Alhagie Abdou Kadiri Sankanu, the sitting Alkalo of Sotuma Sere and patriarch of the ‘Sankanu Kaggoro’ dynasty in the Jimara district of the Upper River Region (URR) of The Gambia said that the recent detention of six (6) young people from his community by the police from Basse was a result of youth exuberance and disregard for customary dispute resolution mechanism and not caste dispute.
The Alkalo who was speaking to both academic and popular audiences on Tuesday, 14th March 2022 said he was surprised that these days every small misunderstanding among Sarahulleh people is exaggerated across various spheres as caste dispute. “There are about 54 Sarahulleh settlements in The Gambia. Though they share a common language, they have various forms of social stratifications and customary administrations. It is therefore wrong to penalize all Sarahulleh communities as backward slavery-promoting settlements. We at Sotuma Sere Sankanu are enlightened people of the books and law and order. In regulating our affairs, we rely on the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia especially section 7(e) on customary law, decisions of the Traditional Council of Elders of our ‘House of Sankanura’, relevant aspects of the Islamic Sharia, the ‘Kurukan Fugan Mandeng Charter’ of 1235-36 which was inscribed in 2009 by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and, the progressive opinions of our wise sons and daughters.” Abdou Kadiri Sankanu explained.
Alkalo Sankanu appealed to people and institutions to try and understand the history, norms, traditions and worldviews of communities before blindly condemning them. “The person rushing to the police and shouting ‘castes dispute’ might not always be the innocent one as it is now fashionable to hide behind anti-slavery slogan to raise funds, seek asylum in the West or escape scrutiny.” He hinted.
Elaborating on the recent fight among youths in his community leading to a minor injury of one person, elder Sankanu said the natives of his community in the Diaspora sponsored a street light project and during the ceremonial installation exercise, a griot from another community came to entertain the people who were busy at work. Sankanu said this is customary in all their collective communal activities. He adds that “it is understandable that griots in our West African societies, like all other performance artistes, enjoy high level of freedom of expression both under Section 25 of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia and Articles 7 and 13 of the Mandeng Charter. The griot sang that he was ‘proud to be a slave and anyone who refuses to be called slave does not know his or her parent’s history’. He did not mention names and did not qualify it like ‘slave of Allah (Abdoullah)’ or ‘slave of someone.’ We in the ruling family are used to court jesters known as ‘worroso’ in Sarahulleh saying provocative things so we saw it at that moment as his artistic freedom of expression. However, some people at the solar light installation sites took the song personal. Those who felt offended by the song hurriedly took the law into their own hands by kidnapping the singer and taking him to the police without waiting for the Alkalo and his adjudicators to meet and decide over the matter.”
He asked “you took the law into your own hands by high-jacking the rights of another individual and you turn around to present yourself as victim of caste dispute. Is this right? You by-passed the authority of your Alkalo and rushed to the nearest police station when we have, as first instance, an established customary mechanism for conflict resolution in our village that is over 200 year old and still relevant. Is that right? If you are not a slave why should you be offended by the mere mention of the word which is available in all other languages – ‘Jongho’ in Mandinka, ‘Jam’ in Wolof, ‘Kommeh’ in Sarahulleh and ‘Machudo’ in Fula? Here in The Gambia, people name their male children ‘Abdou’ which means slave in Arabic.”
Interestingly, the Alkalo disclosed that the person who got injured during the confrontations among the youths and ran to the police travelled back to Europe leaving the others behind. “In our rural settings, people move around with cutlasses and other farming tools and it is obvious that whenever a fight breaks out unexpectedly someone would be found with a cutlass. If there was serious intention to harm anyone with a sharp object, the injured person would still be in intensive health care or dead by now and would not have lodged a complaint at the police or gone back to Europe.” The village head explains.
The Alkalo of Sotuma Sere advised young people of his community to desist from listening to people from outside who will incite them into breaking the law only to leave them with the consequences. He disclosed that some of the parties involved in the fight over the griot’s song have been spreading hateful WhatsApp audios inciting others to kill people and set houses in Sotuma Sere on fire. A complaint against the people behind the hateful audios has been lodged at the Bakadagi Police Station which covers the Jimara district.
Abdou Kadiri Sankanu thanked “the Basse Magistrates’ Court, the Police and State Intelligence Service (SIS) Officers at Bakadagi and Basse Police Stations for diligently investigating the matter and recognizing the role of our customary adjudication system in Sotuma Sere. Initially the fight was presented to the Police Prosecution Unit in Basse as a lethal confrontation between nobles and slaves but serious investigations showed that it was a common classless fight among young men over the interpretation of the song of a visiting griot.” The Sotuma Alkalo said “We don’t have slavery problem in Sotuma Sere Sankanu.”
He disclosed that “our Sotuma Sere community in The Gambia is over 200 years old and we have an established customary court system that adjudicates matters among our people and also those who voluntarily subject themselves to the customary rule of the ‘House of Sankanura.’ The famous Prince Bubacarr Aminata Sankanu is an adjudicator in our customary court of Sotuma Sere and Barago. We are grateful that Section 7 (e) of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia recognizes customary law as one of the sources of our Gambian law. We are equally thankful to District Chief of Jimara Alhagie Kanimang Sanneh, the Chief Hammeh Krubally of Basse Koba Kunda, the Basse Magistrates’ Court and by extension the Government of President Adama Barrow for giving our customary court system the chance to mediate on the matter before final ruling. Allow me to request The Gambia Government and concerned organizations to come up with projects of strengthening customary courts in our communities as they play key roles in promoting social cohesion and reducing the burden on both the police and the central Judicature of The Gambia. We appreciate Jali Mba Kanuteh, the traditional griot of our Sankanu clan for providing expert opinion on our ‘Sankanura’ customary laws and traditions to the Basse Magistrates’ Court.”
According to the Alkalo “the chattel slavery being presented to the public does not exist in our Sotuma Sere community. We cannot deny the African history on descent-based slavery and caste systems that are part of Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Sarahulleh and other people of the Mandeng Empire. In this 21st Century, we at Sotuma Sere have no one under servitude. I invite all reporters, human rights activists and all those whom it may concern, to visit Sotuma Sere and see if they will meet an individual who can say that he or she lives in discriminatory bondage or works full or part time for a master as unpaid servant.”
Historically, he admitted that “like all other aristocratic houses in West Africa and elsewhere, the ‘House of Sankanura’ did not escape the slavery discourse then. In those days slaves or captives were included in the collection of wedding gifts for the Sankanu princes and princesses. This was how we the Sankanus found ourselves in possession of slaves back then. The other way was that people came to our royal court for protection and voluntarily chose to identify themselves as ‘Jonkuru’ ceremonial slaves. Both categories were treated with all rights and privileges defined in Article 20 of the Mandeng Charter ‘do not ill-treat the slaves. We are the master of the slave but not the bag he carries.’ They guarded the throne when a ruler dies and ensured that the rightful heir takes over leadership of the Sankanu’s area of influence. It is now that the word ‘slave’ is given too much negative connotation as it is often discussed from the perspectives of the barbaric Trans-Saharan and Trans-Atlantic and Slave Trades and the repugnant modern-day human trafficking that dehumanized people.”
Still on the interesting history of slavery, Alkalo Abdou Kadiri revealed that “the last ruler of the Sankanus to end the practice of adding slaves to the wedding gifts of princes and princesses was Babakoli Sankanu. Babakoli gave land to those people to settle after liberating them as they lost connections to their various homes of origin. However, those freed families decided to follow the symbolic and traditional way of buying colanuts and paying about GMD sixty (60) Gambian Dalasi in today’s value for each person to their Sankanu masters to codify their liberty. Their descendants are living among us in dignity and for the last four (4) generations we have not had any issue of slavery or caste discrimination as we have more progressive things to engage on.”
Furthermore, the wise man from Sotuma Sere said the use of the words ‘slave-master’ should be understood in the context of our joking relationship known as ‘Kaal’ in Wolof, ‘Sanuwuya’ in Mandinka and ‘Kanlungoraxu’ in Sarahulleh according to Article 7 of the Mandeng Charter “The sanankunya (joking relationship) and the tanamannyonya (blood pact) have been established among the Mandinka. Consequently any contention that occurs among these groups should not degenerate the respect for one another being the rule. Between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, between grandparents and grandchildren, tolerance should be the principle.”
It is common to hear cousins jokingly calling each other ‘slaves-master’ in our local languages during weddings, naming ceremonies and other social events and no one takes offence or sees it as personally denigrating. “I cannot therefore understand how some people get offended anytime the word “slave” is mentioned when it is part of human linguistic dictionary. We are grateful that the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) recommended the revival of our joking relations as it is important in building peace and social cohesion. If we can adapt the foreign English traditions into the Common Law and Principles of Equity in settling disputes why shouldn’t we be proud of our useful traditions?” Sankanu argued.
For the sake of students of anthropology, sociology, culture, human security, human rights and African studies, Alkalo Abdou Kadiri Sankanu decides to explain the history and social stratification of his community. He said “Sotuma Sere is prominently a Sarahulleh community founded in the 1700s by Sare Sankanu, a religious scholar initially as a ‘soxodebbe’ seasonal farming settlement. Sere Sankanu was adviser to Mansa Musa Molloh Baldeh, King of Fulladu. The griots can better explain the importance of Sere Sankanu and Jaturu Fing in the close entourage of Musa Molloh.”
Sere Sankanu and his people hailed from the State of Barago which was part of the ancient of Ghana Empire. Migrating south-westerly, they settled in the Imamate of Bundu in present day Senegal, Linsan in Guinea Conakry, then towards river Gambia in Suduwol and Gambissara before establishing Sotuma Sere within modern-day Gambia. A royal charter from Mansa Musa Molloh formally codified the status of Sotuma Sere as a recognized human settlement and strategic war retreat.
On the social stratifications of Sotuma Sere, he said “the Sankanus as the first clan are the royal family of Sotuma. They serve as the Alkalolu from the blood lineage of Sere Sankanu on traditional line of inheritance. They are supported by the Tourays who are Sarahulleh like the Sankanus and serve as their Imams and religious advisers. Though a respectable religious scholar Sere Sankanu did not want to carry the double role of ruler and imam and thus asked Basiru Touray Manju who was resident in Boraba then and his descendants to take up the hereditary Imamship.”
After the Tourays there are “the Susso, Kanuteh and Jobarteh clans who are the ‘Jelis’ (griots) to the Sankanus of Sotuma Sere. They play an important social function as masters of ceremonies, genealogists, mediators, entertainers and advisers to the Sankanus. Notable griots from Sotuma are Mba Kanuteh resident in Bundung, Alhagie Tamba Susso in Dippa Kunda and Papa Bunka Susso resident in USA and Jeshwang. In Sotuma Sere, we also have the ‘Karanke/Garankata’ like Yaffa, Tunkara and the Sumbundu who assist the Sankanus. The latter like the Mandinka-speaking ‘Jelis’ are Sarahulleh griots are known as ‘Tagadinma’ genealogists and fashion advisers to the Sankanus. We also have the ‘Sakke’ woodworkers. Aside the ‘Tagadou’ (smithery), ‘Jalolu/Jaaru’ (griots), ‘Garankata’ (leatherworkers and fashonistas) and ‘Sakko (wood specialists) for the Sankanus in Sotuma Sare, we have the ‘Jonkuru.’ These are people who voluntarily choose to play the roles of servants during social functions for entrainment and social commentary.” Alkalo Abdou Kadiri narrates.
In his revealing historical tour-de-force, Alkalo of Sotuma explains that “in rejection of aristocratic allures, Sere Sankanu decided to make Sotuma Sere a centre for learning and traditional crafts like smithery, pottery, leatherwork, tie-dye, weaving, farming and trade. If you come to Sotuma, you cannot tell the different between a member of the ruling family and a commoner as the value chain of the traditional skills made people humble and interdependent. Sere Sankanu encouraged his descendants to follow the examples of King David (Dawud) who was a prophet and a blacksmith at the same time and Sumanguru Kanteh a warrior-king and blacksmith by producing things with both their brains and hand. This why the griots call the Sankanu as ‘Taggo’ and ‘Camara-Kaggoro’ sometimes. We made Sotuma a “Nyamakalo” community for people with useful skills in line with Articles 2 and 13 of the Mandeng Charter. Therefore, long before the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia banned slavery and other forms of negative caste discrimination, we the ‘House of Sankanura’ abolished them at least four generations ago.”
In conclusion, he said “it might interest you to know that that annual rates for all compounds in Sotuma Sere are paid to the Basse Area Council by the ruling ‘House of Sankanura.’ All other residents of Sotuma are free from the compound rate burden. Though predominantly Sarahulleh, there are Mandinkas and Fulas living harmoniously in Sotuma Sere which is the host village to at least nine (9) surrounding settlements that from the ‘Sotuma Sere Catchment Area (SSCA)’ in Jimara district.”
The Alkalos of Sotuma Sere to date include: 1) Sere Sankanu (founder, served for 45 years according to oral traditions) and was assisted in later years by his son 2) Fodien Sankanu (Sankana); 3) Jaturu Sankanu; 4) Bakary Sankanu; 5) Ba Bakoli Sankanu; 6) Sidiki Sankanu; 7) Bully Sankanu; 8) Alhagie Amballi Sankanu; 9) Alhagie Sambaessa Sankanu (Deppo); 10) Bangally Ganyi Sankanu (Bakore); 11) Ba Maxansireh Sankanu; 12) Alhagie Muhammed Ali Sankano; and 13) Abdou Kadiri Sankanu (current).