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Before It Is Too Late: Constructing an Archive of Oral Sources

and a National Museum in Independent Gambia


Bellagamba, Alice.
Africa Today, Volume 52, Number 4, Summer 2006, pp. 29-52 (Article)
Published by Indiana University Press
For additional information about this article
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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/at/summary/v052/52.4bellagamba.html
Memory is a creative
process of interpretation.
An archive of oral sources
lives so far as research
guarantees its connection
with society at large and
groups and individuals
attempts to keep the present
in touch with its past.
Before It Is Too Late: Constructing an
Archive of Oral Sources and a National
Museum in Independent Gambia
Alice Bellagamba
This article discusses the cultural policy of the Republic of
the Gambia in the aftermath of independence. It illustrates
the establishment of an archive of oral sources and a national
museum, considers the institutional and intellectual vision
that inspired their creation, and comments on their relation-
ships to internal political developments and external debates
on the relevance of African sources for the reconstruction
of African history. At the core of both initiatives was the
idea of providing the emerging nation with a decolonized
representation of its past, recovering the tangible and intan-
gible expressions of the cultural and historical heritage of
the Gambia River. The subsequent developments of the two
institutions are analyzed, showing the declining interest for
oral sources and the rise of heritage politics, determined
more by the needs of promoting The Gambia in the tourist
market than by an appreciation of the complexities and
richness of the countrys cultural heritage.
In February 1965 in the whole of The Gambia, celebrations welcomed the
end of colonial rule (Mbodj 1999; Rice 1967; Wright 1997). The country
had just achieved self-government under the leadership of the Progressive
Peoples Party (PPP), and complete independence from Great Britain would
come in 1970. In 1971, the government created the Cultural Archives of the
Gambia, a department to preserve and valorize the cultural and nations
historical heritage; a few years later, it became the Oral and History Antiq-
uities Division (OHAD). In an exercise of critical historical reconstruction,
this article analyzes the developments of OHAD and its cultural agenda in
the history of postcolonial Gambia, drawing evidence from public and pri-
vate archives, testimonies, and conversations with participants in OHAD
activities.
Constructing a national archive of oral sources was an objective pur-
sued since independence. The archive was meant to store oral traditions and
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historical memories relating to the Gambia River and surrounding regions,
with ethnographic information, genealogies of the major families, descrip-
tions of ceremonies, and records of traditional customs. Presently, the
notion of intangible heritage is on the stage, as oral traditions were during
the late 1950s and 1960s when their discovery offered to historians access
to an otherwise undocumented African past (Miller 1999; Vansina 1961,
1994). Within UNESCO, there is much discussion today about the necessity
of safeguarding for the future the ephemeral dimensions of culture. Musi-
cal performances, oral poetry, songs, ceremonies, and historical narratives
are seen as fragile productions, which ought to have been classifed and
recorded as living historical monuments of human creativity.
1
In the 1970s and 1980s, OHAD followed precisely this policy, sys-
tematically collecting oral sources and testimonies before individuals
who could tell about the precolonial and colonial past died. In the belief
that the recordings would prove useful to the future development of the
nation, personnel from OHAD recorded folktales, proverbs, and songs. In
the mid-1980s, these efforts, and the collection of objects connected with
them, led to the establishment of the National Museum of the Gambia,
officially inaugurated during independence celebrations of February 1985.
This was the second aspect of OHAD activities, briefy illustrated in the
following pages.
2
In the vision of this institution, the building up of the museum and
the oral-sources archive were complementary activities: the former could
not proceed without the latteran innovative conception (Cruikshank
1992; Green 1998; Hamilton 2002), which, for lack of local fnancial means
and technical skills, never resulted in any sophisticated exhibition. My
argument develops in four sections: the frst discusses the actions in the
feld of cultural preservation promoted during colonial times; the second
illustrates the establishment of the cultural archive and its frst achieve-
ments; the third appraises the methodology of research used by OHAD
and locates it within wider debates on the historical value of oral sources
to reconstruct the past of African societies; and the fourth describes the
national museum. The ethnographic display, dismantled in 2002, focused
almost exclusively on provincial Gambia and its social and cultural life.
An insistence on rural areas was both a consequence of political develop-
ments within the country and a refection of the ideology dominant among
scholars of Africa and African intellectuals, one that saw in rural Africa
the truest and richest repository of traditional knowledge and customs. In
the conclusion, I trace the transformation of OHAD into the Research and
Documentation Division, a section of the National Council for Arts and
Culture, established by the government at the end of the 1980s as part of
the Economic Recovery Programme, launched in 1985.
3
A salvage paradigm, maintained James Clifford (1988), characterized
the spirit of ethnography during most of the twentieth century. Ethnogra-
phers saw themselves as fghting against time as they engaged in writing
down traditional cultures before their disappearance under the pressures
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of modernization. The same ideal was appropriated by the cultural archive,
and subsequently by OHAD. It served to legitimize the institutional role
and the mission of both institutions, nationally and internationally. Most
of the cultural heritage of the Gambia had been produced and transmitted
in the oral domain, through narratives, songs, and oral traditions. In the
vision of the officials responsible for OHAD, the decay of this patrimony
was provoked by twentieth-century social and cultural changes and could
be arrested only by systematically recording it and transforming it into
written text.
Colonial Attitudes toward the History and
Cultures of the Gambia River
In many African countries, the policy of preserving local cultures began in
colonial times, with the collection and exhibition of traditional artifacts in
growing urban centers, where they could be admired by the European elite,
diplomats. and travelers, and by the emerging and educated African middle
class (Ardouin and Arinze 2000; Ravenhill 1996). In Senegal, for instance,
the collections now part of the Museum of Dakar were frst assembled
by scholars and colonial officials serving in French West Africa, in strict
collaboration with the Muse de lHomme, in Paris (Diaw 1994:711).
The establishment of the frst museums was accompanied by an
idealization of the customary style of life, represented as the timeless
counterpart of modernity, a tribal world unspoiled by the innovations and
temptations of urban centers. Disentangled from their original uses and
meanings, objects helped construct an image of human history and its
developmentsan image that mirrored the imperial mentality of the time
and its partition between civilized and primitive societies. National muse-
ums in Africa received this legacy and adapted it to the nationalism and
anticolonialism that predated and followed political independence. During
the 1960s and 1970s, museums became places where the preservation and
exhibition of relics from authentic and uncontaminated African cultures
nurtured national pride. Curators of collections carefully minimized ethnic
distinctions so as to strengthen feelings of belonging to a common socio-
cultural and political space (Gauge 1997:196; Kaplan 1994).
4
Compared with these early experiences, the Gambia exemplifes a
quite different situation. The colonial government never pursued a sound
policy to keep the cultural and historical heritage of the river alive, even
when this heritage was strictly related to European presence and settle-
ments, like the vestiges of the forts built during the centuries of the slave
trade.
5
The cultural and historical scenario of the river was complex and
heterogeneous, linked to other areas of West Africa, the Sahara, Europe, and
the Americas by trade and cultural exchanges.
6
In the colonial mentality of
the early twentieth century, local cultures lacked coherence and solid politi-
cal institutions; they were a mixture of different infuences, one culture
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borrowing from the other and escaping any attempt at neat classifcation.
The Mandinka and the Wolof, with their hierarchical institutions, seemed
to colonial officials more developed than the Fula and the Jola, describable
instead as still attached to a tribal and primitive style of life.
The work of ethnographic documentation was subordinated to admin-
istrative needs, a way of inscribing in local history and legitimizing policies
and decisions that stemmed from the logic of the colonial state (Hawkins
2001; Spear 2003). Colonial officials wrote down oral traditions when they
proved useful to sustain their decisions, along with compilations of customs
and habits relating to the ethnic groups, by then labelled as tribes, living
within the boundary of British rule. Genealogies of ruling families were
collected to investigate the claims of rival factions to positions in the local
structure of administration.
7
To promote development in the late 1940s and
1950s, the government sponsored social research to assess the rural socio-
economic conditions, and during this period, professional ethnographers
and sociologists undertook feldwork to systematize and enrich previous
knowledge about the cultures and societies of the river (Gamble 2002:3).
The difficult living conditions of the protectorate (if compared to
European standards of the time), the rotation of British officials serving
in rural areas, and the idea that the Gambia was an initial step of a career
(which, officials hoped, would develop in more prestigious areas of the
empire) were among the reasons that explained the colonizers lack of
interest in local cultures.
Most native artistic expressionsmasquerades, songs, poetry, epics,
and historical narrativeswere located in rural areas and belonged to the
domain of orality. In the compounds of district chiefs, prominent trad-
ers, and interpreters, griots sang the epic traditions of Mali and of the
Senegambia, tracing and praising the prestigious ancestry of local elites.
They recalled the deeds of Sunjata Keita, founder of the ancient kingdom of
Mali, and explained how his lieutenant, Tiramang Traor, moved toward
the Atlantic coast with a following of horsemen, artisans, and traders,
8
how
migrants from Mali married into the local society, and how the new politi-
cal elite, strictly bound to the political traditions of Mali, came into being.
Narratives mentioned the order in which villages had been established, the
web of alliances between settlements, and the pattern of dominance and
subjugation. The griots used musical instruments, like the balafongo (a set
of small dried gourds, assembled as a multikeyed xylophone), the kontingo
(a three-stringed lute), and the kora (a 24-stringed lute, with a resonator
made out of a calabash), to play old tunes and compose new praise-songs
for their colonial patrons. The following account of chiefs with their art-
ists is drawn from the history of the Gambia written by Bella Sidney Woolf
(Lady Bella Southorn), wife of a governor of the Colony and Protectorate of
the Gambia. She looked at these cultural manifestations with a mixture of
sympathy and contempt typical of the colonial mentality of the time: in
the case of the Chiefs[,] they have music wherever they go. Not only do the
griots accompany the Chiefs in their districts upriver[,] but if a Mandingo
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Chief comes to Bathurst, the griots wait outside the shop or any other place
he may visit and make melody (Woolf 1952:247).
Dancing, drumming, singing, and the telling of folktales by the
fre were other forms of rural entertainment. Masks showed up during
festivities, and itinerant artists narrated well-known historical events to
the public. These cultural productions were almost invisible to colonial
officials, who, living in official quarters apart from local Gambians and
their daily activities and being unable to speak the native languages fu-
ently, considered the people simple and unsophisticated. Easily collectible
material artifacts seemed unimpressive when compared with sculptures
and carvings from elsewhere in Africa. The circles of megaliths on the
northern bank of the river were the only items of local heritage that struck
the British imagination, and then only as curious vestiges of an ancient past.
In 1896, the British official in charge of this area described these megaliths;
archaeological expeditions were organized, but produced no striking results
(Woolf 1952:18).
9
At the time of independence, the Gambia completely lacked a policy
of cultural preservation and promotion. A tiny strip of land surrounded by
Senegal on three sides, the country gave to many observers the impression
of being the artifcial result of colonial policies of partition, a nation lacking
any real distinctiveness and originality. Fighting these perceptions, with
the objective of improving the national image, externally and internally,
the Gambians who served as leaders of the nation stressed the importance
of bringing back to the public those cultural manifestations and historical
memories either ignored by the colonizers or despised as the expression of
an inferior stage of cultural development.
Collecting Historical Memories for Future Generations
Valuable information in the memory of old, knowledgeable
people is disappearing every day, through death or through
the discontinuance of certain customs because of cultural
changes and changes in belief and the value system. We
cannot wait to collect information. . . . Old people are not like
books, which can be stored for generations without too much
harm waiting until someone can get around to read them.
10
Independence brought with it a politics of history, favored in the beginning
by the former colonial masters, who sponsored in different areas of British
Africa the establishment of national archives.
11
In the Gambia, colonial
documents, previously dispersed in the various departments of the colonial
administration, were assembled in the newly established national record
office, located in the government quarters of Banjul (formerly Bathurst),
the capital. This archive constituted an initial step in the establishment
of a shared national memory, though it was mainly from the colonizers
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viewpoint. A deeper insight into local history, and from an African perspec-
tive, could be achieved only by taking into account the historical memories
still circulating within society. These linked the river to the wider socio-
cultural landscape of Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Conakry, and Guinea-Bissau.
Narratives described precolonial states and their alliances in the subregion:
they recollected heroes of the remote and recent past, offering a moral script
for action in modern times.
The need for valorizing this source of historical knowledge was
strongly underlined by Bakari Sidibe, the frst research officer in charge of
the cultural archive. He was a former headmaster, trained at the School of
Oriental and African Studies (London), frst in the phonetics of West Afri-
can languages in the early 1950s, and then in African literature and general
linguistics at the end of the 1960s.
12
While at SOAS, he had become aware
of the growing interest among scholars, intellectuals, and the public for
African history. Back in the Gambia, he compiled a preliminary list of the
major topics on which oral sources were to be collected, with ethnographic
information on every aspect of culture, from folk medicine to dances and
religious beliefs.
13
Institutionally, the cultural archive was regarded as an
extension of the national record office, and so it remained until OHAD
came into being.
In that period, the search for an authentic African past, preserved and
transmitted across generations, even in the absence of writing, was all but
restricted to the Gambia. The growing community of historians of Africa
saw colonialism as a short parenthesis in the long run of African history,
an interlude that did not substantially alter the continuity of local cultures,
and they felt an urge to go back to African sources to uncover the precolo-
nial past (Ajayi 1969). African intellectuals and politicians emphasized the
virtues of tradition as a source of inspiration and identity in the building
of the new nations. The methodology for collecting and processing oral
traditions elaborated by Jan Vansina (1961) and his students offered a frame
of legitimization and an agenda for feldwork. Documentation centers were
established in Rwanda, Burundi, Niger, and other African countries, and
interest in oral history was rapidly growing in Europe as well. At times,
comments Frederick Cooper (2000:315), it seemed as though oral history
was a fetish as much as a method.
Griots, education and the national radio
Beside this international interest, two experiences in the Gambia of the
1950s and 1960s predated the idea of constructing a cultural archive as a
place to preserve and make accessible to a wider audience local forms of
historical and social knowledge. One was related to the feld of education;
the other, to the establishment of the national radio.
Between 1953 and 1955, the colonial department of education pro-
moted an experiment in the school of Faraba Banta to see whether the chil-
dren would more easily learn to read and write by studying their mother
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tongue. The teacher in charge was Bakari Sidibe, who would later assume
the responsibility of constructing the cultural archive. In 1956, he moved
to Yundum Teacher Training College, where another initiative took place:
being asked to teach history, he thought of bringing the Gambian viewpoint
on local history into the class, to which he invited one of the best griots of
the day, Bamba Suso. Names and places heard by the students during their
childhood were put into context, and their historical relevance asserted in
the contemporary developments of Gambian society. Even those students
who looked skeptically at native culture were impressed when the griot
answered confdently and in detail on almost every aspect of Gambian
history, as Sidibe recalls (2005:7).
Bamba Suso and other renowned griots were called to perform for
Radio Gambia as soon as transmissions began. The idea of bringing local
culture and historical memories into a modern context was again success-
ful, as the lectures in the Teacher Training College had proved. Never-
theless, most of the tapes were destroyed immediately after being aired,
though the program was widely appreciated within the country. Bamba
would become an example of the fragility of oral sources, one that OHAD
officials would repeatedly use to remark the need of a cultural policy aimed
at sustaining the living cultural heritage of the nation. Immediately after
his appointment as research officer, in 1971, Bakari Sidibe asked the govern-
ment to fnance the complete recording of Bambas repertoire, but it was too
late: a stroke had paralyzed one side of Bambas body, and as a consequence,
he had lost his ability to remember and narrate. These are the conclusions
that Sidibe drew from Bambas case:
Bamba and his work might be compared to a wonderful paint-
ing in the sand, which is destroyed almost immediately after
it is created. There was never anything quite like it before[,]
and there will never be anything like it again. Once it is gone,
with not even a photograph to record the memory of its exis-
tence, anyone who was not an eyewitness at the time would
never know the value of what has been lost. Bamba is now
dead[,] but there are others like him of talent and knowledge
who are masters in their own right. They, too, however[,] will
soon pass on[,] and their work and accumulated lifetimes of
wisdom will be wasted unless we take serious step[s] to pre-
serve at least some of what they have to tell us.
14
Educated Gambians of those years, born and reared in rural areas, as
Sidibe was, were extremely sensitive to the strains that changes after World
War II brought to the local society. Rapid urbanization, the penetration
of electoral politics into villages, development projects, and agricultural
innovations, were undermining the structures of power and relationships
consolidated during colonial times. Democratization was changing peoples
attitudes toward their chiefs and depriving the chiefs of privileges that they
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had accumulated in colonial times. In the Gambia of the late 1960s and
the 1970s, large entourages of griots were seen as old-fashioned. District
chiefs of the new generation, elected in 1964 and 1965 as soon as the frst
freely chosen government was established, were literate in English and
expected to act more as civil servants than as representatives of customs
and local traditions. Radio programs attracted youths more than historical
narratives did, and innovative forms of entertainment, like sicco drums,
had became popular out of the political mobilization of the 1950s.
15
Losing
the material support of their patrons, artists migrated to the capital, where
they put themselves at the service of the political elite. To Sidibe and the
researchers who joined him in setting up the cultural archives, this process
seemed to be producing the loss and decay of traditional values and culture.
To imbue the griots craft with new meanings, modern solutions had to be
found (Darboe 1976; Galloway 1980b), and these included creating occasions
for their performance at the national level, promoting their abilities on the
international stage, and publishing transcriptions of their narratives. Paral-
lel to these activities were the efforts of recording and transforming verbal
arts and oral sources into written texts.
Establishing the Oral and History Antiquities Division
In 1979, OHAD was established as a fnancially autonomous institution
depending on the vice-presidents office. Its location in the structure of the
public administration speaks of the symbolic importance assigned to the
task of recovering the nations fading historical memories. Evaluating the
results of the work done during the 1970s and early 1980s, OHAD estimated
that its collection of oral sources consisted of roughly 4,000 tapes and more
than 2,000 objects intended for display in the future national museum.
Research had been carried out in various areas of the country. Narratives
about the major precolonial states along the river had been collected, with
epic traditions that spoke of the connections between the Gambia valley
and the ancient kingdom of Mali, the highlands of Futa Jallon, and the inte-
rior of modern Senegal. In addition, OHAD focused on Fula expansionism
in the Upper Casamance, Wolof precolonial polities on the north bank of
the river, and historical sites relating to European trade.
16
To enrich the archive, foreign researchers received logistical support
and were asked to leave copies of all the materials collected, thus imple-
menting the regulations of the 1974 Monuments and Relics Act as far as
historical and ethnographic researches were concerned (Hoover 1987:6).
Accordingly, a more organic strategy for the collection and processing of
oral traditions, and a list of the main problems arising during feldwork,
were developed by OHAD researchers working with Winifred Galloway, a
North American historian attached as a volunteer to the institution. This
strategy entailed a clearer statement of OHADs policy and cultural mis-
sion. Researchers identifed privileged categories of narrators and standard-
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ized research procedures, taking their cue from the debates on the historical
value of oral traditions that characterized the feld of the history of Africa
in the 1970s and early 1980s.
What Sources Are Worth Recording?
In late 1960s and 1970s, the search for the best informants were a recurrent
worry among the historians of Africa (Henige 1982; Miller 1980; Vansina
1985). According to the methodical literature, each context had rules for
transmitting knowledge about the past, and it called upon researchers to
grasp these rules and choose their sources of information accordingly, privi-
leging those who proved to be more skillful and knowledgeable, both in the
eyes of the local community and in those of a professional historian.
Categories of narrators
Following this trend, OHAD identifed three main categories of narrators
(Galloway 1980b; Sidibe and Galloway 1980) as being useful to reconstruct
the precolonial past of the river and surrounding regions. First were the
griots, whom local society placed in a specifc social category: they were
musicians, poets, traditionalists, and bards, who bore the responsibility of
producing and reproducing historical knowledge. There were different types
of griots: those attached to ruling families, those who performed for hunt-
ers, and those who praised the virtues and sang the genealogies of Muslim
scholars. Each type produced different memories and narratives about the
past, but the most renowned were undoubtedly those whom OHAD offi-
cials described as court griots, those who narrate in epic lines the stories
of the great kingdoms and empires, [and] the epic migrations and adven-
tures of the great ethnic rulers and heroes and of the great individuals in
their own patron families (Sidibe and Galloway 1980:2). Court griots, like
Bamba Suso, acted simultaneously as oral historians and artists. This ten-
dency could pose a serious limitation for the historian, underlined OHAD
researchers, in that griots narratives tended to be more like a historical
novel than pure history (Sidibe and Galloway 1980:2). Fortunately, expe-
rience in the feld soon taught that the main lines of the griots story are
accurate[,] while he feshes out his story with fctional details, conversa-
tions and conficts in order to illustrate and dramatise the signifcance of
his story (Sidibe and Galloway 1980:2).
This interpretation had wider political implications, as it provided the
emerging nation with the possibility of reconstructing its past from a genu-
ine African perspective, cultivating feelings of national pride against the
dominant colonial discourse of backwardness and primitivity. Once cleaned
up from their cultural embellishment, griots narratives became precious
historical sources, which spoke of social events, structures, and values.
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Elderly men constituted the second category of narrators and provided
what OHAD defned as the most reliable information. Circumscribed in
space and time, their knowledge of the past was described as fairly accu-
rate (Sidibe and Galloway 1980:3). These observations spoke of the regard
that OHAD researchers had toward the rules of accountability that in local
society regulated the representations of the past. They ordinarily saw griots
knowledge as potentially moldable by contemporary agendas, but, because
the duty of griots was to praise their patrons deeds, narratives given by
elders were much more respected by the community at large, since speaking
properly was a constitutive element of elders public authority. Matters of
prestige and honor shaped their historical recollections, and qualifed their
narratives as true and reliable in the peoples eyes.
The third category of narrator was religious scholars. Elderly men
displayed knowledge of the past strictly situated in local and regional his-
tory. Religious scholars, on their side, shared with griots the ability to locate
their reconstruction within wider historical landscapes. Religious scholars
helped their memory with written annotations, and thus retained details
that griots tended to forget.
Historical texts in local languages
Last, the methodological notes of OHAD mentioned the tarikas, historical
texts in local languages, written down in Arabic characters and attentively
preserved by religious families. Tarikas were described as an intermediate
source between literacy and orality: the average tarika . . . is rarely more
than a few pages long, and seldom consists of more than a bare outline
of what the original writer knew (Sidibe and Galloway 1980:4). Readers
had to know the narratives that paralleled these texts to fully understand
their meaning. Actually, the topic of tarikas could have brought OHAD
researchers to discuss the prestige of Islamic literacy in local societies, and
the problems related to the writing down of oral traditions as a by-product
of the creation of the cultural archive. Instead, the example of tarikas was
politically used to emphasize OHADs mission. Research in the feld, and
then the processing and analysis of oral sources that followed, produced
what OHAD officials could label as the new tarikas:
The very act of writing down a tape-recorded interview . . .
transforms it automatically from oral tradition into a tarika.
. . . These new tarikas have one major advantage over the
traditional tarika[:]. . . . they are full narrative accounts of
what the informant knows, rather than lists or outlines.
Freed from the cramping limitations of the pen by the tape
recorder, articulate informants can allow their minds to
wander freely around their subjects. Secondly, if these new
tarikas are recorded systematically, there are many of them
around a single topic[,] rather than isolated documents from
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here and there, as has been the case up to now. The researcher
can have a large number of tarikas to work upon (Sidibe and
Galloway 1980:5).
In this passage, OHAD researchers spoke of articulate informants, clearly
manifesting their attitude toward the world of oral sources. Their collec-
tion strategy took for granted and indeed reasserted the importance of local
hierarchies, favoring memories that supported existing power structures.
Griots, elderly men, and religious scholars were entitled to represent the
past in the national archive; their voices were seen as authoritative by
OHAD researchers and by the people they met during feldwork. Women,
youths, and other marginal subjectsfor instance, seasonal migrants,
who regularly came into the country to work in commercial groundnut
cultivationwere excluded from the official list of potential informants.
These kinds of memories were largely dispersed within society, difficult to
approach in a public setting (Leydesdorff, Passerini, and Thompson 1996:8).
Compared with a griots narrative abilities, the abilities of an elderly man
and a religious scholar seemed fragmented and unarticulated, and were
thus overlooked in the collecting process.
17
Power relationships shaping
the production of historical knowledge in the local society were further
strengthened by the strategy that OHAD recommended to fnd good
sources (Sidibe and Galloway 1980:8).
Implementing the research methodology
As in a library, when working along the river and in the surroundings
regions, a researcher had to fnd the equivalent of the reference librarian
and the card catalogue (Sidibe and Galloway 1980:8). Prefects in Senegal
and commissioners in the Gambia were among the frst to be approached, as
they had frequent contact with the most distinguished people under their
jurisdiction and could direct researchers toward their sources (Sidibe and
Galloway 1980:8). Elderly villagers and district and village chiefs could help
select informants. In the end, the procedure of collecting oral sources in
the rural areas reasserted the presence of the state, which OHAD officially
represented, and that of local elite. In the light of subsequent debates on the
use of oral sources in the history of Africa, these guidelines look seriously
limiting, not least because they are based on theoretical assumptions widely
undermined by the critical refections of the late 1980s and 1990s.
In 1989, on the eve of transforming itself into the Research and Docu-
mentation Division, OHAD reasserted its methodology (Seibert 1989). In
the same year, David W. Cohen (1989) was attacking African historians
attitude toward oral sources, as lacking a sincere appreciation for what
made oral history different (Portelli 1998:63). In the effort of control-
ling the information collected, maintained Cohen, historians reduced the
fuidity of historical memories. Instead, they should have documented the
multiple strategies of representing, erasing, and commemorating the past
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at work in the societies they studied. Contemporary interests and agendas
shaped personal and collective memories, and this relationship with the
present, instead of undermining the value of a source, helped in analyzing
the contexts and situations in which the past was recovered and talked
about within society at large (White 1990; Tonkin 1992; White, Miescher,
and Cohen 2001).
18
Similar remarks, though confned to the Gambia, were in the cri-
tiques of Donald Wright, a historian who during the early 1970s worked
at reconstructing the history of Niumi, a precolonial state located at the
mouth of the river. After publishing the results of this research, Wright
(1979, 1980) edited two collections of the oral sources he used, thus implic-
itly stating their value to the larger community of the historians of Africa.
In Niumi, the African-American journalist and novelist Alex Haley (1976;
1998) located Juffureh, what he believed was the original village of his
paternal ancestral line. The discovery was made in the early 1970s with the
help of the cultural archive of the Gambia, and the great public resonance
of Haleys novel stimulated a heated discussion on the reliability of oral
sources (Wright 1981). Reacting to this debate, Sidibe strongly defended the
competence of the sources Haley met: he conceded that oral tradition indeed
changed from one performance to the other, as they were not memorized
word by word,
19
but he insisted that the essential nucleus of a narrative
remained intact. In the early 1990s, Wright reopened this discussion by
completely dismissing the historical value of oral sources for reconstructing
the changes that Niumi people went through before the establishment of
colonial rule (Wright 1991:404).
In colonial and postcolonial Gambia, Niumi was considered a Mand-
inka state, ruled by a Mandinka elite according to political models that
stemmed from the ancient kingdom of Mali. Oral traditions legitimized
this perspective without including in the picture the centuries predating
the establishment of a British military post at the mouth of the Gambia
River, in 1816, a post that would soon develop into the colonial settlement
of Bathurst, the future capital of independent Gambia. Migrations of the
families were described in a stylized fashion, recollecting their movement
from the eastwhence all Mandinka in the Senegambia traced their ori-
ginsto the Atlantic coast. European records compiled from about 1440
onward were far more useful to understand the interplay between different
cultural identities that over the centuries had taken place in this area. Luso-
Africans, local elite, and traders from Europe and the interior of modern
Senegal, Mauritania, and Mali each contributed to Niumis polity, economy,
and society (Wright 1991:405). The idea of using oral traditions to uncover
an uncontaminated Niumi precolonial past was completely biased: repre-
sentations of local history provided by the griots living in the area, and by
elderly people and Muslims, explained the development of the contempo-
rary situation, but cast no light on the complexities of the precolonial past.
Perhaps, concluded Wright (1991:406), I will never know much more
than I do now about Niumi, and some of the other Senegambian states,
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before the 19
th
century. This statement undermines almost twenty years
of efforts devoted by OHAD to the recovery of local historical memories;
however, none of the officials at the time wrote a line to defend the theo-
retical framework that had inspired the creation of the national archive of
oral sources. In the early 1990s, research interests were shifting from the
collection and preservation of oral sources to sociological inquires, which
answered the demands of the development agencies within the country in
an attempt to strengthen the fnancial capacity of the institution (Sagnia,
Ceesay, and Seibert 1989; Seibert and Sidibe 1992; Seibert 1994).
Following the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund
and the World Bank, the Economic Recovery Programme entailed a drastic
reduction of the investments in the public sector (McPherson and Radelet
1995). This reduction affected OHAD, the newly established museum,
and other public institutions. The country was enduring an economic and
political crisis, and historical memories of the precolonial and colonial past,
precisely the sources that OHAD had struggled for more than a decade to
collect, were pushed to the margins of public concern.
From Oral Sources to Material Culture:
The Establishment of the First Exhibitions in the National Museum
In 1985, the National Museum of the Gambia was inaugurated in the colo-
nial building that had previously hosted the National Library. The presi-
dent, Sir Dawda Jawara, praised the event as a milestone toward future and
brighter developments, but his optimism hid a complex and controversial
situation.
20
Institutionally, the OHAD was experiencing growing fnancial
restraints. Its detachment from the museum, sanctioned in 1983 with the
establishment of the Monument and Antiquities Division, restricted its
mission to the feld of ethnography and oral history, leaving completely
aside the collection of artifacts and the work of research behind the creation
of the museum.
In a strenuous effort to contrast this decision, which stemmed from a
policy aimed at diversifying the activities in the domain of culture, OHAD
wrote to the government. Again, its officials highlighted the vital connec-
tions between orality and material culture, and the need of carrying out
research on both sides simultaneously:
A museum is only a display room for the most interesting col-
lections of material objects made. The objects have no mean-
ing unless the collector has made some kind of research into
the subject. Oral traditions, antiquities and monuments go
quite naturally together in a country where the explanations
surrounding most traditional, social, intellectual, economic,
political and artistic phenomena are still mainly preserved in
the oral sphere. . . . The research section of OHAD can exist
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very well without the museum; but can the Museum exist
as a living, growing place without a research section? The
oral researches feed the museum with the information and
objects it needs.
21
The document went on to explain how a good national museum should
have workedas a place where citizens were to be educated and cultures
exhibited and performed in the meantime. Despite the establishment of the
Monuments and Antiquities Division, the construction of the frst displays
in the national museum depended mainly on the contribution of OHAD
researchers, who staged the ethnographic exhibition on the ground foor and
the historical gallery on the foor above. Both displays were inspired by the
experiences of other African museums, and spoke to the recent political
history of the country.
The ethnographic display was conceived as completely out of time, as
if the objects shown to the visitors belonged to an unspecifed precolonial
past, ancient but still alive. By collapsing the representation into more
general and comprehensive categories (daily life, cooking and farming
utensils, regalia, traditional religion, dress, and ornaments), it avoided any
reference to the various ethnic groups of the Gambia River. This choice, as
noticed by Anne Gauge (1997), refected a predominant tendency in African
museology in the immediate aftermath of independence: that of exclud-
ing from public discourse any echo of tribalism. In the Gambia, this trend
resonated with the political ideology of PPP, the party ruling since the early
1960s, and its commitment of keeping ethnicity as much as possible at the
margins of the political debate (Hughes 2000). The ethnographic exhibition
pursued another objective, that of emphasizing the cultural richness of the
provinces. In 1989, Philip Ravenhill commented on its lack of links with
the city of Banjul, where the national museum was located. The display
depicted a world that was nowhere to be seen in the streets and corners of
the capital:
A larger problem that I think needs assertion is the virtual
exclusion from the museum of any aspect of Gambian mate-
rial culture. The implicit message is that only the rural
provinces can be considered culturally important[,] . . . and
yet there are fascinating urban traditions. . . . I would suggest
that the city of Banjul could easily be used as a site for feld-
work and collecting, and that this would have a benefcial
effect for the museum.
22
Actually, the connection between the museum and the larger society was
there, though quite difficult for a foreign visitor to notice. The overall con-
ception of the ethnographic display stressed the authenticity of traditional
and rural life, in the conviction that the authentic heritage of Africa lay
far from urbanized areasan idea still widely shared in the representation
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of Africa during the early 1980s. Again, however, this tendency inscribed
itself in the peculiar history of the Gambia, evoking the political debates
predominant at the time of independence, when the PPP was stressing the
importance of provincial areas in the economic and social life of the coun-
try against the agenda of other political parties, which represented mainly
the interests of the educated elite living in the capital. The deprivation and
marginality of rural Gambians under colonial domination had fueled the
early propaganda of PPP, allowing it to become the majority party in the
frst national election of 1960.
23
Ironically, the reassertion of the cultural richness of the provinces
made by OHAD researchers through the ethnographic exhibition of the
national museum was coming too late, in a sort of nostalgic revival. In
mid-1980s, the PPP leadership had almost completely abandoned its origi-
nal commitment. In the whole country, the enthusiasm of independence
had been replaced by a growing atmosphere of dissatisfaction toward the
government and its social and economic performance.
24
The 1980s opened
with a tragic episode in the postcolonial history of the country, one that
today seems almost to have been lost from public and official memory. In
1981, a coup, mobilizing the support of the youths profoundly dissatisfed
with the accomplishment of the government, tried to overthrow Jawara. The
attempt was repressed, thanks to the intervention of the Senegalese army
(Hughes 1991:101). More than fve hundred people died, and many youths
and militants of the opposition were detained. At the end of the year, the
collaboration with Senegal was formalized through the establishment of
the Senegambia Confederacy (Hughes 1983; Sallah 1990).
If the ethnographic display recalled the early populist tendency of PPP,
the historical gallery described the river and the surrounding regions as an
integrated sociocultural space, characterized by centuries of exchanges and
cultural interactions (Barry 1988). In so doing, the display supported the
cause of the Senegambia Confederacy and stressed the need of disregard-
ing the artifcial boundaries between Senegal and the Gambia imposed
by colonial rule. Exhibiting artifacts, photographs, drawings, maps, and
evidence drawn from written and oral sources, the gallery explained the
historical developments of the whole subregion from prehistoric to present
times. Most of the objects had a deep historical relevance in the local soci-
ety, and were documented by oral sources preserved in OHADs archive.
Colonialism was represented in the last sections, with the achievement of
independence and the recent establishment of the Senegambia Confederacy
(Gauge 1997:2223).
In 1989, when the confederacy broke apart, the gallery lost its imme-
diate educational purpose, even if the representation of the river in terms
of interconnectedness maintained its historical value, especially if one
takes into account the debates that followed on the concept of globaliza-
tion (Cooper 2001; Wright 1997). OHAD researchers predictions had come
true. Without the continuous contact with society generated by feldwork
and the injections of new objects and information into the exhibitions, the
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museum became a dusty and unattractive repository of material artifacts.
More profound political and cultural changes were as a matter of fact around
the corner, as a new coup, the military takeover of 22 July 1994, succeeded
in ending PPP rule.
Memories for the Nation or for the Tourist Market?
A Changing Scenario for National Cultural Policy
During the early 1990s, OHAD, under the new name of Research and
Documentation Division, accomplished its last signifcant research efforts,
carrying out sociological surveys of the Upper River, and of the major urban
settlements of the Gambia. The following years witnessed the gradual
decline of the institution. Instead of being used as a source of information
for creating innovative exhibitions, the national archive of oral sources
became a hunting-ground for scholars, Gambian historians, journalists, and
students, who wrote on several aspects of Gambian precolonial and colonial
history without engaging in feldwork. The tapes began to deteriorate, and
even disappear, with their transcribed and translated texts. It remains to be
seen whether this process of decay will be arrested by the current efforts of
digitalizing the whole collection of oral sources; moreover, will the research
officers of the RDD prove able to capture the resurgent global interest for
intangible heritage in order to revitalize their institution?
Their predecessors ability consisted in linking the national agenda
for cultural heritage with the international communitys shared concern
for the history of Africa. Their quest for the past looked to the future (Clif-
ford 2004). Projects fnanced by the World Bank at the end of the 1990s,
even if originally taking into account the domain of oral sources, ended
by emphasizing the cultural relevance of historical sites and tangible
heritage (National Council for Arts and Culture 1998). In 1994, a military
takeover accelerated a meaningful shift in the countrys cultural policy,
underway since the late 1980s as a consequence of the Economic Recovery
Programme. Before 1985, the idea of constructing the identity of the nation
by means of recovering and preserving its past heritage predominated: the
kind of material which OHAD is collecting, and which [it] is trying to
present to its public, is of the category which will give people at least some
indication of where we come from.
25
After 1985, the accent was put on the promotion of the Gambia in the
international tourist market, paralleling the efforts of the government in
developing tourism. Attached for a short period to the Ministry of Youth and
Education, the National Council for Arts and Culture later became subject
to the Ministry of Tourism. This trend intensifed in the aftermath of the
coup. During two years of military rule, the regime engaged in building
monuments, in the double effort of embellishing the capital and providing
work for the unemployed. In 1996, the frst Roots Homecoming Festival was
organized to celebrate the interconnectedness between the Gambia and the
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Americas created by centuries of traffic in slave across the Atlantic. The
initiative aimed at attracting African-American visitors to the Gambia after
the dramatic decline of the tourist industry provoked by the British high
commissioners negative reactions to the military junta. It responded to the
international interest for the memories of slavery and slave trade sponsored
during the 1990s by UNESCO programs.
26
Return to civilian rule occurred in 1996, after elections were won
by the leader of the coup and its newly formed political party, the Alliance
for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (Hughes 2000; Saine 2004).
In 2002, the dismantling of the ethnographic exhibit on the ground foor
of the national museum, and the creation of a new display, brought these
political developments to the stage, celebrating the achievements of the
Second Republic.
In all this process, a symbolic fracture in the recent past of the coun-
try began to emerge. A struggle over postcolonial history is going on in the
Gambia, one that would be worth exploring in its implications. The statist
narrative (Roberts 2000:521522) of the military regime stigmatized the
First Republic, practically almost thirty years of Gambian history, as an
age of corruption, inefficiency, and lack of transparency, when the govern-
ment was dominated by a Mandinka elite that kept minority groups at
the margins of national politics. The pattern of negotiated alliances that
supported Jawaras government before and after the attempted coup of
1981 completely disappeared from public view, along with the cultural and
historical heritage of provincial Gambia. Contemporary cultural policies
focus almost entirely on the capital and surrounding tourist areas, with
the remarkable exception of Kanillai, the presidents hometown, which has
developed into a national attraction. The testimony of what OHAD did, in
terms of research and exhibitions, is preserved in only a few official docu-
ments, and in the recollections of the people who worked for the institution.
Like the old tarikas, the written evidence needs the support of narratives
and recollections to be fully understood. Built to preserve oral sources from
the destruction of changing times, this institution ends being remembered
mainly through orality. There is a striking moral in this story. More than a
passive repository of past events (Portelli 1998:69), memory is a creative
process of interpretation. An archive of oral sources lives so far as research
guarantees its connection with society at large and with the changing
attempts of groups and individuals of keeping the present in touch with
the plurality of its past.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The writing of this article occurred while I held an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship at the Uni-
versity of Bayreuth for the academic year 20042005. My gratitude goes to the Humboldt Founda-
tion and the Institute of African Studies of the University of Bayreuth, which in the summer of 2005
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sponsored the visit to Germany of Bakari Sidibe, former research officer of OHAD and retired Execu-
tive Director of the National Council for Arts and Culture, Banjul, the Gambia. This visit allowed the
deepening of my research collaboration with Bakari Sidibe, begun in 1992.
NOTES
1. The UNESCO Convention on Intangible Heritage was signed in 2003.
2. Besides these two accomplishments (the creation of the archive of oral sources and of the
National museum), OHAD worked in the feld of preservation, censusing, studying, and
restoring the historical sites and monuments of the Gambia. It produced publications on
several topics and encouraged the artists on a national level. In 1989, the establishment of
the National Council for Arts and Culture distributed these activities among three diferent
departments: Research and Documentation Division, Monument and Antiquities Division,
and Creative Arts and Performances Division. During the 1990s, the exhibition on slavery at
Albreda-Jufureh and the Stone Circle Exhibition in Wasu were established.
3. National Council for Arts and Culture Act, n. 11, 1989. The NCAC came into being in the early
months of the following year. See Hoover 1987:6 and National Council for Arts and Culture
1991.
4. For a more general perspective on the politics of culture and culture heritage in the immedi-
ate aftermath of African independences, see, for instance, Faur 1978, and, for a comparison
with Mali, Schultz 1996.
5. Most historical sites related to the traffic in slaves across the Atlantic had already disap-
peared in the early nineteenth century. The only visible traces were the ruins of Fort St.
James, on an island in the mouth of the Gambia River, and Fort Bullen, built by the United
Kingdom after the banning (in 1807) of the slave trade across the Atlantic. Both forts have
been restored, and Fort St. James is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. See Meagher and
Samuel 1998.
6. The official viewpoint is summarized in Gray 1966, author of the frst history of the River
Gambia, and in the ethnographic-research outlines compiled by Daryl Forde 1945.
7. Ethnographic surveys were carried out by colonial officials in the early twentieth century
and then again in the 1930s, following the formalization of indirect rule. This second wave
of inquiries included small collections of folktales and proverbs. Histories of the districts
were compiled quoting the written evidence accumulated since the beginning of colonial
administration. All these colonial materials are presently stored in the National Record Office
of the Gambia, Banjul, The Quadrangle.
8. Both epic traditions were collected and edited during the 1960s by Gordon Innes (1974,
1976); later, work on this subject was carried out by OHAD. For a preliminary assessment
of oral traditions in the Senegambia, see Cissoko and Sambou 1969; for a critical appraisal
of oral traditions along the River Gambia, see Wright 1981 and 1991; for an overview of
Mandinka spoken arts, see Pfeifer 1997.
9. National Record Office, Banjul, the Gambia, Annual Reports on Provinces 32/1, 1896. See also
UNESCO Archives, Paris, RN/PP/CONSULTANTS/2242/RMO/RD/CLO, Sngal. Prservation et
mise en valeur du patrimoine archologique, second missione, 25/1025/12.
10. Bakari Sidibes Private Archive, The Oral History and Antiquities Division (now Institute of
Cultural Research): function, structure, accomplishments; undated paper, p. 1.
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11. Curtin (1960) in the Journal of African History commented on the process. Later debates
focused on the nationalist agenda of the frst researches in the feld of the history of Africa,
in an efort to distance historical analysis from African politics (Jewsiewicki 1989; Jewsiewicki
and Mudimbe 1993). See also Ellis 2002:5.
12. Bakari Sidibes Private Archive, Curriculum Vitae.
13. Bakari Sidibes Private Archive, PRC/3806/24B, Public Records Office, The Quadrangle,
Bathurst, 17 November 1971.
14. Bakari Sidibes Private Archive, 4 October 1983, Proposal for Griots Recording, p. 5. After
Bambas death, the collection of griots narratives became a priority of the culture archive,
one that would be inherited by OHAD. Projects for griots recording were presented time
and again, and the OHAD encouraged the creation of an association of Gambian griots, in a
new form of patronage centered on the state.
15. Sicco, drummers who composed political songs used during the propaganda and electoral
campaigns, mixed new rhythms with the local tradition of praising the deeds of heroes and
men of prestige. The sicco became a symbol of PPP early mobilization eforts, as described
in the official history of the party (PPP 1992:41; Bakari Sidibe, personal communication,
2002).
16. Among the major initiatives carried out by OHAD in the 1970s and 1980s are 1) the collec-
tions of oral sources on Kaabu, one of the most important precolonial centralized polities
of the Lower Senegambia (Brooks 1993), and the publication of some of the research results
(Galloway 1980a, 1980b; Sidibe 1972); 2) the collaboration with the Genealogical Society of
Utah, which funded collections on the history of Kombo, an area by the capital city of Banjul,
and on Kombo family genealogies (Seibert 1989:24); 3) the Fuladu Conference, organized
in 1986, together with the government of Senegal. National Record Office, MAD 1/21, 23/
4/1986, Conference on Baldeh family history.
17. Diawara 1990 makes one of the frst assessments of the plurality of oral sources and the role
of women in narrating history in a West-African context. Bellagamba 2002a illustrates the
diferences between elderly men and womens narratives. During my feldwork in the Upper
Gambia, I repeatedly noticed how men despised womens ability to narrate: men described
women as lacking hakilo, the capacity of remembering events and the intelligence of
understanding the larger political implications of their recollections. Janson 2002 explores
the role of female griots in a rural area of the Upper Gambia.
18. Ranger 2004 ofers a recent example of the struggle over the past in several postcolonial
settings. Debates on memory and the production of history in Africa have paralleled the
growing interest shown by anthropologist to the dynamics of remembering and forgetting
in contemporary African society. Amid a large literature, the works of Fabian 1996, Shaw
2002, and Werbner 1998 are particularly illuminating.
19. Bakari Sidibes Private Archive, 14 April 1977, an answer to Mark Ottaways critique of Roots.
See also Wright 1981.
20. National Record Office, Monuments and Antiquities Division, MAD 31, Inauguration of the
Gambia National Museum (1985), foreword by the President.
21. Bakari Sidibes Private Archive, 10 May 1983, MUS/004/06/02 (29). Like other sectors of the
public service, OHAD was not immune to the infuence of patronage networks relating to
the ruling party.
22. National Record Office, Banjul, the Gambia, MAD 1/21, 1989, P. L. Ravenhill, Some suggestions
concerning the National Museum, Banjul, the Gambia.
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23. During the frst half of the twentieth century, Bathurst had attracted most of the colonial
investments in the feld of education and services, sanitation, and infrastructure. Although
the major source of revenue for the government, the protectorate areas had been left
in a condition of stagnation (see Gailey 1964). For a history of the early developments of
Bathurst, see Mahoney 1963.
24. The frst secessions in the rows of the PPP dated to the mid-1970s, when some of the early
and more committed militants contested the politics of national reconciliation promoted
by Dawda Jawara and his sharing of power with the elites of the capital city (Hughes 1975).
In the 1970s, the governments plans for development shifted from the rural to the growing
urban areas (Sallah 1990; Wright 1997:228229). As a consequence, rural youths felt aban-
doned by that party that they enthusiastically supported.
25. Bakari Sidibes Private Archive, The Oral History and Antiquities Division (now institute of
cultural research): function, structure, accomplishments; undated paper, p. 2.
26. Namely, the Slave Routes Project, launched by UNESCO in 1993. I have commented on the
efects of this international interest on the cultural policy of the Gambia in Bellagamba
2001.
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