Senegambia: The Tribes of Senegal & Gambia

Though the proportions of tribal populations vary between Senegal and The Gambia, the conflict-drawn borders between the two countries are blurred when considering the ethnic heritage shared largely within the peoples of these two West African nations.

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gambia-tribal-ceremony

Tribal ceremony in Gambia

Wolof (Jollof)

Dominating the urban areas and trade routs, Wolof has become the unofficial lingua franca or most common non-Western language spoken in Senegal and The Gambia. Non-Wolof people often learn Wolof as a first or second language from a young age, as it is a unifying language used by taxi drivers, shop owners and even office workers. Because of the Wolof people’s geographic position near the coast when colonizers arrived, the Wolof of today are commonly thought of as the business and entreprenuial tribe. Wolof masks are most commonly made from wood rather than metal or ivory.

Father and child in Senegal

Father and child in Senegal

Jola / Diola

Perhaps the most common Jola is Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, who touts himself as a farmer and man of the people. Though an extraordinary ethnic minority in both Senegal and The Gambia, the rich cultural history of the Jola (also called Diola) people remains strong due to several modern initiatives to preserve traditions through celebrations and tourism. Jola masks often feature wide, smile-like open mouths and can be adorned with many embellishments such as rings in the ears.

Mandinka (Mandingo)

Though an ethnic minority in Northern Senegal, Mandinkas make up a significant percentage of The Gambia’s and Guinea’s population. Most associated with an aggressive disposition, some Mandinka sculptures depict warriors. Others, such as weekday masks, include horns or protrusions for linking with ancestors, and are often found in sets of seven to represent an entire week. Some Mandinka masks are carved with goatee-like beards in the chin as well.

Fula/Pular (Fulani)

Sometimes called Pular for their language, the Fulani people of West Africa are often revered for their historically gentle treatment of animals. Many Fula tribal masks are crowned with animals such as elephants, and some will show clean-shaven chins indicative of its people. Traditionally, including up to present day, the Fulani tribes are well-known musicians. Fula instruments include shakers, calabash drums, and wooden clackers. The Toucouleur ethnic group is also an agricultural people comprised within the group of Fulani tribes.

Women working on various crafts in Senegal

Women working on various crafts in Senegal

Serer

Comprising nearly 15 percent of Senegal’s population, the Serer are the third largest ethnic group in the country. Senegal’s first president, Leopold Senghor, belonged to the Serer tribe. Many Serer people now learn Wolof as their first language, which has become more common than Serer-Sine. The Serer people are also related to the Mandinkas as well as the Wolof people of West Africa. A a result, many Serer arts and crafts, including masks and sculptures, are becoming increasingly similar to those of their relative tribes. Some traditions, such as traditional wrestling, are still preserved through cultural festivals, sculptures and figurines.