Category: Black History
Gambia (aka The Gambia) is a country, but it is also a river (The Gambia River) which goes through several countries: Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea. This can get confusing because when historians say “the Gambia” they sometimes mean the country and sometimes mean the river. Imagine if some of the time when people said “Mississippi,” they meant the state of Mississippi, but other times they meant Minnesota, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.
At least The Gambia is not “The Congo,” which is simultaneously a river; a river system; and two countries (Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo, not the same place). Detouring into U.S. history a bit, it’s estimated that more than 50% of the African slaves brought to the U.S. were kidnapped from along the Gambia and Congo rivers and their tributaries. (Both of these rivers are in West Africa.) Much the same way a modern kidnapper might throw someone into a car, slavers threw people into boats so they could speed away from rescuers on foot and isolate captives.
This strikes me as particularly heartbreaking because a river is a river. It’s where you get water. It’s where you build settlements. Even knowing there are slavers on the river, you can’t really stay away from the river. So when you get caught, you probably feel angry at yourself, completely irrationally, as though it is pain you did to yourself, and this double bind is an idea which makes me furious.
Also, less relevantly, it reminds me of how in The Matrix they have to stay away from highways.
Back to the country of Gambia. It’s the smallest country on mainland Africa, with an area of 4361 square miles. (That’s four times the size of Rhode Island. Let’s all look down on Rhode Island for a minute. And it’s a little more than half the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, so let’s think about what this implies concerning Rhode Island.) Gambia the country is essentially the riverbanks of Gambia the river for the half of its length (the westernmost half, the half that ends with the Atlantic Ocean). At its widest point, Gambia is 31 miles wide. It’s entirely surrounded by Senegal on the sides which are not the Atlantic Ocean.
About half the population lives in urban settings. There’s a lot of ethnic diversity, with the most commonly spoken languages being Mandingo, Fula, Wolof, Serer, and Jola. English is used in government and school contexts. A lot of people speak French as well. And Gambia has its own sign language, which is based off of Dutch sign language but integrates a lot of local gestures; it’s not at all related to American Sign Language (although it’s picked up some British and French sign words). The main religion is Sunni Islam, and 95% of the population is Islamic, but freedom of religion is protected in the constitution.
The most popular sport is wrestling. The main exports are fabric, wood, and nuts. The average number of children for a woman to have is four. There is a history of welcoming refugees and immigrants, even though Gambia is not a wealthy country. (The opposite.)
Human rights in Gambia have liberalized substantially since 2016, when an authoritarian ruler named Jammeh, who had been the dictator for 22 years, was forced out with help from ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States), who continue to maintain a small peacekeeping force in the country. Gambia is now a presidential republic with a largely reformed judiciary. They are still going through the work of truth and reconciliation commissions, and working on what form reparations should take. I hold a lot of hope for them. I think their next elections are in 2021, so I’ll be watching how those go.
Today, I have learned the following facts about Tanzania.
1. The island of Zanzibar is part of Tanzania. It’s the Zan in Tanzania. It’s true that in the past it has been a different country (the mainland part of Tanzania was called Tanganyika, hence the portmanteau) but it is not now a different country. Incidentally, if you’re trying to find Tanzania on a map of Africa, it’s on the east coast in about the middle, right after the continent cuts in and gets narrow. (Yesterday’s country, Comoros, is about even with Tanzania’s southern border but out in the ocean, being a volcanic archepelago.)
2. Tanzania has been settled by humans for at least 4000 years. Although Portugal tried to run Zanzibar as a colony starting in about 1500, it never had a great grip on the region, and in around 1600 the locals appealed to Oman for help driving out the Portugese. Oman then treated it as kind of a protectorate until about 1840, when Oman decided to be a lot more hands on – they enslaved something like 90% of the island’s population, about 1.5 million Africans. This was actually a side effect of Britain putting pressure on the Omani sultanate starting in about the 1820s to get rid of slavery. Oman figured they could be tricky and sign treates about North African and West African slavery, while making up for it with all these new East African slaves. Britain figured this out and eventually got mad enough that by 1890 they were ready to completely blockade Zanzibar. They took it over as a protectorate. Meanwhile, Germany had taken over Tanganyika. Which they had to sign over to Britain and Belgium after WWI. Anyway, the two parts achieved their independence in 1961 and 1963, and merged and became Tanzania.
3. By the way, “the spice islands” = Zanzibar
4. The Serengeti? That’s about a third of mainland Tanzania. I don’t know whether, like me, you’ve always looked at pictures of that big dry-looking grassland and wondered how on earth it supports the number of animals it does. It doesn’t look “rich” like a rainforest, if you take my meaning. WELL apparently it is much more nutrient-rich grass than the grass I have probably been around, thanks to a lot of volcanic activity stretching way back which left a lot of mineral/ash deposits in the soil. It’s, like, the Spiderman of grass.
5. Lake Victoria and Mount Kilamanjaro: in Tanzania.
6. Over 130 languages are spoken in Tanzania. There’s not an official language, although in practice it’s Swahili. It’s kind of like how the U.S. doesn’t officially say you need to speak English but most people do. But unlike the U.S., only about 10% of Swahili speakers in Tanzania speak it as their first language. About 90% of them speak something else at home.
7. Despite immense ethnic diversity within Tanzania, there’s very little inter-ethnic strife. The effectively one-party socialist government has always insisted on the idea of a pan-African identity which supercedes ethnic ties. You know, like being able to celebrate Cinco de Mayo or St Patrick’s Day without it being un-American. I obviously love this.
8. They’re very anti-gay. In surveys something like 95% of the people say homosexuality is morally wrong, which implies that a lot of gay people there either also believe this or don’t feel safe saying otherwise. Homosexual men in particular can face a life sentence in prison if they’re caught.
9. Also, it’s not a safe place to be albino, because there is a subset of witch doctors who will try to murder albino people to use them as ingredients. This is especially alarming because albinism isn’t all that rare in Tanzania. Although worldwide only 1 in 20,000 people is albino, in Tanzania it’s more like 1 in 1400. The government is fighting to turn this around, both by arresting witch doctors and by providing extra protection to people with albinism, but the situation is far from resolved.
10. At least 30% of the house of representatives has to be female.
11. Tanzania has a strong relationship with the U.S. and with Japan. They contribute more than 2000 soldiers and personnel to current UN peacekeeping efforts.
12. Malnutrition is a major problem. The only country that has it worse, as far as we know, is Burundi. A lot of the problem seems to be water supply problems and supply chain difficulties. Not easy problems to solve.
13. They’ve started building out a fiber optic network.
The official theme for Black History Month 2019 is “Black Migrations,” so although I usually focus on African-American history during this time, which is in my wheelhouse (I love U.S. history), I am going to try this month to learn a little bit more about African geography, which I know embarassingly little about. There are 53 countries in Africa (I think) so I don’t know whether I will get to all of them, but frankly knowing anything at all is going to be an improvement. If you know more than me and it seems I’ve said something stupid, please fact check.
Today, I read about Lesotho, which is a country of about 2 million people with a GDP of about $4B. It’s about the size of Maryland and is surrounded entirely by the country of South Africa. Something like 80% of the population hails from the Basotho ethnic group. They are mostly Catholic, with a Catholicism that absorbed some of the flavor of older local religions (a la Mexican Catholicism).
Lesotho’s main languages are Sosotho and English, and the literacy rate is one of the highest in Africa. The land is mountainous and gets very hot and very cold. It’s pretty rural and infrastructure is not great, so radio is pretty important for communication and community. The population skews young because the AIDS crisis hit hard a few generations back. Their national symbol is a straw hat that looks like a mountain with a crown on top.
In terms of how Lesotho came to exist as an independent country (it’s strange to be a little landlocked place which has not been taken over, no? It’s like Luxembourg: how?) it seems like in the 1800s as a consequence of the Boer Wars between the British Empire and Dutch/Afrikaaner colonists to the south, and the Zulu expansion to the east (even if you are as bad at African history as me, you surely know about the general Shaka Zulu), the Bosotho got squeezed into this area.
But instead of being obliterated, they consistently won small battles, then got concessions, then got themselves recognized as a British protectorate and remained part of the commonwealth until 1966. Credit goes to a brilliant Basotho diplomat/king named Moshoeshoe, who united a lot of people, negotiated treaties very well, and integrated refugees. I can’t even fathom his people skills. I need to read more about this guy.
Sidebar, it seems like there was a cannibal problem at one point, and Moshoeshoe recognized that although this was horrifying, it almost certainly was because of extreme food shortages thanks to the political violence in the area and NOT because they were trying to develop evil magical powers, so he solved it by just…. providing food to the refugees instead of declaring people witches or whatever. This is the kind of thing many of our leaders seem to still struggle with.
Lesotho is currently a constitutional monarchy and quite active in the African Union. Although they have their own currency, you can pretty much get away with using the South African Rand. They are in the middle of a process of shifting from a substistence farming economy to mining and textile manufacturing, which has caused some social and economic stresses like it does. You would maybe recognize some of their stunningly beautiful textiles (which among other places appeared in Black Panther).
These movements look so cool, and SO DIFFICULT. As one of the dancers breezily says to describe the hiplet style, “If you got rhythm and you can groove en pointe, you got it.”
I cannot grove en pointe. I do not got it. I don’t think many people do. But the ones who can – wow.
What a voice. What spirit. Also, there’s a one-woman opera called “Neither” with a libretto by Samuel Beckett, and nobody told me?