Basse: A History Buried in Syllables

10/11/2009 13:49

 By Ebrima Kamara 

"Deficiency in our languages has effects beyond not being able to speak them; it affects our sense of history, our sense of reality and our worldview in general." - Ebrima Kamara

Please allow me to say a word concerning the depiction of the history of Basse, which has been anongoing discussion on Gainako. I am not comfortable with the notion of living posterity to my children and grandchildren to sort out.  Rather, I prefer to deal with my past here and now, not to strain coming generation(s) concerning unsolved mysteries of my legacy.

I remember the rivalry between football teams in Basse particularly between Manju de Mansajang and Real de Basse. All matches where played at the Mansajang football field. Regardless of the fights, quarrels and qualms after football matches, we would all be back and ready to start all over again the next week. It was business as usual. 

According to oral tradition, Kabu was founded by Tira Makang, a general of Sundiata Keita. He moved West after Sundiata's victory over Sumanguru Kanteh in the 13th century. Kabu was a confederation stretching from River Gambia to Rio Corubal in Guinea Bissau. It was under its last king Janke Waali based in Kansala that the rebellion led by Molo Egge supported by the Almamy of Timbo gathered momentum and ended Kabu's period of influence. This became the birth of Fulladu with its first king in Alpha Molo Egge around 1867-80s. Egge was the last real king of Fulladu and died in Guinea Bissau in 1931. Mandingkas and Fulas were/are not the only inhabitants of Kabu; there were many others in the region. It is probable that Basse did exist before the birth of Fulladu in the later part of the 1800s.

No doubt, the name Basse could uncover a lot about the foundation of the town. The question is what language is Basse? Is it Fula, Mandingka or Serehulle. The Fula name Bassal means Basso in Mandingka and suspicions are that it is the same in Serrahulle. What we can understand from that similarity is the existence of a long relationship between these languages. In addition, if different languages co-exist for a long time, they tend to influence each other in terms of sentence structure, word composition and meaning. It is not uncommon that all the three languages have the same name for the same thing. Mango and jabérro are examples of such similarities. Secondly, if Basse is Bassal or Basso, then it is unique in the naming system of towns and villages, for no other town or village name is constructed thus or with the same principle in the whole of Fulladu, both East and West.

I am not laying claim to any part of Basse, Kabakama, Koba Kunda, Mansajang, Maneh Kunda and so forth. I do not intend to become an Alkalo, nor would I impart a genealogical reference to claim the reliability of my recounting over any others´. Rather, much attention would be paid to the fact that most of the history passed on to us be it written, oral or other forms, were and are really used as an instrument of upbringing, governance and preservation of social classes and values. At the end of the day, it all comes to one question: what history, whose values and what is at stake for the community and people. The well-known Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o summed up the sticky situation in a paper call Europhonism. He wrote:

"Language which is the carrier of culture is the ultimate and the most primary means of imagination. Empire builders have always known that and in trying to shape how the dominated imagined their future they clearly saw the importance of delinking the elites of the dominated communities from their languages and literally transplanting their minds in the languages of the imperial center. The aim, realized or not, was to turn the elite into beings for others even in their conception of themselves.

Language is of course the most basic of naming systems. With the loss of our languages will come the loss of our entire naming system and every historical intervention no matter how revolutionary will thence be within an European naming system, enhancing its capacities for ill or good. Thus in whatever she or he does, they will be performing their being for the enrichment of the cultural personality of white Europe."

Europhonism is a mindset that understands the world through European languages (colonial languages) instead of through indigenous languages (African or Indian). The kind of education we achieve does not only give us a sense of superiority over our own culture and people but also rids us off our self-pride and self-awareness; it delinks us from our values and transplants us into instruments for the former colonizers, beings for others. We need to be mindful of not writing our history from a Europhonic standpoint, but rather from the perspective of the people whose history is being depicted. In my opinion, the sources of the written accounts used as the bases to affirm the claims in the Basse history debate have not been scrutinized or critically evaluated but rather taken as indisputable facts.

My emphasis is accuracy in depicting the name of a place as a source of its history. The methodology, the theoretical and analogical perspectives used in depicting not only the name Basse but also Santo Su and Mansajang should be consistent and steadfast. I am not advocating objectivity; my contention here is methodical consistency. By methodical consistency, I mean regularity, critical examination of source, self-criticism, reflection.

Point of Departure
Let me say a word about my point of departure. In this deconstruction, the reasoning behind the name Basse is the focal point here. Besides who found Basse and its rightful claimant(s), there reigns a consensus as to the derivation and depiction of the name (Basse); this is my point of divergence. However, none has explained the derivations of Mansajang Kunda and Santo Su. Additionally, I would like to draw attention to the implicit idea that if the name Basse is Fula then the founder(s) are also Fulbé, even whereas no evidence presented supports that courageous insinuation.

I intend to elaborate on two aspects in this recounting: a) to test the reliability (methodical consistency) of the depiction of the name Basse and the interpreted history and b) to present a possible and consistent explanation of the name, the meaning of Santo su and Mansajang. One would expect methodical consistency in depicting the names Basse, Santa Su, Mansajang and the history behind the names if the overall intention is to uncover history impartially.

On the contrary, the analogy applied by the debating parties is far from methodically consistent since it qualifies Fula in depicting Basse but because Fula does not suffice in depicting Santo Su and Mansajang, we are given trivial explanations consequently indicating a methodical inconsistency. Secondly, it is not mentioned anywhere that bassal/basal, basse could also mean 'lacking in something' or poverty. This approach both deprives us from a fuller understanding of the pre-colonial era and the symbiotic relationship(s) that existed between the different languages and peoples in Basse and its surroundings. This gives the impression that there was no Basse or its surroundings near and far before the advent of colonialism. 

     Basse: What is in a Name?

According to the discussants, basse is the plural form of bassal/basal and the explanation that follows is very similar to bang julo and Banjul (the capital of The Gambia). The interesting difference is that Banjul takes the singular form of bang julo whilst Basse takes the plural form of bassal and yet both Basse and Banjul are derivatives of common nouns. As a rule, when a common noun changes to a proper noun, it takes the root form (singular form). The irregularity of having a proper noun take a plural form in Fula is solved by putting a common noun (Sareh, Gallé) which functions as a prefix before the plural form of the name. Examples: Sareh Basse, Sareh Jawbé, Sareh Hoggo or Gallé Aulubbé, Gallé Bailobbé. For the sake of clarity, let us apply the same principle to Gainako, an occupation (singular form) and Gainakobé its plural form. If we change the latter to a proper noun to be the name of a village/town, the correct construction would be to add a common noun prefix to the plural form. Sareh Gainakobé or Gallé Gainakobé. Moreover, that is why the online news-“paper” is call “Gainako” (singular) and not Gainakobé (plural).

In a possible depiction of the name Basse in Mandingka, I would elaborate on two possibilities:

i) how the name relates to bassa/basso meaning mat/carpet. ii) the relationship between the name and the river. Basso (common noun) means mat/carpet in Mandingka but conjugated bassa in counting, as in bassa 1,  bassa 2… . The premise is that “a” changes to “e” when bassa, a common noun becomes a name of a place, a proper noun. Basso/bassa is in the root form (singular) and consistent with the principle that when a common noun changes to a proper noun it takes the root form and not the plural form (unless a common noun prefix is present, in Fula). How do we explain this grammatical exception in basal/bassal and basse? A possible explanation is, it is an original Mandingka name fulanized with time and therefore needs no conjugation. Secondly, for the sake of consistency, Mandingka compared to Fula interprets not only Basse but also Santa su and Mansajang.

Baasé Tenda: the relationship between the name and the river. Literally interpreted, Basse Tenda means a freshwater harbour (and/or trading centre). A potential explanation would be to consider the influence River Gambia may have had on the name Basse, which is its main lifeline and main transport route before roads were available. It is common in The Gambia that towns, villages and other settlements got their names from the landscape. Names like Fatoto, Baafulloto, Farafenje, Bintang bolong, Mansa Kongko, Sutukoba and Sitanunku are names that originate from the landscape and vegetation they are located in. It is worthwhile to glance at the association between language and landscape in trying to depict Basse.

North Bank of the Basse river

Baa sé
Baa = River
Sé = Fresh/sweet
Baa sé = Fresh River (fresh/Sweetwater river)
Tenda = A harbour and or trading centre

The River Gambia runs all the way through the country (Gambie Bolongo). It runs from the Futa Jallon highlands, its source, to the Atlantic Ocean. That is why one part of the river is saltwater and the other part freshwater and in between a mixture of salt and freshwater fluctuation depending on the seasons of the year. In the dry season, the saltwater moves some kilometers from the Atlantic inwards towards Basse and in the rainy season, the freshwater pushes outwards towards the Atlantic. In this perception, Baasé means freshwater river and Baasé Tenda, freshwater harbor.

The "Bara man" Cherno (Che) "Gadamayo" (Standing with the hat): Passengers being ferried across the Basse river. The river  contributed to the early growth of Basse.

   Santo su: Explain, Please

I remember during my schooldays in Basse, we used to argue amongst ourselves whether the correct name was Santa su or Santo su. The major argument against the former was that it was a Europeanized version of Santo su because Santa had no meaning or relation to the locality.

Santo = High/up
Su = Home

A literal interpretation of Santo su means “upper/high home” or home on the highland. Santo-suo describes the landscape on which the home is located. The landscape of Basse consists of low andhighland areas. The lowland area surrounding Basse is around the river, behind the Police residence and between Kabakama and Basse, which together constitute the rice fields surrounding Basse. The highland area starts from the Sami Cinema area to the Police residence along the main road passing the Basse health centre, and, from High Level to the main road from Koba Kunda and all the way to Maneh Kunda. Santo su in this context means highland residence (home), a retreat mostly in the rainy season when the river flows over the nearby areas (Waamo). And that’s why Basse has two marketplaces, one for the dry season and the other for the rainy


Mansajang:The Tall King?
The inquiry here is focused on Mansajang not on Sareh or Kunda.

Mansa = king
Jang = long/tall

Mansajang taken literally, means tall king. Where does the name come from if the real name of the man is Hoggo? It is not common to name a town or village after someone’s nickname (Mansajang). Literally, Mansajang Kunda in this context means the residence of the tall king and not the village founded by the tall king or the village owned by the tall king. Tall king is not a name but a characteristic, an adjective, describing the man. If the tall king, as insinuated, founded the village, the Kunda would follow the family name, like Baldeh Kunda, Manneh Kunda, Dampha Kunda and Koba Kunda; or alternatively, Sareh Hoggo,  Sareh Bojo, Sareh Alpha. Is it possible that the name hides a very interesting piece of history that is better left alone, because if revealed it would disclose a much deeper relationship than anticipated?


Depicting History Through Language 

I am of the understanding that a “taken for granted” historical depiction without a solid foundation is not worth passing on to our children. It is our responsibility to pass history on to our children as much as it is our contractual obligation to clarify the difference between historical facts and personal views.

My concern is whether the incongruity in the depiction of Basse is due to lack of oral tradition sources, or lack of colonial documentation or if it is an intentional evasion of the facts. I would like to assume that the inconsistency is an unconscious default embedded in our education system. Ngugi describes the predicament of the African intellectual thus:

"But they are clearly alienated intellects, exiles at home and Abroad, or exiles in search of a place they can truly claim as their own. In the context of the collective social body, they become beings for others, at the very least beings against themselves, against the very soil that gave birth to them. African-language communities pay for intellects which cannot put a single idea, even about agriculture or health or business, or democracy, or finance, into the very languages which gave them birth."

Deficiency in our languages has effects beyond not being able to speak them; it affects our sense of history, our sense of reality and our worldview in general. Instead of being for ourselves and for our welfare, we become robots programmed in foreign languages and at the very least become beings against ourselves. Therefore, self-criticism and reflection is very crucial in depicting and deconstructing our history and to scrutinize all evidence beyond the obvious and to take nothing for granted. Basse, Santo su and Mansajang are best depicted and understood with the help of our languages. It is only then we can depict our history beyond the arrival of the colonialists. Basse and its surroundings have a long history connected to Kaabu and beyond.

About the Author: Ebrima Kamara, a brother to Ous Kamara by the Basse police station, is a native of KabaKama. He currently resides in Stockholm, Sweden.



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