by Alagi Yorro Jallow.
Mamudu: Today, marked ‘The World Water Day’ on March 22 every year with a damning statistic that over hundreds of thousands of Gambians do not have access to safe drinking water. In unequivocal and straightforward terms, we mostly get our water from unhealthy sources, such as streams and ponds. There are deliberately stinking statistics on the number of vulnerable humans that are still practicing open defecation and a more significant number of Gambians lacking decent toilets to answer the call of nature as well as livestock access to drinking water.
Mamudu: I am not a Marxist, but I am genuinely intrigued by the thoughts that shape or seek to explain the socio-political and economic philosophy. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher and communist politician who died at 46 in 1937, propounded the theory of “cultural hegemony” in trying to explain the societal order in a capitalist society. He said the state and ruling capitalist class — called the ‘bourgeoisie’ — use cultural institutions to maintain power. They develop a “hegemonic culture” using ideology to propagate their values and norms. These become the “common sense” values of all. The status quo is thus entrenched and maintained.
In the Gambia, If we are very attentive, we would notice that the powerful socio-political groups and mighty opinion leaders in the country hardly raise issues about infant mortality, maternal mortality, access to clean water, sanitation, quality education and other indices that affect the wellbeing of at least 2 million ordinary Gambians over issues such as “potable water” and “infant mortality” and you will hit a dead end. Institutions exist to control our thoughts in a different direction.
Mamudu: Are we in a hopeless situation? One would not say so. We need a new class of thought leaders in the media, academia, civil society, and polity to focus public discourse on the things that matter the most. We should stop heaping all Gambians woes on colonialism. Why can’t we also spend some of our energies on demanding water, education, healthcare, power, and security — which most Gambians agree on is lacking? Inevitably, the rich and the poor will benefit. National productivity will increase. This will ensure social stability. The elite class needs to be far-sighted enough to connect its interests with those of the ordinary people. We need a new hegemony.
Mamudu: This is an anecdote, and a story told many times because it fascinates and saddens in its narratives. It also tells about how rigged the system is against ordinary Gambians living in the rural areas. There is a place in the rural Gambia. Every year, they used to experience cholera deaths. The villagers would bathe, wash, and drink from the same stream. At a particular time in the year, cholera would come calling. Then one American Peace Corps, who lived there, came and sank a borehole for them, that borehole ended cholera in that village forever and ever. Life could be that simple!
When a significant number of people drink unsafe water, the consequences for their health are apparent. That is why we keep experiencing regular outbreaks of diarrhea diseases, notably cholera. Guinea worm disease, typhoid, and dysentery are products of drinking unsafe water. The government does give much priority about the social costs of the young and vulnerable children and women having to trek miles every morning, loading heavy buckets on their heads, to fetch water for their parents and family. Some do the round twice or thrice before going to school or before going to their rice fields and horticultural garden. For students particularly, they get to school tired and disoriented — and they then begin to teach them subjects such as chemistry and mathematics that requires a steady mind. This is wickedness. The next headline would be that 80 percent of candidates in rural areas failed their final exam papers. We cannot establish a link between water and education. Most grievously, they cannot establish a link between the wellbeing of a child and the development of the Gambia. We think the Gambia is backward by some coincidence.
The Gambia at 55 years of independence. Are ordinary Gambians better for it? The answer is no. The system is completely rigged against them. The elite send their children to prestigious schools be Europe and in North America.
Mamudu: Moreover, the rest of the poor people believe them and lead the way in infant mortality, water-borne diseases, and illiteracy. However, the thought leaders make them believe that perpetually keeping northerners in political power is in their best interest. That is how hegemonic ideology works — through “common sense” values, the hot topics developed for public engagement are ‘restructuring,’ ‘resource control — while most of the state-owned schools and hospitals are an eyesore despite substantial budgetary allocations. How many politicians and the powerful and the wealthy can allow their children to attend public schools? How many can allow their pregnant wives to give birth at public hospitals? Nevertheless, the thought controllers would rather talk about state police than question the mismanagement of resources by corrupt politicians. That is how the hegemonic ideology works.
Mamudu: According to Gramsci. He talked about the ‘bourgeoisie’ maintaining hegemonic values and norms to keep their hold on power; I would replace the ‘bourgeoisie’ with the ‘Gambian\ elite.’ The average member of the Gambian elite class sends his children to schools abroad, has borehole in his house, is well protected by the police, flies to the US or UK for medicals, and has a generator to bridge the power gap. The children are guaranteed jobs at corporate businesses, public, private institutions, and the banks. It is just a phone call away. The politician, the minister, the Director-General, and the Managing Directors are his friends. He could be the governor, the commissioner, the minister, the Director-General, or the Managing Director. It is their country.
Mamudu: To maintain this societal order, we have their own ‘institutions’ that control our thoughts and shape public discourse. In their corner, they have a legion of professors, journalists, activists, and elderly politicians who direct public discourse in a way that not only maintains the status quo but also diverts our attention from critical issues that matter to the ordinary Gambians. They are so powerful, and they always succeed in reproducing themselves among the ordinary Gambians. Go on social media. The patterns of debates are influenced by this hegemonic ideology built on ethnoreligious and regional sentiments, unconnected to the urgent existential needs of Gambians.
Mamudu: In the new Gambia, the institutions and the elite’s branches focus more on how the region can retain political power and maintain a hold on decision-making in the country by controlling the bulk of ministries, departments, and agencies through appointments and policies. They hardly devote their energies to combating the poverty that has rendered the region one of the most backward on the continent. Unfortunately, because the ordinary northerners have been brainwashed through the instruments of religion and politics to think that this current order serves them well, they are not interested in questioning how, or if, the status quo has made their lives better.