Officially, The Gambia consists of eight ethnic groups (Mandinka, Fula, Jola, Wolof, Serer, Serahuli, Manjago, Aku).
There are other small groups (Mansuwanka, Mankaan, Papel, Susu, Lebanese, Balanta, Jalunke) that do not appear on the official list. It is probably because these people migrated to The Gambia relatively recently.
Bayinunka, which was one of the oldest tribes in the sub-region, is almost dead in The Gambia because the language is no longer spoken. People who identify with the group now speak either Mandinka or Jola. The language is still spoken in Casamance and Guinea Bissau.
Large numbers of Mandinkas migrated to the west from the Niger River basin in search of better agricultural lands and more opportunities for conquest and settlement. During the expansion of the Mali empire in the 13th century, Mandinkas established their rule from the north bank of the Gambia river to the Futa-Jalon highlands in modern Guinea.
Today, they are engaged in business and farming, especially groundnut (peanut) production. Mandinkas are spread throughout the country and in many places in West Africa. They are referred to as Malinke in Guinea Conakry, Bambara in Mali, Jula in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso and Mandingo in Liberia.
The Fulas of The Gambia traditionally lived in small hamlets in the eastern, central and northern part of the country. They were mainly cattle herders originating in the area north of the Senegal River. As pastoralists, they followed their herds in search of grazing lands to the Niger River in the east and then south eventually coming into The Gambia.
Today, most are engaged in farming as well as business and raising cattle. With ancestral ties to North African Berbers, Fulas are known for their lighter skin and straighter hair. They are also referred to as Fulani, Fulfulbe, Pulaar, or Pul.
The Wolof are thought to have originated in Southern Mauritania where droughts and desert raids forced them south into the area north of The Gambia in western Senegal. The heaviest migration of Wolof into The Gambia occurred during the religious wars of the 19th century. They established themselves in Banjul and on the north bank of the river as traders and shipbuilders. While those on the North Bank are now mostly farmers, the Wolof of Banjul are influential today in business, commerce and the civil service.
The Jolas are among the earliest settlers in the area south of the Gambia River. Certain oral sources claim that they originated in Egypt, traveled across North Africa during King Solomon’s days in the 10th century BC, and eventually settled in the wetlands of the Niger River. They continued farther south to escape from drought and wars, bringing with them palm seed, cotton, and rice.
Today, many Jolas live near the coastal areas in The Gambia, Casamance, and northern Guinea Bissau. Although many have embraced Islam or Christianity, Jolas have generally retained more of their traditional religious practices and beliefs than other ethnic groups. They are rice farmers and also produce palm wine, palm oil, pigs, and other animals.
As rulers and merchants of the Ghana Empire, the Serahulis in this region have a long history. Most of those living in The Gambia today, however, arrived during the 19th century as refugees from the religious wars in Senegal. Although many are farmers living along The Gambia’s eastern border, the Serahulis are renowned for their gold and diamond trading activities throughout West, Southern, and Central Africa. They are also known for their woven strip cloth, tie-dye and pottery.
The Serers are among the oldest ethnic groups in the Senegambian region. They originated north of the Senegal River and migrated south to the delta areas of the Sine and Saloum region northwest of The Gambia. Today they are found primarily along the river mouth with fishing as their main occupation. The Serers are also thought to have some linguistic and cultural ties to Fulas and ancestral links with Jolas. They also move around following fish migrations just as the Fula migrated with their cattle to better pastureland.
The Akus are descendants of European traders and African wives, or the descendants of liberated slaves from Sierra Leone. You also find native African ancestors among the Aku who lived with them and became assimilated. Because of their close contacts with the European community, they were the first to receive formal education and thus played an influential role in The Gambia’s economic and government life during the colonial period.
Today Akus continue to figure prominently in Gambian commerce and the civil service. Most are Christians and have European names. There are also a number of Muslim Akus living in the Banjul area having European surnames and Muslim first names. In Sierra Leone the Aku is referred to as Creole.
The Manjagos are believed to be indigenous to the coastal area of Guinea Bissau. They first arrived in the Senegambian region as seasonal migrant workers, with some settling in the coastal areas of The Gambia and Casamance. Today their main occupation is tapping the oil palms for wine, farming, producing palm oil, and rearing pigs.
Although each ethnic group has its own traditions, language, and background, the people of The Gambia share many cultural patterns due to historical connections, the small size of the country, generations of intermarriages and the unifying force of Islam. Gambians also share much of their cultural heritage with the people of Senegal and have cultural ties to the peoples of Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Mali.