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(Diola) Jola Tribe in Gambia
 
Ethnic Groups
 
The ethnic group known as the Jola, Jolla or Diola tribe as they are known in Senegal make up 10% of the Gambian population and  are heavily concentrated in the Foni area of south west Gambia and Casamance in Senegal as well as parts of the north of Guinea-Bissau.

Historically Jola communities and lineages are highly fragmented, decentralised and highly autonomous and were spread out in hamlets covering several square kilometres. They do not have a caste system unlike say the Wolof social hierarchy and further they had no paramount chief like the Mandinka as rule was carried out only at the village level. They are famous in Gambia for their exciting tribal cultural dancing.

The  Jolas of Foni call themselves Ajamat or Ajamatau and it was the Mandinka who called them "Jo-la" which means someone who pays back for something given or done to them.

The Jolas are an industrious people and their various occupations included large scale rice cultivation, honey collecting, palm wine tapping (bounouk), fishing, oyster collecting and other agricultural activities. Many women are employed in Gambian households as domestic maids. Their wealth was measured in the amount of rice owned as opposed to the Fulani who measured their wealth in the number of cattle one possessed.

In a typical Jola village the eldest man who founded the village would be the head but had no power other than as a ritual head and adjudicator in any disputes. However, in times of war or when Jola villages were attacked villages would get together in a temporary alliance under an acceptable warrior. This alliance would end as soon as the war ended.

History & Origins:
Little is known about the origins of the Jolas (Diolas) because unlike other tribes they do not traditionally have griots who were able to pass down their ancestor's history from one generation to the next. However, they do have musical entertainers who recited their past but this was not passed down to the next generation therefore reducing their collective historical memory. They often build stockades against real or imaginary enemies and they were protected for a long time from European influence as they tended to inhabit thick forest woodland or swamp areas which proved difficult for outsiders to penetrate. This is one of the reasons so little is known about their origins.  
 
What is known is that they are among one of the oldest existing tribes in The Gambia. They along with other groups like the Balanta and Pepel were already in the Casamance region of Senegal in the 13th century before moving northwards to Foni. Their migrations tended to be sporadic, seasonal and on a smaller scale than say the Mandinka. Over time some migrations evolved into more permanent settlements and some of them moved in to Baddibu, Niumi and Bathurst during the Soninke-Marabout wars when they were attacked by the Islamist jihadists Foday Kabba Dumbuya, Ebrima Njie and others between 1850 and 1890. The Islamists were determined to convert the people of the region from their animist beliefs and practices. The Jolas proved to be the most difficult tribe to convert however, most eventually succumbed though some doggedly held out and many who are Muslims today still perform animist practices.

In the 1880s a few Foni Jolas were engaged in palm wine tapping in Bathurst. By the end of 19th century some Jola had moved to producing groundnuts as a cash crop and during the second world war had expanded greatly. They also reared livestock and produced other crops including sweet potatoes, yams and watermelon.

In 1894 Foni was put under the British Protectorate System and was ruled by a commissioner and local native tribunal. They also installed Mandinka chiefs to collect taxes and act as a go-between.  However, due to their stockades, fragmentary society and lack of a clear leader or chief and their fierce local independence the British had great difficulty penetrating their society or making them succumb to colonial rule.

By 1900 the Jolas gradually accepted this foreign presence and by 1905 their attitude had significantly changed and they began to pay taxes and approach the commissioner's office with disputes and problems. The imposed Mandinka chiefs were replaced by French educated Jola chiefs who were more acceptable.


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