Gambia's people eager to share native artifacts

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Most museums collect things no longer used. Not so Gambia's National Museum. Once a week an old Mandinka man comes to the capital city of Banjul, climbs the steps of this ethnographic museum and walks directly to an artifact positioned near the staircase. There, he worships. The artifact is a pre-Islamic ritual bundle known as a jalango. The man praying before it formerly owned and used it at his home - until choosing to offer it to the museum. One might argue that an item so central to someone's life belongs in his immediate personal surroundings and not in a public museum. But the museum's curator, Burama Sagnia, believes that the public display of such items is essential in identifying, valuing, and protecting Gambia's diversity of traditional cultures. At Mr. Sagnia's urging, Gambians have become eager to share their heritage. ``Originally people were hesitant,'' he says. ``Now they ask me, `Do you have my family in the museum?'''

The museum opened in February 1985 in conjunction with the 20-year independence celebration of Gambia. Since then, it has been a busy educational and ethnographic center. It has drawn students, teachers, and the general public throughout Gambia, as well as some 2,000 tourists a week during Gambia's peak tourist season in January and February.

The museum is divided into three sections: ethnographic, prehistoric, and historic. The ethnographic section reveals the nonwritten cultural traditions of the region's various tribal groups. The displays here include contemporary examples of both everyday and ceremonial life - from tools such as etched gourds and handcarved bowls to startling initiation masks made of cowrie shells. With the help of life-size photographs and figures, they are shown in context. Unfortunately, the museum has been in direct competition with tourists in its efforts to collect artifacts that tell the story of Gambian peoples. Says Sagnia, ``There is a tendency nowadays among certain individuals to make private collections of artifacts with the aim of selling them to tourists at fantastic prices. This has ... become a serious constraint to our work.''

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A prehistoric gallery displays relics recovered from archaeological sites and offers clues as to what life was like from 6,000 to 1,000 years ago. One display discusses the mystery of the hundreds of megalithic ``stone circle'' sites scattered across the middle Gambia River Valley.

The historic gallery touches on the history of early Senegambian kingdoms; European and African contact in the region from the 15th-century trade era through the colonial period of the 19th and 20th centuries; Gambian resistance movements against European penetration and colonial rule; the struggle for independence; and the recent birth of the Senegambia Confederation.

The museum is unusual not only in its degree of public participation, but in its origin. In 1966, anthropologist Peter Weil and his wife, Cornelia, a journalist, ventured to the back water Mandinka village of Kwinella, in south central Gambia.

The Weils arrived at a time when the valuing of education was spreading inland from the country's coastal urban center. Every day, a troupe of Kwinella schoolchildren visited the Weils after classes. One 10-year-old caught the attention of the couple: ``Burama Sagnia stood out from the other children, not only because he was tall and skinny for his age, but because he often asked questions about what we were doing and why we were doing it,'' says Weil. ``In addition to acting as a translator, he discussed with me farming, religion, and many other things that I was working on.''

After the Weils left Gambia, Sagnia went on to become a professional researcher and ethnographer - recording the cultural ways not just of his village but of his entire country. ``Weil planted the seed for me,'' says Sagnia today, sitting in his book-laden office in the museum. Another seed planter was Sagnia's great-grandfather. ``He had a wealth of oral tradition and told us stories every night. His name was Farma Tamba Sagnia, and he always said he was the first chief to hold the British flag [after the 1894 peace treaty between Gambia and Great Britain].''

What most outsiders don't realize, says Weil, is that the people in this and other African regions have never been static.

``The British didn't think that Africans had a history. They assumed these people hadn't changed in the course of time.'' But that, Weil points out, was because they were looking in their own history books, centered on their own political-cultural movements. Today Africans, including Sagnia, are writing their own histories and revealing their part in the shaping of the past and future.

Formerly this white, two-story edifice with its cool grass courtyard and border gardens was an exclusive club for British colonial officers. But today, the building is deeply African - a museum conceived, planned, stocked, managed, and visited by Gambians.

As soon as Gambia, the smallest of African nations, gained independence, a cultural committee was formed with the long-range intention of creating a national museum. But the project didn't get under way until the creation of the 1974 Monuments and Relics Act, which outlined the ways of collecting and preserving artifacts.

At that point, Sagnia was appointed research officer. It was his task to review and expand the Cultural Archives collection of relics, which, at that time, lay in a dark and damp basement of a government building.

Sagnia and a handful of co-workers spent much time in the field gathering artifacts and the ethnographic data. Ultimately, Sagnia wrote every label in the museum and was instrumental in planning the layout of exhibits.

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