Tribes of The Gambia: Mandinka

Mandinka is the largest ethnic group in the Gambia, with a population of 600,165 as per the 2013 population census. Mandinkas can be found in greater numbers in west African countries like Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, and the Senegambia region. According to historical books, their settlement can be viewed as forming a triangle from the Senegambia region at the base and Niger at the top.


Mandinkas in the Senegambia region migrated from Kangaba (or Manding). Kangaba was a state in the Ancient Mali empire. Historical books narrate this state as the home of Mandinkas, and it was the vassal of the emperor of the Ancient Ghana Empire. The Ghana empire was the first Empire of Western Sudan. The empire was later destroyed by the Almoravids in 1076, and Kangaba became a vassal of the Susu state of Kaniaga. It was ruled by a powerful and cruel king called Sumanguru Konteh, but the state was later freed by the illustrious and renowned Mandinka leader, Sundiata Keita. He later laid the foundation of the Mali Empire and expanded the Mandinkas into the rest of the Senegambia region. But some history books narrate that the expansion and migration of Mandinkas into the Senegambia region started even before the existence of the Mali empire. Migrants were moving in small groups in search of better farmland; they settled and married indigenous inhabitants of the lower regions of the Senegambia and Guinea Bissau.

The Kaabu Empire (Rise & Fall)

In the mid thirteen centuries, Sundiata Keita sent his general to a conquest battle in the Jollof empire. The then ruler had killed the messenger of the King of Mali, who came to buy weapons from the Jollof kingdom for the king’s expedition. The general known as Tiramang Traore travelled with more than 75,000 settlers, including princes, generals, marabouts etc. He defeated the ruler and conquered the empire, then proceeded to conquer a larger part of the region, such as Guinea Bissau and the Kassa area, which is now the Casamance region in Senegal. This conquest forced the migration of the local inhabitants such as the Jolas and the Bainuonkas towards the Gambia and the Atlantic coast. The conquest was also known as the largest migration, which was led by Tiramang Traore. He built the Kaabu Empire, which became home to thousands of Mandinkas.

After marrying, Tiramang continued his conquest and conquered many areas from the Gambia to the base of Futa Jallon. All these parts became part of the Mandinka rule, and his sons ruled the different regions from The Gambia to Casamance to Guinea Bissau. Tiramang later died in upper Basse. The Mandinka ancestry is, however, linked to him as the founder of the Kaabu Empire. The Kaabu Empire was a vassal state of Mali until the fall of the Mali empire.

Some of the areas that were part of the Kaabu empire in The Gambia were Jimara, Kantora, Tumnana, Sankolla, Sama, Pachana and Wurupana. But not all the conquered states were under the political domination of the Kaabu Empire. Kombo was originally a Jola state which went to the Mandinkas by right of conquest. However, the victory over the Jolas and other groups led to the establishment of ˝Dankuntu˝ (a joking relationship) between Kaabu and Kombo. This means that the two parties swore an oath to protect and support each other in times of trouble, mediate on behalf of each other without causing offences and intermarry.

The alliance bound even the unborn generations, and whoever broke it was subjected to a terrible curse. Mandinka states such as Niumi and Jarra share this agreement.

Nyanchos and Koring states

Nyanchos are nobles who were children of one of Tiramang Traore’s sons with a woman called Balaba. Balaba was believed to be a woman with supernatural powers and was always hiding in a cave till she was discovered by a hunter. She later married one of Tiramnag’s sons and gave birth to four daughters. Three of the children later married Mandinka rulers of Jimara, Sama and Panchana, which were among the Kaabu empire. One of them married the ruler of the Serer state. The descendants of these four children are known as Nyanchos, and the emperors of Kaabu were chosen from Jimara, Sama and Panchana. A state ruled by Nyanchos was known as Nyancho states.

The Koring were a group of ruling classes and nobility whose fathers were Nyanchos. But one can only become a ruler through matrilineage, so they became governors of provinces. Another group known as Korings are powerful Mandinka families who have allies with the founding rulers of Kaabu. Some Korings who were not content with being governors migrated and formed their states. These states became known as Koring states.

Stratification Structures of Mandinkas

Just like the Wollof, Mandinkas are also grouped into caste, where nobles are the highest and the slaves at the bottom. In ancient days these castes do not intermarry. This is still practised in some areas of The Gambia but not in large numbers. The Mandinka’s were stratified into Noble: Nyanccho/ Koring, Freeborn or free class: Faro, Artisans: Nyamalo, and Slaves: Jongo.

Nyancho or Koring consists of the king and his family. The Foro consist of the farmers, the marabouts, the fishermen, the console of elders, the soldiers. Nyamalo consists of the griots (called the Jaloo), the leatherworker, the wood cavers, the weavers, the smiths. The Jongo consist of royal slaves, domestic slaves and commercial slaves.

The Battle of Kansala

The conquest of Kaabu by the Fulas is known as the battle of Kansala. Kansala was the capital of Kaabu which was in the area of Guinea Bissau. Due to the internal battle and scramble for power among sons of rulers, the Fulas from Futa Jallon easily defeated and conquered the empire establishing the Fulladu Empires. The Fula’s were attracted to the fertility of Kaabu and their well-watered land, which they needed for their cattle’s. They also saw that majority of the Mandinka states follow traditional African religions, and Fula’s were Muslim therefore, Fula’s embark on a battle to conquer the empire to convert Mandianka’s, rear their cattle, and control the trans-Saharan trade.

The Fulas took fifteen years to gather their army and attacked the fortress of the Mandinkas. The Mandinkas army was inferior to the Fulas’ big army, which was about 40,000 people. Therefore, they could not defend themselves. Janke Walli’s son, the then ruler, left to another state and refused to support the kingdom, but his nephew and other members fought to the death to defend their kingdom. When the Mandinkas consulted their priest of the Jalang, he predicted the destruction of the kingdom. Many Nyancho women committed suicide by jumping into wells, never to live their traditional religion to be Muslims.

Janke Walli set his gunpowder store on fire which led to an immense explosion that led to the destruction of the kingdom. Only 4000 soldiers survived in the Fula army. Today Kaabu is represented by a small community in Guinea Bissau.

In The Gambia Mandinkas can be found in Kombo areas like Brikama, Tanji, Gunjur, Kartong, Sanyang and more. They can be found in larger numbers in the rural Gambia.

Are you planning to visit The Gambia?

We live in The Gambia and we are happy to help you to plan your holidays. By choosing us, your time, your most valuable asset will be fulfilled with creative suggestions about where to go and what to do. You will know you are making the right choice because we are spending a lot of time on the road ourselves; scouting out new places, deepening relationships with locals involved, and finding places to eat, enjoy and stay. 

Your questions and requests will be considered individually by one of our experts. You will receive special benefits that you can’t get on your own or are not available on automatic booking systems. We will provide you with a wide range of information about activities you can choose to make your stay more vivid. You will have the assistance of a person, which will be there for you, will provide information to the details and use all the knowledge to make your trip memorable. 

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