A Confused and Conflicted Society: Westernization without Modernization

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Author and cousins at his maternal family home (Ngum Kunda) in Tujereng village, The Gambia, Circa 1990.

By: Dr. Sulayman Njie, PhD

Dr. Sulayman Njie

The Body is the Ultimate Witness to Love. Ocean Vuong, one of the brightest writers and thinkers of our time, once noted that in his homeland of Vietnam, love transcends mere words and is expressed through actions and service. The body, he contented, serves as the ultimate witness to love. This revelation resonates deeply with me, having grown up in a Gambia where love was demonstrated similarly — through tangible acts of service and care rather than the Westernized expression of “I love you” followed by material gestures.

Westernization Sans Modernization. In contemporary Gambia, like many third-world countries in the age of social media, imported consumption outshines true sustainability. People appear more advanced than what the country can provide, having embraced Western ideals without substantial modernization. The wholesale adoption of Western practices has left our identity consumed by imitating the Western way of life. The concept of romance is now synonymous with spending, measuring love by monetary gestures on birthdays and milestones.

Gambians, both at home and abroad, worship at the altar of materialism. Love and romance in The Gambia have been reduced to splurging, making contemporary love seemingly inaccessible to a large swath of the population.

Contemporary Gambian love often manifests through conspicuous consumption — buying flowers, elaborate dinners, engagement rings, elaborate valentine’s gifts, and celebrating every milestone — all meticulously choreographed and documented on social media. Many, including myself, are conditioned to partake in this consumer-driven enterprise.

A Confused and Conflicted People. Notwithstanding, this new phenomenon — westernization without modernization — is already disrupting our social fabric, unraveling the very foundation upon which our traditional society, characterized by expressions of love through service and action rather than mere “I love yous” and materialism, was built.

For a while now, our society has been falling apart, splitting at the seams, birthing a confused, conflicted, and ever-more Westernized people sans modernization or even a serious understanding of why we are participating in this enterprise.

The confusion is evident in people’s loyalty, often more committed to their families of origin than the families they’ve created. This stems from traumatic experiences in multigenerational and polygamous families. Such experiences, when brought into Western-style relationships, lead to inevitable outcomes like divorce, now normalized in our society. Many marriages, including my own, face collapse due to competing demands and impulses, a result of a lack of commitment and devotion to partners. Specifically, almost all my peers and friends are either in their second marriages or on the brink of a divorce. This says a lot about our society.

When Shall we Learn? Interestingly, we’ve witnessed similar trends in the West, notably the United States, where families have been teetering for decades, as historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg noted in their 1988 work: “Americans are groping for a new paradigm of American family life, but in the meantime, a profound sense of confusion and ambivalence reigns.” Thus, the disruption caused by replacing cultural mores and practices without expecting consequences like divorces and dysfunctional families is a challenge. Westernization without modernization, in a conservative, conflicted, and confused society like The Gambia, has answers that are not theoretical but observable and knowable.

David Brooks, in his well-sourced piece for the Atlantic titled “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake,” notes that behavior changes before realizing a new cultural paradigm. In times of social transformation, tiny arrows shift direction, unnoticed for a while until people recognize a new pattern and values emerging. This perfectly describes the Gambian conundrum — a new paradigm has been created and we have no idea what we are doing, much less the ramifications and the far reaching implications of this new cultural paradigm.

Hope. However, all is not forlorn, for humans are adept at adapting. When old ways stop working, people cast about for something new, sometimes finding it in something very old. Notwithstanding, that something new — westernization sans modernization — is already upending our social contract, unraveling the entire edifice upon which this society of old — the society where love was manifested through — not mere “I love yous” and materialism — but service and action was built.

A better Gambia is ours for the asking —

Sulayman Njie, PhD

Washington, D.C.

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