Class Structure & Caste System in Gambia
| Ethnic Groups
Today, Gambian society is still influenced, though to
a lesser extent, by the hierarchical caste
structure of its past. The peoples of the
Serer, Wolof and
Tukulor are organised
according to a system of caste. The caste
system is closely aligned with the division of labour
and the order is clearly associated with past
political power. There is no
clear consensus on the basic caste divisions in
Senegambian society or even
on the use of the word caste to describe Gambian
social structure. The word was introduced European
colonialists and some would describe the caste system
as systems of dominance and exclusion by which
professional alliances seeking power and influence
through endogamy and solidarity.
Most sedentary Western Sudanic peoples of Senegambia,
including most Gambian societies, share a similar
caste structure. This analysis of traditional Gambian society describes
mainly the Wolof and Mandingo social structures, although
similar structures apply to
and to a lesser extent, the Fulani. Of all the
ethnic groups the Wolof have by far
the most noticeable caste distinctions and hierarchy.
Among the smaller groups who do not share this social
structure are the Jola in Foni and the Bassari. Each
of these societies contains three major social
strata: landowning nobles (Wolof: géer, Mande: hóró),
artisans and courtiers (Wolof: ñeeño, Mande: ñàmàkálá), and
slaves (Wolof: jaam, Mande: jôn). The
standard designation of the first group as 'nobles'
may seem a bit misleading, since this group includes
even the most economically deprived peasants.
Many traditional castes in Wolof society have
disappeared altogether and many more have appeared in
recent times, and the lines between them have been
blurred. Woodcutters (laube or seeñ) and cloth
weavers (ràbb*) no longer exist as castes.
The Géer or freeborn
were from the royal lines and great
warrior families made up the top echelon of society.
Noble families engaged in warfare to
protect and expand their
states. People who were captured in
local raids in neighbouring villages may have been
from a royal family,
slaves or peasants. Some of the
captives were sold as slaves to the
waiting along the coast and some
were taken into the royal household. From this group
developed the Ceddo group or warriors who after several
generations became the professional army of the king
(Damel) and owed swore allegiance to him only.
"Commoners" included peasants, Marabouts (sëriñ)
numerous group were the Badola
or peasantry who were among the most numerous
and industrious workers of the freeborn and were akin
to the serfs of medieval times. They worked as were farmers,
fishermen and cattle herders who produced food for the state.
Traders brought in needed items for the noble
families and usually operated on a barter system. The
"marabouts" were the devout
Muslims who were believed
to bring food, fortune and power through their
prayers and amulets (gris-gris). As literate
scholars, they were also useful as scribes. They were
outside of the traditional social hierarchy.
These people are called ñeeño who were also freeborn.
Hereditary caste divisions arose out of the need of
villagers and nomads for specialists, or of noble
families for minstrels (griots) to preserve and
recite sacred legends and the history of the
They are persons of caste who live
by their trade (work):
Blacksmiths or Metal
These members of society are called the tëgga.
These people are known as the uude.
These people belong to the order of the Laube
(originally a Fulbe professional group).
Known as the Ràbb they wove the cloth strips used for
clothing, so theirs was an important skill.
The name is the French word for Djeli which is a Malinke
word and members of this caste are called géwël. In Fula they call them "Nyamakale".
This is the lowest group of people and are known as
The caste structure
continues to exist even if it does not exist in its
former, socially rigid form. However, the separation of castes
still comes into play most significantly at the level
of marriage. Marriages between castes or between
nobles and castes in contemporary society are highly problematic.
born from these unions are called "neeno ben
tank" (one foot in the caste system) and always
assume the status of the lower-caste parent.