(Mandingo) Mandinka Tribe in Gambia
of Gambia are the largest
ethnic group of
people in the country. They are sometimes referred to as the Mandingo, Malinke or Mande and make up 42%
of the population of Gambia.
They are widespread throughout the whole of West
Africa particularly in Mali, Senegal and Guinea. In the second half of the 19th century
the Mandinka converted to Islam
until today it can be said that 99% are Muslims. Their musical hallmark is the
followed by the Balafon which griots and 'Jalis' use to narrate
In the country they have traditionally been engaged in either
farming or fishing. Under president Kairaba Jawara, (a Mandinka), they
were pre-eminent in the political scene between 1962 to 1994 until
Yahya Jammeh, (a Jola), seized control in 1994 in a bloodless coup.
Traditional Social Class Structure:
Traditionally Mandingo society was divided into four main groups. The
Caste group, Commoners and Nobles.
The nobles were members of
royal household or potential holders of power such as great war leaders
and their family members.
The people belonging to the second social group are the commoners who included farm owners, traders, clerics and marabouts.
Both the noble and commoner class were both considered free-born.
third class were the caste members or artisans such as
blacksmiths, carpenters and leather workers. Marriage
group from higher castes was strictly prohibited and was limited to
each occupation. This group was further divided
into sub-classes of subservience. Furthermore, this lower caste did not
marry into any other higher or lower caste such as
slaves though they
did attach themselves to a free-born family. In this area the griots
had a special place because of their unique relationship to the
members of the ruling class and who represented the collective memory
of the tribe and village as oral historians.
the bottom of the social scale were the
This was the case in Gambia as well as other west African regions.
Even here there were two types. Household and agricultural slaves who
were taken into the family setting and were treated better than the
second kind of slave who was usually a prisoner of war or captured in raids on local villages.
The relationship between the domestic slave and certain families could
carry through to many generations. The war slave was basically treated
like merchandise and traded as
soon as possible.
This social structure of the Mandinkas was
also true for much of Gambia's other tribes though it has broken down
to a certain extent but still quite strict regarding marriage to any
of the artisan group. Today the 'slaves' exist in name only as their
ancestors had once been from slave families however, till this day some
still visit their former patron households.
Power and Government:
The system of governing
under the Mandinka tradition is made up of three layers. The first is at the
family level where the eldest male member of a household would
automatically be the head and would have the last word on any disputes
or decisions involving marriage, funeral rites etc., within the
The head of the village was the oldest member
of the family that first established the settlement. Again his decisions
were final on disputes or traditional rites though he would seek
advice and participate in the village council of elders who meet to
discuss important issues affecting the village.
At the state
level ultimate power resided in the "Mansa" or chief. He would be
responsible for providing protection to the villages within the state
in return for a yearly levy of taxes. He would also be the judge and
jury for serious crimes. Again he would seek advice from elders in his
family, heads of the army and some village elders however, his
decisions were final.
The origins of the Mandinkas in Gambia date back from Manding
(Kangaba) which was one of the states of the ancient