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Exploring Social Age Groupings in The Gambia

My Magazine 2024/04
3 min
Social age grouping is a fascinating aspect of social life in The Gambia. Communities uphold communal work (Teysitoo), interpersonal relationships, loyalty, and collaborative entertainment through this social institution. Its guiding principle prioritizes common interest over individual interest.

Interestingly, this concept transcends tribal boundaries, as nearly every tribe in The Gambia has a name for it. In the Mandinka tribe, it's known as "Kafo"; for the Wolof, "Kompin" refers to a group of Wolof women. Among the Jola, different dialects have varying names, such as "Ekai" in the Karoninka dialect and "Fujojaf" in others. In Fula Futa, it's called "Jarma." However, its significance in contemporary times is diminishing, except in specific rural Gambian communities.

The Context of Social Age Grouping

Age holds significant importance in Gambian society. People are grouped into different age categories based on their age range.

Ascending from the "Dingding Kafo" for the underage, we have the "Fondingkay Kafo" for youth, typically unmarried individuals, and finally, the "Kebba Kafo" for elders, usually married. Within the "Dingding Kafo," there are subdivisions like "Sunkutinding Kafo" for girls and "Kanbangnding Kafo" for boys.

Married women belong to "Muusu Kafo," further divided into "Manyoring Kafo" for young married women and "Muusu Kebba Kafo" for older married women.

"Kafo Ba," meaning the big group, encompasses all age groups within a community where such age groupings exist.

In traditional Gambian society, similar to many African cultures, these groupings operate along tribal and gender lines. However, cooperation occurs during events or needs that transcend tribal and gender boundaries and are of national importance. For instance, within a single Gambian village, the Jola tribe may have their age groupings alongside the Mandinka, Fula, or Wolof age groupings. Likewise, female age groupings mirror their male counterparts. Each social age group functions autonomously, with its established governing body, rules, and regulations derived from societal norms and values.

Aside from social class, age plays a crucial role in determining societal roles and responsibilities. Leadership within a particular social age group is primarily determined by age. Interestingly, it's less common in The Gambia to inquire about someone's age, especially if they are older, unlike in other parts of the world where age often determines social standing within the community.

Functions of Social Groupings

Communal Work "Tesito"

Communal work, known as "Tesito," was a term used during the First Republic to denote self-help through personal effort. It involves individuals working collectively, sometimes for compensation, to support social activities within their group. This work could be voluntary, such as community development projects or assisting each other with personal or family tasks. For example, if it's Simon's turn today, Peter takes over another day, ensuring everyone contributes and benefits. Tasks vary based on gender, age, and tribe - women's groups often engage in farming activities like tilling and harvesting. 

Men focus on land clearing and construction projects. These communal efforts generate funds to support social events.

Enforcing Discipline:

Social age groups also play a role in enforcing societal norms and values, emphasizing loyalty, discipline, hard work, and purposefulness. As these groups operate somewhat independently, loyalty to one's group is crucial, and members must adhere to agreed-upon rules to avoid penalties. Discipline is a shared community responsibility, with these groups monitoring member behaviour. Participation in communal work is tied to benefits, motivating individuals to contribute.

Contribution to and Distribution of Roles in Social Events:

Contribution to social events varies based on age group, with each group assigned specific responsibilities and financial contributions. For instance, younger groups may contribute less financially but with additional tasks, while older groups may contribute more and hold leadership roles. In some communities, certain age groups are responsible for specific event aspects, such as arranging entertainment like drummers.

These aspects offer intriguing insights into social age groupings in The Gambia. To delve deeper into Gambian community life and socio-cultural dynamics, consider joining one of our Ninki Nanka or Ethnic Trails for a firsthand experience.

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