By Dee Bixley
As UK Directors of the African Oyster Trust, one of the privileges for me and Steve Emery is gaining some understanding of how things are run in a small African country. Here’s a little of what we learned about Chiefdom.
There is a Chief at the head of every District within The Gambia. A District is a cluster of villages under one administrator: The Chief. In Jappineh Jarra Central (where many of the Trust’s projects are based) Alhagie Bakary Dampha has held this powerful role for many years.
We asked Kira Dalton to outline the role of a Chief and this is what she told us:
“A Chief spends a lot of time on official duties. Together with his Deputy, he oversees a team of Elders and they mediate in land disputes, family feuds, and other domestic situations. He presides over a Chief’s Court, attends numerous formal events, and is summoned to the capital, Banjul, for official functions.
“Chiefs are held in high esteem,” she continues. “They work with Alkalos (mayors) and local Imams, who lead Islamic worship services, provide community support and spiritual advice.
“As with any other male Muslim, a Chief is allowed up to four wives. However, as with most Gambian men, he is rarely seen in public with any of his wives. Males and females live almost entirely separate lives. Even when you invite a group of Gambians round for dinner or to a party, within minutes men and women are in separate areas talking only to others of the same sex. This happens however much we try to get them to mix!
“In a typical family compound the husband has his own room, and each wife has her own living quarters, which she shares with her children until they reach puberty. The wives become almost like sisters - sharing the chores ordered by the Senior Wife.”
Given this very different way of life, we are keen to know how the Chief relates to Kira. After all, she is an exceedingly capable white lady, who arrived in their midst and proceeded to transform the lives of many of his people.
“I would describe my relationship with the Chief as one of ‘healthy mutual respect’. Sometimes he jokes about me being an honorary Gambian citizen! I think the way he copes is by treating me as an honorary man. For example, at any gathering it is expected that I will eat with the men, firstKemo Bah, our Education Director, and Gambian Management Team Secretary, adds:
“Chiefs are important persons in their communities and they command profound respect from their subjects. Chiefs rarely retire; they are either dismissed, deposed, or they die in post.
“In the case of any disagreement, most of their subjects retreat with respect. Some years ago, challenging them would have been unthinkable but now a Chief’s authority can be seriously contested.
“His Excellency the President of the Republic, Sheikh Professor Dr. Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh (the former President) dismissed many chiefs, replacing them without election.
“Chief Alhagie appreciates the numerous developments brought to the Jappineh area by Lady Kira Dalton and the African Oyster Trust. The Health Centre has helped to curb the menace of some diseases and patients come from far and wide for treatment. The Chief knows that such improvements in health have transformed the welfare of the people in the district and beyond. In schooling too, the charity’s intervention has brought excellent results, as seen in recent countrywide national examinations.”
Kemo finished by sending the Chief’s ‘… profound greetings to the UK management team’. We appreciate his thanks for our efforts; sometimes he even invites us to “E-x-t-e-n-d Your Efforts!”
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The news diary is written by a number of people close to the work of the African Oyster Trust, including founder James Holden, his co-directors, trustees and volunteers.