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Class Structure & Caste System in Gambia
Culture & Traditions    Ethnic Groups   
Today, 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: ger, Mande: hr), artisans and courtiers (Wolof: eeo, Mande: mkl), and slaves (Wolof: jaam, Mande: jn). 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 see) and cloth weavers (rbb*) no longer exist as castes.

The Ger 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 (sri) 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 hierarchy.

These people are called eeo 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):

Blacksmiths or Metal Workers:
These members of society are called the tgga.

Leather Workers:
These people are known as the uude.

Wood Carvers:
These people belong to the order of the Laube (originally a Fulbe professional group).

Cloth Weavers:
Known as the Rbb 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 gwl. In Fula they call them "Nyamakale".

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 lower-caste parent.



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