The river basin was a focal point for migrating groups of people escaping the turmoil of western Sudanic wars dating from the 12th century. The Diola (Jola) are the people longest resident in the country; they are now located mostly in western Gambia. The largest group is the Malinke (Mandingo, or Mandinka), comprising about two-fifths of the population. The Wolof are the largest population group in Banjul. Nomadic Fulani (Fula) settled the extreme upriver areas, and their kingdom, Fuladu, became a major power. The Soninke (Serahuli), an admixture of Malinke and Fulani, are also concentrated in the upriver areas. The population is more than 90 percent Muslim.
The Malinke, also called Maninka, Mandingo, or Manding, are a West African people occupying parts of Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. They speak a Mandekan language of the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo family.
The Malinke are divided into numerous independent groups dominated by a hereditary nobility, a feature that distinguishes them from most of their more egalitarian neighbours. One group, the Kangaba, has one of the world's most ancient dynasties; its rule has been virtually uninterrupted for 13 centuries. Beginning in the 7th century AD as the centre of a small state, Kangaba became the capital of the great Malinke empire known as Mali (q.v.). This was the most powerful and most renowned of all the empires of the western Sudan, now memorialized in the name of the Republic of Mali.
The contemporary Malinke are an agricultural people, cultivating such staples as millet and sorghum and tending small herds of cattle, kept primarily for trade, bride-price payments, and prestige. Houses are predominantly cylindrical, with thatched straw roofs, and are often grouped in substantial numbers and surrounded by a palisade. Descent, inheritance, and succession are patrilineal.
The Wolof, also spelled Ouolof, are a Muslim people of Senegal and The Gambia speaking a language of the West Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo family.
The typical rural community is small (about 100 persons). Most Wolof are farmers, growing groundnuts (peanuts) as a cash crop and millet and sorghum as staples; many, however, live and work in Dakar and Banjul as traders, goldsmiths, tailors, carpenters, teachers, and civil servants. Traditional groups were characterized by a markedly hierarchical social stratification, including royalty, an aristocracy, a warrior class, commoners, slaves, and members of despised artisan castes; at their head was a paramount chief.
The Wolof traditionally observed double descent; i.e., descent has been traced through both the male and female lines. Islamic influence, however, has tended to make the male line dominant. A household unit may consist of a nuclear family (husband, wife, and minor children) or a polygynous family (a husband, his several wives, and their children); other close kin may, however, sometimes be found together with the nuclear family. Wolof women are renowned for their elaborate hair styles, abundant gold ornaments, and voluminous dresses.
The Fulani people, also called Peul, or Fulbe, a primarily Muslim people found scattered in many parts of West Africa, from Lake Chad, in the east, to the Atlantic coast. They are concentrated principally in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal, and Niger. The Fulani language, known as Fulfulde (Fula), is classified within the West Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo family.
Interaction of the widely dispersed Fulani with disparate other groups has produced a variety of socioeconomic patterns. Originally, the Fulani were a pastoral people, their lives and organization dominated by the needs of their herds. Such pastoral Fulani today enjoy greater prestige than town and sedentary agricultural Fulani as the most truly representative of Fulani culture. Interaction with other groups has sometimes resulted in a considerable degree of cultural absorption. This is most notably the case in northern Nigeria, where perhaps half of the Fulani have adopted the Hausa (q.v.) language and culture, and where, as a result of a series of holy wars (1804-10), purporting to purify Islam, they established an empire, instituting themselves as a ruling aristocracy. The urban Fulani are the most ardently Muslim; pastoral Fulani are frequently lax and sometimes even pagan. The pastoralists also exhibit a much higher incidence of non-Negroid physical traits. They wander in nomadic groups, making temporary camps of portable huts. Some of their dairy produce is usually exchanged at markets for cereal foods; cattle are rarely killed for meat. Many sedentary Fulani, who frequently have become sedentary as a result of the depletion of their herds, also own cattle but rely principally on cultivation.
The social structure of the pastoral Fulani is egalitarian, in marked contrast to that of other Muslim groups, such as the Hausa, and to most sedentary Fulani. The influence of Islam on kinship patterns is evident in the general preference for cousin and other intralineage marriages. Most men are polygynous, the typical household unit comprising the family head, his wives, and unmarried children.
Soninke, also called Sarakole, Seraculeh, or Serahuli, a people located in Senegal near Bakel on the Sénégal River and in neighbouring areas of West Africa. They speak a Mande language of the Niger-Congo family. Some Senegalese Soninke have migrated to Dakar, but the population in the Bakel area remain farmers whose chief crop is millet. The Soninke were the founders of the ancient empire of Ghana, which was destroyed after the invasions of Muslim conquerors in the 10th century. Their social structure and organization are typical of the Mande (q.v.) peoples.