The ethnic group known as the Jola, Jolla or Diola tribe
as they are known in Senegal make up 10% of the Gambian
and are heavily concentrated in the Foni area
of south west Gambia and Casamance in Senegal as well
as parts of the north of Guinea-Bissau.
Jola communities and lineages are highly fragmented,
decentralised and highly autonomous and were spread
out in hamlets covering several square kilometres. They
do not have a caste
system unlike say the Wolof social hierarchy and
further they had no paramount chief like the Mandinka
as rule was carried out only at the village level. They
are famous in Gambia for their exciting tribal cultural
The Jolas of Foni call themselves Ajamat or Ajamatau
and it was the Mandinka who called them "Jo-la"
which means someone who pays back for something given
or done to them.
The Jolas are an industrious people and their various
occupations included large scale rice cultivation, honey
collecting, palm wine tapping (bounouk), fishing, oyster
collecting and other agricultural activities. Many women
are employed in Gambian households as domestic maids.
Their wealth was measured in the amount of rice owned
as opposed to the Fulani
who measured their wealth in the number of cattle one
In a typical Jola village the eldest man who founded
the village would be the head but had no power other
than as a ritual head and adjudicator in any disputes.
However, in times of war or when Jola villages were
attacked villages would get together in a temporary
alliance under an acceptable warrior. This alliance
would end as soon as the war ended.
History & Origins:
Little is known about the origins of the Jolas (Diolas)
because unlike other tribes they do not traditionally
who were able to pass down their ancestor's history
from one generation to the next. However, they do have
musical entertainers who recited their past but this
was not passed down to the next generation therefore
reducing their collective historical memory. They often
build stockades against real or imaginary enemies and
they were protected for a long time from European influence
as they tended to inhabit thick forest woodland or swamp
areas which proved difficult for outsiders to penetrate.
This is one of the reasons so little is known about
What is known is that they are among one of the oldest
existing tribes in The Gambia. They along with other
groups like the Balanta and Pepel were already in the
Casamance region of Senegal in the 13th century before
moving northwards to Foni. Their migrations tended to
be sporadic, seasonal and on a smaller scale than say
the Mandinka. Over time some migrations evolved into
more permanent settlements and some of them moved in
to Baddibu, Niumi and Bathurst during the Soninke-Marabout
wars when they were attacked by the Islamist jihadists
Foday Kabba Dumbuya, Ebrima Njie and others between
1850 and 1890. The Islamists were determined to convert
the people of the region from their animist beliefs
and practices. The Jolas proved to be the most difficult
tribe to convert however, most eventually succumbed
though some doggedly held out and many who are Muslims
today still perform animist
In the 1880s a few Foni Jolas were engaged in palm wine
tapping in Bathurst. By the end of 19th century some
Jola had moved to producing groundnuts as a cash crop
and during the second world war had expanded greatly.
They also reared livestock and produced other crops
including sweet potatoes, yams and watermelon.
In 1894 Foni was put under the British Protectorate
System and was ruled by a commissioner and local native
tribunal. They also installed Mandinka chiefs to collect
taxes and act as a go-between. However, due to
their stockades, fragmentary society and lack of a clear
leader or chief and their fierce local independence
the British had great difficulty penetrating their society
or making them succumb to colonial rule.
By 1900 the Jolas gradually accepted this foreign presence
and by 1905 their attitude had significantly changed
and they began to pay taxes and approach the commissioner's
office with disputes and problems. The imposed Mandinka
chiefs were replaced by French educated Jola chiefs
who were more acceptable.