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Professor Saine Examines Gambian Society In New Book

Dr.Saine(Book Review) – Addressing  the South African Parliament, in the early days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, the late Tanzanian President, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, speaking on the numerous challenges facing Africa and Africans, humorously retells his frustration with European diplomats and leaders’ utter ignorance thus: “Whenever I go to Europe, I am asked, ‘So Mr. President, why is so-and-so happening in, say, the Congo, or Liberia, etc, etc?’ and I would say, ‘But, Sir, I’m not from any of those countries; I’m the President of Tanzania. I do not suppose you would expect (then-British Prime Minister) Tony Blair to explain the Bosnian conflict and all the other European problems.’” A ripple of fascinated laughter broke through the assembled parliamentarians; Mandela grinned toothlessly.

Subtly hinted in Nyerere’s arresting anecdote is the rich diversity of African life; it is very common in the West to delineate Africa (and Africans) as organically homogenous, in culture, customs, tongue, etc, etc: but, thanks to increasing scholarly pursuits appertaining to all strata of African life, the once hegemonic myths of inferior and homogenous African societies are being systematically demystified and destroyed. And we must therefore thank Professor Abdoulaye Saine, of Miami University, for his highly incisive study of Gambian society in the Culture and Customs series. Devoid of pomp, verbiage, and pretense, Culture and Customs of Gambia is written with the lucidity in which the nature of eloquence consists, and which chimes in with impressive scholarly writing.
Dr Abdoulaye Saine
Professor Saine provides, with enviable style, an insightful précis of The Gambia, her history, culture, mores, customs, government, ethnic and religious composition, economy, traditions, etc, etc, in the context of contemporary realities—all of which would prove heavily edifying to the lay reader familiar or unfamiliar with The Gambia and her long, tortuous history. The ethnic dynamism and variety of The Gambia has consequently resulted in infinite inter-ethnic identities, postulates Professor Saine; very clear similarities in religion (90 percent of Gambians, according to the author, are Muslims) and traditions, “have tended to make Senegambian society seamless, which in turn helps (to) assuage or dampen potential social tensions.”

This reality is clearest in urban areas where one finds a Fula who speaks Wolof, the predominant tongue, more fluently than his mother tongue. In sum, the continued social intercourse among the various ethnic groups of the Senegambia region fosters, and will continue to foster, this amusing social amalgam. The author’s treatment of language, the problems and boons it poses, is frankly persuasive and leaves the reader gasping for more. The reader is thus presented a quick glimpse of the dominant languages, English and Wolof, and the historic events from which they sprung. Each of the other ethnic groups is also discussed albeit, minimally; however, given the limited space that the series offers, it would be unfair criticism to belabor this argument.

Nonetheless, we are given a highly incisive autopsy, in the second chapter, of “Religion and Worldview” in The Gambia. Key to Gambia’s growth, says the author, in the previous centuries, was the concomitant rise and strife of Christianity and Islam, both foreign religions foisted upon a colonized people; specifically, the religious wars during the 19 century and  fin-de-siècle twentieth  century, commonly and collectively called the Soninke-Marabout Wars, during which era, radical jihadists, drunken with religious fervor and piffle, entirely alien to the common run of Senegambians, pillaged and plundered lands, forcing people to adhere to the canons of Islam, are largely to blame for rapid spread of Islam in the Senegambia region. Lest we forget, Christianity was also foisted upon Senegambia with the coming of Portuguese settlers, who unabashedly prostituted the rich mineral resources of the region to their insatiable lust, engaged in the grotesquely inhuman slave trade, and used the spoils of plunder to build ports, docks and castles in Europe as the late Trinidadian scholar, Eric Williams accurately and persuasively delineated in his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery. Echoes of these traumatic religious and/or colonial experiences/encounters occupy a central theme in Africa’s literary canon. The Ghanaian scholar, Kofi Awoonor, captures, graphically, this predicament in his celebrated poem, “The Cathedral” thus:

On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom

Evidently, the tree that once stood in Awoonor’s dirty patch has lasting symbolic significance as a great source of life, protection and shelter for the various tribes. It is like the Gambian Bantaba that Professor Saine highlights in his text, as a rendezvous point and other important social functions. With its felling by incautious invaders “A huge senseless cathedral of doom” was built that has no regard for the civilizations that have crisscrossed and cross-fertilized at this grand arena probably over centuries and generations of time. It is the African peoples’ general resilience in combating all these forces disguised in diverse masks and missions of modernity and civilization that really make them different. In like manner, it is quite amusing to observe that notwithstanding the infringement of these powerful and often militarily superior foreign religious adversaries, Gambians adapted to the inevitable influences posed by such imperialist forces whilst still maintaining some vital aspects of traditional African life. Hence, while Islam and Christianity left a lasting legacy on Gambian—and African societies—they could not completely obliterate our strong value systems nor entirely rend mores native to Africa. On the contrary, “African traditional belief systems absorbed and modified the new religions, engendering new practices and innovations,” posits Professor Saine. This is particularly evident in the witch-hunts of President Jammeh, two years ago, when alleged witches and wizards were forcibly given poisonous concoctions believed to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused as appertains witchery. Jammeh, consistent with his sophomoric allegations, irrational fears, pious boloney and boyish relish in subjecting the powerless to torture, sought to cleanse Gambia of witches and wizards that allegedly contributed to the death of his late aunt.

In “Literature and Media,” the third chapter, Professor Saine highlights the singular importance of griots, whom he aptly represents as “walking history books,” and their peculiar role as poets, storytellers, oral historians, etc; the voluminous literature in Arabic and Senegambian tongues, the great majority of which concentrates on religion; the rise of Gambian literature in English, radio and television, newspapers and magazines; and the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing Gambian artists. As scant, if any, written records of pre-historic Senegambia remain extant, griots have always largely filled the void: they are poets and historians, storytellers and singers, etc. They are, in fine, agents of oral literature: and as one birthed and partly raised in The Gambia must of necessity appreciate, griots can be seductive with their flattering paeans chronicling and depicting one’s familial lineage, past and present achievements, acts of kindness and valor, among other things; so that they, in the shoes of poets and historians, play significant roles in Gambian society and what makes theirs more compelling than complex compared to the trained literary scholar, is the always melodious tunes that punctuate their emotional orature.

Unlike the Occident and the Orient, where traditions of written literature have existed since antiquity, The Gambia, in particular, and Africa, in general, values the tongue and memory of the griot more highly than the written word, though she also did engage in written literature, as evidenced in the mummified remains of Ancient Egypt’s written poetry, stories, myths, songs, laws, ditties, inter alia.  Not only Egypt, we see very polished and sophisticated philosophic works at the University of Timbuktu in Mali, the first university to be established in the world and now a subject of great international attention thanks to fanatical Islamic militants out to destroy this ancient heritage of African antiquity. Additionally, with the advent of slavery came the rise of slave narratives, such as Olaudah Equiano’s slave memoirs, Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry, and Frederick Douglass’ orations and memoirs recounting his days as a slave in the American South. In Saine’s crisp synthesis of his native Gambia’s cultures and
customs, the reader is treated to a nuanced portrait of the slow rise of Gambian literature, and the major literary compositions therein, with Dr. Lenrie Peters (R.I.P) as its paterfamilias, not to forget the important contributions of Messrs. William Conton, Gabriel J. Roberts (Saine’s Armitage High School Literature teacher) Nana Grey-Johnson, Samsudeen Sarr, Ebou Dibba (R.I.P) and Tijan Sallah. He also identifies new and rising literary figures, male and female, and paints a promising outlook for Gambia’s otherwise dull literary milieu. It is instructive to note however, that over the past years, Saine has mentored a number of aspiring Gambian students and young scholars and thus the inclusion of some lesser quantities as representative of Gambian literature could not have been accidental. That said, if Gambians want to take literature and writing seriously, we as a people must endeavor to widen our reading habits, expand our curiosity and avoid the rush to publish, a Gambian phenomenon that Lenrie Peters had always lamented. The desire to be published at all costs has with it, a major drawback, diminishing into utter literary obscurity. Be that as it may, it is gratifying to note the evolving culture of Gambian writers; that our people are now taking writing seriously and hopefully, in the near future, our market will be saturated with great books written by Gambians.

Clarifying the history of Gambian literature, Saine reveals, the publication of Gambia’s first literary magazine, N’Dannan, in 1971, by a coterie of young Gambian writers. Now defunct, N’Dannan, according to Saine, “became the catalyst for the rise of the second-wave generation of Gambian writers.” It is a sad fact that since “flag Independence” in 1965, The Gambia’s literary output, compared to former sister colonies, remains abominably paltry: and of those whom we might ascribe the title of poet or novelist, most are woefully lacking in aesthetic qualities; a matter of great and raging debate among Africanist scholars. In actuality, only a few, have, seriously speaking, risen to the occasion.

And lest we forget, Saine reminds his readers, Augusta Mahoney Jawara, the wife of Gambia’s first president, “injected into this emerging national literature a womanist/feminist sensibility—a tradition that today is carried on by writers including Sally Singateh, Mariama Khan, and Amie Sillah, even though they may label themselves differently.” However, Gambian writers face many severe hurdles: the lack of a concerned and large reading audience and a dynamic publishing industry that focuses and helps rising Gambian writers to ventilate their creative ingenuity or articulate their artistic expressions. And it is quite noteworthy to observe that almost all Gambian writers choose to write in the colonial language, English; though such eminent literary figures like Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiongó have routinely rebuked African writers writing in colonialist languages, we must gravitate to the wise view of Achebe that English, for example, is a unifying and catholic language (universal) in the sense that it is more widely understood than any of Africa’s thousand languages. In other words, to reach a wider audience such as one would not have were one to write in, say, Wolof, a language native only to Senegambia, one must write in English, or French, or Spanish, languages almost universally studied and understood. That, however, is a contentious proposition beyond the scope of this review.

Lest we bore the reader with a discursive analysis of the last six chapters, we will now briefly—and, hopefully, pleasingly—précis the last six chapters, which are significantly slenderer vis-à-vis the first three.  The art, architecture, cuisine, dress, family and gender roles, music, dance, social customs, lifestyles and housing in The Gambia, dating back to the earliest known records, are all skillfully surveyed in the context of contemporary social verities. We are given a bird’s eye-view of Gambian dishes, and even recipes in the preparation of some of the most relished ones. We see gender roles as preeminently static, men mostly heading the household and women being mostly housewives. We see Gambia’s music depicted in all its rich color, gaiety and variety.

The author, in the concluding chapter, “Changing Landscape,” forewarns of the potential for ethnic strife should President Jammeh’s brazen policy of Jola dominance of every important power pocket in the government, the military especially, continue unabated, while the majority Mandinka, continues to suffer gross unemployment, even with a tolerable education. Indeed, the continued imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and Mr. Jammeh’s clownish profligacy combined with the steady and ferocious rise of poverty among citizens, win him more and more enemies daily; and should this persist, speculates Professor Saine, “bloody consequences within the army and within society at large” might ensue. In the main, Professor Saine maintains the book’s thesis that Gambian society is fluid, eclectic and highly tolerant of diverse ethnic and religious groups, and that the small West African nation of 1.7 million inhabitants has “both integrative and disintegrative tendencies and is full of possibilities for investment, growth, and development.”Impressed by the sheer cogency of the arguments, the depth and vigor of the author’s erudition, we recommend Professor Saine’s fine volume as a must reader for all those interested in The Gambia and Africa. And given Abdoulaye Saine’s commitment to scholarship and his penchant for balance while still pursuing the truth, we paraphrase Toni Morrison thus: readers accustomed to the precision and elegance of Abdoulaye Saine’s analytical prowess will not be disappointed by Culture and Customs of Gambia. Those discovering Saine for the first time will be profoundly impressed. Although specifically tailored for The Gambia, the book’s rich and very informative pages transcend Gambian culture and customs. High school and college students, teachers, diplomats, tourists, journalists and researchers will find in these 204 pages information about every facet of Senegambian society (Senegal and Gambia) as the two nations are inextricably interconnected through history and geography.

Notice: Professor Abdoulaye Saine will be in Atlanta, GA, this July 4th for a review and book signing ceremony as guest of honor of the Gambian community there.

Written by Boubacarr & Ebrima G. Sankareh, Raleigh. NC, USA

Editor’s Note: Boubacarr G.  Sankareh is Editor Sankareh’s son and a rising freshman at The University of North Carolina’s Bryant School of Business & Economics where he majors in Economics and Philosophy. Boubacarr, who graduated with High Honors from Raleigh’s J.O. Sanderson High, is the recipient of numerous awards, among them, The Sir Edmund Hillary Award for Excellence and the Homer Award for Best English Student.
Culled from


0 #2 2012-09-01 12:52
Gentle tradition...

Gentle and
sweet sensibility,
I call your
attraction to give
an appearance
to that delicate

Francesco Sinibaldi
+1 #1 2012-07-03 20:56
A very good review indeed.

Two points:

"... speculates Professor Saine, “bloody consequences within the army and within society at large” might ensue ..." I think as I may have pointed out to Prof Saine when he, I and my children met at the Notting Hill Bantaba, I think the "Gambian character" so well described will spare the country a "bloody" scenario ... the next dictator will be accepted and peace will prevail.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o made his point about writing in local languages while I was at school in Nairobi (I knew him and argued with him even then). His valid point is this: if Fanon can write in French and be translated into English, why can't Ngugi write in Kikuyu, and Cheikh Anta Diop write in Wollof, and be translated?

On a rather trite point, you say "Mandela grinned toothlessly" ... Did you mean to say "Toothy grin"? Maybe writing in Wollof might have helped here!!

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