Friday, February 11, 2011

Roots and Culture

As a counterpart to the batch of photos and videos that I just uploaded to facebook, I am going to share a few stories I read while recopying Gambian histories and genealogies into the National Center for Arts and Culture computer database. I finished typing a history of Kombo Brikama and the surrounding area yesterday. This music, history, and culture is what the Gambian Music Preservation Project is all about. Unfortunately, we are still coming up short on funds, and my time frame for finishing the project is getting shorter and shorter. Donations of any size are much appreciated, and the donation process is quite easy. The link can be found on the left hand side of my blog in a box titled "important links."

As I said, I have been doing some typing for the National Center for Arts and Culture while I am waiting for the funds for the project to accrue. In the past, NCAC researchers frequently trekked into the field to record history and music straight from its keepers- the elders and traditional historians of each region and village. In recent years, because of lack of funding and experience, this work has rarely happened. This project is an attempt to revive the documentation of important cultural heritage in The Gambia. Here are a few stories that I read and re translated this week. I have paraphrased them from the original Mandinka testimonies given by Brikama village elders more than twenty years ago.

Brikama is the oldest seat of government in the Kombo districts of Western Gambia. It was one of the largest cities in the Gambia before the British set up their colonial government in Bathurst (now Banjul). The traditional rulership of Brikama and it's surrounding area, which once stretched all the way to the coastal areas of Banjul and Sifoo, has always been passed down between members of the Bojang family, who have three compounds in Brikama - Summa Kunda, Mansaring Kunda, and Hawla Kunda. Some of these rulers were queens, which hearkens back to a time before Islam was such a dominant cultural force and women were allowed more privileges in Gambian society. As Brikama grew in the pre-colonial days, however, groups from within Brikama began to break off and go in search of their own lands, as overpopulation made finding food and resources more difficult. Here are two stories of the manner in which nearby settlements were founded and named.

The village of Kitii was founded by a prince of Brikama. Having come from the Bojang lineage, he had expected to become the king after his father. He was unaware that his step father, also a Bojang, was to be crowned instead. The very day that the rival was to be crowned, the prince went to the bush to tap palm trees for their wine. While he was working, his younger sister came to the tree and called out to him.

"Brother, why are you in this tree?"She asked. "Do you not hear the djundjun drums?"
He said, "No, I had not heard. What do they signify?"
"Your step father is being crowned right now, as we speak." She yelled to him.

Upon hearing this, he cried out in anger and lost his concentration. Wobbling at the top of a high palm tree, he lost his footing and fell to the ground, going into a coma. And that is the meaning of the word, "Kitii." In Mandinka, it means to fall unconscious, or to go into a coma. It is unclear whether the residents who settled there were lead by the prince once he recovered, or by someone else. Regardless, they saw fit to name their village after this incident.

The village of Sifoo also takes its name from the exploits of a prince of Brikama. This prince, who was not in line for the kingship, requested from the village elders that he be given land in the territory of Brikama to settle. They told him that it would be granted, and he would know where his settlement would be soon. Time passed, and he did not receive land. More time passed. Finally, in frustration, he chose a spot that appealed to him and told the elders he would build a compound there in which to stay while he waited for their decision. That temporary waiting spot came to be his permanent settlement. Thus the name, "Sifoo," which means in Mandinka, "Wait until..."

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