Origin Of The Word ‘Aku’

By Yusef Taylor

‘Aku a ye seneya‘ [wash it until it is clean] is a Mandingo phrase. Apparently this is where the name Aku name originates from. The Akus are an African tribe in The Gambia that are descendants of freed slaves. Akus mostly go by the last names such as Joiner, Thomas, Goswell, Johnson, Coker, Goddard, Greywood and Taylor to name but a few. This tribe of wanderers could have originated from any African colonial post where Africans were kidnapped as slaves and shipped to the Americas and Europe.

After slavery was abolished, freed slaves were returned to old African colonial posts such as Free Town in Sierra Leone and Liberia. As an Aku I took some time to dig up some of my history and I learned that my grandfather originated from Sussex in Sierra Leone. Coincidentally I am now living in West Sussex in the UK.

In Sierra Leone, Aku’s are known as Creole. After meeting a Mandinka friend I came across the term Aku as described in my introduction. Akus prided themselves as elites and were supported by the colonialist in The Gambia.

Akus were one of the first educated Africans in western form of education. Even though the first University originated from Timbuktu they were regarded as the first educated Africans in The Gambia and were often obsessed with cleanliness, hence the phrase ‘Aku a ye seneya‘ which has stuck ever since.

The Mandingo language is descriptive in usage parlance, hence many tribes in West Africa are named by Mandingos. The Aku ‘wash it’ became a name depicting the characters of the Gambian Akus. Hope to dig a bit deeper in the hunt for my own heritage.



  1. Very interesting and educative . Hope you update us about your findings. Generosity of mandingo tribe was demonstrated by sir Dawda JAWARA by his inclusiveness of all tribes in his government . Mandingo tribe tolerance and openness is the result of Gambia’s stability we have today . Minorities like Aku and wollof were jawara’s top senior government officials . Jawara was a democrat and respect every tribe and never discriminate against any tribe. Aku’s like other Gambian tribes work very hard and are decent people . They value education and their continuous contribution to our educational system is very appreciated .

    • Momodou L. Ceesay

      I can confirm the Aku’s hard working nature and love for Education. Way back in the 1960s and up to mid 1970s an Aku Family in the name of “Harris lived in my village Pakalinding In The Gambai. The head of the Family as commonly known in the whole of Jarra West was Uncle Harris. He was the father of Coffee Harris one time a National Assembly member in Banjul, regardless to his religious faith, he had a very pleasant and respectful character combined with love for all young or old. He was a sources of inspiration to many of our parents in sending their children to school. Though his is of late, his legacy still remains. RIP.

  2. A short and sweet piece Yusef. Thanks

  3. Insightful. Thank you for sharing. It is so important for people to learn more about their heritage, something which has formed a huge part of the individuals we are today. Looking forward to reading more.

  4. Thanks Max and Faal your most welcome. You’re right about the inclusiveness.
    I hope this highlights the early role Mandinka’s played in Aku culture.
    This message was the product of some deep soul searching for my ancestral roots and a great historian and griot Sura Susso.
    I’m not entirely convinced that Aku’s were the first educated Gambians.
    Well that totally depends on what you view as education.

  5. Yusef,
    Thanks for your brilliant research on this issue. You just offered us something very interesting and educative. I did my own little research on this issue before but to no success. Mandinka kango(language) is very deep and the words are usually very meaningful so ‘Aku a ye seneya‘ seems like something that could have had its origin from the Mandingo language.

    Long live Gambia with all its beautiful tribes: Akus, Mandinkas, Jolas, Wollofs, peuls(Fulas),Serer, Sarahule, Manjakos, Karoninkas and all.

  6. Well done Taylor, a great contribution.

    ‘Akus prided themselves as elites’ perfectly true but, ‘and were supported by the colonialist’, only reminded me to remind Her Majesty of the compensation.GOD save the queen!
    Self pride without arrogance is what describes most of them. I particularly, admire their domestic life for not always being that chaotic in contrast to the typical chaotic extended and compounded family systems of the Gambia.

    Max too is right, being emphatic of the evident Mandinka generosity.
    And with all these myths every body can hail his tribe with, from Susu to Mankaagn, Manjago, Bainunka, Jola, Saranhule, Aku, Jahanka, Wollof, Fula, Mandinka and also native Gambian-Lebanese or Gambian – Moroccan nationals, etc., I think it is time enough for Gambians to start to learn to respect and care for each other
    without all these tribal barriers, much more with this fresh horrible memory of the slave trade in the first place.
    Of many tribes, races and clans we are one Gambia.

  7. Mr Taylor, I am a Krio not Creole. Please correct as appropriate. Creole has nothing to do with Krio.

  8. Lafia Touray la Manju

    Among the British traders in Banjul in the 1820s lived an African liberated slave called Thomas Joiner. Born a Mandingo, Thomas had been kidnapped as a young Mandingo boy and carried off to America as a slave. His talents eventually won him freedom. He returned to Gambia and set up trade in Banjul (Barthurst). He became one of the wealthiest traders in Banjul and dwelt in one of the largest houses in the City.

    Robert Aynsley, a Portuguese Mulatto who sold Thomas to a captain of an American Ship years before, lived next door to Thomas in a small house in Banjul. Thomas’s descendants in The Gambia today are the Joiners of Banjul.

    Another interesting fact about the Joiners of Banjul is that they are actually Mandinkas.


  9. Hello Ladies & Gentlmen
    allow me to launch my little contribution, I think is important to know more about anything origin or historic that contained by this small nation of Gambia, nevertheless we have the very best homogenious life style so far among others in the West and the entire continent at large. It’ll be recomended from collective or an individual efford to fine out anything we may think is rellevant to enlighten and to improve our educational sector of history, but we should not forget always to enhance our mind by going through this we considerd as vital roles for Gambia. In this case we should totaly avoid any form of comments or explaination that could be the wake of feeling of any ethnic diferences.

  10. It is likely that Jola also drives from the Mandinka language relating to vengefulness. Mungo Park referred to Jolas in his writings in 1795 as Felops. The most popular names given to the Pulaar, Fula and Fulani may also originate from Mandinka language. Could it be a result of Mandinkas inability or mere convenience of pronouncing Pulaar as ‘fula’ as this word already existed in their language-representing the number two? ‘Fulani’ on the other hand may simply be the Eastern mande variation of what the Gambian Mandinkas will refer to as ‘Fulanding’ the suffix ‘ding’ means little. This reference to people and tribes is mistaken for being derogatory, but I think is more an affectionate reference than a derogatory one. In Mali they have names such as Fantani instead of Fantanding or Babani instead of Babanding. Do you have alternative theory?

    • John Babatunde

      Fulani can’t have originated from Mandinkas, it is what Nigerians Call The ones you call Fula in Gambia

  11. I am a Harris on my maternal grandmother’ s side. Both my grandparents were maroon from Mooretown Jamaica. My great grandfather came from Ghana on a slaves ship according to the oral history given to me by my mother.