By the fifteenth century most of the valley of the Gambia was under the control of small mandinka kingdoms founded by immigrants from the Mali empire. The Portuguese, the first European settlers of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries set themselves up in partnership with headmen of the locality marrying their daughters and trading cloth for slaves. The descendants of the mixed unions were important figures. From the mid-seventeenth century English, Dutch, French and Baltic merchant adventures shared and fought over trading rights from the restricted neighbouring bases of Fort James Island and Albreda. The British won lasting influence after the Napoleonic wars declaring a protectorate along the river in the 1820s and in 1888 establishing a crown colony that comprised Banjul Island, the district of Kombo St. Mary and MacCarthy Island. In the same year the territory ceased to be governed from Freetown (Sierra Leone) and was given its own government. The Gambia gain her independence on the 18th February in 1965, with Sir Dawda Jawara as first president. The Gambia's official language is English.


Senegambia is the westernmost coastline on the continent. Senegal with an area of 200,000 sq. km (almost the size of Britain). The Gambia only 11,000 sq. km, completely surrounded by Senegal, except for 80 km of coastline.
The Senegambien region lies within the Sahel Savanna region which forms a broad band across Africa between the Sahara to the North and the forested countries of the South. The landscape is largely flat with the only hills in Senegal's far southeastern corner and along the border with Mali.The Gambia has no hills at all.

There are three main geographical features in the region, there are three major rivers which all rise in the Fouta Djalon plateau in Guinea. In the north is the river Senegal which forms the border with Mauritania. In the middle is the river Gambia defining the borders of the Gambia. In the south is the river Casamance giving its name to Casamance area.


Resent estimates put the Gambia's population at just over one million, while Senegal's population is around 8.7 million. There are several ethnic groups in the region, but most are spread across the national boundaries. 90 % of Gambians identify themselves as muslims.

Wollofs are widespread throughout the Senegambian region. In the Gambia they mostly inhabit the western areas of the country. Traditionally farmers and traders, the wollof today control a great deal of commerce. The wollof language is used as a common tongue in Senegambia.

Mandinka or malinké:
The mandinka are found largely in the Gambia and in parts of Senegal, especially to the north. The mandinka people are also called mandingo and are related to other manding speaking groups such as bambara of Mali where they originate. Traditionally engaged in farming and fishing. All the mandinkas are muslims with strong musical tradition.

The fula are found across West Africa as far east as Sudan and South into countries like Ghana and Nigeria, although they look on the Futa-Toro region in northern Senegal as their cultural homeland. The fulas are traditionally nomadic cattle herders and they constantly travell with their animals in search of grazing land.

The jola inhabit the Casamance area in southern Senegal and the area southwest of the Gambia. They also inhabit various parts of northern Guinea-Bissau. Traditional jola occupation include farming, fishing and palm wine tapping. The jola do not have a strong oral tradition meaning they do not have the equivalent of griots which can keep tradition and history alive for centuries among other tribes.

The sarahuli inhabit the eastern part of Senegal and groups can be found in the far eastern parts of the Gambia. Exclusively muslim, they are also known as soninké and inhabit several other countries in the Sahel including Mali and Burkina Faso. Today the sarahuli in the Gambia are mostly farmers and businessmen.

In the Gambia the aku people are similar to the krio found in other parts of West Africa. The manjago who originally immigrated from Guinea-Bissau are also found in the Gambia.

Jola initiation

The bukut is an initiation ceremony that takes place every 20 to 25 years and involves the gaining of knowledge in traditional ways of definning social status. Preparations for the bukut start long in advance as the celebrations require huge feasts involving the sacrifice of a lot of cattle. It is during these preparations that mothers compose songs that are sung by the initiated during a ritual involving the passing of cloth called buyeet. Each youth has his own song which will not be sung again publicly until his death.

Distinctive woven cane masks called ejumbi which have tubular eyes and are surmounted by a pair of massive cattle horns are worn by the initiates when they return from the sacred forest. Not all initiates wear these masks, but those who do are considered to possess special powers of clairvoyance. The masks are created by the initiates with the assistance of tribal elders. The bukut represents jola identity and is still considered a very important event. It has survived and adopted to christianity and islam.

Mandinka initiation

Unlike the jola, the mandinka initiation ceremonies (kasseh for boys and nyaka for girls) are more in line with islamic tradition. These ceremonies are low key compared to the jola bukut. Girls are briefly taken into the bush outside the village where the initiation would be performed by the anssimba. Then they would return to the village in the evening. They would then be look after by their karanbas, they would be taught womanhood and passin, the unwritten code of conduct. They are taught many songs that cannot be sung anywhere outside the jujuwo.
The boys initiation is similar to that of the girls. The difference is that the boys are taught manhood through rigorous tasks and hardship as they remain in the bush for six months. After their return they became men and their mothers and sisters could never see them naked thereafter. A big festival will follow for days involving sacrificing of cattle, chicken goat and sheep. The greatest insult to a mandinka man is to be called an uninitiate, solima.

Essas Colley

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