By Momodou Baldeh
It seems you’ve succeeded in igniting an interesting debate between Cherno Baba Jallow and me. I would like to respond to some of the questions and observations he raised in his last posting.
He is right that I’ve never come across a Samba Sowe throughout my research on the history of Basse, neither in the oral renditions of the Baldeh family and those of griots and nor in the written texts of colonialists and their agents. Could historians have possibly overlooked Samba Sowe, such an important figure as the co-founder of a major settlement like Basse? Whenever he finds the time to forward it here, I will be more than happy to consult the documentation that he said is available on Samba Sowe. It is interesting to note a rather curious detail in Cherno Baba’s genealogy. He says that his grandparents on both sides of his family emigrated from Guinea Conakry, yet he also claims that one of his great-grand fathers (maternal or paternal?) was a co-founder of Basse. I hope he provides us with the missing link for the sake of clarification.
Before proceeding, let us examine the etymological origin of the word Basse. We’ve already agreed that basal (mat) is the singular form of basse (mats). What we failed to specify was that this is not necessarily the exact term for a mat in all the Fulani dialects. For instance, a Guinean Fulani would refer to a mat as “gatal” and mats as “gatte”. If Samba Sowe were a Guinean (?), he would most likely have called his settlement gatte and not basse. Or did the word get lost in translation to “basse”?
We are both seeking the truth and I hope in doing so we will refuse to trivialize our oral history inasmuch as we would want to separate the wheat from the chaff. In his introduction to the Sundiata epic, Djibril Tamsir Niane expresses the following viewpoint about oral history as handed down to us by griots: “Unfortunately, the West has taught us to scorn oral sources in matter of history, all that is not written in black and white being considered without foundation. Thus, even among African intellectuals, there are those who are sufficiently narrow-minded to regard ‘speaking documents’, which the griots are, with disdain, and to believe that we know nothing of our past for want of written documents. These men simply prove that they do not know their country except through the eyes of Whites.” (Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali by D.T. Niane.)
In my original input, I quoted both oral and written sources with specific bibliographic references but Cherno Baba chose to ignore the latter. My intention here was to avoid relying entirely on the spoken word. I pointed out that Mansajang Kunda did not appear in early colonial maps, yet Gov. George Denton, the first governor to visit the protectorate, referred to Mansajang Baldeh as the “headman of Basse” (sic).
It is clear that the settlement of which Mansajang was the alkalo was known as Basse at the time and not Mansajang Kunda. To prove this point some of the land that the family reclaimed, including the rice fields around the river are all located in Basse and not in Manneh Kunda, Kabakama or any other village that Cherno Baba referred to as a satellite.
According to Cherno Baba’s most updated version, “Mansajang came later” to the current Basse location and he throws in a new angle to the debate by unnecessarily arguing that a founder and a discoverer of a settlement are different. Nowhere did I state that Mansajang discovered Basse; hence, the analogy with Columbus does not fit. This, I think, was a rather subtle attempt at discrediting the sources that I offered in my first posting. In the same vein, he dismissed our exchange as an example of similar debates surrounding the origin of villages and towns in The Gambia. He has failed to offer any shred of written evidence in favor of his ancestor. Most importantly, he is yet to identify for us who Sowe’s co-founders were.
Let’s say we accept Cherno Baba’s version and relegate Mansajang Baldeh as a late arrival in the socio-political scene. Is it plausible that at a time when villages were administered by their original founders, an outsider would come to a settlement and without firing a single shot or shooting an arrow become the ruler of those people? Why are written or other records then silent on any other headman in Basse prior to Mansajang?
We’ve seen in history books how centers of political power in pre-colonial Africa attracted new settlements and migrants. People who controlled power attracted traders, artisans of all sorts, educators and even magicians. Some would settle down and others would leave as soon as the balance of power shifts in someone else’s favor. This would explain why Basse or Brikama and not Mampatayel or Nafugan would attract ‘satellite’ villages.
Launching of the SOS Children's VIllage in Basse - 2008
As Basse grew with the arrival of more settlers such as the Jobe family (whom he mentioned in his last piece), the town’s cosmopolitan nature and immigrant population changed drastically. Soon the area to the West of the original settlement became known as Santo-Su. The more influential families among the migrants eventually stepped in to fill an otherwise power vacuum. In the absence of any serious contender, the Chams and not even the Jobes or the descendants of Samba Sowe filled this vacuum.
Contrary to Cherno Baba’s assertion, colonial sources on The Gambia are not “wafer-thin”. In the course of my work at the then Oral History and Antiquities Division, OHAD (now National Council for Arts and Culture) and later at The Gambia National Archives, and during research conducted at the National Archives of Senegal, I came across an enormous amount of written and oral documentation on the history of The Gambia, including that of Basse.
I was shocked to discover how little students were taught their own history in Gambian schools at the time. In high school, students were taught more about Napoleon and Menelik than Musa Molloh Baldeh or Foday Kabba Dumbuya. Our eminent historians Patience Godwin-Sonko and Florence Mahoney, among others, have tirelessly documented and disseminated the history of The Gambia as collected from oral and written sources.
Although I certainly do not have the date of Mansajang’s migration, I can guess the period based on Denton’s report of 1910. If according to Denton “Mansajang was old and ailing”, I would put his migration in the second quarter of the 19th century when he would have been young and able-bodied to withstand the grueling march with his cattle and family. According to the Baldeh family, this migratory trail had started all the way from Macina in Mali when his father had decided to save his cattle and Mansajang’s older siblings from the wars that were ravaging the area at the time.
The Gambia Colonial Reports state that Mansajang went blind in 1916 and upon his recommendation, a member of his Native Tribunal, Jewru Krubally, became acting chief of Fulladu East. When Mansajang passed away in 1923, the colonial government issued an obituary in the official gazette and confirmed Jewru as the new chief.
This debate was kicked off by Cherno Baba’s account on the foundation of Basse. Naturally, since I had accessed a different version and in the interest of posterity, I have to engage him in an exercise of ‘comparing notes’, however futile some may deem it to be.
In our own small ways, we are all historians of the past, be it the immediate or distant. The accuracy of the history that we collect, analyze and transmit will to a certain extent be judged by posterity, whose responsibility it will be to separate fact from fiction, the wheat from the good grain.
About the Author: Momodou Baldeh is a native of Mansajang. He currently resides in New York City.