Mandinka 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 Kora
followed by the Balafon which griots
and 'Jalis' use to narrate Mandinka
the country they have traditionally been engaged in either peanut
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.
Caste group, Commoners
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.
The third class were the caste members or artisans such
as griots, blacksmiths, carpenters
and leather workers. Marriage to this 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
At the bottom of the social scale were the slaves.
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 family
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 Mali Empire.
Other Ethnic Groups