fluidity of family names observed in many occupations in Senegambia is a clear indication that family names are dynamic not static. For example, one and the same family name are found in the numóol (blacksmiths), karankéel (leatherworkers) and jalóol (bards). Lalo Kebba Draamé is one of the greatest Jali coraplayers in the region but Daraamé is also found in karankéel, numóol, mooróol (marabouts) and joulóol (merchants). This dynamic flow of family names is common in all works of life in Senegambia. This movement of family names between language groups and occupations debunk, therefore, the static concept of tribe/ethnicity which implies that family names determine tribe and occupation from birth to the grave. Clearly, language is a negotiable commodity that change with need, habitat, and time. This confirms the insignificance of the notion of tribe and ethnicity in Senegambian social living. Therefore, let us assume a linguistic and not a tribalistic nor an ethnocentric perspective in our quest for a true self-image.

This is where JALIYAA comes in handy as it explains the meaning and the relationship between family names, language, occupation, and virtue. JALI, in that sense possess a set of voices, the institutionalized instruments such as epics and music making used to shape who we are as individuals and as a society.

JALI – the master of words and preserver of history

When charity begins at home, what may seem difficult becomes easier because you are digging where you stand. It seems as if we unintentionally underrate the roll, talent, and skill of Jali. JALIYAA is a philosophy of mediation that unites people by keeping their history alive. It is a profound form of art therefore, understanding it makes the quest for self-restoration easier.

A cosmic reality

If Kaabu did not exist, Jali epics would create one. With Jali´s brilliance in both recording and narrating history, I argue that oral tradition is as authentic as written history. Jali is the conservator of our history and genealogy. Play an important role in king’s courts, in war, in the mongering of marriage, peace, and has many other functions in society. Jali epics about migration and conquest are deeply anchored in our consciousness. The well-known folklores in Senegambia are conceptualized and performed by Jali. Whose presentation of epics is an inherent skill passed on from parent to offspring for generations. Their birthright provides the opportunity for an excellent training beyond the mastery of Jaliyaa into a grander scale of mastery. Jali performs heroic epics with a big portion of nostalgia that activates sentimentality that influence our ability to see and shape our consciousness.

The performance

It is here that all knowledge, elements, and skills of Jaliyaa come together. To create a hypnotic chamber where the listener is taken through a suggestive journey and comes out on the other side changed. Like a ritual you are never the same after going through it. The epics of Kelefaa Saané, Jankey Wali, Sheriff Seedy, Masaane Ceesay are in the core of the traditional repertoire of Jali, accompanied by cora, baloo, female and male voices. The style of performance includes singing, and the act has a beginning and an end, intervals, and other ploys that have specific functions in different parts of the epic. Voices and instruments are sometimes loud, at times the melodic parts take the lead, the level of the narrator’s voice in different parts are all calculated and arranged to maximize impact. Recitations are explicitly filled with words of praises to elevate heroic accomplishments and genealogy. These are unique genre-specific elements of Jaliyaa.

Heroic virtues are bravery, wisdom, and love

Kelefaa Saane a popular legendary warrior is a hero of Kaabu. It is also the first song a young Jali learns at the beginning of his/her career. Kelefaa’s heroic virtues reflect what it means to be a Kaabunka. His proficiency and qualities derive from the political, social, moral, and spiritual institution of Kaabu. What Jali does in epics is pay tribute to heroism as a trait that anyone can embody regardless of language or origin.

The story of origin

Giving roles to language groups in the same epic is letting the people share the same story of origin. Originally these epics are composed for a patron; a King, a prince, a kandaa/nganaa (influential person). The constant elements of the song are the melody and arrangement, but the patron is replaceable. For example, the melody and arrangement of the song of the Kelefaa Saané epic composed to praise Kelefaa’s heroic deeds remain the same but Kelefaa; the original patron is replaced by Kairaba, Samba, Sulayman, Batch who inherit all the qualities of Kelefaa. Hence, according to Jali, human existence is beyond the reign of one king. Kings come and go but society remains infinitely. When time changes Jali changes with it, the pagan Kings, warriors, princes, and princesses have become clerics, laments Jali. What Jali is teaching us here is that everybody and anybody is a potential hero.

No victor or vanquished

Jali tells us the Pouloh Kaabunka war ended in a stalemate, there was no victor or vanquished. And that Jali and some prominent personalities were smuggled out of the besieged fortress of Kaabu. The reason being to guarantee the continuity of the linage of the kings of Kaabu
and secondly, for Jali to preserve Kaabu for the coming generations. According to

Jali, when the fortress was surrounded by the Fulbe the Kaabunkas opened the gates of the fortress. When the enemies marched in victoriously the young Kaabunka women started throwing themselves in wells, saying that they will never be slaves in Futa. When the fortress was full to the brink the Kaabunkas set the armory ablaze and everyone inside the fortress perished.

The genius of Jali is making the heroes of the epics replaceable to exhibit unanimity amongst the peoples and language groups of Senegambia. By allowing all language groups to be equally represented, share, and have pride in the same legendary epics, Jali forges us into Kaabunkas, not tribes and ethnic groups – one people.


Comments are closed.