Developing a Multiethnic Ethos: How Colonial Legacies, National Policies, and Local Histories Converged in a Gambian Village Charter


  • Steven Thomson

    1. Pacific Lutheran University
    Search for more papers by this author
    • Steven Thomson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. His research on a multiethnic community in The Gambia has focused on kinship ties, ritual contexts, practices in the use of space, and community development.


This examination of local government reform in The Gambia asserts that – contra Mamdani's (1996) generalisations that colonial policies of indirect rule in Africa universally determined that ethnicity is the master code through which ordinary people interact with local manifestations of the state – in some cases colonial administration contributed to more pluralist local politics. Further, I argue that the logics of developmentalism have joined with local models of political legitimacy to generate communities that actively choose to define themselves explicitly as multiethnic entities. My case study focuses on the process conducted in one village of drafting a constitution for its Village Development Committee in anticipation of the Local Government Act of 2000. That a local community took advantage of such a critical juncture to reassert its own moral order is not surprising; however, that this local moral order explicitly recognises and protects ethnic diversity runs counter to dominant narratives about Africa that equate ethnic diversity with conflict.