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times to persist on ‘casting out’ men and women for being cobblers, blacksmiths, griouts, laowbbes, etc is not only outdated but unacceptable and therefore needs to be challenged.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