Tribe in Gambia
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
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
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
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
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.
then they have come a long way as the President of Gambia himself a Jola.