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Serer Tribe in Gambia

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WomanThe Serer (or Serrer, Serere as they are sometimes known) make up less than 2% of the population of The Gambia. They are traditionally fishermen and boat builders and can be found along the coastal regions, as well as the entrance to the Gambia River and in particularly Barra. They and the Jola are believed to the original first migrants to inhabit the country.

Traditional Social Structure:
Fisherman and pirogueThe Serer had about 5 social class groups. First there was the ruling noble class, then there were the soldiers or Tyeddo  who surrounded the ruling class, then there were the Jambur who were the free-born commoners. Then came the group which belonged to a series of lower castes based on occupation (artisans) with the griot being the most socially significant and who frequently managed to amass great wealth. However, like the Wollof there was a social taboo about marrying into griot families and Villagerstheir bodies were not allowed to be buried in the ground but instead were placed in the branches of large baobabs. And finally there were the slaves who are further divided into two types: domestic and those captured in war or bought and sold. The system of inheritance among the tribe was through the female line (matrilineal).

Political Structure:
WrestlersThe Serer had a Bur the highest office in the land and was in control of state affairs and 'controlling' the forces of nature. When he became quite elderly he was ritually killed as their belief was that he was no longer able to ensure the fertility of female members of the tribe or of livestock.

One theory for their origins are they came from Kaabu in Upper Casamance about 400 years ago after a civil war ensued following the death of a prominent chief. The losers of the war fled past Foni, across the Gambia River and finally settled in Mbissel, present day Senegal. The Soninke-Marabout wars however, displaced them yet again and a few thousand refugees eventually arrived at Barra and later some crossed over to settle in Banjul.

The other theory is that they originally came from the territories north of Senegal but were forced by more powerful people to move to Futa Toro in Senegal and came under the domination of Tukulors. Later around the 12th century the Wollof tribe forced them to move south west to Sine-Saloum. They established small states there which later expanded to include the Gambian states of Wuli and Niani but Sine-Saloum came under Mandinka control. However, Sere tradition, culture and society prevailed so much so that the Mandinkas in these areas absorbed their language, customs and culture.

Their Serer's new Mandinka rulers were known as the Guelewarr (or Gelwar) who were a branch of the tribe from Kaabu known as the Nyanchos. In the late 1300s under Mansa Wali Jon or as he became better known M'began N'dure they gained control of Saloum from their Mandingo overlords and he became Bur or king. By the mid 1500s they ruled both Sine and Saloum.

They were highly resistant to being converted to Islam so the Soninke-Marabout wars of from the 1850s onwards under Maba Jakhu Bah was waged against them which caused great devastation of the land and loss of life. Many Serer fled to Barra, on the north bank of the River Gambia to seek refuge and protection from the British. Some were later allowed to cross the estuary to the island of St. Mary, Bathurst and the Kombo area. Other tribal members residing in Kaolack were also forced to flee the wrath of the Jihadists and also moved south into Gambia. They engaged in farming and fishing along the coastal villages such as Bakau, Gunjur, Kartong, Tanji and Brufut.

The states of Sine-Saloum lost their independence in the latter part of the 19th century when the French colonialists  managed to subdue them during the turbulence of the Soninke-Marabout wars. Both the Burs of Sine and Saloum effectively signed away their independence in 1891 in a treaties with the French making their states French protectorates. The French agreed in return to allow the hereditary line to continue for both rulers.
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