THE GAMBIA has a number of ethnic groups or tribes which collectively constitute the Gambian nation.
The country has eight major ethnic groups. And there are smaller groups which are equally important as an integral part of the nation.
Smaller indigenous groups include the Badibunka, the Balanta, the Bambara, the Bayot, the Hausa, the Mandjak, the Mankanya, and the Mansoanka.
We are going to take a look at them in general and focus on those which are broadly representative of the country as a whole in terms of culture and demographic composition.
The Mandinka, Malinke or Mandingo are the largest. They constitute almost half of the entire population. And they are broadly representative of The Gambia in many fundamental respects, a status attributable to their numerical preponderance and the role they have played in the establishment and evolution of The Gambia as a nation.
Their language is the most widely spoken indigenous language in The Gambia.
The Wolof are another major group. Although they’re the third-largest after the Mandinka and the Fula, they are highly influential in many areas of national life. They’re also the dominant group in the Banjul urban area.
Some observers believe that Wolof will one day become the lingua franca of The Gambia, replacing Mandinka.
In addition to being the main local language across the country, Mandinka is also dominant in the rural areas, and Wolof in the urban areas.
Many Gambians, especially in the urban areas, also mix English with local languages, a phenomenon that has led to the creolisation of the English language especially among the Aku, an ethnic group composed of descendants of freed slaves.
Many Akus are also descended from interracial relationships between Europeans and black African women during the slave trade and through the years thereafter including the colonial period.
The mixture of English with local languages is also common in other parts of Africa. For example, in Tanzania where Swahili is the dominant language, many people, especially the educated, like to use English words and phrases when they speak Swahili, a practice that has led to the development of what is now known as Kiswanglish, although it has not acquired the status of a separate or distinct language the way pidgin English or Creole has in many parts of West Africa.
But before we look at each of the Gambian ethnic groups in some detail, we’re going to take a look at The Gambia as a nation from a cultural perspective and try to see how the people across the country live in general, especially in their traditional societies.
Cultural Landscape: An Overview
It’s probably not an overstatement to say that some cultural fusion has taken place in The Gambia through the centuries even before the country was created by the British. That is because of the close cooperation and interaction including intermarriages among the different ethnic groups inhabiting the area that came to be the country of Gambia as we know it today.
Another strong binding force is Islam. The people of Gambia are also united by Islam not only as a religion but as a way of life. Islam is a religion. But it’s also a way of life which has helped the people of Gambia to forge a common identity and a united nation.
It’s also equally true that each ethnic groups has its own customs and traditions and other practices in spite of this cultural integration. Yet there are cultural elements probably among all the ethnic groups which are a product of cultural fusion that has taken place through the centuries among the different tribes in the area of Gambia and probably in the larger region of Senegambia as a whole.
In some cases, cultural affinity has historical roots. For example, the Wolof and the Serer share a common ancestry, as do other groups, even if they took different paths afterwards. Besides the language, Serer customs are also similar to Wolof customs, an affinity that has helped to foster, maintain, preserve and promote harmonious relations between the two groups.
Harmonious relations are sometimes a product of inter-dependence. Different groups of people are not self-reliant all them time. They need each other. This leads to a close relationship attributed to survival, but also quite often simply to love and respect for each other.
The close cooperation among the different ethnic groups in The Gambia, and the oneness of Gambians, is also demonstrated by the fact that many Gambians feel closer to fellow Gambians from different ethnic groups than they do to their fellow tribesmen in neighbouring Senegal and other countries in the region.
For example, the Wolof constitute the largest ethnic group in Senegal and the third-largest in Gambia. They straddle the Gambian-Senegalese border. Yet not all members of the Wolof ethnic group in Gambia feel closer to their kinsmen in Senegal than they do to fellow Gambians of other tribes.
They feel closer to fellow Gambians regardless of the tribes they belong to. The same applies to other Gambians whose ethnic groups straddle the Gambian-Senegalese border and whose members also live in other countries such as Guinea and Mali.
It’s an attribute many Gambians share and one of the most important attributes of their national character and identity. It also shows how Gambians live as individuals and as a nation. It also reinforces their cultural identity as one people which transcends ethnic loyalties.
But even this cultural identification of Gambia as a single socio-political unit has not eliminated ethnic distinctions in terms of identity and was never intended to. The existence of tribes or different ethnic groups is an integral part of African identity in any African country especially south of the Sahara. Therefore elimination of tribal or ethnic distinctions through a deliberate policy of social engineering would be a disaster and a negation of African identity.
These distinctions extend to other spheres and areas of life including the way people earn a living. For example, in The Gambia, the Seharuli are heavily involved in local trade. In fact their name, “Serahuli,” is virtually synonymous with “traders.”
They’re also farmers and live mainly in the Basse region in the eastern part of Gambia. They’re also the newest ethnic group in the country. They fled from religious wars in Senegal and settled in Gambia in the 1800s. Their dialects include Azer and Kinbakka. They’re also known as Serahule.
The Jola are known for the cultivation of rice and live mostly in Fula District in the Western Division. Living in virtual isolation in deep forests and swampy areas, they were among the last people in The Gambia to embrace Islam.
The Fula are known for cattle ownership although there also large numbers of sedentary Fulas, making both pastoral and sedentary living an integral part of the Fula culture and way of life. They have strong cultural and historical ties with the Tukulor. The Tukulor are mostly farmers and livestock owners.
The Serer – sometimes known as Serere – have a reputation as fishermen and as boat builders. They’re prominent in coastal areas. And together with the Jola, they are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the area that came to be known as the country of Gambia.
The Mandinka, mostly engaged in farming, are among the most well-known people in West Africa who excel as griots. They’re also known for their music which has ancient roots. And the kora, one of the musical instruments they use, is considered to be a symbol of Gambia’s national culture and identity.
The Wolof who live on the north bank of the Gambia River are mainly farmers. And those in the Banjul area are prominent in business and in the civil service. The Wolof are also renowned for their griot tradition common among many ethnic groups in different parts of West Africa.
Other groups are known for different activities. But one of the most important aspects of Gambian national life is that all these activities – interests, roles and specialties – transcend ethnic boundaries even if some groups are identified with specific social and economic functions more than they are with others. A lot of this has to do with the close cooperation the people of different ethnic groups have enjoyed for centuries, in spite of the conflicts they have had in their long history in the past.
Centuries of intermingling including intermarriage has also led to a situation where different ethnic cultures and “the national culture” overlap, with many aspects of tribal cultures assuming a national character. It’s a phenomenon that can be described as the universalisation of tribal cultures in Gambia’s cosmopolitan context, while at the same time creating a truly national culture with distinct characteristics….
Besides the main ethnic groups – Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Jola, Serer, Serahuli, Manjago, and Aku – there are other groups. But they are smaller and not officially acknowledged probably because they settled in The Gambia only recently, compared with the other groups which have lived in the country at least for more than100 years.
The smaller indigenous groups are Balanta, Papel, Susu, Jalunke, Mankaan, and Mansuwarka.
There is another group, or it can be said there used to be another group, called Bayinunka. It was one of the oldest tribes in the region of Senegambia. But it’s almost extinct. There are no people who speak the Bayinunka language anymore. Those who still exist and who can identify themselves as Bayinunka have already been assimilated into larger groups and no longer claim their distinctive identity. They also speak other languages as their primary languages, mainly Mandinka and Jola.
But their brethren still exist in the Casamance Province in southern Senegal and in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau which borders Casamance. And they still speak the Bayinunka language.
The ethnic groups which exist in Gambia today are inextricably linked with other groups in neighbouring countries. They share historical and cultural ties with the people of Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone. In fact, most of them migrated to what is now Gambia from other parts of West Africa.
That’s why they share ethnic ties and many cultural values, customs and traditions with the people in those neighbouring countries. They’re basically the same people separated only by national boundaries drawn by the colonial rulers who partitioned Africa.
The migratory pattern clearly shows this common identity and where the people who now live in The Gambia originated.
The Mandinka, of the old Mali empire, once dominated the whole area from the north bank of the Gambia River to the Fouta Djallon, or Futa Jallon, a mountainous region in west-central in Guinea. They’re also one of the major ethnic groups in Guinea and are found in many other parts of West Africa.
In Guinea, the Mandinka are called Malinke. In Liberia, they’re known as Mandingo which is also probably their most well-known name especially to the outside world; it’s also one of the most well-known names for tribes or ethnic groups in Africa like the Zulu, the Masai (really Maasai), the Ashanti, the Kikuyu, the Hausa, the Igbo and the Yoruba, among others.
In Mali, the Mandinka are called Bambara. And in the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, they’re known as Jula.
It’s only in The Gambia where they’re officially known as Mandinka.
The second-largest ethnic group in Gambia, the Fula – also known as Fulani, Fulfulbe, Pulaar, or Pul – may have ancestral ties to the Berbers in the northern part of Africa….
They look like Ethiopians. And some claim they originated in the Arabian peninsula. But there is no proof of that….
One of the major groups in The Gambia, the Wolof, are believed to have migrated from southern Mauritania. The biggest wave of migration took place during the religious conflicts in the 1800s when the Wolof settled in the area that later became the country of Gambia. Their biggest stronghold was the area that’s now Banjul and the north bank of the Gambia River. They earned a reputation as traders and as boat builders. The Wolof are also known as the Fanafa on the northern bank of the river.
The Jola entered Gambia from the wetlands of the Niger River and introduced rice, cotton and palm seeds into the country. Although they’re one of the main ethnic groups in Gambia, especially in the coastal region, they’re also a major tribe in Casamance Province in Senegal and in Guinea-Bissau. They’re also known to be the most traditional people in Gambia in terms of religious practices, sticking to their tribal beliefs, in spite of the fact that most of them are Muslim. Some are Christians.
The Serahuli entered Gambia only recently in the 1800s as shown earlier. But they have a noble history. They were once the rulers and merchants of the old Ghana empire. Apart from being farmers and traders selling a variety of items including gold and diamonds, they’re also known as excellent weavers of strip cloth, and as pottery makers which they highly decorate.
The Serer, one of the oldest groups in The Gambia together with the Jola, migrated from an area north of the Senegal River and settled in the northwestern part of the country. Although they’re now dominant along the mouth of the River Gambia where they’re engaged mostly in fishing, they also move from place to place following the fish wherever and whenever they migrate to other parts of the river.
The Serer also have ancestral ties to the Jola. And besides linguistic similarities, the Serer also share cultural ties with the Fula.
The Manjagos migrated to Gambia from the coastal region of Guinea-Bissau. They were migrants workers, working as seasonal workers in Senegal and Gambia. And some of them settled in the coastal regions of Gambia and Casamance Province. They’re farmers but are also known for producing palm oil, making palm wine by tapping oil palms, and for rearing pigs….
Many Akus who are racially mixed are also a product of unions between African women and Europeans, including traders, who settled in Africa or who simply went there, and stayed for some time, for commercial purposes.
And although most Akus are Christian and have European names because of the strong European influence in their lives including the Western values freed slaves who settled in The Gambia and in Sierra Leone brought back Africa, some of them are also Muslims.
They also live mostly in the Banjul area, the most urbanised part of the country which is virtually an outpost of Western civilisation in the country.
And because of the dual identity of some of the Akus, as a product of Western civilisation and predominantly Islamic Gambia, some of those who are Muslim have first Muslim – Arabic – names but European surnames.
In Sierra Leone, the people who are called Aku in The Gambia are known as Krio or Creole. And a very large number of Akus in Gambia are descendants of Creole immigrants from Sierra Leone.
It should also be remembered that the people in West Africa migrated from East Africa – including the Great Lakes region and other parts in the eastern part of the continent – thousands of years ago, probably about 5,000 years ago. And the people in East Africa today migrated from West Africa, especially from what’s now eastern and north-central Nigeria – the Benue Plateau – and Cameroon about 2,000 years ago. Some also came from other parts of West Africa. So, basically, all these people have the same origin.
In the case of Gambia, the different ethnic groups have now formed a homogeneous whole in terms of national identity. But they have not fused to create an organic whole. Each group has retained its identity without compromising its place in the country as an integral part of the nation….
Indigenous religious systems differ in fundamental ways, although Islam has virtually supplanted them. But they still exist. And they differ from tribe to tribe.
The Jola are probably the most well-known group who adhere to their traditional religious beliefs with tenacity, although the vast majority of them are Muslim. There are also Christians among them even though they constitute only a small minority as much as they do in other indigenous groups….
The people have intermarried through the centuries, cutting across tribal lines, resulting in the creation of societies which can not claim to be pure in terms of tribal identity.
Also, a lot of migrations have taken place through the centuries. Many people from different tribes in other parts of the region of Senegambia and beyond have been absorbed by the tribal communities in The Gambia, becoming an integral part of those societies.
One of the main factors which inspired and facilitated such migrations was trade, besides wars and natural calamities including drought and problems like land shortage and overpopulation which forced the people to move elsewhere. As Professor Boubacar Barry of the History Department at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal, states in his book Senegambia and The Atlantic Slave Trade:
“Senegambian societies, made up of domestic communities ranging from villages to states, were by no means autarchic, even if the subsistence economy played a very important role.
As a whole, Senegambia was integrated into a regional and long-distance inter-regional trading system. To start with, there was the exchange of agricultural products for dairy products, fish and handicraft products. The complimentary interactions of these economic sectors was a permanent reality that determined the operations of local or inter-regional trading circuits.
Cereal trading between the sedentary populations of the Senegal River valley and the Berbers of present-day Mauritania was particularly important.
At the same time, there was a lively trade in fish, mainly from the mouth of the Senegal River to the upper Valley, where it was traded for millet.
A second circuit led to the rice-producing Southern Rivers. There was also the inter-regional trade in cola, cloth, indigo dye, and iron bars, transported through the Southern Rivers toward the savanna and the Sahel.
As a rule, trade in agricultural and handicraft products, as well as in produce gathered wild, went on between zones producing and zones needing them. The result was a complementary economy involving the varied exchange of produce from the savanna, the Sahel, the mangrove swamps, and the forest.
This inter-regional trading system linked Senegambia with three major trading zones: to the north with the trans-Saharan trade; to the east with the Sudanese trade along the Niger Bend; and finally to the south, with the forest trading circuits of Sierra Leone.” – (Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and The Atlantic Slave Trade, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 32.)
This pattern of trade also led to inter-cultural relationships and exchanges and eventual assimilation of members of some groups by some of the people they interacted with. And as Boubacar Barry goes on to state:
“Senegambia is a transitional zone between the Sahara, the Sudan, and the forest belt. The region exhibits a measure of economic, political and social unity symbolized by the millet and milk diet of the north, the related rice and palm oil culture of the Southern Rivers, and the fonio and milk diet of the Futa Jallon plateau.
This peasant culture runs parallel to the cultural influence of the khalam, the kora, and the jun-jun, musical instruments imparting a characteristic beat to the daily lives of these societies situated at the junction of so many diverse influences from the Sahara, the Sudan, and the forest.
Though economically rather independent of each other, each with its subsistence economy, these societies were by no means isolated from each other. Individuals and groups did a great deal of traveling in all directions. When they reached a different community, they intermingled according to the rules of their host communities, in a region where there was still plenty of space for incoming migrants.
In the process, people switched ethnic groups and languages. There were Toures, originally Manding, who became Tukulor or Wolof; Jallos, originally Peul, became Khaasonke; Moors turned into Naari Kajor; Mane and Sane, originally Joola surnames, were taken by the Manding royalty of Kaabu.
There was, in short, a constant mixture of peoples in Senegambia, destined for centuries to share a common space. Senegambia, in some respects, functioned like a vast reserve into which populations in the Sudan and the Sahel habitually poured surplus members.
In their new home the immigrants created a civilization of constant influx, in which ethnic identities were primarily a result of the mutual isolation of domestic communities caused by the subsistence economy.
Nowhere in this Senegembia, where population settlement patterns assumed stable outlines as early as the end of the fifteenth century, did any Wolof, Manding, Peul, Tukulor, Sereer, Joola, or other ethnic group feel they were strangers – (ibid., pp. 34 – 35).
However, that was not going to last forever. The rise of European imperialism was to have a profound impact on these traditional societies and in a way that would change the destiny of the entire continent:
“From the late fifteenth century, this common destiny, related to Senegambia’s role as a transition zone, or even as an outlet for the Sahel and the Sudan, changed profoundly. Up until then, Senegambia’s Atlantic coast was of little significance.
Then contact with the European maritime powers gave it unprecedented importance. That contact brought about deep economic, political, and social transformations. From now on the pre-capitalist societies of Senegambia came under pressure from a Europe in the full force of its capitalist expansion.
From that point on, it becomes impossible to understand the development of Senegambia without factoring in the impact of the European trading system, an external factor which monopolized exchanges between Africa, America and Asia by conquering the international market.” – (Ibid., p. 35).
While European conquerors deliberately encouraged and fostered divisions among different African tribes to facilitate imperial rule and consolidate their power, their divide-and-rule tactics did not always succeed. They did succeed in solidifying ethnic identities to some degree. But Africans continued to interact even if not as extensively as they did before because of the constraints and restrictions imposed on them by colonial rulers.
And what had already taken place through the centuries could not be undone.
Therefore, because of all the interactions which had taken place through the centuries, the indigenous people had achieved a degree of integration – through commercial intercourse, migration, as well as intermarriage between members of different tribes – which could not only be undone or neutralised by the Europeans; it formed the basis on which Africans built nationalist movements in their quest for independence from colonial rule.
So, there are no pure tribes or ethnic groups, not only in The Gambia but in other parts of Africa as well.
But there are distinct tribal or ethnic groups, with their own identities, even if they’re not pure. And most of them want to preserve those identities.
People from other tribes who have been assimilated become members of the tribes which have absorbed them and identify themselves as such.
If they are Mende from Guinea and become a part of the Mandinka traditional society, they become Mandinka in terms of ethnic identity. They adopt Mandinka values; they speak the Mandinka language, observe Mandinka rituals, and uphold Mandinka customs and traditions.
And in our survey of Gambia’s cultural landscape from tribe to tribe, we are going to start with the Mandinka who are not only the largest ethnic group in The Gambia but one of the largest in West Africa and on the entire continent.
The Mandinka or Malinke are also known as Mandingo or Manding or Maninka.
Probably their most well-known name outside Africa is Mandingo.
They speak the Malinke language of the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo family.
Besides The Gambia, they also live in large numbers in Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Senegal.
Others in substantial numbers are found in Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Ghana, and Chad, in that descending order.
About 99 per cent of them are Muslim. Although they’re mostly farmers, they’re also known to be very good fishermen.
Historically, they had a caste system. Vestiges of the system continue to be some of the identifying features or characteristics of the Mandinka society even today in sharp contrast with some of the other traditional societies in The Gambia.
The Mandinka are also have a long history in the area that’s now Gambia. And their caste system not only shaped their society in a profound way; it also had a major impact on its destiny and that of the entire region dominated by the Mandinka; a point underscored in a book co-authored by Professor Arnold Hughes, director of the Centre of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham, and Professor David Perfect, in the United Kingdom, Historical Dictionary of The Gambia:
“The Mandinka have long been resident in The Gambia, probably moving into the area in the late 13th or early 14thcenturies. They were certainly fully established on both banks of the the Gambia River by the 15th century.
Mandinka society was divided into three endogamous castes – the freeborn (foro), slaves (jongo), and artisans and praise singers (nyamolo).
Age groups (kaafoolu) were important in Mandinka society, in contrast to the sociopolitical organizations of neighborring Wolof people.
The basis of life for the Mandinka was, and is, agriculture, although they were also the dominant traders on the Gambia River.
In the second half of the 19th century, cultivation of groundnuts became the major activity for most Mandinka male farmers (women have tended to cultivate rice).
By 1800, the Mandinka provided the ruling class – and most of the inhabitants – of all bar one of the 15 kingdoms below the Barrakunda Falls.
Rule in each of these states was based upon kinship, and each king (mansa) surrounded himself with a complex of bureaucracy.
The kingdoms were subdivided into the territorial units of the village, ward, and family compound.
Village administration was carried out by the satee-tiyo (alkaaloo) in council. Each village was further divided into kabilos (wards), which were administered by a kabilo-tiyo, chosen on the basis of his lineage as well as his abilities.
The kings each maintained an armed force to defend the state and impose their will on their subjects. Because they were not themselves permitted to lead troops, the rulers chose a general (jawara) for this function.
The Mandinka systems of rule were challenged in the later 19th century by proselytizing teachers who wished to convert the Mandinka to Islam.
The ensuing conflicts led to the Soninke-Marabout Wars, which resulted in the breakdown of traditional Mandinka authority structures in the Gambia and the conversion of most Mandinka to Islam. With rare exceptions, most notably D.K. Jawara, few Mandinka converted to Christianity.” – (Arnold Hughes and David Perfect, Historical Dictionary of The Gambia, The Scarecrow Press, Inc.; Fourth Edition, 2008, p. 141).
President D.K. Jawara himself returned to Islam and changed his first name from David to Dawda.
Even in this era of globalisation which has witnessed the spread of Western values and civilisation even further than before, most Mandinkas are still Muslim. Christianity has done little to penetrate the Mandinka traditional society.
And while Islam is sometimes considered to be “native” to Gambia and many parts of Africa because it has existed there for so long, its counterpart, Christianity, is not.
Christianity is also equated with Western civilisation and even with colonialism or imperialism since it helped pave the way for the colonisation of Africa. As Jomo Kenyatta once said: “The white man came and told us, ‘shut your eyes, let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, it was too late. Our land was gone.”
Therefore on the Mandinka cultural landscape, Christianity is an anomaly, sharply contrasted with Islam which is an integral part of Mandinka culture.
The Mandinka traditional society has also been known for its ability through the centuries to accommodate and elevate some slaves in a way they never would have been had its caste system been rigidly enforced.
Slaves constituted the lowest social class. Yet many domestic slaves became an integral part of the families for whom they were worked and were even treated as true family members.
Even today, the people who are descended from these castes are aware of their historical position under the caste system which determined their social status, conferred rights and privileges, and determined their fate.
They lived within prescribed limits, including restrictions and prohibition against intermarriage between members of different castes; a phenomenon that still exists today in some cases. According to a work by some Gambians and others, Sunjata: Gambian Versions of the Mande Epic:
“The ‘jali’ as a social institution dates back at least to the time of Sunjata (also known as Sundiata), and has been, and remains, a cornerstone of Mande culture.
Mande society consists of three broad social categories: the horon (Mandinka: foro), who are the ‘freeborn’ – roughly equivalent to nobility – descended from rulers, and not attached to any particular occupation; the nyamakala(Mandinka: nyamolo), those who are born into certain professions or trades, for example music and other specialized verbal and performance arts ( the jali); and the jon (Mandinka: jong), descendants of slaves and captives.
There is, still today, little intermarriage between these groups, which represent a form of social hierarchy, with the nyamakala in the middle.” – (Bamba Suso, Banna Kanute, et al., Sunjata: Gambian Versions of the Mande Epic, Penguin Classics, 2000, p. xvi).
Several other tribes in The Gambia had the same system. And they all have remnants from the old social order….
With regard to the Mandinka and related groups, Professor David C. Conrad of the History Department at the State University of New York, Oswego, New York, and Djanka Tassey Condé, state the following in their book Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples:
“Today historians and linguists have identified the closest living languages descended from those spoken at the royal court of the Mali Empire. These constitute a branch of the Mande language family referred to as ‘Manding.’
This Manding group includes important languages such as Maninka (Fr. Malinke), Bamana (Fr. Bambara), Dyula, and Mandinka. These Manding languages have a high degree of interintelligibility, and some scholars prefer to characterize them as dialects or regional variations of a single language.
The Manding branch forms a continuum, with its epicenter in ‘Manden,’ the name given to the heartland of the old Mali Empire, and radiates outward from Mali and Guinea as far as Senegal in the west and Ivory Coast to the southeast.
There are perhaps as many as 20 million speakers of Manding languages, with about half of that number speaking a Manding language as a first language.
For linguists, the entire taxonomy of Mande languages in West Africa is based on levels of genetic interconnectedness to the core Mande languages known as ‘Manding.’
In West Africa the names of ethnic groups and languages are often the same. For example, one can be a Mandinka and speak Mandinka, or be a Wolof and speak Wolof – a non-Mande language. It is also possible for a Mandinka to speak Wolof, just as an Englishman might speak French.
Scholars speak of a ‘Mandinka people’ just as they refer to a ‘Mandinka language.’ Likewise, scholars have found it useful to talk of ‘Manding peoples’ – like the Mandinka or the Dyula – as a cultural subset of Mande language-speaking peoples, in the same way that ‘Manding languages’ are a branch of a much larger Mande language family.
It must be stressed, however, that there is no specific Mande or Manding language, but instead Mande and Manding languages.
In the same way, we cannot talk of the Mande or Manding people, but rather Mande and Manding peoples (emphasis by the authors in the original text, not by me – Godfrey Mwakikagile).” – ( David C. Conrad and Djanka Tassey Condé,Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2004, pp. xxxiii – xxxiv).
In addition to their transnational identity, the Mandinka also have a proud history as the descendants of the founders of the great Mali Empire which encompassed a vast expanse of territory which includes the areas of several countries in West Africa today.
One of its most prominent leaders was Sundiata Keita. He was the founder of the Mali Empire.
The Mandinka in The Gambia also have a unique distinction among all the Mandinka – or Malinke or Mandingo – groups. That’s the only country where they constitute the largest ethnic group. In the rest of the countries, they’re a minority.
Like their brethren in other countries in West Africa and in Chad in Central Africa, they live in compounds which comprise related members. The compounds collectively constitute a village. Therefore, a village in Mandinka’s traditional society is a community of related members.
That’s the not the case with all the tribes in West Africa or in other parts of the continent.
Also, the majority of them don’t have a high level of literacy in terms of what’s described as Western education since it was brought to Africa by Europeans. But the majority of them can read Arabic even if they can not speak it fluently. Their knowledge of Arabic comes from studying the Quran in Quranic schools, a common practice in all the countries where Islam is practised.
They also acquire indigenous knowledge, as a form of education, from an early age. Boys are taught by their fathers, and girls by their mothers, responsibilities to their families and to their communities.
This kind of education is acquired from practice by using the skills they have been taught. The learning process in the traditional context also includes proverbs, which are nuggets of wisdom accumulated through the ages; it also includes songs and stories.
So, while it may be true that the majority – as in other tribes – don’t have Western or modern education, they are not ignorant. They have the wisdom and practical skills they need to be effective members of their traditional societies.
It’s the kind of education they need to be productive members of those societies. Any other kind of education they can’t use is meaningless.
But there is also a need to acquire what’s called modern education because it can also be used in traditional societies to make life easier and better.
The oral tradition play a very important role in Mandinka culture. In the absence of the written word, it’s the repository of knowledge. It’s also used to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next. And it has been used for centuries.
Griots are central to the Mandinka oral tradition as reservouirs of knowledge and history of the Mandinka society. And the role they play is one of the most prominent features of the Mandinka traditional society; so is the musical instrument, the kora, which is virtually synonymous with Mandinka identity.
The kora is played when the griot is narrating oral history, singing praise, telling stories or playing any of the other roles he’s traditionally assigned to play. Or it can be played simply as a musical instrument even when there’s no griot performing his duties.
The role of the griot, who is also known as the jali, has been described in the following terms by some Gambians in their book Sunjata: Gambian Versions of the Mande Epic:
“In pre-colonial days, it was the freeborn who were the patrons of jalis. A particular family of jalis would remain for generations with a freeborn family, and thus they acquired detailed knowledge of the genealogies and family histories of their patrons.
One of the main functions of jalis is to sing or recite family histories and lineages on ritual occasions, and the story of Sunjata is an example of this type of recitation.
Part of this verbal art consists of reciting the ‘praise names’ of a family – with extensive use of obscure epithets such as ‘cats on the shoulder,’ not always directly understood, but often representing some episode from an important moment in the family history.
These name have the effect of heightening the emotional tension of a narrative – without necessarily advancing the story – and Mande listeners who are praised in this way by a skilled jali will often reward them generously.
The jali has many other important ritual and social functions. He or she acts as a go-between during disputes, as confidential adviser on many matters ranging from business to marriage, and as a public spokesperson. For example, it is still uncommon in the Gambia today for a local chief or other dignitary to raise his or her voice at a public meeting. Instead, the message will be passed in low tones to a jali, who will then proclaim the announcement, often embellishing the original words….
Although colonialism has undermined traditional systems of kinship, jalis continue to fulfil an important social role in contemporary Mande society, throughout the Mande diaspora.
Virtually any ceremonial or festive occasion requires the presence of a jali: their music is the ubiquitous backdrop to weddings, child-naming parties, religious festivities, national holidays, even political rallies.
Their praise songs in memory of former kings and warriors – often adapted to honour leading members of contemporary society such as businessmen men and politicians – fill the airwaves of radio and television stations.
The most famous of these jalis, especially in Mali and Guinea, sometimes receive gifts from their patrons of extraordinary generosity: money, houses, cars, land, even, in the case of one female singer, a small airplane.
They are symbols of traditional Mande values in the modern world….
A Sunjata tune, one that is sung to proclaim his bravery – ‘Death is better then disgrace’ – was adopted as the Mali national anthem….
Thus the Sunjata story circulates widely in many guises.
Full-length epic recitations, however, are now rare. They tend to be reserved for special, ceremonial occasions such as the re-roofing of the sacred hut (kamablon) in Kangaba (Mali), and only certain jalis are authorized to participate in the performance.
To our knowledge, no such ritual or commemorative occasions exist in the Gambia, being far away from the Mande heartland. Instead, the most likely contexts in which a long version of Sunjata might be recited are the sumungolu. These are private informal gatherings held in the evening at a patron’s house, in which the jali sits and recites stories, with musical accompaniment, for the patron’s edification and entertainment.
The atmosphere at such gatherings can be highly charged, with frequent interruptions and excited exclamations of ‘It’s true!,’ as the jali evokes the great heroes of the past through song.” – (Sunjata: Gambian Versions of The Mande Epic, op.cit., pp. xvi – xvi, xviii).
Also central to the Mandinka way of life is the rite of passage. The practice starts at an early age preparing the young for adulthood as responsible members of society. It involves both boys and girls….
Inextricably linked with all this is religion. Success in life, whether one adheres to the teachings of the elders or not, is also determined by forces beyond one’s control. And that’s when religion, including traditional beliefs, come into play. Most Mandinkas who have embraced Islam also practise traditional beliefs.
The most important figure in all this is the marabout who can do good or evil on behalf of the individual seeking his help.
Marabouts invoke the Quran when performing their duties. And they give their clients talismans or amulets for protection.
Hidden inside the protective amulets the people wear to ward off evil or attract luck are verses from the Quran copied and written on a piece of paper by the marabout. Even many highly educated people believe in the power of these protective amulets and talismans. As stated in Sunjata: Gambian Versions of The Mande Epic:
“Parts of the Mande world, especially near the heartland, have been Islamic since the time of Sunjata. The Mandinka, however, were among the last group of Mande to be converted to Islam, a process which did not fully take place until the end of the 19th century.
Their practice of Islam therefore retains many aspects of pre-Islamic belief in esoteric power, and this is amply reflected in the two Sunjata texts in this book.
Thus, we find in these narratives that the religious clerics, locally known as marabouts, are continually called upon by both Sunjata and Susu Sumanguru to fabricate power-objects such as amulets, as well as to engage in various forms of divination.” – (Sunjata: Gambian Versions of The Mande Epic, op.cit., p. xvii).
Some Christians in the Mandinka tribe – and in other ethnic groups – also practise traditional religious beliefs, incorporating them into their Christian faith. But they’re also an anomaly in a predominantly Muslim society. Some of them have even been isolated or rejected by their Muslim families for embracing Christianity.
But in spite of all that, the country remains tolerant of diverse religious beliefs even if there are cases of intolerance by a number of individuals here and there. Religious intolerance is not an omnipresent phenomenon in The Gambia.
Still, with the exception of Gambia’s Creole, the Aku, all ethnic groups have been strongly influenced by Islam not only in terms of worship but also in the way they live. Even their languages have been influenced by Islam. The Mandinka are no exception. According to a work edited by Anders Pettersson, Literary History: Towards A Global Perspective:Notions of Literature Across Times and Cultures:
“Many Islamic elements have been culturally transposed and integrated into the Mandinka people’s language, orature and daily life.
These originally Islamic categories live their own lives as naturalized parts of the Mandinkas’ world. Obvious and well known, the Mandinka consider them integral to their own culture and even use them as expressions of their cultural identity.” – (Anders Pettersson, ed., Literary History: Towards A Global Perspective:Notions of Literature Across times and Cultures, Vol. 1, Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2006, p. 287).
Their culture is Malinke in essence, hence African in origin, in spite of the foreign elements – including Islam – which it has incorporated.
It’s a dynamic and resilient culture. And it’s highly productive across the spectrum and has been that way for centuries.
The Mandinka or Mandingo or Malinke have also produced some of the most well-known African leaders in modern times. They include Sekou Toure who was the first president of Guinea, and Modibo Keita, the first president of Mali. And so is Jawara, of course, the first president of The Gambia.
All these Mandingo leaders spearheaded the independence struggle in their respective countries. And the history of their people is inextricably linked with colonial history, as demonstrated in the case of The Gambia. As Professor Paulla A. Ebron of the Anthropology Department at Stanford University states in her book Performing Africa:
“In The Gambia, Mandinka culture and history has seemed by far the most suitable…for a nation-making heritage.
Mandinka constitute the largest ethnic group in The Gambia. Under British authority, Mandinka chiefs residing primarily in the Upper-River division of the country formed the backbone of the system of indirect rule. Mandinka culture became the unmarked ‘native’ culture of colonial discourse in The Gambia.
At independence, important Mandinka families maintained political prominence. Furthermore, Mandinka had the heritage of kingdoms that could allow the nation to imagine a politically powerful past and future. They were not merely a circumscribed ethnic group; they were the descendants of kings.
The heritage of kingdoms allowed national historians the possibilities of imagining once and future political power and independence. It allowed a sense of the kind of political relationships that might productively order an independent and active political space.
Culture as custom simply orders everyday life; culture as imperial heritage makes possible a politically powerful present and future.” – Paulla A. Ebron, Performing Africa, Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 90).
Culture also reinforces an already existing identity and helps to construct a new one in a larger national context by invoking a glorious past and even a not-so-glorious past….
The Fula – or Fulani or Fulbe or Peul – are one of the most prominent ethnic groups in the entire West Africa, not just in The Gambia.
They’re found in many countries in West Africa. Some also live in western Sudan. They constitute a minority in all those countries except Guinea where they’re the largest group, making up 40 per cent of the total population.
In spite of their minority status in most of the countries in which they live, they have been highly influential in the region for centuries. In Nigeria, for example, they have together with their allies the Hausa dominated the government since independence.
They have been rulers in different parts of West Africa, a dominance that’s also partly responsible for the creation of a caste system in their society and in the societies they have ruled.
Their rise to prominence in spite of their numerical inferiority in the region is as fascinating as it’s intriguing; so is their history. According to an article, “History Corner – Peoples of The Gambia: The Fula,” in one of Gambia’s leading newspapers, the Daily Observer:
“Various versions have been given by historians about the origins of the Fula.
One version is that they were originally a Berber-speaking people who crossed the Senegal to pasture their cattle on the Ferlo Plateau.
Finding themselves cut off from their kinsmen by the Negroid communities occupying the fertile Senegal valley, they gradually adopted the language of their new neighbours.
As their herds increased, small groups found themselves forced to move eastward and so initiated a series of migrations throughout West Africa.
Another main version given about the origins of the Fula is that they originated in the lower basins of the Senegal and The Gambia as a result of a mixture between Berbers from the Sahara and the Wollof and Serer peoples.
This view is held because, among other things, the Fulani language is akin to the languages of these peoples. The union between Berber, Wollof and Serer was said to produce two distinct groups of Fulani with differences in racial and occupational characteristics.
One of the groups, the predominantly Berber portion, marked by their olive skin and straight hair, stuck to the nomadic mode of life and became known as the Bororoje or Cattle Fulani.
The other group of Fulani, known as the Fulani Gidda, was the Negroid portion who were agriculturalist and town dwellers for the most part.
Whatever explanation is accepted about the origins of the Fula, it is known that by at least the seventh century, the Fula were a distinct people in the Western Sudan and among the first West Africans to embrace Islam.
Fula society was also a stratified society of three main social groups. At the top of the social ladder were the Rimbe who were free men and included farmers and traders.
Next to the Rimbe came the Nyenyube who formed the artisan class and finally the Machudo who were the servant class.
The Nyenyube class included the Gaulo or praise signgers, the Bailo who were the smith, the Garanke or leather workers and the Laube who were weavers.
The Gaulo were oral historians who played the important role of preserving Fula traditions and culture.
The Fulas who first migrated into The Gambia area were non-Muslim pastoralists who came to ask for protection from the Mandinka Mansas into whose states they brought their cattle.
They lived in small communities in the chief Mandinka towns and cared for the herds and flocks of the Mansas in return for projection against attacks from hostile groups.
Nine dialects have been identified, reflecting different areas of origin, period of arrival and considerable cultural diversity. This diversity seems to have dissipated the political impact of their numbers.
In the nineteenth century, the main Fula settlements were in the kingdoms of the upper river: Wuli, Niani, Kantora, Tomana and Jimara.
Generally, the Fula migrants acknowledged the authority of the Mandinka Mansas and village chiefs over the use of land. A mutually beneficial relationship existed between them and the Mandinka leaders. In return for the protection afforded the Fulas by the Mandinka Mansas, the Fula brought wealth and prestige to those communities they settled in.
In their spread throughout West Africa, the Fula founded states called ‘Imamates.’
The Imamate was a new kind of state in West Africa where the head of state was also the Imam and leader of the mosque.
Futa Jallow was the first of these Imamates. The ‘Al-mamy,’ who ruled the state, was very powerful and claimed to rule in the name of Allah, but had to listen to the advice of his counsellors.
The Al-mamy was the military commander of his state heading an army that was based on a strict system of compulsory service.
One of the most remarkable examples of the dispersal of peoples in West Africa is afforded by the Fulani.
Today some of the best cattle attendants in West Africa are the Fulani and are to be found in almost every part of the Savannah-Sahel region from The Gambia to Sudan.
The Fulani began their migrations into the regions of Ghana, Manding and Songhai between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, entering Hausaland in the fifteenth century.
In all these areas, they maintained their traditional way of life, the Bororoje sticking to the rural areas, and the Fulani Gidda to the towns.
Because of their literacy in Arabic, the Fulani Gidda were employed in Hausaland as civil servants, diplomats, and tutors at the courts of the Hausa kings, while some of them established schools of their own and taught Islamic theology, law and Arabic grammar.
One of these Fulani Gidda was Ousman Dan Fodio who was born in 1754 in Hausaland but whose ancestral family had migrated to the area from Futa Toro some fourteen generations before.
Places like Bauchi and Adamawa became converted to Islam for the first time.
If today Islam is a force to reckon with in Nigeria, and in deed in the modern states of The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and Niger, it was because of the Fula-led revolutionary Islamic movements of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in general, and that of Ousman Dan Fodio in particular.” – (“History Corner – Peoples of The Gambia: The Fula,” in the Daily Observer, Banjul, The Gambia, 5 February 2008).
Usman Dan Fodio established a Fulani dynasty in northern Nigeria, dominating the entire region, and is one of the most prominent Fulanis in history. Other prominent Fulanis include Nigeria’s first prime minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; and the first president of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo.
One of they ways which has enabled the Fulani to spread their influence in many parts of West Africa is their nomadic lifestyle.
This lifestyle has also influenced their language through the years. Many words from the languages of the people they have intermingled with have been incorporated into the Fulani language.
The Fulani were among the first people in West Africa to convert to Islam. And they played a major role in spreading the religion through Jihad, facilitated by their nomadic lifestyle and by trade.
So three factors were responsible for the spread of Fulani influence in West Africa: Islam, nomadic lifestyle, and trade in which the Fulani have been engaged for a long time. They’re some of the most prominent traders in West Africa.
Nigeria provides one of the best examples of Fulani influence and power, which is an integral part of their culture, in that region of West Africa. As stated in a book edited by Professor Maghan Keita of the History Department at Villanova University, Conceptualizing/Re-Conceptualizing Africa: The Construction of African Historical Identity:
“Though the Jihad had been conceived in a spirit of egalitarianism, and drew its support from a socially diverse population, its leadership had been primarily Fulani.
The Fulani became the primary beneficiaries of the emirate system. In fact, with the exception of Yakubu of Bauchi, all of the emirs were Fulani, though some Habe – non-Fulfulde speaking – leaders, like Abd al-Salam, were also given high positions in the new administration (Johnson 1967).
This new Fulani ruling elite controlled the wealth producing military functions – the procuring of booty and slaves – which reinforced the new system of social stratification.
Fulani ethnicity which, though present, had not been politically important prior to the Jihad, began to define political relationships in the nineteenth century.
Greater power and higher status accrued to Fulani clan leaders who consolidated their control through intermarriage and clientship; office holding became associated with religious knowledge, ties to the Jihad, and kinship (Hendrixson 1981).
The Fulani restated the traditional stratification system in ethnic terms; ruling was identified with the Fulani.
However, the complexity of this system of social stratification should not be underestimated. Certainly there was a Fulani aristocracy, but the relationship between the Fulani, as an ethnic group, and the rest of the population, was often ambiguous.
Through interaction, intermarriage and the subsequent assimilation of the non-Muslim, nomadic Fulani into the multi-ethnic, sedentary society of Kasar Hausa, geography and occupational specialization retained their considerable importance as foci of identification.
The Caliphate was still an ethnically heterogeneous polity in which being ‘Hausa’ was not the critical variable which separated the talakawa from the emerging Fulbe – Fulfulde speaking – aristocracy; nor does it follow that because Islam provided the ideological justification that united this vast empire, that it was conterminous with a ‘Hausa-Fulani’ ethnic group prior to the British conquest at the turn of the century.” – ( Maghan Keita, editor, Conceptualizing/Re-Conceptualizing Africa: The Construction of African Historical Identity, Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002, pp. 21 – 22).
The complexity of this social stratification which was not exclusively Fulani in terms of demographic composition is illuminated further in this context:
“If we turn to Katsina in the second half of the nineteenth century, we can see that the complex political, social, and economic relationships in the emirates of the Sokoto Caliphate can not be reduced to simply Fulani ruling over Hausa.
For example, in the reign of Emir Ibrahim (1871 – 1883) there were three main sections of the central administration in Katsina,which were called bayin sarki (lit: slaves of the emir). They were responsible for conducting the official business of the palace, the treasury, and the army directly under the emir; they also collected taxes throughout the emirate.
Besides being the primary executive arm of the emir, the bayan sarki provided many of the officials responsible for regulating and supervising specialized economic activities such as weaving, dyeing, tanning, woodcarving, building, salt trading, market and caravan organization, butchering, and the cultivation of various food products.
The bayan sarki formed a distinct social strata (sic) of heterogeneous origin, but with a corporate identity and outlook. Moreover, some of the bayan sarki had lineage affiliations which could be traced to the pre-jihad government, while others were recruited from groups which had moved into Katsina more recently (Usman 1981).
This phenomenon was not unique to Katsina. We see an ethnically heterogeneous ruling structure emerging in many of the emirates in the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, although detailed information about every state is not immediately accessible, there is evidence to suggest the prominence, if not the predominance, of slave officials in late nineteenth century Jam’are, Adamawa, Nupe, and Ilorin (Smaldone 1977).
Indeed, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the ascendancy of slave officials of various ethnic backgrounds, especially as military commanders, seems to have been universal throughout the Sokoto Caliphate. Furthermore, during this period, the power of ethnically heterogeneous palace slaves, equipped with firearms, was increased in the emirates, and that of the Fulani hakamai was circumscribed.” – (Ibid., pp. 22 – 23).
The Fula who settled in The Gambia did not rise to prominence as the rulers of the area the way their brethren did in Nigeria and in other parts of West Africa. But they have, nevertheless, played an important role through the years in shaping the country’s cultural landscape as much as their brethren have elsewhere only in varying degrees of success.
The Fula in The Gambia migrated from Senegal, Guinea and Mali. And they established themselves in the Upper River area of Gambia in the 1800s….
Among Fula pastoralists, some women milk cows and take care of the livestock. That’s in sharp contrast with what goes on in many other traditional societies where men milk the cows and tend livestock. For example, in my tribe, the Nyakyusa, women don’t milk cows; men do.
But the practice – of women milking cows – is not widespread even among the Fulani, a fact documented by a number of researchers including Professor Lucy E. Creevey of the University of Connecticut who specialises in comparative politics and women in political development – among other areas – in her book, Women Farmers in Africa: Rural Development in Mali and the Sahel:
“Our methodology involved systematic observation of village women in their daily routines, interviews with women on selected livestock-related topics, meetings held with groups of women to ascertain their opinions concerning livestock practices, and development and administration of a questionnaire which was given to seventy-one women concerning their current livestock practices and their attitudes about possible women’s roles in the development of the livestock sector….
Young women go on transhumance with their husbands, but in general are not responsible for herding cattle or taking them to waterholes. However, women sometimes go ahead, to look for new pastures. Vaccinations and other medications for animals are usually paid for by the men in whose herds the animals graze.
The importance of cattle to Fulani women lies particularly in the milk they produce. All of the women who were interviewed milked cows. As women enter their husbands’ households, they are allocated cows for milking purposes. Women may also milk cattle belonging to their children, as long as the animals remain in the family herd and are not redistributed to the son’s wife or removed by a daughter to her husband’s herds.
All of the Fulani women we interviewed reserve part of each day’s milk supply for their family’s use. However, in the rainy season, when there is a good supply of milk, more milk is sold than is kept in the household. As the dry season progresses, cows produce less milk, and in January a woman may obtain only one liter from three cows, compared with six liters during the rainy season (Henderson 1980: 123). When there is sufficient milk supply, Fulani women also make soap, butter, and yogurt – ( Lucy E. Creevey, Women Farmers in Africa: Rural Development in Mali and the Sahel, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, First Edition, 1986, pp. 134, and 138).
So, among the Fulani, men still play a major role in taking care of livestock even when women milk cows. They also move from place to place with their cows in search of water and pasture during the dry season. This is especially done by younger men. As Mohammed Toure, chairman of the Great Fulani Association in Accra, Ghana – about whom more later – put it: “We follow our cow…and forget our home”….
The Gambia and Its People: Ethnic Identities and Cultural Integration in Africa
Author: Godfrey Mwakikagile
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: New Africa Press (29 October 2010)