Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Kombo Is Innocent: Cast System In The Gambia

By Suntou Touray
The essence of this piece is to both alert and warn about the impending dangers of persisting, promoting and upholding social stigmas detrimental to intellectual and societal growth. There are many aspects worth highlighting but the objective here is to create awareness and thus enlighten younger members of our communities to see the fluke in categorizing people into casts.The limited time at my disposal will affect both the detail and the extent which the subject deserves, however, I labour to focus and to be brief but precise. Therefore to speak of Gambia, a specific area familiar to me would limit the exposition of cultural ontology and would do the issue good.
In London and other events elsewhere in Europe where men from the freeborn cast gang up against so call members of the low casts for daring to want to marry within the freeborn. These demented men still think it is right to ridicule a man who loves a woman genuinely because of his so call cast. The categorization of people within a community into casts has existed for generations. The validity for communities in modern times to persist on ‘casting out’ men and women for being cobblers, blacksmiths, griouts, laowbbes, etc is not only outdated but unacceptable and therefore needs to be challenged.
If the older generation cannot let go, we the younger generation should seriously consider our position on this divisive phenomenon. Some of the dangers in upholding and practicing this cast systems are:Unnecessary animosity in the communities, hence innocent men and women are associated with the social stigma. The emotional trauma associated with the restriction of marital choices due to unnecessary artificial barriers. Progressive members of the casts refusing subordination stare up social unrests. Another negative effect is the hampering of the progress and social advancement of many children who cannot attend school. Lastly the migration from rural to urban areas hence people wish to live in areas where no one cares about their cast.
Human society according to contemporary commentators goes through various stages of evolution. The sense of dress, food, appearance, taste of music, art, socialization and many vital aspects of human activities is dynamic and changes with time. One thing that refuses to die and past through the stages of evolution is the cast system in the rural regional divisions of Gambia.
This subject has been tormenting me for ages, for that matter, a sincere and painstaking investigation was carried out to ascertain the cultural practice of the Kombonka in relation to the notion of “cast system”. The kombonka communities barely engage in differentiating their community members into casts namely, foro (free men), jongo (slaves), karanke (cobblers), numo (blacksmith/goldsmith) and jalo (griouts) as prevalent in the (rural regions) provinces. The categorization is hierarchical with foro on top; it is unclear which one comes after foro on the hierarchy. The Kombokas have no social demarcation categorising people, the foro ranks equal with the blacksmith, cobbler and the griout.
These artisans are considered skilled hardworking members of the community and their respective professional characteristic is no reason for exclusion or marginalisation in any way or form. The same cannot be said about the rural communities in the provinces where a foro is not considered an equal to the blacksmith. Where this inherent custom is so deeply rooted that social status need not be expressed explicitly hence everybody is aware of his/her position in the social hierarchy.
The consequences of this outdated practice are not only a traumatic code of marriage dictating who should be marriage to whom but also limits the free flow of social interaction. A freeborn, foro cannot marry a descendant of slaves; neither can a griout marry a freeborn or a cobbler and the other way round rather each category marries within itself except the freeborn. There are rare occasions where freeborn marries slave women but that is because slaves are said to be captives of war or enslaved not because of cast but by virtue of hunger, need and poverty. That is, for example if a family head is not able to provide food for the family he voluntarily takes work with an affluent member of the society in exchange for feeding the family. The term slave may not be appropriate here hence there is no force involve. However even whereas one is able to provide for the family in due course without working for a master the stigma remains and inherited by the progenies in generations to come. This is mostly how the slave and master relationship commences and how certain families are said to be descendants of slaves.
The griouts, blacksmiths and cobblers find themselves as practitioners of their trades through inheritance. Having achieved education and attained a high level of financial success or increased level of social interaction does not change the social stigma. They cannot climb up from their position on the hierarchical ladder nor attain a higher social status. They are confined to marrying within their cast, hence an attempt to marry outside results in unhealthy relationships and other maltreatments from the community. It is like an open prison; one is free and yet marginalised by artificial social boundaries that dictate love only within a given cast. The only way to get rid off or overcome the stigma is to move from the community of birth to other communities where the social stigma of cast is not renounced or practiced.
“Kombo is innocent” because, many people from the rural areas, provinces, marry without reference to their cast. And also, the communities are not divided into hierarchies where each faction upholds its position unflinchingly unlike the provinces. Some may argue that, the piece is bias for not taking the historical social context into account and the reasons behind the system. But the facts observed indicate that the system has no tangible social significance today. It may be worthwhile centuries ago, but not anymore, people should interact without cast or any barriers of the sort.
For all those who consider themselves freeborn, this is not a talk of a victim in the sense that, I resent the cast system on grounds of being from a lower cast. Rather I belong to the so-called freeborn. No single person can claim to be free from the artificial restrictions placed on all members of the different cast. Since even freeborn’s are not allowed to marry a lady of their choice among the lower cast, however much one may love that lady.
For those who care about religion as guiding principles, Islam on its part condemned discriminations and exclusion. I urge younger people from the provinces to discard this custom. Finally, I will unequivocally declare that, all the major tribes in the provinces are guilty of this practice; my reference to Mandingo words is only to cement a point. I hope we find it within ourselves to let go.
May God guide our actions. Amen
Suntou Bolonba


fran12 said...

Thank you so much Mr. Touray. This piece sucks me up when I learn that your surname is Touray. It is very hard to fine out from any one who considered him self to be so called free born to go against this practice. You can normally heard people talking abut it but not those it favors. I could remeber a Man ones telling me any one who againts this practice is normally from one of those low cast. This funny guy considered him self to be the most brave guy. He bit his chest and said you don´t know am SANUWO and I told him and so and he reply we are marabous.


Thanks Fran12. You are right,some of the socall Marabouts promote this idea. Many of them don't understand the pain in being call someone's servants.
People in the Gambian community need to move on and accept progress and change. They the free borns like to make others know their fluke status. no one is better than the other base on birth rights. Thanks for your opinion again. I know some of the Sanuwo family in Wulli and Senegal near Kaolack. They are my distant relatives. But it doesn't make any difference that one is born from a certain family and try to put others down on that silly basis.

fran12 said...

Hey Suntou, I am just Reading your article on cast system again . You sounds great but why not send this article to all online news papers in The Gambia especially Daily Observer, Foroyaa, thepoint, allgambian, freedom etc.

It will be more viewed and people can debate about it more. I love your other article on Gambian womens in U.K and the counter attack that you receive from some folks but at the end truth was known.


Thanks for the suggestion Brother Fran12. The problem is, the Gambian news papers tend to have their chosen writers and it is difficult to get an article publish with them. The online ones are more politically driven, so social commentaries get lost along the way. And also, if one paper publish an article the others tend to prefer leaving it at that. i will try sending it to observer and the point. i have send the poing an article on banking but it was not publish neither wrote to acknowledge receipt. Thanks again. As for the gambians in U.k issue, i refuse to be drawn in unncessary exchange. i got the story from someone close to the man's wife. so i know, the respondent was just defending the indefensible. But that is life anyway. great to hear from again.

Anonymous said...

Hi Suntou!
Your above is a very good piece, but I think you left out the most important part in your anlysis of the evidence. This is the fact that the "kombos" is full of people like you and me originally from the rural areas of the Gambia. You fall back on the categorizing you yourself is advicing people not do.
We are all different but human beings. This by no means propose that we should hate each other. One mistake most Gambians make is to claim that all havoc and illnesses comes from the rural areas. It's very disheartening when all these people are born and brought up in these places they hate. I've met people who say "am from Brikama" even though they have all relatives up country.
Finally, if you say they lack western knowledge you may be right, but the whole of Gambia is equally backwards no matter where you are from. Lets try to help enligtening the unfortunate ones rather than categorizing them as backward people, for they are not.


A very good point. I am not saying the people from up country are backward. i mean the practice of descriminating is backward. you are right that some folks from upcountry try to disassociate themselves from their people, i feel that is sad.
I am very proud of the up country, will not have it any other way. My up bringing and rural life was so rich, i thank God for it. We have so many good and valuable customs, but i feel, caste system is out dated. i acknowledge that it use to serve a purpose. one lecturer in Sweden narrated to me that, the people from the artisan caste benefit a lot from their trade and that, they like having those trade. he is right. the jalis wouldn't want non-jalis to start singing their traditional songs, thus denying them vital funds. in weddings and naming ceremonies for example.
but when it comes to other avenues, the practice may not useful.
Thanks for the opinion. I remain a Bolonba guy. laugh.