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Tribes of The Gambia: Jola

My Magazine 2022/01
3 min
The Jola ethnic group's members are primarily found in great numbers on the Atlantic Coast between the Southern banks of The Gambia, the Casamance Region of Senegal and the Northern part of Guinea Bissau.


There is little history told when it comes to the origin of the Jolas. Many people believe the reason is the lack of griots in their tradition, which would be handing down the history of their ancestors from one generation to another like in other ethnic groups. Though the origins of the Jolas are not well known, it is believed that they and the Bainounka, Balanta, etc., were already settled in the lower region of Casamance before the Mandinka migration in the fifteenth century began.

However, there is a possibility that some Jolas and Serers migrated from Kaabu situated in the Casamance region. It is not known where these people came from before they migrated from Kaabu. There is a strong belief among the Jolas and the Serers that their ancestors travelled on the same canoe down the River Gambia. When they got to an area near Banjul, the canoe split into two. The ancestor of the Jola hung on to the front piece of the canoe and landed on the Foni Kombo area, whiles the Serer ancestor held on to the back piece and were carried to Barra, from where they settled in Sine and Saloum areas.

Presently in the Gambia, the Jolas make up to 10 to 15% of the Gambian population and are heavily concentrated in the Foni area of southwest Gambia. Some Jola villages include Bulok, Ndemban Somita, Brefet Bolon, Kanilai, Bondali, Kanwally etc.



The Jolas are well known for their excellent way of life; they are very relaxed and charming towards strangers. The majority of Jolas claim to be Muslims, although Africa traditional practices are mixed with it.

They are primarily farmers. The Jolas in Foni mainly raised peanuts and rice. The women are responsible for gardening, rice, food preparation, care of the house and children. The men produce the cash crops: mangos, fruits and groundnuts. They are respected in the country since they are very hardworking regardless of male or female.



Like other ethnic groups, the Jolas have many ceremonies that they perform, but the most known and respected is the Jola initiation ritual.

In the Jola tradition, a man is not a man and cannot marry until he has been initiated. The initiation happens at a festival known as Futampaf.

Demonstration of bravery is a big part of the celebrations. Adult men would first shower in sacred water that a marabout, a spiritual man, has prepared for their protection. Some will also have small packages with jujus or amulets sown all over their robes. These amulets contain different materials or mixtures made by a marabout. Both the water and amulets would protect men and prevent any blade from penetrating their skin. They would wear big trousers and dance while using various weapons like cutlasses or knives to energetically strike their bodies without leaving behind a single scratch.

Women dressed in clothes from the same type of material will be singing and dancing. The families of initiated will save a lot of money in preparation for the ceremony since they have to feed not only their relatives but also the local villagers.

Late in the afternoon, after everybody has had lunch, the initiation of the boys, aged from 8 up to 20 years, would begin. They will shave their heads and bodies, and they will dress in traditional clothes. The initiates are then hoisted onto someone shoulders and paraded around for some time before being whisked away to the bush with the women following at a distance, running along dusty paths. Traditionally the boys would have to spend many weeks away from their village with their older male relatives, learning about their responsibilities as a man.

After the ceremony, boys can get married and start up their own families, preferably as early as possible but only if that is also their own wish.

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