Blog, Culture/Religion, The Gambia

Culture; Misunderstood or Misinformed


In West African culture, griots are common place in almost every ethnic group. These are the custodians of the oral history of the various people of West Africa. In the Manding tradition, probably the most prominent representation of this caste today, they are called the Jali/Djeli and the art known as Jaliya/Djeliya.

They say of themselves;

Jaliya teh mana mana kooti (the art of Jaliya is not a trivial matter)

Naa tinyaa ta, ah kana tinyaa Jalilu nyaala ( a true Jali will not stand by a misdeed)

In its traditional sense and context, Jaliya is so much more than praise singing and patronage.

Their role is very diverse, for those familiar with traditional Jalis especially in the realm of Kora players (featured image); they are trained in and familiar with scriptural text which they often quote during their renditions, most notably when addressing social or psychological issues.

Sadly, this noble caste is often the subject of attacks and vilification for being the cause of corruption in our society because of their praise singing of public officials. This claim of course made by none other than our self-professed ‘educated elites’ constantly preaching us on the need to abandon ‘backward traditions’ in favor of their Eurocentric progressive ideas. We really have to pity them.

Despite all their ‘education’; these Afropeans (Africans with minds enslaved to European and western ideals) cannot simply reflect on the realities of Africa; the beliefs, values and history that shaped certain traditions to translate their theoretical ‘knowledge’ into practical solutions for Africans to help advance our lot. No, their preferred methodology is to cast all blame on backward traditions and beliefs; blaming the common man and woman for holding onto their ideals and refusing to adopt alien values that the ‘elites’ term progressive and civilized. They really are a lost cause.

To redeem ourselves and take pride in who we are; the younger generation needs to take a different look at things and do what the ‘educated’ folks have hitherto not been able to do; put traditions and value systems in their proper context and understand them from that angle. Then and only then will we be able to see the reasoning and sensibilities behind some of those handed down traditions. When we understand the goal behind the institution of any tradition, we can come up with more modern ideas on how to achieve similar goals by adapting those traditions to modern realities. This is how nations developed, not by abandoning everything about who they are in shame, and emulating others who have nothing better to offer. If no culture is more superior to the other, then why must we abandon our ideals for others’ ideals?

Today we erroneously attack the griots for promoting sycophancy and hence corrupting public officials; a very typical ‘elite’ syndrome – misdiagnosis of our “problems”. So solution; do away with backward traditions. We blame caste systems, from whence the Jaliya tradition was shaped as well as the other caste groups. Here is the thing though; based on the above confession of the Jali themselves, what if such misrepresentation of what a Jali is truly meant to be came from diluting the pool of genuine, authentic griots with pretend griots who have no business being griots save to earn a living through flattery?

Enter the caste system. What if the reason inter-marriages between certain castes were forbidden as a means to prevent such dilution thereby corrupting the roles they render to society?

I am not saying it is a good or a bad thing; that is an individual choice to make. But what if, what really if the reason the caste system was so strict was to ensure the griots and their roles to society were never compromised? Think about it.

Believe it or not, we have a modern day caste system that most of these so called ‘educated’ Afropeans are full fledged members and defend it shamelessly. It is the elite club; where if you are educated you cannot, and are not expected to marry an “illiterate”. You know the million and one reasons they give as to why you need an ‘educated’ husband or wife by your side to enhance and complement your gains in life. Remember how some public official’s wife was being taunted because they say she was not “educated”? That it is an insult that the spouses of public representatives and role models cannot speak English which is our official language. Nothing of course wrong with learning and being able to speak other languages, this reference is to highlight a point not to say if it is right or wrong.

That is the modern day caste system they have fully subscribed to and they cannot, or will not see it as such. But without knowing the logic, reason, or goal behind our traditional set ups, they rain insults on them day in day out; shows how shallow some are really. “Any system that puts restrictions on which two people can marry based on such primitive ideals is backward and needs to be cast out.” So they say of our caste systems, again without understanding what purpose such restrictions serve.

Flip that and say to them that “the elite think they are too good to marry ‘illiterate’ wives or husbands” and watch them kick and scream that such is not the case. “It is just logical that you marry someone who can complement your status and help you grow as a person.” Disease number two infecting the mind of our ‘educated elite’; they are selfish and they never think of the society, just themselves and their two children. They will rationalize it in all aspects, but caste systems cannot qualify for such rationalizations because they are backward. No scratch that; because they are African! That is how inferior they feel about their heritage.

The key lies in understanding things in their proper context and then adjusting/modifying/adapting them to new and current realities. This transformation of learned theories is where most of our so called elite fail in delivering to our people. Maybe that is the idea; think for self and not the masses. Yet we keep getting bombarded about the need for having “educated people in office.”

Lumumba once said; “Africa will write its own history and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of glory and dignity.” The authors of that history will not be this generation, as Lumumba aptly puts it “They [the colonizers] have corrupted some of our countrymen; they have bought others…” The onus lies on you the younger ones, be inspired by the likes of Lumumba and rise up to the calling.

Again, this is not a call to maintain caste systems, it is a means to open up a conversation about what was and why it was so. With that understanding we can move forward, better prepared and armed with that knowledge of the past as a means of learning from past generations’ shortfalls.


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