MANDINKA TRIBE

The Mandinka are the largest ethnic group in the Gambia. They are sometimes referred to as the Mandingo,  Malinke or Mande and make up 42% of the population of Gambia. The origins of the Mandinkas in Gambia date back from Manding (Kangaba) which was one of the states of the ancient Mali Empire.

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. Today, it can be said that 99% are Muslims. Their musical hallmark is the Kora followed by the Balafon which griots and ‘Jalis’ use to narrate Mandinka history. In the country, they have traditionally been engaged in either peanut farming or fishing.

Traditional Social Class Structure:

Traditionally, Mandinka society was divided into four main groups. The Slaves, Caste group, Commoners and Nobles. The nobles were members of royal household or potential holders of power such as great war leaders and their family members. 

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. 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:

The 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.

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