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  • Writer's pictureDave Manneh

Features: *Fraying at the seams: The Gambia’s social fabric.*

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Oh, how the once tight-knit community has unravelled, frayed at the edges like a worn-out kaftan. Gone are the days of neighbourly kindness and shared values, and a sense of community. A culture of individualism, materialism, selfishness, and distrust has replaced that “normative ethics.”        


The social fabric which once defined and held my community, that sense of belonging and oneness, is now nothing but tattered threads. It is a sad situation, a lamentable decline in the very essence of what it means to be a Brufutnka. 


Brufut, of course, is a microcosm of The Gambia!  


These lamentable social changes did not happen in a vacuum. There is a social ontological explanation, i.e., how social structures and institutions affect the behaviour and actions of individuals. The enabling environment is the space/structure this community inhabits. Society or (paraphrasing D Little) “social actors” develop their characters and “sense of self” […] “through interactions with, and exposure to the community and institutions they engage with - from infancy.”       

They grow up as embodiments of that community. What motivates them, their cognitive and reasoning abilities, and how they act in that limited local and wider social structure, moulds them. Further to these localised traits are the “state-level institutional, cultural, and normative settings that affect actions.” It is the state that shows the opportunities but also the guardrails necessary for a viable society.   


The loss of traditional value systems reflects the cultural reconstruction of our society. Reason: society shapes the “participants” within it through institutions, norms, systems, etc. Contrariwise (paraphrasing D Little), “participants create the practices, set up the institutions, and promote these systems […] neither is independent of the other.” A tricky conundrum Anthony Giddens tackled in his concept of “agency and structure.” He highlighted the active role of individuals in shaping society and how social structures shape the actions of individuals. There is a continuous, mutually dependent, and symbiotic relationship between the two entities.  


Although common to refer to the Gambian state as “the Gambian nation,” the Gambia, like many other countries in Africa, to be precise, is a nation-state; a political entity that comprises a group of nations. The Gambia, as a concept, is based on political, territorial, and legal factors as a sovereign state, with control over its own territory and government. It has borders recognised by the international community; and a government with legislative and enforcement powers within that enclosure.     

What makes up this legal and political framework are several distinct - even if interlinked - nations. These are groups of people who share a common identity, culture, history, and often language. So, within The Gambia is a Fula nation, a Mandinka nation, a Jola nation, a Wollof nation, and others.  


As is typical of other African countries, the multiple nations within Gambia’s borders spread across various nation-states in the region and further afield. The Fula nation, for example, cuts across a wide expanse of continental Africa. The Mandinka nation spreads across a vast area of West Africa likewise. There are also the Serahule, the Wollof, the Jola, and other nations. In other words, a nation is a cultural and ethnic concept, while a nation-state is political.      


Despite the array of nations within it, in sociocultural terms, The Gambia has an almost homogeneous “culture” - in the form of a set of traditional values and ethical & moral codes. This sociological concept of culture is the anchor of a value system passed down through acculturation and socialisation. It shaped the way individuals think, act, and interact with one another, and defines what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.      


To social critics and observers, there is an evident decline in these values to elicit justifiable moral panic. We recognise this in the way society accepts avarice, self-enrichment at any cost, perceiving material wealth as the sole determinant of social status, and the embedding of a transactional culture.       


This culture of “transactionalism” in which society views all interactions through “invisible corruption of cost-benefit analysis” - shows the eroding of the shared values and norms that bind individuals and groups.  


The eroding of that value system that gnaws at the Gambia’s social fabric at a worrying pace is often confused for and explained away as “modernisation” and “modernity.” This is a trend that should concern us all.       


In his seminal work “The Division of Labor in Society,” Emile Durkheim posits that the development of modern society is characterised by a shift from mechanical to organic societies. In a mechanical society, a keen sense of shared norms and values bind individuals, whilst, in an organic society, individual self-interest and goals are the driving forces.    


The latter increasingly characterised the Gambia of today. The scramble for natural resources, land in particular, results from this drive for material wealth. It is undermining social cohesion and threatens the foundations that had hitherto bound Gambian society.  

This obsession with wealth and status has created a certain class of Gambians who are not bound by social standards and are keen on forging an alien value system.    


These are citizens who Friedrich Nietzsche calls “Übermensch” or the “superman.”        

While on a superficial level, the emergence of such wealthy persons may seem like a positive development, it has the potential for devastating consequences. The desire that drives them to achieve their goals at any cost, even if they transgress value systems, is a risk to society. They compound the risk they pose by presenting of self as saviours - through offers of financial aid and other resources.  


In the Gambian social context, these “performative benevolent rich men” are the personifications of “Übermensch.”     

The “performative benevolent rich men” are not saviours. They may engage in charitable activities, appear to be generous, and even try to create a certain image of themself as a moral and ethical individual. But their actions may not be driven by a genuine sense of concern for society’s well-being, but by self-interest. Their show of benevolence is an attempt to launder their image and cultivate a public persona through “performativity.” This is a manipulation of the public via the use of their “social capital,” i.e., wealth, power, and status.       


These personalities are a perfect fit for Erving Goffman’s concept of “dramaturgy.” Goffman explains how individuals present themselves in social interactions as a performance, managing their “front stage” (public image) and “backstage” (private self) selves. The “front stage” is the carefully crafted image presented to conform to social expectations, while the “backstage” self is the private, unrefined self hidden from public view.       


“True virtue,” Aristotle wrote - “cannot be performed for personal gain, but must come from within - from the inner character of the individual.” An individual who acts to gain a reputation is not genuinely virtuous, and his actions have no moral value. This “performativity” undermines the traditional values of honesty and integrity – and leads to the further eroding of the social fabric. In pursuing narrow self-interest, these individuals will use their vast social capital in a strive to channel public discourse towards promoting a new morality. The danger these individuals pose to the fraying of society, therefore, is immense.      


The fraying of the Gambian social fabric exploded during the Jammeh dictatorship and is continuing under the new dispensation. Each time I visit, there is a noticeable acceleration in the perishing of our value system. Jammeh’s destruction of The Gambian society was whole. Two decades of tyranny eviscerated the value system that had hitherto served as the foundation of our society and provided a sense of shared norms and values.    


As dictatorships do not respect “social contracts:” - the code that regulates the relationship between the governors and the governed - society’s downward spiral into lawlessness was only a matter of time. Within a brief period, the dictatorship showed its callousness: it has no regard and respect for the natural rights of the governed. The Jammeh administration was not and would not be accountable to the governed.  

Locke must have felt a tumultuous stir in his tomb!      


In the Gambia, both during the tyranny and since, we can see the break of this social contract. We see it in the lack of protection of individual rights and the lack of accountability by the government. These factors invigorate the discarding of traditional values and norms and replacing them with a new normalcy. A normalcy that deludes society into thinking they are being served when they are not. It creates a false sense of security and a false sense of progress.       


The preservation of property rights, an essential for a just society, suffered a devastating assault during Jammeh’s tyranny. Instead of the government protecting this right, it became its most consequential violator. Jammeh’s regime had a contemptuous disregard for basic human decency, not to mention traditional values and morality. He gave vitality to a class struggle in which he, his ruling class, and their associates, exploited the unconnected and the powerless in a true Marxian sense of “class struggle.”            


In the Weberian sense, Jammeh fostered a culture of a wish for material success and an unhealthy focus on acquiring wealth and status. The era was a veritable hive of skulduggery. This decimated traditional values and morality, as individuals focused more on their own economic gain rather than on the well-being of the community. Moreover, this discarding of the hitherto value system led to a corresponding increase in corruption and the erosion of trust in institutions.  


From the vacuum of a valueless system that Jammeh resuscitated and then nurtured, greed and materialism have replaced the imperatives of virtues of justice and prudence for the well-being of society.       


Social observers look at the deterioration of the value system in our homeland with concern and dismay. We recognise the detriment to the social fabric and the threat to social cohesion and stability that it poses with disquiet and a sense of foreboding.  


The Barrow administration should work with others both at home and abroad in implementing frameworks and policies to reverse this dangerous descent into the abyss. On its current trajectory - individuals unconstrained by ethical & moral code and engaging in deviant behaviour - the fear of a complete breakdown in social order is not an exaggeration.


Copyright: 2017 - 2022 | GunjurOnline™
Copyright: 2017 - 2022 | GunjurOnline™
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