Alagie Barrow

I came across this quote from a Facebook friend and while this is not the first time that I have seen this Samora Machel quote, something about the quote makes me uneasy because I think many people misconstrue the meaning of it.

I hold Samora in the highest of regards as I do anyone that takes up arms for their freedom and the freedom of their people.

Unfortunately, some seem to be taking this quote out of context as if tribes are the problem rather than the opportunistic politicians Africa is littered with. I want to examine this quote because in general, I think we have conditioned ourselves to be fearful and almost antagonistic towards anything “tribal”.

The word has been bastardized and made to sound and look primitive and backward. Some academics actually see the word “tribe” almost as an insult to Africans. To some extent, one can understand this given that we have been told of so many wars or conflicts that are based on “tribal” interstices and tribes are often associated with “primitive Africans”.

Associating oneself to a tribe raises eyebrows as if it is a crime to claim to belong to a group or tribe because conflict is somehow always about “tribes”. But a closer examination of most conflicts that are deemed “tribal” in nature, reveal underlying tensions that usually don’t have much, if anything, to do with tribe. These are resource wars trapped along tribal lines created by politicians and elites. The tribe must not die for the colonial spaces (states) to rise, the politicians that tribalize politics and politicize tribes must be the ones to die for the “states” to live.

Europe is mostly divided along tribal lines and they are not speaking of killing off the Scottish or Irish or Welsh for the UK to rise. Scandinavia is not talking about killing off Norwegians or Swedish tribes for Scandinavia to rise. It is mostly the African who thinks one identifying as Papel somehow takes away from identifying as Gambian as well.

To wit, there is nothing wrong with identifying oneself to be of a particular group so long as such a group is not out to destroy another based on autochthonous notions or other misplaced notions of superiority. Human beings, by nature, gravitate towards the familiar. At our core, we are tribal. That we tend to be visceral in times of crises is more to do with our unmet desires than the need to attach ourselves to our kind.

For me, our tribal nature became apparent decades ago when I was working as a quality control technician for HJ Heinz in a manufacturing plant in Nashville, Tennessee. I was the only Gambian working in the plant at the time. However, there were other Africans from Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and then there were African Americans and Whites and Hispanics.

During breaks, the break-room was segregated such that the Whites had their own table or two, Hispanics had theirs, Somalians and Ethiopians all had their own tables and mostly spoke in their native languages. Being the only Gambian and with no one to speak to, I chose to sit with the African Americans because at least I speak and understand some English.

My other choice was to sit with the Whites but I seldom ever did that. Though there were other Africans like me, I could not speak their language and even on the few times I sat with them, they spoke their language and I was left listening and smiling at something I had no clue about. So I chose to hang around African Americans and it was from there that my journey into the Black Panthers will begin. But I digress! My point is people gravitate towards the familiar. We seek comfort in our kind because we feel they can relate to us the most even if that’s not always the case.

When you are elsewhere and you see another Gambian, you connect because there is some familiarity even if some Gambians seldom ever help other Gambians. I met my big brother Alagie Njie in Nashville because I heard he was Gambian and I also met my Kotorkay Zoff (the only Farafenni guy I love) because he was out looking for other Gambians. I also reached out to Dr Baba Galleh Jallow when I heard he was in Nashville, TN especially since he was a giant in my eyes. That admiration stopped when I found out he is of the Badside! All three gentlemen have been life-long brothers to me. We all gravitated towards each other because of our so-called Gambianness!

If people can gravitate towards another because they see familiarity in one another, I see no issue with someone gravitating towards another because they share the same last name, origin or tribe. It doesn’t mean one should only gravitate towards the familiar.

It is easier for two people from the same area speaking the same language to relate to one another because of the shared commonalities. I call Hamad Omar Sallah Bandam (which means family or mbaading or domebai) because we both trace our roots to Futa Torroh. While we have never set eyes on each other, Hamad has been a big brother and mentor to me and is someone I can call on at anytime for anything.

We gravitated towards one another because of our shared heritage in Futa. I also have people that call me family simply because we share the Barrow last name or the Saidy part of it. When asked what tribe I belong to, I am quick to say I am ethnically Fula/Mandinka, and linguistically Mandinka and just as importantly, African. I am extremely proud of my Mandinka and Fula heritage and I will be damned if either of them need to be “killed” for some colonial space called Gambia to live.

My tribal identification must not be killed for your Gambia to survive. The tribes I identify with were here way before there was anything called Gambia that was created to control you. Before the colonialists rigidified us into solid tribes, the notion or concept of tribe was very fluid and hence the various surnames spread across various tribes.

It’s very important to recognize that as with any conflict, tribal conflict does not happen in a vacuum. There are always underlying socio-economic and political reasons that bubble right beneath the surface if one looks closer. Politicians or organizations tribalize politics for their own benefit.

The suffering of Gambians knows no tribe. Diseases know no tribe. The terrible conditions at EFSTH know no tribe but senior government officials dont have to deal with that terrible situation. They go to Dakar or India. The terrible NAWEC situation knows no tribe but Adama Barrow and those closest to him never lack for power. If not NAWEC, they have other options.

Your suffering in Gambia is not because you are dominated by some tribe, it is because you are controlled and dominated by a few people who call themselves a government serving you while they somehow live far better than you. There is a reason many of us angle for government jobs and those in government positions will do anything to continue being in government.

To gain support, it is your politicians that manipulate a section of the population into some siege mentality and tell them that “it is us against them” when it was never about the interest of the people. Jammeh artfully fed many of his minions with this nonsense and you can see his handiwork still at play. Cue the split within his evil APRC.

The opportunists went one way and the tribalists went another. So instead of focusing on tribalism as the problem and killing off our tribes, the focus should be on embracing our differences and promoting our oneness as a people trapped in a colonial space we call Gambia consisting of different tribes.

If you want to kill anything for your nation to rise, go and kill your politicians like Jammeh who pee on you while claiming that it’s raining and to be protected from others, you must align with a certain tribe. Only the mindless among us subscribe to such hubris. Don’t be one of them mein but if you decide to be, then Samafoo!