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Assan Sarr, Islam, Power, and Dependency in the Gambia River Basin: the politics of land control, 1790-1940.

Assan Sarr, Islam, Power, and Dependency in the Gambia River Basin: the politics of land control, 1790-1940. Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press (hb US$49.95-978 1 58046 569 4). 2016, 224 pp.

Islam, Power, and Dependency in the Gambia River Basin puts land at the centre of Gambian history, offering a land-centric analysis of the 'political and social transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' (p. 2). Sarr ably demonstrates how, from the days of the Soninke rulers to the times of British colonialism, land became a tool for power grab and control.

Chapter 1 discusses how the Mandinka migrated to the lower reaches of the River Gambia largely because 'they wanted rich and fertile lands on which to farm' (p. 58). Making thoughtful use of oral traditions, Sarr points out that the spasms of migration by Wolof, Fula and Mandinka into the River Gambia region were underlain by the need to have land for farming, pasturage or Islamic holy village settlements.

Chapter 2 asserts that, from the late 1700s onwards, the Mandinka had 'effective ... control over both the land and people' (p. 60) and used land as a measure of wealth and as a means to cement their 'domination over other groups' such as the Jola and Bainunka. Political control was exercised through the king or mansa at the macro level of the state and by the village heads or alkali at the village level. The mansa augmented his power by making sure that he controlled the best and most useable lands, only giving land to strangers on his own terms. Since land meant livelihood, the mansa was an overlord in more ways than one. Through ownership of land, the ruling Mandinka/Soninke elite maintained their favoured status.

Chapter 3 explains how the Muslim reformers or marabouts used spiritual ceremonies to clear malevolent forests into useable new land. Land ownership created two centres of power in the River Gambia areas: the Mandinka Soninke and the marabout. Delving into superstitions about spirits, juju and ritual sacrifice, Sarr explains how land was seen 'as vacant' (p. 86) and could be 'cleared' and made useful through juju and by driving away the jinns occupying it. According to Sarr, 'clearing' land had a double meaning: it could mean cutting the trees and shrubs, and also driving away the imps and goblins to make it safe for use. The marabouts cultivated groundnuts in their newly 'cleared' lands and established holy villages far from British settlements, which gave 'them power and prestige' in the process. As time went on, they became audacious enough to wage wars against Soninke rulers in what became known as the Soninke-Marabout wars (jihads) in Gambian history.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to this epoch in Gambian history. Martin Klein and David E. Skinner have written so much about the Gambian jihads that it would seem hard to write anything new. Yet Sarr adds that these jihads were waged principally to own land (p. 114). The marabouts waged war to wrest control of land from the old elites, such as the 'Manneh, Jammeh, Sonko, Bojang' (p. 114), who soon lost that control and therefore their power and influence. The old order faded.

Chapter 5 discusses the new order established by the marabouts. They became efficient groundnut farmers and thus endeared themselves to the British, who promoted the production of cash crops. Sarr here implies that marabouts were accepted because they preached a new religion and were seen as efficient slayers of the dragons that occupied the forests, and were thus able to open up new land for groundnut farming.

The final chapter discusses colonial rule, describing how the British helped displace the marabout landowner class through land ordinances that gave administrative control to newly invented chiefs. Just as the Soninke lost control of land to the marabouts, the marabouts now lost control themselves. As the willing tools of the colonial state, chiefs exercised immense power through their control of land.

The sections on Gambian women's struggle over land ownership in the 1920s and 1930s are tantalizing and deserve longer discussions (pp. 178-9). Equally worthy of discussion is the role of religious women (or, as Nwando Achebe terms it, the 'female principle'), especially Jola priestesses in southern Gambia, in liberating land for human use.

Sarr concludes by arguing that, no matter who was in charge, 'land's political and social value persisted' (p. 186). An apt statement for the New Gambia, where, since the demise of the Jammeh dictatorship, investigations have revealed that the ex-president has over 200 parcels of land in all parts of the country, including monkey islands in the River Gambia. This useful book must be read by Gambia's current rulers to understand why Jammeh would want to own hundreds of lots of land in a country of only 10,000 square kilometres.

Hassoum Ceesay

University of The Gambia

hceesay@gmail.com

doi: 10.1017/S0001972019000238
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Author:Ceesay, Hassoum
Publication:Africa
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2019
Words:817
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