Detailed History Of Niani

Alhagie Banna Kanuteh
Gambia’s erudite historian and exceptional balafonist Alh. Banna Kanuteh of blessed memory!

By Sainey Faye

Suntou, this is an article on the history of Niani as narrated by the late Bana Kanuteh.The resistance of Kemeteng Camara is also a historical lesson. Ndungu-Siin, now in Senegal was known to be the old capital of Niani; and was founded by Dembele, who was the son of Tengela.They were originally new immigrants to the region, and were given land by ‘Burr Jollof ” or the leader of Jollof. They were said to be independent rulers, in the sense that they acknowledged his authority; yet maintained their own way of governance. They were said to be from the Camara family clan, that had originated from Manding or best yet Mali.

The story of King Kementeng was written in old history books during the colonial era, and many of the older folks who went to school in the 50’s and 60’s learned of it one way or the other. King Kementeng ( note spelling  by various sources), was said to have also killed both of his brothers to take power.

The McCarthy Island saga was one that brought attention to his rule, the seizure of the vessel was also a catalyst, the dispatch of 200 well armed troops to confront him was a mistake the British regret making.He trashed them, took their weapons as trophies, and reminded them that he was ruler and not the king of Kataba, who gave them permission to operate on the Island.The issue of which merchants were culprits is secondary, the monopoly capitalist whose capital/goods was the major issue with the colonialist was the major issue.The transfer of Africans from Sierra Leone around 1827 onwards brought in Africans from all tribes and clans working in tandem with colonial admin and companies. Britain became the established European power on the Gambia, with valuable addition of Bathurst (now Banjul).

They had in their set up of rulership- “Kanta Mansa” i.e. the frontier guard or vanguard, and the “Faring Mansa” i.e. the warrior chief.But they didn’t  set up a system for any queen or queens; unlike its neighbor “Sine-Saloum” where the ‘Gelewars’ who were migrants from the South bank, became the royal dynasty or continued dynasties.Or, in the where the Queens had a well set up system of rotation, and time/term limitations of who takes over next in reign.  Theirs was different in their make up – the region was divided up into two – one in the East and one in the West. These were named Mansa (East)  and Kesia (West), i.e.  names for the two brothers ruling and a system of rotation; in the kingship between the two divisions.

One cannot forget the important foundation laid by “Kunting” and the Koma clan, whose founder Tombong Koma, was said to have originated from Manding. He was said to have left and handed it over to his cousin Bafode Jawla, who later had a lot of problems; being a muslim and ‘Kunting’ also being a muslim town,  didn’t  sit well  with the reigning king of Ndungu-Sinn – Lamin Wally, a ‘Soninke’ – finally they fought and the latter got killed. But their story and feud did not end there, it continued to Kataba, where Bafode’s successor Suntu Koma was attacked and killed. Kunting and Manna are key players in the history of Niani, Sami, and Wulli.This is only one bit of the whole story, and I did not intend to get ahead of your very informative program, and let the listeners enjoy Banna’s oral historical narrative.

As with names and their meanings in African cultures, some narrations indicate that one of the brothers one day fell into the river, whilst on a trip.He never surfaced for a while, so   was thought dead; but several days later he came up or rather surfaced alive.This surprised his clan who had seldom seen something of this sort.They then named him – “SABALLY” ( Mandingka meaning ‘One who does not Die’). In the meantime the other brother kept his surname Kamara. Kamara/Camara – spelt in various ways depending on the phonetic i.e. Francophone or Anglophone.

Niani itself was divided up into Upper and Lower Niani, the Camaras concentrated mainly in Jambur, Jannah, and Ndungu-Sinn; and the Saballys or Saballis at Nyangabantang, Palann, and Kataba. Palann or Palang had the majority of rulers, with its capital at Kataba. Nyangabantang survived the onslaught and held up resistance, even when surrounded by Jihadist and attacks to dethrone the Soningke empire, and its last ruler Ngarri Sabally.By the end of the demarcation boundary line implementation  of the Anglo-French; he was made a chief by the British who later drew the territories boundaries again.Sami and Wulli, became casualties of these demacartions; and made it little hard to pinpoint areas beyond the Wulli river.

Banna Kanuteh is a good oral historian of the history of Niani, Senegambia and Kabu. He grew up at Wassu near Kuntaur
Niani and practiced his trade up to adulthood, when he left for the U.K in the 1950’s where he stayed for almost about two decades. Wassu, where he grew up at,  is few kilometers from Palann and Kataba, and also Nyangabantang a.k.a. ” Nyanga.”

Wassu is the home of the famous historic ‘Stone Circles’. He was a good custodian of our history and culture, and his version of what transpired, and narration is worth listening to and documenting for posterity. He knows very well the story of Ngarri Sabally’s last years as ruler, and Chief Saderr Manneh who took over from him, because he was a “Jalli/Jallo or Jaliba of him.

How do I know this ? I grew up next to him at K.T.R. (Kuntaur), was a family friend during my childhood, and worked as local government clerk for Saloum – both Upper & Lower Saloum, Nianija, Niani, Sami, and part of Wulli and Sandu. Finally, you may not need to know this – my uncle Dodou Joof who went to the U.K. in 1948 (deceased few years ago) was one of his best friends, and he lodged him and facilitated his trip to the U.K. – In short he was his “Jatti” in Mandingka. Keep it coming …..good program!!!

By the way, he had done some programs on the BBC on various topics on Senegambia and Kabbu, and it will be valuable to listen to and document especially,  as a student of history and culture. I just thought adding my little butus to the discussion.


One Comment

  1. Suntou

    Thanks Koto Sainey Faye. This is quiet detail. My warm regards. Your take on history is always refreshing. Keep them coming.

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