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Get to know the Jola lifestyle of the Casamance

My Magazine 2022/09
4 min
Probably most different from the rest of the ethnic groups living in the Senegambia region is the Jola (or Diola). Mostly living in small dispersed villages in The Gambia's region Foni, in part of Guniea Bissau and southern part of Senegal - Casamance, they are a population of about 700,000 to 900,000 according to different sources.

To describe them with a few particulars, they are great agrarians, deeply connected to and respect nature, have strong animistic traditions and form egalitarian society formations based on close neighbourhood and family relations. 

Their language is Jola, although they have many dialects which developed in different areas where they settled. For example, Banjaal is spoken in the south part of Casamance River, Bayot around Ziguinchor, KuDiola in the south part of Oussouye, Fogni around Bignona, Mlop in the Mlop village and so on. 

Little is known about the Jola people's early history or where they came from. Some blame it on the lack of griots in the society, which with other ethnic groups in the shared area, have the role of historians and custodians of the tradition. 

They are strongly related to the Serer people, who supposedly share the same ancestry and remain in a joking relationship to date.

Due to outside influence, many Jola members today, especially in The Gambia and Guinea Bissau, are members of Islamic and some also Christian religions. Still, those living in the Casamance region remained true to their indigenous faith based on animism. However, most of them, regardless of the practised religion, still stick to their heritage, such as the use of palm wine in the ceremonies and their initiation rituals, which are of great importance and, in some aspects, resemble the practice of other ethnic groups in Senegambia region. 

In the Casamance region, the Jola religion still leans heavily on the faith of god associated with natural phenomena, like sky and rain. To communicate, they use honoured charms or fetishes located in sacred precincts. They also believe in protective spirits and the posthuman life of the spirit. They believe that spirit of a dead person needs to be accompanied by a ritual to enable it to join its ancestors. They believe in living a good life which will determine whether the spirit in the human afterlife will be joined with the ancestors or be exiled and punished. 

There are many traditional instruments connected to the Jola group. Most known must be ekonting, a three-string gourd instrument resembling kora, galire, horn instrument called gabilene, and other instruments made out of natural materials, which mainly find their purpose in various rites.

Jola ethnic group has three main traditional masks that often perform at important events, such as initiations, funerals, and marriage ceremonies. These masks can portray the form of animals or show the interpretation of mystic creatures. Those are kumpo, samay and niasse. The Kumpo is always covered in palm leaves, twirling while pivoted on a pole on his head when dancing. The Samay represents a deer; therefore, it has two horns on the head and holds a long stick in its hand when dancing. The Niasse is covered in black fur, using two short posts to mimic the walk of the gorilla.

As excellent and hardworking farmers, the Jola tribe members excel in crop production, especially rice. They are also well known for their tradition of palm tapping. Many also grow cattle and involve in other crop production. 

Casamance is considered the most fertile area of Senegal. Because it is geographically separated from the rest of Senegal by The Gambia, the Jola people have expressed the problem of marginalisation and wanted to become an independent territory. Since Senegal obtained independence from France and Casamance's demand for autonomy was denied, there has been political tension, and sporadic fights between the rebel movement and the Wolof predominated government of Senegal. However, judging by the feeling you get in the Casamance when visiting, you would solely feel the hospitality and openness of people. A military checkpoint here is a small sacrifice compared to all the sights Casamance offers. 

Further exploration of the Jola culture, tradition and lifestyle awaits you. The Ninki Nanka Casamance is a trail explaining and interpreting the community life of Jolas in detail. Join us in exploring the authentic Jola villages scattered in the embrace of untouched nature and glorious trees.  Follow the Casamance river to reach an indigenous settlement with procured traditions, and meet one of the rare kings of the Jola group, the king of Oussouye, learn about the traditional tools and crafts of the Jola culture and understand the mysticism of the fetish road with us. 


Interested? Send an inquiry, and let us take you on an unforgettable exploration. 

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