Senegambian Ethnic Groups: Common Origins and Cultural Affinities Factors and Forces of National Unity, Peace and Stability

Thursday, April 22, 2010

DEDICATED to my dear and beloved wife the late Aji HADDY CONTEH TAAL

who responded to Allah's eternal call on Saturday 2nd January, 2010

31A James Senegal Street, Banjul,The Gambia

(220) 9928680 / 4223091

e-mail: gedehalwar

January 2010


The main ethnic groups of Senegambia are Wollof, Hal Pularr (Toucouloor Peul, Fula terms that will be used interchangeably in this text), Jola, Mandinka, Serere, Sarahule/Soninke. Other important groups include Aku, Manjago, Bainounka, Bassari, Konyaji, Balanta, Mankanj. According to late Prof. Cheikh Anta Diop, eminent Senegalese scholar and Head of IFAN for several years, the ancestors of the major groups once lived in the fertile Nile valley but might have been forced by political and economic circumstances to migrate westwards across the Sahara Desert until they reached the western confines of the Sengambian valley a land's end bordering the Atlantic Ocean. With its two major rivers, the Gambia and Senegal, the new arrivals had found the right environment, not very different from the Nile valley of antiquity, to settle down. The numerous tributaries and bolons stretching in different directions facilitated the dispersal of the newly arrived strangers throughout the Senegambian basin and a more dynamic process of integration of the diverse groups of our ancestors.

According to a number of eminent scholars the process of integration of the diverse groups might have commenced its germination and active gestation in the Sahara of antiquity then a green and well-watered area. That continuous emigration was accompanied by extensive inter-ethnic integration, a process which gained momentum during the epic era of the Mali and Ghana Empires (9-13 centuries) and the successive States in the Senegambian area - Kaahou, Jollof Wuli, Saloum, Fulladu, Cajoor, Fouta, Sine, Foni, Fulladu and Kombo to name some. Evidence of this very early existence of the present Senegambian people along the banks of the River Gambia has been attested to by various well-known foreign historians, travellers and mariners who visited the River Gambia area of whom the most prominent include: El Bekri, the Carthaginians (Hanno) before the 10th century, Cada Mosto (1455), George Thompson (1618), Richard Jobson (1620) and Mungo Park (1795? 1797).

Genesis of Common Origins and Cultural Affinities

Almost all major ethnic groups are represented in most areas of Senegambia meaning that indigenous languages, religious beliefs, social values, patterns of living, traditional, social and political organisations are approximately identical or similar. Wollof, Peul, Serere, Mandinka, Jola and Sarahuli are spoken and understood in all parts of The Gambia and Senegal; indeed there is no region or area in either The Gambia or Senegal exclusively inhabited by one ethnic group as is often the case in many other countries in our continent and elsewhere with all the too familiar negative implications. And although group identity and allegiances are not unimportant, their impact is minimized by the existence of dynamic socio-cultural relationships, intermarriage and religion for example, that cut across diverse ethnic groups in a manner (frequency, scale and spontaneity) rarely found in other parts of the world or even in other African countries. These relations are continuously re-enacted within well defined historical, social and cultural paradigms that have survived the test of time and are generally understood and respected by Senegambians whatever their ethnic origin. That is why it is almost impossible to write the history or about the culture and traditions of any one Senegambian ethnic group to the exclusion of others as readers will discover from the facts in this discourse.

Jola and Serere

The common origin and parentage of the Sereres and the Jolas is a well known part of Senegambian oral History that is told and recalled almost on a daily basis. According to traditional sources two sisters, Eujeuny and Jambogne were in a canoe which capsized somewhere at sea around Sangamar at the entrance of the Saloum River (Gov. Saliou Sambou of Senegal). When the boat disintegrated each of them held on to a separate plank to stay safely afloat and the fast and whirling current sent them in different directions, one northwards the other to the south. The sister who landed in the North would become the ancestor of the Sereres and the other who landed in the South would be the progenitor of the Jolas.

With due deference to the Governor and in recognition of his scholarly writings on this and related subjects, I believe that from a geographical perspective and logic this incident could only have taken place around the mouth of the River Gambia because of the following reasons. Firstly and most importantly, the River Gambia is the natural divide between the Jolas and the Sereres in the Senegambia area, the former located in the south west bank of the River Gambia and the latter in the north west of the estuary of the River. Secondly, there is no indigenous Jola town, village or settlement north of the mouth of the big River just as there is not a single indigenous Serere settlement south of the River Gambia. Thirdly, if the canoe had capsized around the Saloum delta near Sangomar, as postulated by the erudite Governor Sambou, both sisters would have landed north of the River Gambia, if even on different locations, with the consequence that Sereres and Jolas would have been living today in the area lying between the north of the mouth of the River Gambia and the Sinc-Saloum delta; or more likely there would have been only one ethnic group, Serere or Jola, since it must be assumed that the two legendary sisters, (Eujeuny and Jambogne), could only have had common biological parents. Fourthly, the distance between Sangornar and Casamance is too far and the Atlantic Ocean too rough for a young girl or woman without a lot of sea experience to cross to safety on a makeshift raft. It is more likely that the calmer waters of the wide estuary of the River Gambia around Banjul Island could have been the parting of ways of the two sisters with Eujeuny landing somewhere on the coast of Niumi, the indigenous homes of Sereres of The Gambia - Koimg/Barra, Mbollet, Jinak etc while the other sister Jambogne could have landed around the creeks between Perang and Bintang in the south an area, we know, is predominantly Jola.

Other versions of the origins of Serere and Jola exist but the need for economy of space inhibits its exhaustive elaboration in this presentation. Suffice it to recall that not surprisingly Jolas and Sereres share a number of family names like Sanyang, Badjan, Manga, Sonko, Jammeh and Senghor to name some, with some of the most famous of the past being President Senghor, a Sine Sine Serere and the late Abbe Diamacoun Senghor emblematic leader of the Mfdc (Casamance). Musa Jamrneh and Manga II were great Serere champion wrestlers.

Serere, Hal Pularr and Wollof

Cheikh Anta Diop had defended the hypothesis that the Wollofs were not originally a group apart but the result of a process of metissage so to speak of different ethnic groups:

Serere, Lebou, T?oucoulor, Mandinka and Sarahuli who, in their evolution ie the Wollofs, transformed themselves into an autonomous "tribe" with a strong capacity to assimilate, absorb or integrate with all other ethnic groups. Being trans-ethnic par excellence their language has become a Senegambian lingua-franca spoken and understood by most other groups. Dr. David Gamble shares this view asserting, as Joire also did in 1951, that "the present-day Wollofs are Sereres more or less mixed with foreign elements, Fulbe, Sarahuli and Bambara/Sosseh". In fact, continues Gamble, "Wollof culture has very little that is not shared in some degree by neighbouring peoples". Dr. David Gamble whose scholarly work on the Wollofs of Senegambia was published in 1957 by the prestigious London International African Institute visited The Gambia several times in the 1950s and spent long periods in the country researching on the Wollofs whose language he spoke fluently. As a schoolboy I vividly remember him when I spent my holidays in Kaur, near Balanghar in Lower Saloum where Dr. Gamble spent a lot of time working. This was the period, I believe, when Master Teacher, Historian, Linguist, Journalist etc, Ba Tarawally, was Headmaster at Ballanghar School.

This extensive inter-ethnic assimilation has not spared any group. For example it is said that the Toucouloors are partly of Wollof origin while some traditional sources claim that Njajaan Njie, the legendary ancestor of the Wollofs, was the son of a Haal Pulaar woman.Yet another version attributes the source of the name Njajaan Njie to the Sereres according to the following legend: A mysterious being looking like a man used to surface from the waters of a lake in Walo (Northern Senegal), which was his abode, to pacify villagers living around the lake any time they were on the verge of waging a bloody battle. The details surrounding that incident, which space does not allow me to go into here, were so mysterious and awesome that when Rur Sine, ruler of the Sereres heard the story he was so astonished that he exclaimed "Njajaan Njaaye" which people around believed to be name of the strange being from the lake and the name Njajaan Njaay stuck. Induced to abandon the lake and marry a princess, the strange being became fully human and was made ruler of the riparian communities around which he founded the Jollof Empire to which the Serere Kingdom of Sine readily became a vassal state with the neighbouring States of Baol, Cajorr, Saloum and Walo following suit. The sources that subscribe to this version can also be found in Dr. David Gamble's scholarly work on the Wollof of Senegambia already mentioned above.

In a Paper, Parente culturelle entre les formations ethniques des Rivieres du Sud el du Nord du Senegal, Muhamadou Billy Gueye, Socio-economic Research Assistant recalls that at Mbasabu village near Ndofan on the Trans-Gambia Highway not far from not far from Farafenni, (Baddibou, Gambia), it used to be the tradition that newly born babies of Serere parents were brest-fed first by Peul women before the children's own mothers.

Similarly Sereres in the same area must avoid causing the outflow of a Peul's blood. It is in respect of these sacred tradition and unwritten societal rules that the famous Toucouloor saint and mujahideen of the 19th  century, Sheikh Omar Foutiyou, advised his talibe (disciple) Ma Ba Jahou Bah, Almami of Badibou/Rip not to attack Buur Sine and his people the Serere. The events and problems that followed are well-known and chronicled by authoritative traditional oral historians and in colonial history and need not be repeated here. Ma Ba was the father of Sait Maty buried at Cape Point (Sunbeach Hotel) and great-grandfather of late Imam Muhamadou Lamin Bah, one of the greatest Imam Ratib of Banjul (1953- 1983).

In the same vein the Toucouloors are, according to some anthropologists, the result of several processes of human integration and assimilation between Peul, Serere, Wollof, Lebou and Sarahuli making them also another truly trans-ethnic group biologically related to all the other groups in the Senegambian valley. Small wonder Wollof, Peul, Serere and Soninke languages have many words in common such as gari nyam (Serere) and arr nyam (Peul) meaning come and eat in both languages. The word peace isjamma in Wollof, Serere, Peul and Sarahuli while Maneh, nennah (Wollof), naanneh, nenneh (Jola), mbimi (Fula), nkoh (Mandinka), nti (Sarahuli) from the verb to say sound phonetically so close that they seem to come from a common linguistic root. As a matter of fact the late Prof. Cheikh Anta Diop had indicated in one of his numerous authoritative works that there is an evident linguistic and grammatical relationship between Wollof and Jola word formations; e.g. 'fofu, koku, yoyu' etc with their suffix variants existing in both languages.

More specifically, some serious research by ethnolinguists of the Cheikh Anta Diop school has demonstrated that there is a close organic relationship between most of the Senegambian languages. For example Peul and Serere are said to have in common 37% of their fundamental verbal roots, while the percentage for Wollof and Serere is estimated to be around 24%. Not surprisingly many Gambians understand and speak at least two or more of our main languages in addition to their mother tongue. Such evidence cannot, in my view, be a series of mere verbal coincidence that can be simply dismissed off-hand without further in-depth enquiry - a challenge to Senegambian social scientists, linguists and scholars in general. In this respect the use of the suffix in. our languages is a relevant indicator. Among the Mandinka it can determine an important fact like origins of people; e.g. nka can mean from, those or people of, or speakers of as in: Baddibunka (Baddibu), Niuminka (Niumi), Tilibonka (Tilibo/Mali ), Jarranka (Jarra), Mandinka and Malinke (Manding/Mali). Kaabounka (Kaabou). Woyenka (Woyc), Kassinka (Sine Sine ic Screre) to mention a few. This is very much like the Wollof prefix waa meaning the people of as in waa Banjul, wan Senegal, wan Basse, wan Brikama ,waa Sereyoung, waa Kaur etc.

NB. "Mandinka" occurring often in this text is a plural noun.

The Mande-Nka Migration

The Mandinka, in their later westward migration from Kaabou, Bajarr province especially, (now in present day Guinea Bissau) merged with the local populations in the areas they traversed like upper and central Casamance, the south bank of the River Gambia continuing northwards into Baddibu, Niumi, Niombaato, Sine, Saloum up to Mbour (where there is still a strong Mandinka presence) and even beyond. This itinerary had been preceded centuries earlier by a succession of emigration from their original Mande (Manding) homeland lying east (tilibo) of The Gambia between the tributaries of the Rivers Niget and Senegal in the upper reaches of the eastern plateau of modem Guinea and south western Mali. In the same vein Alhaji Sidibeh wrote: "Mandinka immigrants into the Cas.a region the indigenous name for Kaabou, came from the east from the regions of the Mali heartland with the main wave taking place during Trimangha's con quest under Sounjatta in the thirteenth century preceded by an earlier movement possibly a century earlier." According to oral traditions members of the Fati clan were the first Mandinka to reach the South Bank of the Upper Gambia River settling among Bainounka speaking groups and hosting Mandinka migrants who arrived later after them.

Out of the exodus from Kaabu emerged the Gelewarrs of Sine from whom Mansa Waly Jonn, widely acknowledged to have ruled in this traditional Serere kingdom, is said to have been a Manneh descended from the Kaabu Nyanchos. Repeating what had happened in Kaabu centuries earlier, the assimilation of the migrant Mandinka by the indigenous Sereres has been so pervasive that the migrant nyancho/gelewarrs progressively lost their original Mandinka culture and past. This partly explains why Serere and Mandinka share some family names like Sanyang, Manneh. Jammeh, Badjan, Sonko etc. Indeed two famous and iconic Gambian chiefs during the colonial era used to recall their Sine Sine origin (meaning Serere/Gelewarr) even though they were Mandinka ruling in traditional Mandinka districts in The Gambia; they were the late Tamba Jammeh, Baddibu and late Sajaa Mboge of Niamina.

A similar process of ethnic cross fertilisation had already taken place centuries earlier - in the 13th century to be more specific - within imperial Kaabou when the conquering Manding elite, Keitas, Traores (Trawally) etc, led by Sounjatta's famous General, Trimankang Traore, adopted through marriage the traditional clan and family names of the indigenous inhabitants who were mainly Bainounka and other ethnic group culturally close to them. The underlying reason was that succession to royalty and inheritance was determined by the matrilineal bloodline in accordance with the sacred and inalienable laws and traditions of Kaabou. Thus the newcomers integrated with the autochtones, the ruling Nyancho/Koring elite, which over time, made them the new and absolute masters of Kaabou extending its authority to peripheral states in the area lying between the Rivers Gerba (in present day Guinea Bissau), Casamance and Gambia, under a system that looked more like a Confederation than an Empire.

In his book "A Brief History of Kaabu and Fulladu (1300/1930)" Alhaji Bakary Sidibeh, described this process as follows : "During the conquest period, the Mandinka took wives and "consorts" from the indigenous groups, so that the Kaabu population rapidly became a melange of peoples retaining the surnames of Sane indigenous families but maintaining Mandinka language and customs ?. But before the arrival of the Mandinka emigrants, the indigenous inhabitants were mainly Bainounkas and related groups which explains why Mandinka share many names with some of these groups especially Jolas" the most common including Colley, Sambou, Sanneh, Manjang Jemmeh, Kabou, Badgie, Jasseh, Marong, Sanyang, Sonko, Nyabally etc. Aihaji Sidibe's postulate has been corroborated by a number of eminent scholars like Professor Djibril Tamsir Niane in his publication "La Civilisation Mandingue d'Hier a Demain" on the one hand and by Well-known Senegambian oral Historians on the other. (Aihaji Sidibe was the first Head of the Oral History and Antiquities Division in the 1970s; he was also instrumental in the creation of the National Museum and the National Council for Arts and Culture).

The Kaabounkas who settled in Kombo, Gambia, in their westward migration particularly after the destruction of their imperial capital, Kansalla (1865) by the allied forces of Alfa Mollo (father of Musa Mollo Baldeh) of Fulladou and the Almami of Timbo of Futa Jallon, assimilated with the indigenous populations. This was facilitated by the fact that an earlier migration led by the Contehs from Sankaranka once situated deep in Manding and now lying in the corridor between Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d?Ivoire, had settled in Kombo while maintaining some contact with their tiliboo origin. The far-reaching merger that had taken place between Malians and Kaabunkas centuries earlier seemed to have been repeated in Kombo, as History inexorably does, with the result that the newcomers now share names like Bojang, Sanneh, Tamba, Jasseh, Jatta, Sanyang, etc. with ethnic groups they found in the area. (Vide Sidibeh).

Kinship and Family Ties

The harmonious and exemplary inter-ethnic cohabitation that is unique to the Greater Senegambia area is not only the positive result of the long historical integration of large numbers of members of all groups; it is also due to certain common traditional values, customs and practices that have, from ancient times, always been practiced by all groups living together within the Sengambia valley and other contiguous states. The strongest unifying forces here are: (1) the Kal relationship ie (joking relations) and (2) a system of inter-ethnic corresponding names.

Kal (Sanakouya, dendiraagal, maasir) -"Joking Relations".

As far as I know, our Kal tradition has no exact equivalence in European societies hence the difficulty in finding any meaningful translation. However, the French have come up with "parente a plaisanterie", "cousinage a plaisanterie" and "parente plaisantante" (Raphael NDiaye). David Gamble, whom I have already mentioned above, euphemistically defines kal as "Joking relationships" (Please read in the French accents).

The Kal system is an inter-ethnic or family alliance based on good humour and social and community norms. People who enjoy this relationship are at liberty to say or do anything against one another anywhere however outrageously strange or distasteful, without any risk of provoking anger, revenge or punishment. It has strict arid clear rules of inviolability, mutual assistance and protection at all times and under all circumstances including an alliance against external adversaries while prohibiting acts of violence, and deception among people linked by a Kal relationship who are obliged to make concessions to one another. Kal is, above all, an affirmation of common blood, thus a sacred pact of not shedding blood is one of its fundamentals. As a pacifying relationship it intervenes in the event of disputes and conflict to the extent that even in times of war one should not shed the blood of one?s kal or capture and enslave a kal combatant on the other side. it is accordingly believed that this was the reason why Sheikh Omar advised Maba not to wage war against the pagan Sereres of Sine (except of course in self- defence).

Kal relationships are strictly structured and well organized at the following levels 1. Family and matrimonial alliances; between grandparents and grandchildren (mamayaa); between cross cousins (nephews and neices); 2 Between certain clan names within a group; 3 Between certain ethnic groups; 4. Between villages or regions, e.g. Baddibu and Kiang; Niumi and Jarra; Sukuta and Gunjur; Kombo and Kaabou.

At this level we must quickly recall the very amusing story of the Badibunka who sold cows to the Kiangkolou (people of Kiang) only to come back months or years later to claim recovery of all calves born in the interim on the ground that the sale of a pregnant cow did not include the yet unborn calf, and the poor Kiangkolou meekly complied! I understand though that subsequently Kiang had their sweet revenge and the last laugh.

At the inter-ethnic level the best known kal relationships are re-enacted every day and every where in offices, shops, markets and at social, religious and even political gatherings by arid between, most prominently, Jolas, Sereres and Hal Pulaar (Peul and Toucouloor) who seize every opportunity to pull one another?s legs. Sarahuli and Jahanka also enjoy a kal relationship. At the family level common kal bonds include the following names: Njie - Jobe; Jallow - Bah; Sonko - Badjie; Taal - Ly - Jah, Joum; Gaye-Secka-Jow; Senghore-Ndong; Jaiteh-Drammeh; Janneh-Sillah; Jeng-FaaI-Mbenga; and Kah, SalIah-Ndow-Sowe. Ceesay being one of the most multi-ethnic Senegambian clan names enjoys a very extensive kal network including Touray, Mbye, Low, Samba etc. (This list is merely indicative).

Our President His Excellency Sheikh Professor Dr. Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh is a renowned connoisseur and adept of the kal system as any good Peul or bad Serere will confirm.

There are a number of versions of the origins of our kal tradition. One version is that it was instituted by the political powers of ancient times as a kind of social system that could promote socio-political benefits between people at the level of the politico/secular entity. This is the background against which it has been traced back to the founding of the Mali Empire in 1235 with the adoption of the Mande Charter which set out in detail the rules governing relations between the diverse peoples of the newly born Malian Nation. It was necessary henceforth to mitigate suffering and protect the individual by shielding him from exactions; Kal provided this refuge. That historic adoption of the Mande Charter is said to have been also the occasion when the religious leaders, Mande morey - Ceesay, Touray, Janneh, Beretteh, Khouma - were designated in perpetuity to provide spiritual leadership and the necessary checks and balances to the secular authority of Mali under its powerful rulers, (Prof Djibril Tidjane Niane Senegalo-Guinean historian). Kal, it is also claimed, has its origin in mythology as in the case of Serere and Jola following the legend of the two sisters who were separated when their canoe capsized on the mouth of the River Gambia as already narrated above and who became the respective ancestors of the Serere and the Jola as cousins.

Our Kal tradition, as we have seen, transcends the clan, ethnic group, religion and the state and helps create genuine understanding between and among the people whatever their original ethnic background by reason of a complex system of value concensus whose unwritten laws, in existence since time immemorial, are inviolable. Indeed if only our beautiful and ingenious kal system was adopted and practised universally, the world would have been today a much better place in which Arabs and Jews would cohabit in Palestine in peace and harmony as blood cousins who hail from a common ancestor Prophet Ibrahima (Abraham,) Patriach of the three universal monotheist religions - Islam, Judaism and Christianity); Greeks and Turks would have easily accepted living together as a happy community in Cyprus while Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda would have lived together peacefully as brothers and sisters. Add to this the other unique custom of family name equivalents (Ethnonyms) existing in our culture treated in the next paragraph, one has all the ingredients of a near perfectly harmonious human society in which hatred, racism, genocide and war have no place.

Corresponding Patronymic/family Names - Ethnonyms

Family names have recognized equivalents (ethnonyms) among Senegambian ethnic groups. Some of the most common are: Njie = Jatta = Jarra; Jobe = Tarawally; Faal = Krubally; Badjie= Bassene; Conateh Keita; Jabbi=Gassama; Khan=Jallow; Jaiteh=Kaba; Gaye-Sissoho; Sarr-Sanneh. This custom has many advantages as a person belonging to an identified group name has an automatic right of protection and hospitality in his group's corresponding clan or family name. For example a Njie has automatic right of assimilation in a Jatta/Jarra/Keita village or family, while a stranger named Trawally automatically becomes a Jobe in a Wollof community with all the privileges and advantages (and obligations of course) attached to the names. As almost all major clan names have extra-ethnic equivalents no Senegalese or Gambian is a stranger anywhere in Senegambia Basin, rather everyone is, in this way, guaranteed food, shelter and sometimes provided with farmland and given a wife if necessary.

Clan and family names also constitute another strong indication of the very close nexus between Senegambian groups further exemplified by the fact that today it is almost impossible to determine the ethnic identity of a Gambian or Senegambian solely by his name; "Santa dekout fenn". In this context it is common to meet a Wollof with the name Joof, Sy, Touray, Mandinka Njie or Jammeh; or a Fula Njie, Jeng or Jobe, just as one would find Jammeh among Jolas, Sereres and Mandinka and an Aku Njie or Mboge. What is more interesting is that in Lower Saloum (Balanghar) the Tourays are Wollof while in Kombo (Gunjur, Brikama etc) Tourays are Mandinka; the Ceesays in Upper

Saloum (Njau) and Pakala are Wollof whereas in most other areas in The Gambia they are Mandinka: e.g late Minister Sheriff Ceesay's family custodian of the Chieftancy in Kudang-Niaminaa; in Kabaada they are Fulas. The Chams of Sukuta are now Mandinka while in Jaha-Niani around Carrols Wharf they are Fulas and Wollofs in Banjul! Whatever the present ethnic identity of the names mentioned, just as a simple illustration, it should be self-evident that people who share the same names must be assumed to have a common origin or very close history of cohabitation and integration.

In fact going by names the Wollofs have evolved as the undisputed trans-ethnic "champion" par excellence mainly due to their assimilation of or by other groups, and also because of the early implantation of the tourouqs (plural for tariqha), Tijanniya and Mouridism in particular, in pre-colonial Wollof states, paradoxically by Sheikhs of Halpoular origin - Aihaji Malik Sy, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba MBakeh, Maba Jahou Bah, Serigne Mass Kah and the Dems of Sokone to name some. This was perhaps expedient as their early disciples and Mokhadams were from the Wollof elite who played a major role in converting the cheddos (ceddo) - Wollof and Serere pagans - apart from the fact they were also given sokhnas i.e spouses from the ruling houses of the Wollof monarchs of Baol, Cajoor and Saloum especially. The Catholic Church, in their spread of western education and evangelisation, also influenced the wollofisation process.

There is no better way of concluding this part than suggesting to the reader to have a quick glance at the GAMTEL Telephone Directory. He will, unsurprisingly, discover that more pages are devoted to names like Njie, Jallow, Ceesay, Jammeh, Joof, Touray, Jatta, Sillah, Sanneh which is a clear snapshot of the rich ethnic diversity that exists within the wider and more important national identity paradigm unique to our country.


Islam is the predominant religion with not less than 90% of Senegambians being Muslims. This has far-reaching consequences in respect of which J.B. Trimingham (quoted also by Jeggan Senghore, Gambian scholar and former senior UN official) stresses the following; Islam has acted towards uniting African culture. A distinctive outlook on life is created and a new religio-social pattern is woven. In a complementary manner Christian evangelisation, especially Catholism among Wollofs, Sereres and Jolas has contributed significantly to the Senegambian ethnic melting pot because of the widespread use of the main local languages in church services.

Music and Culture

Musical instruments also provide a strong indicator of close inter-ethnic affinities. The riti, a monochord string instrument like a violin, is common to Serere, Wollof and Peul while Wollof and Serere use the same "sabar" i.e drums that have similar rhythms especially during wrestling bouts and social gatherings. The "Jounjoung" is a special drum that was used to announce the movements of both Serere and Wollof kings or for special Royal Proclamations. The 4-string hallam is an ancient instrument, possibly of Arab origin, common to Toucouloor, Wollof and Sarahuli except that the Wollof hallam is generally smaller. Interestingly the calabash which features prominently in Serere and Fula dances especially acrobatic dancers from the latter group is also a common musical instrument among the Wollof women of Saloum. And the long multicolour beads worn by dancing Jola women are also worn by Serere women in the same manner; in fact some of their dance steps are not fundamentally different. Watch your TV cultural programmes attentively and you will understand what I mean.

The Mandinka are great musicians and are masters of the legendary 21 -string Kora while Jolas are famous for the big boukarabou drums. Notwithstanding, the smaller drums battery associated with the Mandinka sewrubaa is similar to the set of drums played for Jola wrestlers. Furthermore, if the Ballafon (Xylophone) is generally associated with Mandinkas, it is also a fact that the Jola group have their own differently tuned balafon which poses the question about the real origin of these instruments (the balafon and the smaller drums), Bainounka or Mandinka? Either way they are probably Kaabunka. Close cultural affinities are also noticeable in contemporary Senegambian music: Mballah, Afro-Manding and Yella in particular. Irrespective of the ethnic origin of musicians - Efang Bondi, Jaliba Kuyateh, Yusu Ndure, Sedhiou Band, Baba Maal or Gambia Army band - all use almost identical local instruments and sing in all local languages with extraordinary versatility and ease. Again these recurring commonalities cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence.

WRESLING is the most popularly sports in Senegambia - even more popular than soccer- being the sports fervently practised by all groups at all levels from the village to the city. In the rural areas wrestling is a popular past time immediately after the harvest of food grains like coos and corn when food is plentiful and the rain-fed rice and groundnuts harvests are promising. Wrestling bouts are organised between youths of the same village, between villages or between "tribes" living in one village or other villages for entertainment and not for financial reward. More importantly wrestling contests have always contributed to inter-communal understanding, friendship and solidarity. For example it is not uncommon to witness wrestling bouts between Jolas, Sereres and Fulas always organised in a spirit of conviviality and good humour. In the urban areas wrestling teams can also be ethnic as it used to be in Banjul of the good old days of the 1950s when at week-ends Sereres, Jolas, Kombo Mandinka, Fulas, Provincial Wollofs and visiting Senegalese wrestlers entertained huge crowds at the Secretariat, now the Quadrangle, all dancing in an atmosphere of conviviality to the various drum beats that accompanied different wrestling teams. This reminds me of the great Jola wrestler BALLA, the popular champion of Banjulians in the late 1940s/early l950s, and another great Peul champion who emerged decades later to dominate the arenas for several years; his name was also interestingly BALLA - another of the numerous ethno-cultural coincidences!


The cultural unity of the people of Senegambia can, as we have seen, be traced back to the deep roots of ancient History the principal sources being the Nile valley and the Sahara. The permanent settlement of the diverse groups and sub-groups in the much smaller space of the Senegambian valley only served to reunite them in a more dynamic process that was given impetus and greater cohesion by a long chain of glorious Empires, Kingdoms and States (Ghana, Mali, Kaabu etc) preceding and interrupted only by the era of the slave trade and colonialism from the l6th to the 20th century with all their negative cultural, economic and political consequences.. Notwithstanding, The Gambia has emerged, unlike many other countries in Africa and beyond, as a NATION STATE par excellence within which all Gambians live as brothers, sisters and cousins strongly held together by the irresistible force of a common bond of consanguinity and a strong belief in and firm commitment to a collective destiny.

However, with an emerging and relatively young generation of Gambians constituting the vast majority of the population excessively exposed to negative alien ideas, values, cultures and practices especially through the irresistible progress of the new information technology and globalisation, prompt and concerted efforts must be intensified in the formal and informal systems to salvage, preserve and rationalize the dissemination of authentic and useful information about our rich and glorious past and heritage. This is one of the ways to enhance the useful work already being done to harness our youthful population which constitute the indispensable resource for the sustainable human and economic development of our dear country.

NB: Senegambia is by definition the generic geographic term referring to the land area situated generally between the River Senegal in the north and the River Gambia in the south and their tributaries, and within which lie the sovereign independent states of the Republic of The Gambia and the Republic of Senegal.

P.S. The above is a summary of an excerpt from an ongoing and more exhaustive study on wider and related geopolitical issues by the author.

Author: Ebou Momar Taal, Diplomatist, Economist, Linguist
Source: Picture: Alhaji Ebou Momar Taal