Reawakening Gambian culture through trade – and vice versa
Sona Jobarteh is traditional and modern, local and global, music-minded and business-minded. Above all, she is Gambian.
‘Anywhere I go, it’s always to represent The Gambia,’ Jobarteh says. ‘I am proud to represent the smallest country in West Africa.’
As a master of the kora – a 21-string West African harp – Jobarteh has become a sort of spokeswoman for her country, travelling the world and performing in countries including Brazil, Ghana, India, the Republic of Korea, Lithuania, Mexico and Switzerland.
Only those born into a West African griot family can take up the kora professionally: Jobarteh’s grandfather is an icon in Gambian cultural and musical history and her cousin is also known for his mastery of the instrument. Unique to Western Africa, griots are historians, storytellers, poets and musicians who have traditionally advised royalty.
While the griot profession is not a male prerogative, ‘women don’t play the kora inside the griot tradition,’ Jobarteh says. ‘It’s a male tradition, and it has been for 700 years. To take it professionally, there are really very few women who do so and in The Gambia there are none – besides me.’
‘We struggled to promote our culture outside of the Gambia, so the fact that there is a person doing such a thing is only taken as a positive thing.’
For her country as a whole, promoting a new image is also a priority. The Gambia is undergoing changes and re-emerging on the global scene after 22 years of authoritarian rule. President Adama Barrow was elected in December 2016, opening the way to social, economic and cultural development.
‘Trade is the driver of inclusive growth and prosperity,’ said Vice President Fatoumata Tambajang during the Aid for Trade Global Review 2017 at the World Trade Organization in July. ‘Women are excited with the change. Youth are excited with the change. They are creative, they have the political will, they want to move with their lives, they want to really increase their contributions to nation-building.’
Jobarteh is among those seeking to move forward. The first step is to raise scholastic standards.
‘Getting an education – a good education – is vital to your success internationally,’ says Jobarteh, who studied in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the Royal College of Music and SOAS University of London. SOAS is the only higher-education institution in Europe that specializes in the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, according to its website.
‘Just as important was going back to Africa after completing my degree courses,’ she adds. ‘So many people leave the country and don’t return after they gain their qualifications. We are not getting the right expertise coming in and the people who are best suited to develop the country are Gambians themselves.’
Youth in particular would benefit from members of the diaspora returning home to share knowledge and skills. The average Gambian is under the age of 21, according to the World Factbook of the Central Intelligence Agency. High unemployment, especially among young people, has driven both domestic migration and migration abroad.
Fostering entrepreneurship and creating quality jobs at home would help strengthen and stabilize The Gambia and benefit other countries, especially those that have traditionally received migrants.
Somewhat unexpectedly, music can play a key role in making this happen.
‘Culture is very important for opening up avenues to trade,’ Jobarteh says. ‘We can use that as a channel to train people in areas that they otherwise feel a little bit intimidated to enter because they may not have the qualifications.’
Because music, culture and the arts easily cross borders, they can serve as gateways to business and entrepreneurship.
Jobarteh is doing this by a process she calls ‘institutionalizing aspects of our culture’. She established the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music for children and youth, which specializes in Manding music, one of West Africa’s oldest surviving musical traditions. The goal is to invest in the youth and keep traditions alive by adapting to modern times.
She is also partnering with the International Trade Centre through The Gambia Youth Empowerment Project, funded by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The project is designed to reduce migration pressures in the country by fostering youth entrepreneurship and job creation through the production of value-added goods and services, as well as stronger links to international markets.