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Gambia: Gambia People Profile


Gambia's Ethnic Groups & Tribes

Gambia's Ethnic Groups & Tribes

• African 99% • Non-African 1%
Fula 18% Serahule 9%
Jola 10% Wolof 16%
Mandinka 42% Other 4%

There are 8 main ethnic groups in Gambia living side by side with a minimum of inter-tribal friction, each preserving its own language, music, cultural traditions and even caste systems though there is an increasing amount of cultural interaction and fusion. Indeed, the average Gambian will tell you he feels he has more in common with his countrymen than he has with a Senegalese from the same tribe! This by no means suggests that there is a lack of individual identity. While there is growth in multi-ethnic expressions, the search by groups to reaffirm their identities remains.

Each of these communities speak their own language, all of which are classified as part of the Niger-Congo language group and as a whole represent a snap-shot of Senegambia society.

However, classifying people by blood or ethnic traits is increasingly difficult as there has been extensive migrations and inter-marriages over the centuries. There were migrations of people into the Gambia before the 19th century but such movement of people greatly increased after the establishment of Bathurst (Banjul) in 1816. They came from Casamance, Futa Toro, Sierra Leone, Mali, Guinea Bissau and other West African countries.

The single largest ethnic group in Gambia is the kaMandin, (Mandingos) an agricultural people with a hereditary nobility. Before they migrated to the Gambia valley they lived in the northern slopes of Futa Jallon Plateau. The country of the Manding is in the Niger Valley.

The Wolofs

They are very prominent in the capital city of Banjul and are prominent in the Senegambia region. Their language is the lingua franca for Gambia and can be heard being spoken in trading centres and family compounds. In the up-river area of Gambia they are called the Fanafa.

The people called the Creoles or Akus, are Christians who are descendants of freed slaves who first came to The Gambia in 1787 from Sierra Leone. and who rank among the bureaucratic elite as well a being prominent in the private professional classes.

The Jola or Kujamat people are predominantly organized around the cultivation of rice and are mainly based in the Foni district of the Western Division. Theirs is a uniquely segmentary society with no tradition of having a paramount chief. Their traditional location in swamps and deep forests meant that they were among the last people to be converted to Islam.

The Fulanis or Pol Futa a they are sometimes known are mainly engaged in herding of cattle and running their ubiquitous small corner shops. They are generally of lighter skin than most of the population and several theories, some of which have proved controversial have been put forward as to where they originally came from.

The Serahule people are involved mainly in farming, trade and property development. They can be found in their largest numbers in the Basse region and speak in a number of dialects including Azer and Kinbakka. They created the Ghana Empire which encompassed Mauritania to present-day Ghana.

The other ethnic groups are the Serer who are predominantly involved in fisheries have customs and a language which bear considerable similarities to the Wolof. Then there are the Tukulor

who share strong ties with the Fulani's culture, history and traditions and are mainly engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry.

There also exists a small community of other groups such as the Lebanese, Europeans, Mansoanka, Bayot , Bambara, Badibunka, Balanta, Hausa, Mankanya and the Mandjak Christians.

Languages of Gambia

Most of the languages spoken in Gambia belong to the Niger-Congo language family of the Atlantic or Congo branches. There are at least 10 languages spoken in Gambia. Apart from English which is the official language spoken in schools and public offices there is also Wollof, Serer-Sine, Sarahole, Pulaar, Maninkakan, Mandjaque, Mandingo, Jola-Fonyi and the Aku's Creole (pidgin English). They are further broken down into various dialects such as Fana Fana of Saloum for the Wolof speakers.

Before the arrival of the Europeans none of the ethnic languages were written as they were in purely oral form.

Most people are in fact multi-lingual in that the majority can speak their own tribal tongue, a second language as well as English. Wollof represents the lingua franca for the west coast Kombo area while Mandinka is dominant in the up-river divisions and particularly in the Kombos they are interspersed with English, Arabic or French words and phrases.

(Gambian English) refers to the Gambian expressions that sound somewhat odd to native English-speaking ears, a result of translation from native languages. Some examples include “finished,” “I’m coming” (when leaving), “I am having 2 dalasi,” and “moves with.”

"He" and "She"
Often mistakenly used interchangeably by Gambians with less than flawless English skills. Wolof and Mandinka both use the same pronoun for both sexes.

Because of it proximity to Senegal you will also find people fairly fluent in French along the Gambia's border regions as well as in Basse and Fatoto.

West Africa is among the most linguistically diverse areas on earth and this is due primarily to the movements of peoples over the centuries. This diversity is evident when you listen to Radio Gambia which broadcasts its news in 5 different local languages!