Thursday, September 6, 2007

An Arab, a White Man, and an African

An Arab, a White Man, and an African went to visit God. God said to them 'I will give you whatever you want - just name it'. So first the Arab came up, and he asked for wisdom, and God said 'So shall it be', and the Arab was wise. Then came the White Man, and he asked for wealth, and God said 'So be it', and the White Man became wealthy. And the African? God asked "What do you want, my Son?". The African shrugged. "Oh don't worry about me, Lord", he replied, "I only came to keep the others company".

If you're a Gambian who grew up in The Gambia, you've probably heard this tale or variations of it. It's narrated more as a joke than anything, perhaps as someone's funny explanation of why we're behind everyone else in the world, during an after-dinner conversation. Yet funnily enough, this joke tells quite a lot about Gambians and their belief system.

1) The Three Races.

First, the three races. You will notice that there is an Arab (a Narr), a White Man (a Toubab), and an African. To the average Gambian, these are the only three types of people in the world, and every human being on the planet falls into one of these categories. This makes it very simple to classify people - they are either toubab, narr, or one of us. Being able to do this also makes it that much easier to neatly pigeonhole everyone into a tight stereotypical container (all Gambians know, for example, that Jews are rich but bad people, etc.)

2) The foolishness of the black man.

Whilst the representative of every other race chooses a gift, the African is so silly he does not think to seize the opportunity and ask for something useful for us. Yet at the same time the story is also excusing the African: he says "I am only here visiting" - he believes he does not deserve what the others are getting because whilst they are there specifically to ask for gifts, he only came along to accompany them. So instead of being crafty and pretending he is one of them, his honesty makes him tell the truth, and get nothing as a result. Thus the image of the African as an honest (maybe even likable) person who is only inferior because he is too naive, and not as coldly calculating and manipulative as the others. [1]

3) The Arab is Wise, The White Man wealthy. We just tag along.

Stereotypes exist all over the world, and The Gambia is no exception. Islam is the primary religion in The Gambia, and Islamic knowledge (of the Quran and Hadith) is put at a higher level in most people's estimation than Scientific knowledge (Imams and Oustasses are certainly more respected than Scientists[2]), hence the stereotype of the Arab as wise (Islam is Arabic). The wealth of the White Man is something that is universally believed to exist, mainly due to Hollywood and life in the west as portrayed in movies, and the many people who go abroad poor and come back (relatively) filthy rich. [3]

4) God as the giver of gifts, and how ours awaits us in the afterlife.

God giveth when he wishes, and God taketh away, etc. Gambians are very religious, and finding an openly Gambian atheist is even more uncommon than finding an openly gay Gambian. [4] Another thing you hear someone say along the same lines sometimes is that God gave the toubabs wealth in this world, and gave us wealth in the other (the afterlife), so there is nothing that can be done about that particular problem except wait for ours. People say this with a resigned air and a knowing smile (yes, you can have both at once), shaking their heads slowly up and down as they think of the heavenly pleasures that await us. On seeing a wonderful gadget or technique, the first thing people say is: "Toubabs are Djinns". This regardless of whether the object they're exclaiming over was made in China, Kenya, or next-door Senegal: if it's technology it's a Toubab's work.

[1] This only applies to this particular story though - at other times and in other stories the African is behind because he is too cruel, he does not like his fellow African, he is an idiot, etc. Every African has an opinion about why Africa is poor. return

[2] Except, perhaps, Doctors - but then they are a special case. return

[3] Thanks to the currency exchange rate, a Gambian-Dalasi millionaire would only be as rich as an average citizen in the US, for example, whilst an average citizen there earning the same amount (in dollars) here would live quite a comfortable - even wealthy - life. return

[4] I myself know of only one (openly atheist, that is, not the other): the distinguished Medical Doctor and Poet Lenrie Peters. I remember as a child watching him profess his atheism in a TV interview (to be honest I remember the scandalized reaction of my mother and her friends more than I remember anything else about the event). I have never met him, but he must have been a very brave man to do that, on national TV. return

1 comment:

  1. This is a story that most Gambians learned at teenager. The danger is one grow up believing that White and Arab man is meant to be wise and rich and Black man stupid and poor. I think the fact that God is mentioned in the story most tend to believe that it might come from the Quran or even a Hadith.

    When the story is being said it should be in the spirit of showing our laziness to wards development and not just mare and counterproductive jokes.