Demarcating Blurred Frontiers Of Manding World And An Inquest Into Internal Dynamics

Late Jeli Beya Sissoko with late Margit Cronmueller Smith

By Dodou Jawneh

Inspiration for the article

The article was written partly as an inspiration by Margit Smith’s work entitled Mande Kora published by University of Maine at Augusta. This work provided details of one German woman’s experience in learning to become a full fledge jalimusu. Her tutors included Jali Beya Suso whose father Ba Surakata Suso of Mansajang Kunda was my guardian. While I was living with the Suso family my fun memories included accompanying Jali Beya on musical shows around Basse and carrying his Kora. One of our patrons, I recall, included Sellu Bah nicknamed ‘kirringtin’ (a type of fencing material) because of his defensive prowess as a footballer and who later became Member of Parliament for Basse.

In the 1980s, Jali Beya travelled to other West African countries to practice his trade including Ivory Coast where he may have first met Margit C Smith and became one of her tutors in learning to play the Kora and other aspects of Jaliya. Margit’s memoirs detailed how some of these West African Jalis she encountered including the legendary Sidiki Diabate, who also originated from The Gambia and was the father of the Malian Kora maestro Tumani Diabate, provided her all the support and encouragement in her endeavour. In her memoirs, Margit pledged that because of this kindness, she would look for avenues to try and expose the works of Jali Beya and her other tutors to the West including the US.

Sadly Jali Beya’s life was cut short living those of us who knew him in deep sorrow. After a long illness, he died in the early 1990s. He was survived by his wife Adama Jawara, his father, brothers and children including Jainaba or Jeje Sakiliba. The University of Maine kept in store a collection of Margit’s unfinished work but later made then public as Margit died of breast cancer in 1996.

Jali Beya’s father Ba Surakata lived probably close to 90 and the information I ascribed to him in this article have been obtained through conversations I had with him during my school days and subsequent periods as a civil servant when I visited him at Mansajang Kunda.

Late Jeli Beya Sissoko with late Margit Cronmueller Smith


Social scientists and lay people alike have often been confronted with the difficulty of determining the limit of the Mande ethnic group or even its cultural sphere, herein referred to as the Mande World. In attempting to understand the Mande world, social scientists have tried to look at it, first and foremost from the linguistic position as the Mande people, referring to themselves with various terms, speak fairly intelligible or closely related languages. However, other than the linguistic classification, the Mande world exhibits a stratification based on occupation which rather than runs in tandem with the former cuts across it.

Furthermore, the social dynamics combining linguistic and occupational stratifications created also a phenomenon of ‘diffusion’ in which the Mande people have experienced a cross cultural fertilisation with their neighbours in the West Africa to the extent that the Mande world could be seen as a cultural sphere rather than a distinct ethnic group. This last phenomenon could be true of all ethno-cultural groups in West Africa or even beyond, but in terms of the scope and size of this cultural spill over, perhaps the Mande people have had greater influence over the West African space than most of their neighbouring ethnic groups. This muddled up nature of Mande ethnicity make any study particularly complicating for social scientist especially those from outside.

This study is aimed at pinpointing particular areas where the Mande people have had an interaction and to indicate the nature as well as the scope of such interaction. It will also attempt to provide an analysis of some of the existing literature and to indicate their worth or otherwise to the study of the Mande world. In doing this, a case will be made for the value of local knowledge as a sine qua non for any study of Mande people and therefore the information obtained from local sources will be treated importantly. A look at internal characteristic will also be made to assist in providing greater understanding of the wider ethnic configuration.

One of the most influential studies on the Mande people from the perspective of what may be classified as outsiders was that of the Caribbean historian Walter Rodney who observed the cultural influence of the Mande people in the area of the Guinea Coast. Rodney believed that the process of cultural assimilation that was taking place in the region during the period before direct contact with Europeans could have enabled the Mali Empire, the historical-cultural epicentre of the Mande people, acquire the necessary power and achieve capitalist development as was the case with European powers at the time. He contended that the course of development or socio-political progress of the people of Ancient Mali had been arrested as a result of European imperialism in the form of the slave trade and colonialism. Studying the occupational stratification of the Mande people, Rodney contended that this West African polity was passing through the feudal stage of development and that capitalism was dawning when the European imperialists arrived on the coast and the rest, as they say, was history.

Whether or not the Mande people and their medieval Mali Empire would have succeeded in having dominance over their neighbouring tribes and thereby reached the capitalist epoch had the imperialist not arrived would never be known. What is clear however is the evidence of cultural influence of the Mande that has aroused the interest of many observers. Despite Rodney’s socialist or even Marxian leaning in his analysis, he was careful to distinguish between the progression of European development through the ages and the culmination of capitalism and the nature of African development. He therefore chose not to ascribe capitalism, regarded as European civilisation and its totalitarian nature, to Africa’s historical progression. Instead, he described Africa’s experience as a process of cultural development.

Rodney advocated an approach to the study of African history that required a shift from over reliance on European sources and their biases to an African centred approach to research. He referred to this as his ‘groundings’ with African people through which some of his seminal works on Africa had been accomplished including his ‘The history of the Upper Guinea Coast.’ Sheikh Anta Diop has also blended his work with large amount of evidence from sources emanating from Africa and from his own experience in the African context providing a lee way for researchers to utilise this experiential evidence in future works. Conversely, a great deal of work by social scientists have been heavily tainted with Eurocentric biases or even afro-pessimism to the extent that experiential knowledge or the perspective of Africans on research work is treated with misgivings or dismissed as irrelevant. Massing put this bluntly when he commented, ‘There is an unhappy tendency among the historians of Africa to dismiss the oral traditions too lightly.’

To demonstrate the value of local knowledge for the study of Africa, the story relating to the discovery of the Nile source and the controversy this attracted in the mid-nineteen century Britain is clear testimony. In his book ‘The Explorers of The Nile,’ Tim Jeal made an in-depth observation of the attitude and character of two influential English explorers with direct impact on the result of their works. John Hanning Speke, who had been credited as the undisputed first European to discover the source of the Nile, world’s longest river, and a discovery that eluded the scientific establishment for over a thousand years, relied on local knowledge, in particular the direction of the flow of the Rusizi River linking the lakes Tanganyika and Kivu, providing him valuable information for his ground breaking discovery. His co-explorer, Richard Burton, who had a contempt for most things African, failed to give value to African testimonies and continued to argue wrongly against Speke’s evidence to the Royal Geographical Society. When Speke died on the eve of their planned public debate on the subject of the Nile source, it was a case of what Ifanbondy, The Gambia’s popular musical band’s lead singer, expressed as: ‘Ala kanang faa jawu la lun naa.’ (1)

Speke’s untimely death in 1864 prevented him from corroborating his point of view and also enabled Ruffian Dick, as Richard Burton was nicknamed, to cast aspersion on not just the younger explorer’s evidence but also his character. Burton came to Africa at a time when the anti-slavery movement had gained ground but Afro-pessimism was at its peak, thanks to the several centuries of work to provide ideological underpinning to the nefarious trade. Basil Davidson quoted Burton as follows: ‘Once an African grew beyond childhood, his mental development is arrested, and thenceforth he grows backwards instead of forwards.’

Donald R. Wright, who wrote a paper entitled ‘Beyond Migration and Conquest: Oral Tradition and Mandinka Ethnicity in the Senegambia,’ cast doubt on many held beliefs about oral testimonies relating to identity of the Mande people of the Gambia and claimed that ‘cultural transferals’ rather than migration may have contributed to the present Mandinka population in the region. In spite of Wright’s expertise as a historian and with experience in research on Mande society, he has made several erroneous conclusions that lay people with ‘grounding’ in Mande society could spot. It is the responsibility of such lay people, with the advantage of cultural experience in the region, to point out such errors and to present a case for the value of traditional knowledge in the study of the region. It should be acknowledged that a great deal of material obtained from local sources already exists and that which had been given greater value by both local and outside observers.

Wright himself had relied on oral sources before but decided eventually that those that purported to support the migration of Mande people from what he referred to as the Mande heartland to the Gambia River valley may not have been correct particularly for the families of the ruling classes. He claimed also that the people of the region do not appear to be capable of seeing history as a process but as series of events, a statement laden with Eurocentric or even afro-pessimist connotation. What he referred to as the inability to figure out historical processes may in fact be a style of presentation and that it is therefore the responsibility of the researcher to understand this.

In addition, Wright’s error as well as those who may have shared his opinion resulted from a lack of understanding or disregard for one fundamental fact about ethnicity in the Mande world – namely duality. The phenomenon of duality makes the concept of ethnicity difficult to comprehend particularly by outside observers. On the other hand, the experience of duality in the ethnic configuration of West Africa renders native West Africans baffled by the issue of multiculturalism in and its raging debate in the Western World. Multiculturalism is engrained in the West African society and every individual has within him or her dual ethnicity with many villages and towns multi-ethnic in character.

To demonstrate this point further, it should be noted that Mande people usually describe themselves not on the linguistic but the occupational domain. This is the preferred form of classification as it carries less ambiguity than linguistic one and particularly as languages could be learnt and forgotten but occupations rarely change, until of course in recent times. But also that because people belonging to the indigenous occupational groups take a special pride in their occupational tag until when this started to be tainted with foreign influences and misconceptions.

Occupational classification cuts across linguistic barriers of what may be termed as the ‘greater Mande’ including the Sarakule and Susu, and other related tribes such as the Fula, Wolof and Serere. For instance, a Karanke family within a Mandinka community may find greater affinity with other karanke families amongst Sarakule than with Mandinka speaking people who do not belong to this occupation group. The Jalis in The Gambia have even gone further by integrating people of their occupation from tribes such as Wolof. Mbye and Ngum, for instance, which are common Wolof and Serere clan names, are prominent within Mandinka Jali society.

There is evidence to suggest that duality existed in very early times or has been the foundation of the Mande society. According to the late Ba Surakata Susso of Mansajang Kunda, a district of Basse in Gambia, the nucleus of the Mande ethnic group included, amongst others, four tribes that he referred to as ‘gnaara.’ This term may be difficult to define but implies a power of the ‘word’ in every day speech. These gnaara groups may refer to the four artisan groups, and in modern times the most famous of whom are the ‘Jali’ or griot. They include also the leather workers (karanke), metal smiths (numu) and bards (finu). All four groups are categorised under a bigger umbrella referred to as the Nyamakala.

Although at first glance there seemed a clear distinction between the core responsibilities of the Nyamakala groups, but for their roles in the sustenance of Mande equilibrium, at least as in the bygone days, these have often overlapped. For instance, amongst the Sarakules or Soninke people one or two clans of smiths and leather workers have the role of entertainment through music as does the Jali. There are other roles common to all the Nyamakala groups including presiding over social occasions. But it appears that over time the Jali and to some extent the Finu have dominated this domain perhaps as a result of their superior command of the power of the ‘word’ acquired through the practice of their trade. However until now, in the absence of a Jali or a Finu, individuals belonging to the leather working or smith clans would be call upon to fill the void in presiding over social occasions. The social occasions themselves, including naming and marriage ceremonies, are increasingly being dominated by new generation of Islamic preachers, whom Ba Surakata referred to as misira karandinglu, literally meaning Egyptian educated scholars. Ba Surakata’s quarrel with them centred on the claim that the institution of jaliya is un-Islamic and therefore should be consigned to the dust bin of history. Despite Ba Surakata’s defence of this institution, there were indications that he was amenable to the evolution of jaliya to fit modern circumstances as he made it clear that he would not oppose other ethnic groups marrying jali women.

Observers of Nyamakala society tend to concentrate mainly on male roles in their analysis. But gender mainstreaming considerations require that the delineation of female role specifications as well as overlaps be spelt out. Among the Jali, singing lies within both male and female domains, but for the playing of musical instruments this has been hitherto virtually male role except for some rudimentary ones. Both numu men and women are assigned the role of circumcising the young of their respective genders. Female numu are also involved in pottery. As for conducting circumcision of young girls, now being frown upon by civil society organizations and some governments and  referred to as ‘female genital mutilation,’ some female Karanke are specialised in this. Their women are also engaged in female hair design and lip tattooing.

David C Conrad observed that there are Mande Jalis in some areas in Mali, bearing quintessential Jali patronymic names but do not sing or play any musical instruments and are engaged instead in leather working. Similarly, the same author identified in the region of Korhogo in the Ivory Coast,  an ethnic group referring to themselves as Jeli and speaking a language akin to Senoufo but bearing Mande patronymic names. They like the leather worker Jeli in regions of Mali are engaged in leather working. Could the Jeli of Korhogo be referred to as a ‘lost Mande Jali tribe’ that has forgotten both the Mande language and the art of music making or jaliya?

Ba Surakata, who until his death in 2000 has been the leader of the Jali clans in the Upper River Division of The Gambia, further claimed that amongst the clans or groups that composed of the earliest Mande people, these included elements of what he referred to as ‘Fula si naani’ implying four tribes or clans of Fula. The implication of this statement is that it underlines the fact of how Mande populations in various regions have mixed with the Fulani. This may result from the fact that in spite of the difference in occupational foundation of their two societies – the Fulani being predominantly nomadic and Mande cultivators – they are both comparatively migratory tribes. Therefore it was destined that the two people would come across one another in different locations in the West African space. This process of ethnic mixing has continued in the West African society until today creating a dual ethnicity in most people. A recent interview produced by the Echo online newspaper of Mr Bakary Bunja Darboe, the Gambia’s former Vice President exemplified this scenario as he has both Mande and Fula heritage. Similarly, Donald Wright clearly appeared baffled by a woman he acquainted in Serekunda who had the Sanneh patronymic name and claimed to be Mandinka even though his family spoke Jola. He appeared equally bemused, in a manner that the average West African will not, with the Historian Bakary Sidibeh’s Mandinka-philia, although he belonged to a clan that is of Fulbe origin.

It has to be said that some of the ethnic mixing that characterised the West African society may well be categorised as horrible history with the slave trade playing a major role in this. While the Soninke-marabout wars of the 19th Century is still very alive in public consciousness in the Senegambia region in which populations were forcibly removed from one region to another. Reference should be made of the former Gambian president Sir Dawda Jawara whose autobiography tells the story of how his maternal grandmother was victim of one of those raids. And indications are that this was only the latest of population exchange between the Mande people of the region and littoral groups such as the Jolas. Rodney highlighted this passage from 16th Century Portuguese accounts in his work, ‘The History of the Upper Guinea Coast’:

‘Sailing south of the estuary of the Gambia, the Mandingas fell upon the Djolas as they gathered seafood in large parties upon the coast. At first, the Djolas were taken unawares, but obviously they soon began to prepare for those attacks, and many Mandingas were in turn made captive.’       

The initial Fula clans that might have integrated into Mande society could be what the Jali always identify as Jallow, Jakiteh, Sidibeh and Sankareh, mainly found in the Mande East or tilibo particularly in Wasulu. But in the West, in the regions of Gambia, Cassamance and Guinea Bissau, the patronymic name Saidi is dominant. Ethnographers on Mande and perhaps Mande people themselves tend to divide the Mande world into two, between the East and the West. However, taking both linguistic and geographical situations into account, one could also carve out the ‘middle Mande.’ This is the region lying roughly speaking in the middle of the area of West Africa where Mande people live, the epicentre of which could be located in the Bafulabe area of the Senegal River valley, the confluence of two tributaries, Bafing and Bakoi. It is around this region that the Khasonke people live and whose language could be seen as a bridge between the Mandinkakan of the west and the dialects of the east. The Khasonke speak more or less the same dialect as the people referred to as the Jakhanka.

This region’s political and cultural genesis might have been influenced by the revolutionary movement spearheaded by Koli Tenguella and his Denianke followers in the 16th Century, adequately described by Basil Davidson as ‘Fulani-Mandinka army.’ Koli Tenguella himself epitomised the Fulani-Mande unification, his father being Fula political and military leader who rebelled against the rulers of Songhay and the mother a princess of the Mali Empire. The region lies on the route followed by the Denianke warrior that led them to Futa Toro.

In terms of the dual make-up of Mande people, the pre-colonial kingdom of Khasso, the country of Khasonke people, epitomises this very well. Although Mande in outlook, it was composed of both Fula and Mande people with the Jallow clan as the ruling dynasty until the advent of colonial rule. For the Jakhanka people that the Yale University professor Lamin Sanneh wrote about, they are thinly spread in virtually all part of the Mande world. But oral testimonies amongst the Jakhanka indicate a considerable period of sojourn in the region under consideration specifically in Bambuk and Bondu and amongst the  Jakhanka the Sawaneh clan, for instance, equals Sey and originally from the Fula tribe of Torankas, according to testimonies of clan members.

These clans and groups are so significant in the Mande world that one hears individuals describing themselves as ‘Fula-Mandinko,’ implying people who may have had Fula roots but integrated into Mande society, a situation similar to dual citizenship in modern nation states or the concept of being  African American. The difference may be that these integrated Fulas do not suffer from similar forms of discrimination, that is evident, and reference to their origin, which themselves take pride in, are for historical purpose mainly. These records, not just of the integrated Fula clans, but every other genealogical record, is kept by the society in general who would regularly make reference to them in everyday discourse. The Jali however have greater burden of keeping such record and narrating them for public consumption.

The key lesson for the above narrative is that duality has always been integral to Mande society and serves to encourage not just diversity but political decentralization. Clans and regions were allowed to assert their own identity and autonomy, and it was this socio-political arrangement that Mungo Park observed at the close of the 18th Century and led him to describe Mande political system as republican rather than monarchical. Even as early as the 13th Century when Sunjata came to power, it was through a consensus of the leaders of the various principalities that elected him at the kurukanfuga which also drew up a charter for the new political dispensation. Some historians, such as Youssouf Tata Cise, called this the ‘Mande Charter’ and claimed its comparability with the Magna Charta.

A race of un-equals  

Role or Occupational classification seemed to have a greater defining impact on identity than language. Individuals readily tend to identify themselves as Jula (trader), Numu (smith), Danna (hunter) etc. Leadership role was one that perhaps was shared by all groups. Sumanguru had been a smith and Sunjata a hunter. Sakura, who was of slave heritage, ruled old Mali from 1285 to 1300 and reputed to have consolidated the region around lower Senegal River under his hegemony. As time went by, it might have been that some groups succeeded in retaining the leadership roles within their families and thereby creating the mansaring or ruling class. The slaves first and then the Nyamakala or vice versa, may have been side-lined from assuming leadership positions in the later stages of Mande history. Nan Koman Jan was reported to have been born within the ruling Manding dynasty but whose mother was a slave woman from the neighbouring Senoufo tribe. He was bypassed from taking over the thrown. This apparent injustice enraged him so much that he raised a rebellious army against the establishment leading to civil-strive. This upheaval in turn led to mass migration of Mande groups to areas in present day Ivory Coast. In the epics of Fode Kaba Doumbouya, the man who wore two hats – fanna mori fanna mansa – we have been informed that he refused to engage in dialogue with a community leader in the Niani area of Gambia because of this individual’s origin as a leather worker.

Furthermore, the emergence of the mansaring group may have raised the profile of political organization and accelerated the process of empire building in a manner that was hitherto unknown in the West African region. There is evidence to suggest that these Mande groups have made the process of political organization an evangelical undertaking in the same manner as the British had gone about acquiring land for the Crown, sarcastically expressed in the saying ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out under the midday sun.’ All around the region, as will be shown elsewhere in this article, there are accounts of the presence of Mande ruling classes even if these were not predominantly populated by Mande people. If this contention has any credence, it therefore undermines Donald Wright’s hypothesis that there is no justification in the general perception that the ruling clans in the Senegambia region have their origin from the Mande cradle.

Another group or conglomeration of groups that emerged within Mande society with somewhat curious consequences for researchers is the foro/horo group enjoying an elevated status above slave and Nyamakala groups. In modern times it combines all the occupational groups that are neither nyamakala nor of slave heritage. They could be Mande mori, jula, or mansaring and comprised arguably the majority of Mande people. It is curious to note further that whilst the terms for all the other trade groups such as numu, jali, jula, and the umbrella group nyamakala have their origin in Mande languages, the foro category is usually referred to in terms with foreign connotations. In the Senegambia region, they are also referred to as sulading, literally meaning children of Magrebite descent. Tal Tamari has indicated that foro or horo originated from the Arabic word hurr meaning noble or free.  Reports of remarks made by members of the foro/horo groups about the nyamakala was enough evidence for early European visitors to the area to assume that the Mande society has a caste system parallel to what exists in the Indian sub-continent. Patrick McNaughton surmised that ‘western ideology and pragmatics of exploitative administration conspire to picture the smiths and other nyamakalaw so negatively.’ However, he believes also that the general population of Mande encouraged such perception.

McNaughton could be right with this latter supposition about the attitude of the Mande population. It is claimed in certain folklore that one of the patriarchs of the numu, N’fajiri had committed incest with his mother, albeit accidentally, and had to leave Mande to purify himself. He was said to have returned with a variety of secret knowledge capable of generating both good and evil and therefore the originator of occult power.

The Jali have often told stories in Mande folklore that casts the Karanke in a bad light particularly as people who would always be capable of treachery. In tilibo (East) the story about a mythical individual, Julu Kara Nayin who cursed the patriarch of this group (karankelu bemba) and all his descendants for an act that led to the revelation of his secret, helps in perpetuating this belief. The story itself resonates with the Hamitic Myth or the curse of Ham, son of Prophet Noah. This Judeo-Christian propagation claim that the black people descended from Ham, and justifying the enslavement of the Canaanites by Babylonians and later fuelling the slave trade in Africa. A similar passage about the treacherousness of the Karanke clans in the story of Kelepha Sanneh, a legendary warrior of kaabu origin, which ordinary people would be heard narrating without feeling an iota of guilt or even regret, serves the same purpose. On the other hand, the Karankes themselves may feel a superiority complex over the Jali and other Nyamakala groups, perhaps a result of long period of competition for elevated status which the Mande social system has forced on the Nyamakala groups. Barbara E Frank provided vivid account of the negative perception the various Nyamakala groups had about each other in her study of the Bambara of Segu region in Mali.

According to another account, the legendary Daman Nguili, patriarch of the noble clan of Jawara was a foreigner who was hosted by the leatherworking Jawara clan and therefore adopted the patronymic name Jawara after his host, a social arrangement that Sunjata sanctioned. Sunjata was also said to have expressed worries about the future of the Jali if he was no longer around to protect them. There is reason to believe that the role groups including the Nyamakala groups were held in higher esteem in the Sunjata era than was the case in the later stages. Although Daman Guili, and probably his descendants as well, became successful political and military leaders, perhaps the origin of the phrase kele jawaro, they remained subservient to their Jawara hosts and by extension to all other Karanke clans. It is still customary in rural Gambia that members of the Jawara clan would attend social occasions involving the leather workers to entertain and to accept gifts.

It should be stated that even in modern times, political leaders have carried on the Sundiata tradition of providing recognition to the Nyamakala groups, even if this was not comprehensive enough.  The so-called caste people particularly the Jali are held in high esteem even at the higher echelons of power. Margit Smith reminded us that it was Sory Kandia Kouyate who served as the final arbiter in the violent conflict involving Mali and then Upper Volta following his address to the leaders of the two countries, Moussa Troare and Sangole Lami Sana, at a peace conference hosted by Sekou Toure. The Malian leader, Modibo Keita allocated both Sidiki Diabate from The Gambia and Jeli Madi Sissocko from Senegal adjacent plots of land in Bamako for them to settle. Both men were principal kora players of the Ensemble Nationale du Mali. In the Gambia, Fabala Kanuteh, a griot, was one of the individuals in the helicopter crash involving the president, indicative of Sir Dawda Jawara’s close relation with the Jali. In Sekou Toure’s Guinea, it was customary for griots to be included in high profiled overseas travels of government officials.

Derogatory comments such as those levelled at the Nyamakala could be very hurtful and damaging to self-confidence. Yet this unfortunate situation is dwarfed in comparison to what the Africans sent to endure slavery had to encounter in everyday life. It undoubtedly continued to blight social progress in Mande society until the present, particularly in The Gambia and may probably be a factor for the failure of the Mandinka community in this country to speak with one voice. The same may be said of the other ethnic groups with a similar social system such as the Sarahule, Fula and Wolof. Although the Nyamakala groups accept their role in Mande society, a mechanism that holds this as a whole, there is little evidence to suggest that they accept any inferior position in the social scale, even from European accounts. In fact at present times, it is clearly demonstrated that people of Nyamakala or other heritages strongly detest any suggestion of their inferior status. In his autobiography, the former Gambian president D K Jawara lamented this state of affairs particularly in the early years of his political career.

The phenomenon of Nyamakala on Nyamakala has been played in the hands of the foro/horo group and which in turn was seized upon by the Europeans, particularly the colonialists who found it useful for their divide and rule strategy. However there is evidence to suggest that the barriers between the Nyamakala groups are being broken as are between all other class stratifications, although progress seemed lamentably too slow. Difficulties still remain due to the fear on the part of certain people that changes in this domain will lead to losses in their privileges.  The challenge remains with policy makers to drum home the divisive nature of such a system and for the civil society to recognise that democracy cannot take root without eradicating this unfair social structures. It remains to point out here that the struggle that Africans the world over have to embark on in order to regain universal equality require a march together rather than the ‘divided house’ scenario Mande and West African social system exhibits.

Whether or not this stratification of the Mande society is hallmark of feudalism, its origin requires further examination to enable greater understanding and to gauge a way forward for the society. It is highly probable, as claimed by social scientists including Rodney, that the arrival of the ‘sailing ships’ have retarded the progress of the professional classes in Africa, either directly or indirectly. Basil Davidson questioned what might have happened had the ships been engaged in other forms of trade rather than in humans. Taking into account the cost in economic as well as ‘human worth’- defined here as the loss of both life and dignity – the slave trade has caused a colossal loss to African society. However, impediments suffered by Mande society and other Western Sudanic people cannot be blamed entirely on the advent of European imperialism. On the northern flank of the region where the Sahara lies, the area had come under great strain first by the nomadic Tuaregs of Berber origin and then the Arabic infiltration commencing in the 7th Century. The most glaring impact of this threat might have been the attack on Wagadu, or Ghana as the Arabs named it, but also the social and cultural dislocations resulting from the slave raids and other forms of vandalism. The institutional framework of the occupational groupings might have been existing prior to this period, but it is likely that socio-cultural mind-set of the people had been negatively impacted by outside influences. In order for the institution of slavery to succeed, it required the construction of societal mind-set that justifies the subjugation of one group over another. This had been the case with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade whereby scientific and intellectual expertise was mobilised to provide justification and impetus to the monstrous trade. Sylvianne Diouf, author of ‘Servants of Allah’, enumerated the proliferation of these pseudo scientists and anthropologists in the centuries during and after the Atlantic slave trade.

Similar scenario could have existed during the slave trade occurring across the Sahara and this psychological thinking may have been utilised to create a wedge between the occupational groups of Mande society thereby creating a superiority complex of one group over another. Furthermore, this process may have started in the Soninke Empire of Wagadu, then metamorphosed in Manding and Susu and then carried over to other ethnic entities such as Wolof and Bambara, with strong Mande influences.(2)

Yet there could be another related but slightly different justification for these negative superior complexes that the various role groups have. The region of the Western Sudan had been a cultural melting pot since the arrival in the area of the Indo Europeans tribes. This interaction has been credited as a factor in the socio economic advancement of the region, but as time went by became a cause for some of the regions ills. The arrival of the Abrahamic religions to the region and the mistrust between their adherents could have percolated through the Western Sudanic societies. There is evidence already that since ancient times Jews migrated to the area after major socio political upheaval in the Middle East. As late as the 15th Century, new immigrants, composed of both Jewish and Muslim groups, arrived in the area as a result of the Spanish Inquisition. Whilst conversions to Islam have become the dominant character of the region, other monotheist religions particularly Christianity was present in earlier times among the Berber, for instance. Jewish Diaspora too was significant in the region although this is no longer easy to recognise. The Israeli President and then Foreign Minister, Simon Peres was reported to have been told by Leopold Sedar Senghor, the late former President of Senegal that he (Senghor) too had had some Jewish heritage, very much to Peres’ consternation. Similarly, I once met a man belonging to the Cham or Thiam clan who told me proudly how his clan was of Jewish heritage.

Draconian legislations such as those decreed by the Askia of Songhai, baring Jews from practising their religion, may have contributed to the melting away of the Jewish population. Leo Africanus who visited Timbuktu around the early part of the16th Century, while it was under the rule of Songhai, reported that, ‘the king is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city.’ Local and scholastic knowledge about Jewish heritage in the region abounds. Lichtblau suggested that the West African Jews were descendants of the Jewish Dan tribe who had specialised as gold and metal artisans. In fact it is believed that the Jewish populations had mainly integrated into the West African artisan groups. Fifteenth century European writers, for instance Valentin Fernandes and Alvares de Almada, have claimed that the so-called caste people of the Wolof and Mande were Jewish and that they were subjected to severe social segregation.

In search of land to till

In the manner that diversity has made identity in Mande world difficult for social scientists, another defining factor in the history of Mande people – namely migration – complicates it further. This impulse in the society and its corollary impact on the ethnic configuration again exposes the error in Donald R Wright’s contention that the presence or even the dominance of the Mande people along the Gambia River valley could be ascribed to cultural transferals rather that migration. Sunjata was reported to have proclaimed as follows:

Sigi te kumen ban Manding, Taama le be wo banna

The above proclamation could be translated thus:  that which cannot be resolved by staying in manding, would be resolved by emigration. The factors aiding this migratory instinct could be historical as it is becoming increasingly acceptable that many of the people of the Western Sudan had their origin further east of the African continent, most probably along the Nile valley. The Mande people would have continued to retain this instinct as a cultural trait even after they have found a favourable habitation at ‘badugu’ or land of the rivers, as Manding is sometimes affectionately called, on the banks of the joliba or River Niger and other river systems in the region. This was undoubtedly abated by other factors such as the socioeconomic advancement that the river and the land facilitated in much the same way that the Nile afforded the people of Egypt. The need for the acquisition of additional land for cultivation became most pressing as agriculture emerged as the foremost occupation open to the population in general.

It might be for this reason that the Senegal and the Gambia Rivers and the lands along these became attractive and as had been shown by some historians that the region west of Mande cradle became the earliest corridor for expansion of its people. Other factors would have made the west, where the Gambia River flows, more attractive to the early migrants. These would include the human and physical geography of the wider terrain. On the north, this continued to become more inhospitable due to increased desertification and the encroachment of the Indo Europeans races, the Tuaregs and Arabs. In the forest regions to the South, the physical geography presented marked differences to the conditions that the Mande have become accustomed in their homeland. Until such time that political power became adequate for expansion to other areas, a condition that came to fruition with the growth of Wagadu and later the rise of Sunjata in the 13th Century, the west remained the most favourable front for expansion.

With the consolidation of political power migratory routes became required not just for agricultural expansion but also for trade in goods and for craft men and women to trade in their services. Many of the historical accounts have been silent on the role of trade groups in Mande expansion and give greater weight to conquest through military expeditions. However, certain facts need to be re-examined in this context. To what extent were these so-called military expedition actual conquests? Robin Pulton and Ibrahim Ag Youssouf in their book, ‘The Peace of Timbuktu,’ stressed that the Mali Empire expanded mainly through alliances rather than conquest. This contradicts The Gambian academic, Dr Saja Taal’s(now late) assertion in 1994 that pre-colonial African political history was defined by warrior culture. Indeed the process through which Sunjata became the ‘King of Kings,’ following his election at kurukanfuga, achieved mainly by a negotiated settlement, laid the foundation for this approach. The speed with which Tira Makang Trawalleh succeeded in bringing under the hegemony of Mali that vast area of the West including parts of Jolof, the areas along the River Gambia and as far south as regions in the present day Guinea Bissau lends credence to not just the near or total absence of war, but also that the area was already prepared for incorporation into the Empire because of the presence of Mande people and their culture.

To buttress the above fact, historians are increasingly becoming aware of the fact that the expansion of Mande people to the West particularly along the banks of the River Gambia started before Sunjata. As stated earlier this process would have accelerated during the heyday of Wagadu and with active participation of the trade groups whose client base could not be confined within specific political boundaries. Two accounts existed already of influential individuals who left Manding to settle in the Gambia and Cassamance areas before Tira Makang. Youssouf Tata Cisse believes that Barafin Banjugu Camara was the first to travel from Manding to the area. Bala Gimba Diakite mentioned Faran Magan Dumbuya as the person who first colonised land along Gambia River. According to this account, Faran Magan left Manding because he was poor and not well regarded and that this migration enabled him to change around his fortunes. Tira Makang was said to have allied with him.

The scope of Mande peoples’ migration since antiquity spreads over an area too wide to fit into this article. The influence of Mande and other Western Sudanic people in the Americas, including the period since the advent of the Triangular Trade, is still being hypothesised. There is evidence to support the contention that the medieval Mali ruling establishment sanctioned travel expeditions across the Atlantic before Columbus. Mansa Kankan Musa was reported to have related to his hosts during his famous pilgrimage to Mecca of how he came to the thrown in his empire. He took over from his brother who developed an interest in exploration. Accordingly his brother commissioned the building of ships and led an expedition to the west. Nothing was heard of him again. Several academics are increasingly of the opinion that this royal explorer and his entourage landed in the Americas. How much historical imprint they might have on the Americas is not yet clear.

A clearer influence of Mande and other West African people on the Americas can however be seen in later migrations conditioned by the Atlantic trade. It has been estimated that during the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade, at least one third of the Mande population were deported to the Americas mainly to the US and the Caribbean. Matt Schaffer who did his research in West Africa, Pakao in Senegal to be precise, concluded a strong Mande influence on the Southern accent of the US describing this as the ‘Mandification of Southern English.’ Lorenzo Dow Turner’s seminary study on the rice cultivating Gullah of the Sea Islands, whose traditions have shown considerable influence by the Mande of West Africa, shows they might have been deliberately selected for this purpose due to their expertise in rice cultivation amongst other reasons. Names such as Danso, Kijera and Sane still prevalent in West Africa, were identified amongst the Gullah. Turner also identified other names which Schaffer and some native Mande people could identify. Gojan for instance might be Bojang, prevalent in Kombo, Gambia, Keyitah as keita, and Sougho(sometimes pronounced Suko) as the surname given to female members of Konateh or Keita clan.

Schaffer also acknowledged the importance of other ethnic groups in that ‘Mandification’ process particular the Bainunka living in close proximity to Mande people and whose language, he contended, may have affinity with the Mande languages. However, some historians are of the opinion that Bainunka are themselves of Mande origin and that they were at the very forefront of the westward migration towards the Atlantic coast. Furthermore, if the mande had featured so prominently in the Americas, however unfortunate this might be, to the extent that the new world had been impacted linguistically, we have to wonder about the West African peoples’ other big occupation – artistic expression through music. Among the Mande, music making is perhaps the biggest engagement outside of agriculture, although it is sometimes erroneously claimed that this is the role of only the Jali clans. Music making permeates virtually every aspects of human endeavour in Mande society including for instance, story-telling, farming, circumcision rituals, hunting and religion.

As had been alluded to earlier, there is greater emphasis on migratory processes through conquest. However it is becoming clearer that occupational groups, including craft men and women of Mande, have played equal if not greater role in the diffusion of Mande social and cultural institutions in West Africa. The occupational groups’ role in the perpetuation of migration had been both a catalyst as well as active participants. For instance, the early migratory routes that led to the Vai and other Mande people to the southern coast of the present day Liberia and Sierra Leone have been documented by Massing. Initially it was hunters from Manding country who reported to the Mandinmansa of their experience of reaching the sea in the southern direction. This incident which has been dated about 600 years ago, led the king to summon leaders of all twelve kingdoms to help in the preparation of an expeditionary mission to south coast. The expedition later established itself in the forest. After few years the Mandinmansa, getting information of the failure of the expedition to reach the coast, gave orders for its continuation. The expedition split into two with one group remaining at their initial settlement and the other proceeding until they reached the coast in present day Liberia where they mixed with the existing population forming the present Vai people of the area. The other part of the expedition that remained inland did not return to their homeland in Manding and became Kono. The discovery of the sea led to the establishment of permanent routes between the coast and the Manding homeland and enabled the Vai to maintain contact with their land of origin in the centuries that followed and afforded other Mande traders and craft groups additional clientele.

In the Senegambia region, one of the most famous migration stories relate to the Serrer region of North Western Senegal. The Gelewarr migration was said to have originated from the ruling establishment of Kaabu that in turn became the ruling dynasty of the Serrer kingdom. In addition, other occupation groups particularly the clerical groups of Mande origin migrated to this region with a mission to propagate Islam. Amadou Lamin Drame, the Senegalese Journalist showed in a television programme, oral testimonies of people of Nuimbato in Senegal of how their forefathers’ clerical mission led them to the region and of how sise mori came to be corrupted to the Senghor patronymic name. It is probable also that the Touray and Ceasay clan names, which are common Mande clerical groups, and present in many Wolof communities, have migrated to the region in similar fashion.

Historians have also obtained ample evidence mainly from Portuguese sources of similar migration or waves of migration of Mande people in the Forest regions. The most outstanding migratory wave, in the form of military expeditions, along the Guinea Coast was that of the Mane migration. There remains disagreement between historians as to the scope and length as well as the specific origin of the Mane warriors from the Mande world particularly between Rodney and Massing. What they agreed on about the Mane conquests along the coastal regions in present day Sierra Leone and Guinea or perhaps Liberia is that it started from the beginning of the 16th Century and that they were of Mande origin. The Portuguese and oral records within the region are clear on these facts and that the Mane warriors headed by initially a female ‘mansarico’ had conquered one ethnic group after another and established their political order before proceeding to another region until about the second half of the century. The Mane tradition always imposed on the conquered tribes their own representatives or governors usually Mane warriors who would maintain order and collect revenue on behalf of the ‘mansarico.’

The point of contention between Rodney who believed that Mane came from the North presumably from Manding cradle in Kangaba or Niani and Massing who proposed that they were from the West of the Mande world, require some elucidation. Massing thought so because Portuguese accounts gave vivid description of their dress as similar to a Mandinka caravan they have seen in the Senegambia region and that they spoke the same or almost the same language as Mandinka of this region. However it was unlikely that there was any marked difference in dress between different Mande groups at the time since they had always maintained contact. Massing believed also that there were other Mande conquests from the North East into the region which had reached Liberia in the beginning of the 17th Century and that Rodney might have thought these and the Mane expeditions were the same.

However, there may still be other factors to support the contention that the Mane originated from the north- west of the region under consideration. The language of the Mane people, as suggested, was the same as what was spoken in the west. Indeed the Portuguese account indicated the word ‘mansarico’ as the title of person who directed the expedition. Massing interpreted this in etymological term to mean leader but that the last four letters ‘rico’ to have originated from Portuguese which could be translated to mean prince. However, the word in its entirety could be a variant of the Mandinka word ‘mansaringo,’ an expression now used in The Gambia and Senegal to refer to individuals belonging to clans with ruling heritage. Such clan names include Keita, Bojang, Wali and Jatta in The Gambia.  The word ‘mansa’ is well known to scholars but when the suffix ‘ringo’ is added, this denotes the class of people with ruling family heritage. ‘Mansary,’ a variant of the above term is used today as a surname in places such as Sierra Leone.

David Dwyer indicated that the Mane had also been called ‘mendinko.’ Rodney pointed out that because of this, some observers have entertained the view that the Mane were of Mende origin. However, Dwyer stated further that even though the Mende are now one of the largest ethnicities in modern Sierra Leone, there was no account of them in the records of the early Portuguese explorers. Dwyer contended in fact that the Mende emerged relatively more recently and the language may have developed as lingua franca. The Mane invasion therefore predated the emergence of the Mende and Rodney believed that the Mende emerged as a result of the fusion of the Mane with other people within the region. Dwyer’s linguistic analysis of the subject is impressive. He pointed out also that the Manya, living along the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone, are also called the ‘komendi.’ This term, he contended, may have arisen due to the ‘commutation of syllables within a word,’ through the linguistic process of metathesis and that it may be the same as the term ‘mendinko.’

However an alternative proposition to his definition of the term mendinko should be presented. He suggested that the term mendi meant lord and that koh is the name of a place in upper Niger where the ruler of a Bambara kingdom originated. According to Dwyer, the term therefore means lord of koh. However, as the Mane were also called the mendinko, this points strongly to the fact that they may have originated from the west of the Mande world where the Manding people in modern nation states of Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea Bissau are referred to as Mandinka in official circles. However, these people called themselves Mandinko. This term is composed of two syllables, ‘mandin’ and ‘ko.’ The first referred to the place along the River Niger where two capitals of the Mali Empire, Niani and Kangaba were situated. The suffix ‘ko’ referred to the people who abode a place as in ‘ka.’ While the suffix ‘ka’ is the preferred term in the east of the Mande world as in Wassoulunka, the people in the west are more amenable to use the suffix ‘ko,’ in tandem with general noun formation in their language, as in Kaabunko to mean a person from Kaabu. Could this linguistic phenomenon be a result of the western Manding people’s early and more direct contact to Portuguese influence? Therefore it follows to surmise that mendinko, the other term that referred to the Mane may well refer to the Mandinko of the western Mande world.

Another pointer to the Mane origin from the area of western Mande is the fact that the original Mane ruler was female called Mabete, as specified in Portuguese accounts. The name itself resonates strongly with female name formation perhaps in all parts of the Mande world as in Mabintu and Mafanta. The prefix ‘ma’ means mother. Ba Surakata Suso, the traditional historian referred to earlier in this article, had stated also that the medieval kingdom of Kaabu, which spread over areas in the modern states of Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Gambia, had had sizeable number of female rulers, ‘mansamusolu.’ Could Mabete, the name of the mansamuso that Rodney quoted from Alvares, be one of the female rulers of the kingdom of Kaabu? Studies of Portuguese accounts have also indicated that oral testimonies of the Manes suggested that Mabete, who was their original leader, ‘offended the emperor and had to leave the city.’ Oral traditions in the Gambia and elsewhere particularly from the jali sources are rich in account of internal division within the ruling Kaabu establishment – damma keelo ye maarolu bang ne – meaning civil war destroyed the princes. This leads us to another pertinent fact.

The Kingdom of Kaabu might have consisted of both Mande and non-Mande people but the ruling establishment consisted of four clans – Sane, Mane, Sonko, Sanyang and Manjang, in some accounts Fati is included. All these clans are said to have descended from Tira Makan Trawalle, Sunjata’s general who established political authority in the West of the Mande world. The Mandinko of the modern nation states of the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea Bissau still consider the descendants of these clans, in historic-political terms, perhaps the most prominent. Oral tradition denotes the Sane and the Mane as the two clans which exercised political authority within the kingdom of Kaabu and that their cousins the Sonko, Sanyang and Manjang with authority over military operations. In addition, whilst local knowledge of the political importance of the Mane of Kaabu is still widely held, the role of their cousins, the Sane, appear to have greater clarity in oral tradition. Indeed the names of the rulers of the kingdom particularly the ruling clan during its final demise was of the Sane clan. The pertinent question to consider in this domain is that could the political rift that forced Mabete, the original Mane female Mansarico, to initiate the well-known Mane conquest of the early 16th Century represent the very early stage of that civil conflict within the Kaabu ruling establishment that the Jali still lament? Secondly, could this episode be that defining factor for the emergence of the supremacy of the Sane clan as political authority of Kaabu that lasted until the 19th Century?

The DNA of clan Patronymics:

The substratum of identity in Mande and also amongst most people of West Africa is the patronymic names or jamun. It is crucial to the people of the region to the extent that changing ones surname is generally forbidden or frowned upon. One remarkable characteristic of the people of the region is that even with widespread Islamization, the patronymic names largely retained their African character. In other words whilst people of the region usually adopt Islamic or Arabic first names, this is almost non-existent with regards to surnames. In fact the people of the region and perhaps external researchers as well use patronymic names as a rough guide to gauging identity.

Names as a guide to identity may in fact be applicable in many parts of the world. It has never been apparent to me that patronymics in West Africa or within the Mande world in particular have specific character until after I have noticed the remarkable characteristics of other cultures. During my stay in Scotland as a student, I observed for the first time the peculiar ‘mac’ prefix in Scottish surnames. Furthermore, the Slavic people have name patterns that seem to distinguish them from other people.  Likewise, the people of the Balkans with their distinctive ‘ic’ at the end of their surnames urged me to think inwards and to inquire whether Mande patronymic names, which are crucial components of its culture, have similar distinctive features. Such inquiries relating to the study of West African culture by its people are becoming more important. The Gambian online blog Bantaba questioned what surnames in Gambia may mean, most of which now seemed obscure. However, Mande names appear to show similar broad characteristics similar to that of Slavic or Balkan people. Another curious characteristic of Slavic names that one can identify among Mande people is the variant in gender forms of surnames. How widespread this phenomenon is around the world requires further examination, but it exists within certain Mande clans whereby male and female children of the same parents would be given different surnames. Below are some of them that can be identified in The Gambia:

Male                                                      Female

Konateh or Keita                                 Suko

Singhateh                                             Jamba

Suso or Sissokho                                 Danba/Sakiliba

Bayo or Bakayoko                               Baaba

Dambelleh/Trawaleh                         Dansira

The major features of Mande patronymic names that can also be identified provide a fairly defined pattern. However caution should be made of this analysis as many of these characteristics could be common to other ethnic groups in West Africa and beyond. This therefore represents only an observation that hopefully will enable others to make further research on the subject. It provides also an opportunity to gauge what Mande people had in common with other groups sharing similar name patterns. The Fulbe in particular who are close neighbours of the Mande may have their own peculiar name formation but does share some of those patronymic name patterns that characterise Mande society. Among the Akan as well, some of the patterns characteristic of the Mande could be identified. Ghanaweb editorial highlighted the probable origin of many of the people of modern Ghana from the area around the location of the medieval Ghana Empire from which it draws its name. The same online newspaper also show as evidence, the surname Danso in Ghana which is common amongst Mande people, for instance in The Gambia. One could perhaps add to that the surname of one of the most famous Africans, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, which has strong resemblance to the patronymic name kuruma or koroma, reputed to be among the bla or original Mande clan names. It could be speculated whether the bond of friendship that existed between Nkrumah and Saikou Toure did not transcend ideology and that affinity of ethnicity, which Mande people are always keen to stress, had not abated the longevity of their relation.

As shown earlier, a number of ethnic groups of modern Ghana claim descent from Mande people. One recognisable of these is the Numu, otherwise called the ligbe, of Western Ghana. Furthermore, John Eliffe indicated that the ruling establishment of the non-Mande speaking Gonja in modern Ghana ‘claimed descent from Malinke cavalrymen sent to control the gold trade.’ Likewise, the same author stated the probable foreign origin of the rulers of the Mossi kingdom of Wagadugu who preoccupied themselves with only governance issues and left land ownership to indigenous people. The kingdom shares the same name as the Soninke Empire of Wagadu or Ghana.

Although in spoken form, the patronymics are recognisable among the Mande, the various forms of spellings in different countries especially between the so-called French and English speaking countries compounds the difficulties in any analysis. Notwithstanding this problem, there are broad categorisations within which the surnames could be placed. The first and perhaps the most numerous are those that end in ‘eh’ as spelt in Gambia and other Anglocised, as opposed to English speaking, countries but the variations in spelling remains even within individual countries. Furthermore, the common spellings of surnames as in The Gambia seem to do disservice to the manner in which they are pronounced by the locals. (3)

The French spelling that uses the ‘e’ with acute accent appears to provide greater uniformity and therefore will be more appropriate for this analysis. The other category of Mande patronymic names are those that end in ‘a’ as in ‘camara’ and ‘jawara.’ The third category is those that end with ‘o,’ including sissokho and sonko. Finally the other category of surnames are those ending with ‘ang’ more predominant in the Western mande region specifically among the Mandinka. Rarely do patronymic names of Mande origin fall out of these categories. If they do, they would usually have a corresponding one that fits into the categories mentioned above.

The meaning of the suffixes of the patronymic names remained unclear although attempt can be made to define them. The category ending in ‘e’ with the acute accent, which I think is the broadest category, seems to denote the attitudinal, psychological or physiological characteristic of people as can still be evident in Manding languages. Another hypothetical suggestion one may advance is the idea that the suffix of these surnames  sounds similar to two interchangeable Manding words ‘nteh’ and ‘nneh’ both meaning ‘me.’ The Mandinka of Gambia and elsewhere use the former while the Malinke of Guinea the latter. Significant number of the surnames ending in ‘e’ with acute accent also have ‘n’ or ‘t’, hence the preponderance of surnames with the suffix ‘te’ and ‘ne.’ The category of patronymic names ending in ‘o,’ denotes similar definition, although such descriptive terms appear to be more common in western and middle Manding. As explained earlier, the ‘o’ is used in various noun forms in the Mandinka language.

Those ending in ‘a’ on the other hand denote the place of abode.  Proper meaning of the suffix may be found in the Soninke language. It is still customary in Sarahulleh communities in Gambia to add the prefix ‘ra’ to patronymic names to describe the place of abode for a particular clan group. Gakura for instance in Dasilameh village in upper Gambia, or soninkara to describe broader sarahulleh associations. The ‘ra’ suffix is used interchangeably with the suffix ‘la’ although the latter is more common among Manding speaking communities. Could the ‘ra’ suffix have a yet more obscure origin? Diop’s analysis provided in-depth information on the relation between West African languages and Ancient Egyptian in which the sun god ‘Ra’ provided pivotal role. Could this term have it origin from the Ancient Egyptian language? The patronymic names ending in ‘ang’ are descriptive of physical characteristic. Tambajang for instance would mean the tall ‘tamba’ or long arrow, Manjang literally meaning ‘not tall’ or short person and Bojang could mean either ‘a long bamboo stalk’ or one who comes from a distant place.

A less common category is patronymic names ending with ‘I’ as in jabbi and fati. They, like all other Mande surnames, would almost invariably have a corresponding patronymic form that fits into other categories mentioned above. For instance, Jabbi equals Gassama, Dibassy is Fadiga and Girassi is Fofana.

‘e’ with acute accent   ‘a’                         ‘o’                                    ‘ang’                         ‘I’ or ‘y’                                                        

Singate                           Juwara                Darbo                              Sanyang                   Jabbi

Sane                                camara               Bayo/Bakayoko              Dembajang             Fati

Mane                              Fofana                 Sissokho/Susso              Janbang                   Walli

Kouyate                          Jawara                 Sonko                              Mankajang             Krubally/koulibali

Sise                                  Silla                      Saho/Sawo/Sacko         Bojang                     Dibassy

Toure                              Fadiga                  Bajo                                  Bayang

Kebe                                Sakiliba                Danjo                               Manjang

Jane                                 Fadera                 Fatajo                               Tambajang

It has been mentioned earlier that some Fula clan names share the characteristics described above. There is reason to believe that these were influenced by Mande name formation due partly to their close proximity with Mande ethnic groups. Jallo may have been Jah, Sallah equating Sall and Baldeh originating from Baal or Bah.

Mande Dan clans:

The patronymic name analysis provided so far centred on the peculiarity of the suffixes. However, prefixes of certain surnames place them in their own peculiar class. They are all characterised by the prefix ‘dan’. The origin of this prefix is unclear but its prevalence as well as its possible meaning can be analysed. Obviously the dan tribe exist in present day Ghana, an ethnic group some claimed may have Jewish origin, probably related to the Jewish Dan tribe mentioned earlier. Secondly, dan as prefix of surnames or as a middle name is more prevalent among the Hausa than among mande people. The well-known Fulani leader Othman Dan Fodio whose name literally exhibits a triple heritage- Arabic, Hausa and Fulfulde is one example.  The name fodio appears to be Fulani as there are such names still used by the Fulani of The Gambia as in the village of Sare Fodio in Upper River Region. In Hausa dan literally means the ‘son of’. There is no evidence to suggest that the surnames of Mande beginning with dan imply or has the meaning of ‘son of.’  One curious characteristic of the Mande ‘Dan clan’ patronymics is that they are mostly descriptive of action that is performed. Secondly in some Manding dialects, the term dan represents the serpent.

Danso/Dansokho= purported the stabbing or piercing the serpent.

Danfa =slaying the serpent

Danjo =means replacing the serpent

Danbelle =could mean in Bambara the big serpent.

Dansira=Sira describes or is the name given to the first female born to a couple.

Danba=big serpent or mother of the serpent.

Further speculation could be made as to whether the serpent referred to is literal or metaphorical. If the former, could the Mande dan people originally be hunters or danno?Or could it be a reference to the biblical serpent?


These are some of the many questions that will require examination in order for us to provide an input into the writing of our own history and to correct some of the erroneous interpretations advanced by Eurocentric writers. Undoubtedly, there is valuable information within the local community that can enable us answer many of the questions. It needs to be reiterated that work provided thus far by researchers of differing origin on the Mande world has been invaluable. There is ample information showing that spatial and functional differentiation have always been crucial to social organisation but this differences may not have been set on stone as we have been led to believe. The socio-cultural foundation of the people have been subjected to various influences some of which may have been enriching but the negatives could also be discerned.

It is surmised also that on our part, interest in the study of Mande society should not be confined to merely uncovering the facts and presenting them but also how this information can help in forging a future whereby social and economic progress can be achieved. The geopolitical space that the Mande occupied as well as the socio-historical context of its people’s interaction with their social environment are crucial reference point for navigating the future. There is perhaps the need to provide the safeguards necessary to secure institutions that served the society positively while also establishing mechanisms for a more equitable society. From the research materials the urge for the Mande and their West African neighbours to achieve mutual co-existence stands out, providing food for thought for the region’s modern nation states.


The following terms should be explained to give greater clarity:

Mande refers to the greater cultural sphere that included not only the ‘nko’ speakers but also other ethnic groups whose culture and history is intrinsically linked with ‘nko’ speakers. This includes Soninke or Sarahulleh and Susu.

Manding is used to refer to mainly the ‘nko’ speakers such as Mandinka and Malinke, Jakhanka, Khasonke etc. In some instances I have used it to refer to Mande heartland of Kangaba and Niani in modern Mali.

Mandinka and Mandinko is used to describe the Mande people of Gambia, Senegal and Guinea Guinea Bissau speaking a distinct ‘nko’ language.

Soninke or Soninko here equates with the people also called Sarahule or Maraka. It should be noted that the term Soninke is also used to refer to Mandinka people who until the early part of the last century were lax in the practise of Islam. This Mandinka people were protagonists in the Soninke – Marabout wars of the 19th century.

1. This statement translates as, ‘May God not take my life on my enemy’s day.’ The expression also stated that when one dies on the day (terms) of his or her enemy, the enemy will proclaim ‘I have killed my dog.’

2. The scenario could be compared with the process of linguistic genesis of the Manding language as indicated in this saying:

Kuma kono tara wagadu                               The word was conceived in Wagadu

A wolata manding                                           It is born in Manding

A denkundi kera segu                                    Its birth rites were celebrated in Segu

A bilakoroya kera Wasulu                             Its adolescence was in Wasulu

3. In this domain, the educationist Kekoto Manneh, staged what could be termed a revolution that failed. As part of the process through which former Action Aid Schools in The Gambia were being transferred to Gambia government management, he submitted several dozens of names of teachers for transfer to the Education Department. Most if not all surnames spelt in the way he felt were morphologically correct but none in line with their spelling on school certificates and other documents accompanying the list. I knew this because I was part of the team of administrative staff at the PMO tasked with sorting out the bureaucratic nightmare this created. Kekoto’s own surname as in his list was spelt ‘maane’ rather than ‘manneh’ as is commonly the case. The former perhaps represents this patronymic name better than the latter.


  1. Tim Jeal, 2011 – Explorers of The Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure.
  2. Margit C Smith, 2011 – Manding Kora-A West African System of Thought, published by the University of Maine at Augusta.
  3. Mungo Park, Travels to the Interior Districts of Africa.
  4. Walter Rodney, 1967 – The History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545 – 1800.
  5. Walter Rodney, How Europe Under-developed Africa.
  6. George E Lichtblau, 1968 – Jewish Roots in Africa.
  7. Matt Schaffer, Bound to Africa: The Mandinka Legacy in the New World.
  1. John Iliffe, 2003 – Africans-The History of a Continent.
  1. Barbara E Frank, 1995, Soninke Garankew and Bamana-Malinke Jelew: Mande Leather workers; Identity and Diaspora: Status and Identity in West Africa, Edited by David Conrad and Barbara Frank.
  2. Patrick McNaughton, 1979, The Mande Blacksmiths
  3. Sheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization.
  4. Donald R Wright, Beyond Migration and Conquest: Oral Tradition and Mandinka Ethnicity in Senegambia.
  5. Robert Launay, 1995 The Dieli of Korhogo, Identity and Identification: Status and Identity in West Africa, edited by David C Conrad and Barbara E Frank.
  6. Basil Davidson, first published, 1961, The African Slave Trade.
  7. Ibid, West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850, 1998
  8. Ibid, The Blackman’s Burden.
  9. Sir Dawda K Jawara, 2008, Kairaba
  10. Robin Poulton and Ibrahim ag Youssouf, 1998 – The Peace of Timbuktu: Democratic Governance, Development and Peacemaking.
  11. David Dwyer, 2005, The Mende Problem: Studies in African Contemporary Linguistic.
  12. Andreas W Massing – The Mane, the Decline of Mali and Mandinka Expansion towards the South Windward Coast.
  13. Sylviane A Diouf, 1998 – Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.


One Comment

  1. Dodou jawneh Allah ma ekela kebbati. Allah ma esola seema anin kendeh yala n,fa. if only we ( all africans etc ) know that we are all the same family, life will surely be much happier and much more prosperous for all.

    please tell us more. good day sir.

    thank you kairo radio.

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