Sunday, January 29

‘Shwen Shwen-cracy’

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For my younger readers, I must say that there was a time before this one. The world wasn’t always like this. I might not qualify to talk of the past long forgotten for I myself have yet to experience the thrills of a time machine but where a machine has been absent, I have found my head buried in the books of time. To me, they are a path to the past and to the way things used to be once upon a time. Now before the Bill Gates and the Warren Buffets there used to be a family known for its wealth. The books I have buried my head in called them the “the landlords of New York”. Their imprints can be found all around the United States of America and the world of Hollywood. My first encounter with them was during the movie Coming To America. If you’ve never seen the movie, you deserve to be eaten by a lion! A lion from Zamunda!

It was at the Waldorf Astoria in New York that King Jaffe Joffer and his wife Queen Aeoleon stayed while they searched the entire city for Akeem. Carrying their name everywhere they went, the Astors symbolise old money in a world where families inter-married with cousins to keep bloodlines clean and clear. The Du Ponts are said to have owned Michigan and still have traces of their wealth all over the United States of America. If you’ve banked at JP Morgan Chase, visited the Rockefeller Centre, the old World Trade Centre or passed through the Lincoln Centre, you have felt the presence of the Rockefeller legacy. That is the world around which the United States of America is built.

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Now, I must emphasise that in as much as I abhor the United States’ foreign policy and recognise the struggles that black people continue to experience even in the 21st century in the “land of the free and home of the brave”, the tough structures that continue to serve its interest must be acknowledged and learnt from. Where many in the developing world continue to see money as the root of all evil, it was the families of immigrants that became the “old money” that has built what we have come to respect as the US of A. These families grew from butchery, gunpowder, and…ummmm…of course Oil!

Lest, I allow myself to be emotionally overtaken by the thought of billions of dollars in today’s money, this essay is not about the pursuit of happiness. I had a conversation a few months ago with a friend of mine who I most recently discovered to be Fula. I have found him over the years to be a fountain of wisdom. When time and space has allowed, we have shared drinks at “Sedal Sa Hol” talking about the country and discussing the polit…I mean policies. My old Fula friend (his name is too common for a man of his stature and wisdom) hold views that are very anti-government. I am unsure which political party has his ticket but I am quite sure it isn’t the incumbent. When we can manage, we skirt around the politics to ensure a lively and fruitful discussion but quite a few times, his views have caught me off guard.

Most recently, he kept me standing for a staggering thirty minutes complaining about the “death” (please do not mistake it with dearth) of old wealth in our country. Upon asking of the well-being of my father and his siblings, he cried disappointment on the fact that none of them took up my grandmother’s trade. For him, my grandmother represented an iconic figure in business at a time when even men didn’t know the true value of trade let alone women who were marginalised. The discussion then went further to involve the Njies, Carrols and the old families of wealth in The Gambia. The more names he mentioned, the sadder the story became. My Fula friend was taking this too far!

He spoke a truth though. As we climb the ladder of success and accomplishment, many of us make the same mistakes the generations before ours made. We are so consumed by the “better life” that in a bid to ensure that our children do not suffer in the hands of fate, we completely ward them off the corridors of business and entrepreneurship. It would be wrong to not acknowledge that it was on the shoulders of these people that our economists, bankers, teachers, politicians and so forth, were propped. However, the most fundamental value of wealth is in its transfer…and wealth must be transferred with knowledge.

My Fula friend was incensed by the belief that as Gambians, knowledge transfer is a foreign concept. Our problems as a country are many but the fact that every other generation of movers and shakers has to start with a clean slate is very much one of them. Where our super religious gurus see wealth as the devil’s tool, they must be reminded that it was (and continues to be) wealth that built and preserved the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Should they be reminded of the wealth of Rome that built and preserved the Catholic Church? Wealth, especially accumulated wealth is the cornerstone of any civilisation.

In our quest for wealth, we have gained it and together with it, created the “shwen shwens” of our time. My mother must have used that term a million times around me. I do not know if it is a slang or genuine Aku but it refers to an elitist society; the aristocrats. It is true that aristocracy (up until the invention of the computer and the many economic bubbles after it) remained the most essential pillar of growth for Europe and the USA. However, their version of aristocracy outside the afternoon teas and evening baths was one which boasted of the genius of invention and entrepreneurship. The aristocrats of Western civilization gave birth to inventors, business leaders, innovators and inspirational figures. Our version of aristocracy however boasts only of afternoon teas (or coffees) and evening spas.

I was told of a successful Gambian (still alive and active) who would take his children to the village he was born to show them his humble beginnings so as to inject the energy of growth into them. Today I must say, they stand as one of the most vibrant families in our young nation. Many of our wealthy forget to pass over the one well of knowledge essential for the preservation of family legacies; the desire to invent and re-invent.

On the issue of aristocracy, many papers and books have been penned. Most of these writings and musings have been against what societies call “corrupted aristocracy”. It is the form of aristocracy that made sure that at some point in history, 1% of the USA owned 40% of the country’s wealth. These papers however did not debate the necessity of a social class that in acquiring wealth, ensure that its proper management was passed down through generations and preserved the very structures of civilisation that are essential for national growth. A corrupted aristocracy lasts only as long as the public desire it to last.

In 1862, a paper was written in The Times (by Times I am sure you know I mean the New York Times) where the writer in his nom de plume said, “…we must never forget that it is not a war of sections, nor of parties. It is a class war. It is an ambitious insurrection of a powerful aristocracy for themselves. It is a war of the rich, in the interest of the rich, and is really against the poor and the middle class. It is the gentlemen’s rebellion. It arose with the upper class, it is borne by them, and it is forced upon others by their power. They are offering their wealth like water for it. The Southern aristocracy are now a compact, absolute military despotism – such as the world has seldom seen – able with the energy, ability and means of a few hundred thousand men to control the lives and destinies of millions who have no heart or interest in the struggle. It will be noticed that the aristocracies of the world everywhere sympathize with this powerful class…”

Where the west has, over the centuries battled with the extreme powers of a higher social class, we in The Gambia battle with its non-existence. Socialists will argue on the beauty of such an equation of equality. That is the ideal world, is it now? A world where all are equal and none lives better than the other. However, that is always far from the reality. Instead of having a higher social class that ensure that the burden of responsibility of the improvement of opportunities for the masses is assured, what we have is a musical chairs of wealth where each party makes the best during his or her time, squanders or loses the wealth and the next generation competes for the spoils.

Aristocracy might be the wrong term to use for my essay as it encourages the growth of an elitist society and we have all seen throughout history what that has done to many countries across the globe. However it must be said that historical and social commentators never advocated for the demise of our higher classes for that would be a futile argument. They however emphasized the need to disperse opportunities to ensure continuity and opportunity for growth. Our nation must be united in its approach to create wealth for its people. Those for whom wealth is created must be sensitive to the many at the bottom rung of society whose needs far outweigh the handouts sent their way.

The Gambia is not in contention for any of the top positions of business or entrepreneurship in our sub-region and this is not an issue of population size but the fact that Gambian wealth has never been accumulative. We live for today but not for tomorrow. Ku neka di lekka profittam. Where wealth has been accumulative, we have not ensured that it is passed down generations that are au fait with the noble ideals of entrepreneurship in creating employment for the masses and in inventing ideas that not only make money but support societal growth. We spend too much time creating bourgeois children that do not know the history of our wealth and our journey enough to appreciate a good day’s work and a good day’s pay. In doing so, we have created a generation of entitled aristocrats that do not care that the well has dried up but want to live like there’s no tomorrow.

A friend of mine once told me, “Never apologise for being wealthy”. I believe he was cracking a joke after my long walk from ‘Traffic Lights’ junction to Westfield but I got the gist of his statement. We cannot be a nation of the poor. To be a nation of opportunities we must ensure that our wealth remains in our coffers and is transferred into investment ideas that empower our people and not shackle them. To be truly free we must be able to rely on ourselves and that begins with the smallest unit in our society…then to our families before anyone else.


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