The 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
followed by the Balafon which griots and 'Jalis' use
to narrate Mandinka history.
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
Traditional Social Class Structure:
Traditionally Mandingo society was divided into four
main groups. The Slaves, Caste group, Commoners and
The nobles were members of royal household or potential
holders of power such as great war leaders and their
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 oral historians.
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:
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 compound.
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.