Gambian society is still influenced, though to a lesser
extent, by the hierarchical caste structure of its past.
The peoples of the Mandinka, 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 Serer, Tukulor,
Lebu, 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 colonial traders 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) and traders.
The most 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 family.
They are persons of caste who live by their trade (work):-
• Blacksmiths or Metal Workers
These members of society are called the tëgga.
• Leather Workers
These people are known as the uude.
• Wood Carvers
These people belong to the order of the Laube (originally
a Fulbe professional group).
• Cloth Weavers
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. Children 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.