History Corner - The Wollof
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Tradition of Origin
The Wollof tradition of origin claims that the Wollof state was formed by voluntary association of a number of small independent units. The story starts in Walo where the inhabitants of a number of village states, each ruled by a king with the Serer little Laman, quarrelled violently over the distribution of wood collected along the shores of a lake.
Before bloodshed could occur, a mysterious figure arose from the lake, shared the wood fairly among the villages and then disappeared. The amazed people feigned a second quarrel and when the stranger reappeared, they detained him and offered him the government of their states. At first their captive refused to eat but, tempted with the prospect of marriage to a beautiful girl, he became more human in his ways and accepted their offer of kingship.
When these strange happenings were reported to the ruler of Sine, who was himself the greatest magician in the land, he exclaimed "Ndyadyane Ndyaye", an expression of utter amazement. He then suggested that all rulers between the Senegal and Gambia should make voluntary submission to the remarkable stranger. This they did; and the first ruler of the Wollof state became known as Ndyadyane Ndyaye with the title of Burba Jolof. Whatever the origins of the Wollof was, this story makes it clear that the original centre of .
Wallof power was the inland state of Jolof, and its ruler, the Burba Jolof, governed all the land between the Senegal and The Gambia as far inland as the Mandinka state of Manding. The five major states of this area were Kayor, Baol, Walo, Sine and Saloum, each under rulers who acknowledge kingship with the Burba Jolof and accepted his overlordship. The Wollof remained in power in most of the area until subdued by the French in the nineteenth century.
The bulk of the Wollof population today is located in modern Senegal. In The Gambia the Wollof comprise the third largest – ethnic group after the Mandinka and Fula. The heaviest concentration of the Gambia Wollof is in the Saloum districts of the provinces where there is an almost homogenous block that corresponds to a large group across the border in Senegal. The majority of the Banjul Wollof originally came from the area near Dakar and the Island of Goree in the early years of the settlement of Banjul in 1816.
Wollof Social Organisation
The Wollof people were divided into a rigid caste system of Royalty, Freemen and Slaves – with hierarchical subdivisions within each caste. People rarely married outside their caste and where a man of a superior order produced children by women of a lower one, these children did not inherit their father’s position.
There were common freemen known as "Jambur" or "Gorr" and peasants known as "badola". On the lower rungs of the social ladder came the low caste groups organised according to their occupation: Gold Smiths Silver Smiths and Black Smiths known as "Tega", leather workers known as "Ude", praise-singers and musicians known as "Gewel" and slaves known as "Jam". Even if a man did not practice the traditional craft of his father he did not lose his lower caste status. In spite of low birth, however, some of these people played key roles in matters of state.
The "Tega", though a low caste, held an important place in society because in the event of tribal warfare, they made spears, knives, lances, cutlasses, as well as farming implements.
Later guns were introduced, they repaired guns and made bullets. Their control over the manufacture of iron weapons brought them political and supernatural influence. They were employed as mediators between hostile states; and some-times were the priests of secret cults in communities which had not yet accepted Islam.
The "Gewel" were also of low caste but they too held special place in society. Every important freedom family kept a Gewel and the office was usually hereditary. His function was not merely the public exaltation of his master by playing musical instruments in his honour, reciting his master’s genealogy accurately, providing entertainment for guests, but above all he informed his master of the history of his house, its traditional rights and duties.
Thus the Gewel was often the personal adviser and private secretary of his employer and accompanied him to war and stirred up his armies with war like songs. Gewels were allowed a frankness, of criticism of their superior that a man would have resented from his equals. Consequently, their tongues were often feared and discreet silence or outspokenness could earn a Gewel wealth far cutstripping his rank.
The slaves or "Jam" In Wollof society were divided into two categories. First, those captured in war or bought and who could be sold again, and those born in the household who were treated as Junior members of the family.
Household or domestic slaves could not be sold except for serious crimes like murder, treason or witchcraft. In deed, slaves of a royal or noble household enjoyed greater power than many a freeman. Among the Wollof, a wise and faithful slave was often the adviser of the ‘Bur’. Slaves were valuable property, and a man who owned many slaves had prestige in the community.
Yet it must be said that slavery within this social structure was very different from the brutal form of slavery that was practiced in the American and Caribbean plantations.
Wollof System of Government
One of the prime functions of the Wollof tradition of origin would be to explain and sanctify the main features of their system of government. Each of the Wollof states was governed by its own ruler appointed from the descendants of the founder of the state.
Each state enjoyed practical autonomy in the administration of the affairs of his own kingdom but was expected to cooperate with the Burba Jolod in matters of cornmon imperial interest such as defence, trade and the provisions of imperial revenue. The authority of Burba Jolof was bolstered by his traditional descent from Ndyadyane Ndyaye and the consequent divinity of his office.
An important feature of Wollof government was the strong position of the nobility. Neither the Burba Jolof nor the rulers of the other Wollof states held office by hereditary right alone. Although each had to be descended from the founder of his state in the male line of succession, and be born of a noble woman, actual appointment was made by elections conducted by the great nobility.
Once appointed, the Burba Jolof went through elaborate religious rituals to inform him on the duties of his office and to elevate his status to that of a divine monarch. Thus sanctified, the Burba Jolof was expected to lead his people to victory and bring them prosperity. If he failed in these key functions, his divine position could not save him from deposition, although his personal army might.
Relation between Wollof sub-rulers and the Burba Jolof were based on voluntary cooperation even the payment of tribute for the upkeep of the imperial power being voluntary. This voluntary element produced one of the ‘most autocratic system of government known in West Africa. As the monarch’s position depended on personal wealth power and prestige, the Burba Jolof built up his own personal army of soldiers, political and commercial agents and praise-singers as both a source and sign of his power.
As a result, Wollof rulers were able to flout constitutional advice and to appoint at will district heads over groups of villages. Often they appointed men of non-noble origin, loyal to themselves, to those posts which were concerned with the preservation of law and order and the collection of royal revenue.
Women played an important role in Wollof society and government. The "Linguerre", or queen mother, was the head of all Wollof women and was influential in the state. To maintain her dignity, she owned a number of dependent villages which cultivated her farms and paid her tribute.
In Kayor and other coastal Wollof states, the Linguerre enjoyed’ an additional income from the salt and fish trade. There were other female chiefs whose main task was to judge cases involving women. In the state of Walo, a woman could aspire to the office of Bur and rule the state.