Class Structure & Caste System in Gambia
Culture & Traditions Ethnic
Gambian society is still influenced, though to a lesser extent,
by the hierarchical caste structure of its past. The peoples of
the Mandinka, Serer,
Wolof and Tukulor
are organised according to a system of caste. The caste
system is closely aligned with the division of labour and the
order is clearly associated with past political power. There is
no clear consensus on the basic caste divisions in Senegambian
society or even on the use of the word caste to describe Gambian
social structure. The word was introduced European colonialists
and some would describe the caste system as systems of dominance
and exclusion by which professional alliances seeking power and
influence through endogamy and solidarity.
Most sedentary Western Sudanic peoples of Senegambia, including
most Gambian societies, share a similar caste structure. This
analysis of traditional Gambian society describes mainly the Wolof
and Mandingo social structures, although similar structures apply
to Serer, Tukulor,
Lebu, and to a lesser extent, the Fulani.
Of all the ethnic groups the
Wolof have by far the most noticeable
caste distinctions and hierarchy. Among the smaller groups who
do not share this social structure are the Jola
in Foni and the Bassari. Each of these societies contains three
major social strata: landowning nobles (Wolof: géer, Mande: hóró),
artisans and courtiers (Wolof: ñeeño, Mande: ñàmàkálá), and slaves
(Wolof: jaam, Mande: jôn). The standard designation of the first
group as 'nobles' may seem a bit misleading, since this group
includes even the most economically deprived peasants.
Many traditional castes in Wolof society
have disappeared altogether and many more have appeared in recent
times, and the lines between them have been blurred. Woodcutters
(laube or seeñ) and cloth weavers (ràbb*) no longer exist as castes.
The Géer or freeborn were from the royal lines and great warrior
families made up the top echelon of society. Noble families engaged
in warfare to protect and expand their states.
People who were captured in local raids in neighbouring villages
may have been from a royal family, slaves
or peasants. Some of the captives were sold as slaves to the colonial
traders waiting along the coast and some were taken into the royal
household. From this group developed the Ceddo group or warriors
who after several generations became the professional army of
the king (Damel) and owed swore allegiance to him only. "Commoners"
included peasants, Marabouts (sëriñ) and traders.
The most numerous group were the Badola or peasantry who were
among the most numerous and industrious workers of the freeborn
and were akin to the serfs of medieval times. They worked as were
farmers, fishermen and cattle herders who produced food for the
state. Traders brought in needed items for the noble families
and usually operated on a barter system. The "marabouts"
were the devout Muslims who were
believed to bring food, fortune and power through their prayers
and amulets (gris-gris). As literate scholars, they were also
useful as scribes. They were outside of the traditional social
These people are called ñeeño who were also freeborn. Hereditary
caste divisions arose out of the need of villagers and nomads
for specialists, or of noble families for minstrels (griots)
to preserve and recite sacred legends and the history
of the family.
They are persons of caste who live by their trade (work):
or Metal Workers:
These members of society are called the tëgga.
These people are known as the uude.
These people belong to the order of the Laube (originally a Fulbe
Known as the Ràbb they wove the cloth strips used for clothing,
so theirs was an important skill.
The name is the French word for Djeli which is a Malinke word
and members of this caste are called géwël. In Fula they call
This is the lowest group of people and are known as Jaam.
The caste structure continues to exist even if it does not exist
in its former, socially rigid form. However, the separation of
castes still comes into play most significantly at the level of
marriage. Marriages between castes or between nobles and castes
in contemporary society are highly problematic. Children
born from these unions are called "neeno ben tank" (one
foot in the caste system) and always assume the status of the