Postscript to Portrait of a Chief between Past and Present: Memory at Work in Colonial and Postcolonial Gambia
Bi namunang folo, kunung na folota (I si mira kunung na)
Before today happened, yesterday happened. (You should think of yesterday.)
—Mandinka proverb collected and translated by David Gamble (1977)
This age of economic, political and environmental crises has pushed the future on top of the anthropological agenda. It is the future of anthropology as a field of study that is a long-term and ever-present worry for anthropologists. The future also is emerging as an innovative research interest for those who seek to account for the ways people build up and share visions of the future in a given historical period, which can celebrate the immediate but often turns to the past either to feed nostalgia or to seek legitimation. After all, to obscure the critical lessons of history is a good strategy of conservation for global (and local) political and economic inequalities.
When I wrote this article in the early 2000s, I was intrigued by the historicity of societies and individual lives.
I looked at the interlacement between past, present and future: the present shaped the past, and the past opened up paths that people traversed either consciously or unconsciously. While conducting fieldwork, elderly men and women encouraged my passion with life-histories, long narratives, proverbs and anecdotes. The past provided sanctuary from the overall political situation.
Many elders disliked the course of events ushered by the 1994 military coup, which transformed democratic Gambia into an authoritarian regime. They felt humiliated by the young military officers and their followers, but dared not show their resentment overtly. Suddenly, one of my favorite research topics centered on politics was banned. Everything was considered politics in those days: relationships among families, land allocation, women’s groups, education and health. Some people had welcomed change after years of stagnation, as the changing regime was an opening for all the social categories and individuals that in thirty years of independent rule – Gambia achieved self-government in 1965 and became a Republic in 1970 – who had been left in the margins. Other people did not trust the military, and upcoming developments would prove them right. I had first-hand experience of reactions to the coup at the grassroots and of the political mobilization leading to the 1996 presidential elections, which marked the return to democracy and put Yaya Jammeh, the leader of the coup, to guide the nation. Yet, I could not openly write about these topics without disclosing the skepticism and dissatisfaction of many people. My prudence in doing so would later prove to be right as well. I learned about silences, censorship, and people’s frustration in keeping mouths shut even in the intimate environment of their homes.
Looking at historical figures like Cherno Kady Baldeh – head chief of the Gambian district of Fuladu West between 1924 and 1952 – was a sort of compromise. Elders liked to talk about their youth, and history looked enough of an antiquarian exercise to maintain all those who participated in the conversation safe from political scrutiny. Politics was discussed anyway, but only indirectly. Cherno’s trajectory evoked late 19th century ideas of rule, it kindled fresh memories of colonialism and decolonization, it facilitated the critical assessment of the political developments after independence.
For sure, the present I testified to was the byproduct of a global moment, which saw the collapse or restructuring of many of the political regimes that thrived during the Cold War. But it also spoke to internal historical dynamics. Even if performed anew, political leadership always takes stock of people’s expectations and fears. Cherno’s way of ruling betrayed his efforts to reconcile the traumatic experiences of the late 19th century. His father, Mussa Molo Baldeh, was a military leader who burnt villages to ashes, enslaved people and brutally killed his opponents. By contrast, Cherno sought the affection of his people: he knew neither his subjects nor the British would accept the slightest bit of his father’s legacy of violence and ruthlessness. Cherno’s son, Lamin Baldeh, took the chieftaincy of Fuladu West in 1964, thanks to a popular election. Demoted in 1997 by Jammeh’s government, as many other representatives of the local elite in power since independence, he died in 2006. Today, Lamin’s son rules Fuladu West. The district has been downsized, and being a traditional chief under Jammeh is far different from the days of Lamin and Cherno. Still, discontinuities go hand in hand with underground continuities: the sense of being a family generation after generation, which in one way or another performs a role in the political history of this part of the world, is there.
Long-term fieldwork in the same society has its burdens and privileges. Friends do age and die. Many stories end and new ones begin. At each turn of fieldwork, relations with people grew stronger, but the strength of human lives is precarious, always busy handling unreconciled pasts and projecting certainties into uncertain futures. \
While the epistemological anxieties that looked so relevant years ago are now like the breath of a gentle wind that shake the leaves but not the trees, ethnographic notes become a historical source to identify the beginning of major contemporary dynamics. The present I wrote about in the 1990s became the past. Of the many futures by then open, the one which has come true turned the small Republic of Gambia into a façade democracy that barely covers the crude reality of dictatorship. Since its beginning, Jammeh’s regime treated elders as corrupted fools to discipline, rather than the carriers of intergenerational wisdom. Firing the old elite allowed Jammeh to gain control; it also destroyed old allegiances and history and undermined social cohesion.
It is still early to evaluate how this local history refracts global trends. For sure, Gambians and many other people around the world share the same feeling of having lost control over their futures. One curiosity: the young generation is today unaware that the title of Ba-bili Mansa, which Jammeh advocates for himself, once belonged to Cherno Kady Baldeh. The elderly men and women who taught me this story did pass away, but one day or another the story will pop up. Things do change in unexpected ways. This is the critical lesson offered by history for our present of obscurantism and political disengagement.
Gamble, David P. 1977. “Mandinka Dilemma Stories, Puzzles, Riddles, and Proverbs” in Gambian Studies Series (No. 3): 16, accessed July 27, 2016.
Alice Bellagamba is a Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Milan-Bicocca and a specialist in African Studies who has conducted long-term fieldwork in Gambia and Senegal. She currently leads a comparative project, financed by the European Research Council, on post-slavery and contemporary human bondage in four areas of the world: West Africa, North Africa, Madagascar and Central Asia.