10/11/2009 13:40

  By Cherno Baba Jallow

I guess now we are all agreed that this debate has gotten really interesting. I am sure it has been a learning experience, at least for some of us keen about history and the historical. But lest the importance and purpose of this debate collapse in a constellation of historical minutiae, I think it is necessary, particularly in the interest of coherent understanding, to trace the beginnings of this dialogue.  

The Genesis

During an interview with Gainako in 2007, I said the following: “One of my great-grand-parents Samba Sowe was one of the original founders of Basse. Wherever he went, he was said to carry with him a mat (Bassal in Fula), hence the name Basse.” This is a bold statement especially when it is in reference to the history of a place as big and important as Basse is. But when much of our history is driven by the locomotive of oral attestations, certitude, sometimes, is not only a missing ingredient in our interpretative analysis, it also becomes a casualty.

Momodou Baldeh’s renditions on Basse’s foundation history, at variance with mine, makes it all the more important to work harder towards removing any specs of doubt, at least for the sake of history and posterity. Baldeh, we can now safely conclude, is not in the know about Samba Sowe. He has no knowledge of him being part of the bedrock of the founding of the town of Basse. His research and historical consciousness point to somebody else, Hoggo Mansajang Baldeh (I will come back to this later).

Let’s tarry awhile and answer Baldeh’s query. In his most recent posting, he wondered: “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.”

First a disclaimer: I didn’t say great-grand “father”; I said great-grand parent. In the interest of full disclosure, I will begin by saying that Baldeh’s observation was spot-on. I also realized the same ambiguity as soon as I read the interview shortly after publication. It is one of those instances where clarity of mind-speak gets lost in the efforts to say a lot in a few sentences such as talking about my ancestors within the context of parental ties. I should have distinguished the two: parent and ancestor. Samba Sowe as ancestor not a parent. I failed in accuracy. I apologize to my readers and herewith I address the misnomer.

Both grand-parents on my mother’s side hailed from around the town of Labe in Guinea Conakry. And on my father’s side, his father Ousman Jallow came from Medina in the Mali Worra region of Guinea. My paternal grand-mother Adama Sowe was born to Haruna Sowe, the younger brother to Samba Sowe. Samba came from the area called Makan in Fouta Toro, northern Senegal, and arrived in what is today called Basse. Some custodians of the long view in Basse Manneh Kunda, most of who now deceased, said that he briefly stayed in the village of Kanubeh (about 10-15 miles away from Basse) and had farmlands in the wilderness of Basse. Eventually he, tiring of his constant trips back and forth, decided to start a settlement in Basse (I will address this in detail later).

The former permanent secretary and now deputy leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) Yaya Jallow, and the late Mawdo Sowe, formerly of the Department of Health and well-known in the Talingding/Bundung areas, are some of the descendants of Samba Sowe. I guess I am being caught in a bind: having to unearth my family history when there is a deep hesitation, even reluctance, to do so.

And now this:

A Soothsayer’s Forebodings …
At the heart of this debate, lie three caveats: the founding of Basse; its rightful claimant; and what constitutes founding. In his first posting, Baldeh, in his efforts to link Basse’s founding with Hoggo Mansajang Baldeh, gave us a narrative of Mansajang’s visit to the south bank of the Basse River. Said he: “Sources within the Baldeh family and griots in the area indicate that following a dispute with a local chief in Wuli over the theft and slaughter of two of his cows, Hoggo Mansajang Baldeh and his siblings crossed the Gambia River with his herds of cattle over the South Bank, in search of fresh pastures and a safe heaven.” Accordingly, this marked the beginning of Mansajang’s connection with Basse. He arrived on the south bank of the Basse River and as per Baldeh’s posting, landed in an “uninhabited valley, lush with grass and thick vegetation, and overflowing with fresh water.”

This raises a valid question: Does landing on an empty land and thick bushes suffice to call one the founder of the place? I brought Christopher Columbus in my last posting, not as an analogy to Mansajang’s story as Baldeh mistakenly thought. In the first place, Columbus and Mansajang, though possessed of similar stories in their travels from afar to newer grounds, were far from analogous. Columbus was a seafarer, motivated, more than anything else, by the chic of adventure and accidental discoveries. Mansajang, a herdsman, on the other hand, was in pursuit of pasture, and a safe sanctuary away from the turbulence of home. At least that’s what Baldeh told us.

What, then if any, can Mansajang’s arrival on the south bank of the Basse River signify in the context of Basse’s founding? Did Mansajang discover or found the place? Baldeh stated, “Nowhere did I state that Mansajang discovered Basse.” Better still, nowhere did I imply that Baldeh said anything to that effect. I brought the discovery/founding dichotomy to help us in the discernment of historical subtleties because Baldeh’s rendition on Mansajang’s arrival had left us with a constricted understanding as to how the herdsman’s trip, just by itself, had any direct bearing on the founding of Basse.

Mansajang, we learned from Baldeh, had wanted setting up a settlement around the Basse River, but a mat weaver, also a soothsayer, forewarned him. He was advised to go deeper south, “away from the river, otherwise foreign people will one day come to settle down and eventually drown your family.” Baldeh added: “Whether he took the soothsayer’s words seriously or he was prompted by other factors, Mansajang did build his village at its present location, about (two miles) from the river.” (Emphasis mine.)

… And The Herdsman Settles Further South

To the geographically-challenged, on Basse and its environs, the present location of Mansajang Kunda is more than two miles from the Basse River. And the town of Basse has four contiguous villages: Manneh Kunda, Mansajang Kunda, Koba Kunda and Kabakama. Mansajang Kunda is the seat of divisional government. The present governor Omar Khan resides there. And this tradition has continued since colonial days, when the divisional commissioner and other colonial officers on treks to Basse would take up residence there. Mansajang Kunda has enjoyed that special proximity to local government and its phalanx of functionaries and institutions. The Basse Health Center was first located in Mansajang by the former Public Works Department at the cross-section on the way to Giroba Kunda. Uncle Boido Baldeh, a native of Mansajang Kunda, was for a long time, a personal chauffeur to divisional commissioners in those days.

Mansajang Kunda was the place that Hoggo Baldeh founded and finally settled in, called his own and then the growth of a settlement that followed. When Governor Denton presumably visited Basse and called it “a large Foulah town … and the headman is called Mansajang Baldeh,” it is safe to ask, where was Mansajang’s residence? Was he living in Basse or in Mansajang Kunda? Unless Baldeh comes up with evidence of Mansajang’s domiciliation within the confines of the town of Basse other than his supposed ownership of rice-fields and land around the Basse Health Center, Mansajang Baldeh cannot even begin to think of laying any claims to Basse. And:

When Governor Denton called him the “headman of Basse”, was he speaking of Mansajang as the Alkalo of Basse or a chief leader with a large influence across towns and villages? We have learned from Baldeh that Mansajang was once a chief under Musa Molloh Baldeh. And that when Mansajang went blind in 1916 and upon his recommendation, “a member of his Native Tribunal, Jewru Krubally, became acting chief of Fulladu East.” Thus Mansajang was a district chief. But being a chief does not necessarily make one the founder/Alkalo of a place. It is like Governor Denton visiting Baddibu Kinteh Kunda in 1930 and calling Seyfo Janko Kinteh the “headman of Kerewan”. Yes, as a district chief but not Alkalo. The two are asymmetrical. Additionally, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “headman” as “the (chief man) of a village, tribe, etc.” (Emphasis mine). So one can imagine the context in which Governor Denton was referring to Mansajang Baldeh and would Seyfo Janko Kinteh.


Basse History: At a Cursory Glance
Oral history and the presentation I attended at the Basse Community Center in the mid 1980s have both pointed to Samba Sowe’s seminal contribution to the founding of Basse. In the beginning, Basse started with four families: the Sowes, the Jobes, the Ceesays and the Jambangs. The Jambangs were the blacksmiths; the Ceesays were responsible for cultural entertainment; the Jobes provided religious leadership and the Sowes the Alkaloship. Thus Samba Sowe became the first Alkalo of Basse. Oral history in the area even said that before the name Basse gained currency, the Wollofs would refer to Basse as “Kerr Santa-Sowe”. Could Basse Santa-Su be a derivative of that?

When Samba Sowe, who only left behind two daughters – Fatou and Hawa Sowe (one of my sisters is named after the latter) passed away, he was succeeded by Modou Jobe, who doubled as both Imam and Alkalo. In fact, he is said to be the first Imam of Basse. And that’s why in Jobe Kunda around the Basse Health Center, a miniature mosque (Jakka) still stands visible. Behind this Jakka lay buried both Samba Sowe and Modou Jobe. Jobe’s tenure as Basse Alkalo was brief for he fell into disfavor with the local colonial government. He would not enforce debt collections against the people as demanded by the authorities. His religious disposition made it harder for him to take up such a punitive perfunctory role. He decided to give up the Alkaloship and concentrated on his religious duties.

His replacement was Yero Jaw, a prominent individual commanding a lot of status in town. Oral history has it that he was the only one, among the lot contacted, who vowed to exact the colonial demand. His entry ushered in a new era of Basse Alkaloship for people outside of the original four families. Yero Jaw was succeeded by his younger brother Alieu Jaw. And when Alieu passed away, Amadou Bah, an ancestor of the former foreign minister Omar Sey, took over. Following Bah’s death, a heated succession contest took place. This was the first time in decades that the Sowe family had tried to reclaim the Alkaloship. But Musa Sowe could not make it on the day both he and his rival Lamin Chune were asked to assemble with their delegates. He was said to succumb to a mysterious illness on the very day of public reckoning. He couldn’t show up and he would be bed-ridden for nine consecutive years before frailty finally conquered his body. Oral history has it that Musa was a cursed man. And this belief, to this day, remains very indelible in the minds of the Jallow and Sowe elders in Basse and Kantora.

Over 20 years ago, when my father, born in 1929 (still strong and active), six years after Mansajang Baldeh’s death, was asked by unanimous decision to take over the Alkaloship, his mother objected, citing the perils and ordeals his uncle Musa Sowe went through.

The Danger of Sweeping Conclusions

As anyone can see, there is not a single Baldeh in the line of succession for the Basse Alkaloship. In my last posting, I asked the following: “Do the Baldehs of Mansajang Kunda have any right of claim to the Basse Alkaloship? I may be wrong, but I have never heard of it.” It is Baldeh’s conclusion that Mansajang Kunda “did not appear in early colonial maps” as if Mansajang Kunda had to appear on maps drawn by the colonialists before its existence is provable. We are compelled into epistemology: just because something is not seen doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Extension: just because Mansajang Kunda did not appear in early colonial maps didn’t mean it didn’t exist. I want to believe that there were many other places that existed but the colonialists did not put on the map.

For conjectural purposes only, could the size and regional influence of an area have been a determining factor why some places were on the colonial map and others weren’t? Basse, by virtue of its close proximity to the river, was already a bustling town attracting traders and others from different parts of the area. So could this have been a reason why a place like Basse will be on the map and not Mansajang Kunda? Mansakonko and not Tonia Taba? Baddibu Kerewan and not Suwareh Kunda?

Baldeh writes further: “It is clear that the settlement of which Mansajang was the Alkalo was known as Basse 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 ….” Is this enough? Baldeh is clutching at straws. Owning rice-fields and other lands cannot and do not confer founder status. You had to be the first to settle there and Mansajang, from the evidence presented, did not in Basse. Remember, he was compelled to scuttle plans of clearing a settlement around the Basse River, and instead, moved to the current location of Mansajang Kunda. Is it any wonder why the Baldeh family only went after “rice-fields and other lands” and not the cream of it all, the Alkaloship? One would think that Basse, a commercially vibrant town that has sent good sons and daughters into public service and the headquarters of a division known for its rich culture and wealth, would be something anybody would covet more so if you claim a direct connection to its founding.

Baldeh’s counterpoint in this debate has been laudable but one gets an impression of a challenge riddled with brimming, arresting confidence, and as a consequence, arbitrary conclusiveness. For instance, when I mentioned Samba Sowe being an original founder of Basse, Baldeh retorted: “This is quite a revelation, indeed! Oral and written sources (on) the history of Basse offer an entirely (different) version.” (Emphasis mine.) Is he talking about what he already knows about Basse history or the totality of it?

Throughout the course of this dialogue, I have held Baldeh, evidently a history buff and a very impressive one at that, in awe for his zeal, and the depth with which he has presented his case. Thus I am at pains, ahem, to tar some of his judgment calls with the brush of unexamined self-assurance. But earth to Baldeh, nonetheless: when information is fragmentary and scanty, evidence spotty and research still in the throes of full discovery, reaching hasty conclusions becomes untenable, antithetical to perspective and balance.

I rest my case.


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