Ancient Founders of Senegambia

According to Senegambia oral history, the Jola ethnic group is among the ethnic groups who have been longest resident in the Senegambia region. The Jolas for centuries continued to hold their ancestral African beliefs about the sacredness of the earth and the divine energy found in certain rocks and trees. They express their religion and beliefs in song and dance as well as in shrines, which is called “Bakin”. The Jolas developed a high concept of one god, which they called Ata Amit A Luuke (Meaning God the Supreme Being).

It is sad to note that many people do not still know how long the Jola culture existed in the Senegambia region. Though the origin of the Jolas is still unknown, it is now confirmed by both oral and written history that they are the people who have been longest resident in the Gambia and among the indigenous people of the Senegambia region. The Jolas have developed a culture of acceptance of other cultures but not acceptance to change their own culture; they are one of few ethnic groups that have managed to keep its culture intact.

The Jolas are called Bachuki by the Manjago ethnic group, another ethnic group that also was among the first settlers. Bachuki in Manjago means first. To the Manjago it means the Jolas were the first settlers they know in the region. Of all the sub groups of the Jola people today, it is the Jola Cassas that still maintain 99 percent of all the old Jola traditional ways of doing things, still reject Islam and Christianity, and only a few of them go to church.

Most of the Jola Cassa who go to church to day do so because if they don’t, their children would find it hard to secure a place in the Christian schools. African governments have no funds to build schools all over their countries. Most of the schools in remote places of Africa are built by the catholic mission. There is no place in the Casamance where you will find Jola holy places of worship (Bakin) more than where the Jola Cassa lives. In fact, the most famous Jola holy shrines are in Samatit (called Kalemaku), and in Hasuka and in Mlomp (called Husana) and the people who run them are all Jola Cassas.

The Jolas are found in great numbers on the Atlantic coast between the southern banks of the Gambia River, the Casamance region of Senegal (Southern Senegal), and the northern part of Guinea-Bissau. Unlike most of the ethnic groups of the Senegambia region, the Jola ethnic group is not hierarchal. That is it has no class system in its social institutions, like griots, slaves, nobles, leather workers, etc.

Their communities way of settlement is based on the extended family settlement that is normally large enough to be given independence and their own names. Names like Jola Karon, Jola Mlomp, Jola Elinnkin, Jola Caginol, Jola Huluf, Jola Jamat, Jola Bayot, Jola Kabrouse, and Jola Foni etc

Although Jolas have a lot of traditional economic activities like fishing, farming groundnuts, taping palm wine, processing palm oil, just to name a few, their most intensive economic activity is rice cultivation. They had this knowledge long before the first European (the Portuguese) came to their region. This work activity (rice cultivation) is tied up closely to their religion and their social organisations. They have a good knowledge of animal husbandry and do raise a lot of different animals like cows, pigs, goats, chickens, sheep and ducks.

In the area of craftsmanship, the Jolas have a great variety of craft knowledge like weaving baskets, pottery, and house building. Jolas are also palm oil manufacturers and great palm wine tapers in the Senegambia region. The Jolas are able herbal medicine practitioners. Their high adaptation to the nature and environment made them to be able to create musical centred civilisation, natural medicine centred civilisation, and most important of all rice cultivation centred civilisation which they do effectively by using a locally made farming tool called the Kajandu.

Unlike most of the rest of the ethnic groups of the Senegambia, the Jolas were highly resistant to change or to influence of other cultures or religions. The Jolas are among the sizable population in Senegambia virtually untouched by Islam and Christianity. Many of them still hold to the tradition of worship. Even though some Jolas accepted Islam in the end (Soninke-Marabout war), they still honour their traditional way of using palm wine when performing their important rituals.

The Jolas have a concept of one God that they associated with the natural phenomena like sky and rain. They call this one god Amit (God) or Ata Amit (the Almighty God). (See article J. David Sapir) However, like any other religion, the Jolas have charms or sacred forests and sacred lands which they honour and worship as supernatural spirits that can protect their families, their villages, their rice fields, and even protect them from conversion to Islam and Christianity. These supernatural spirits are called Bakin (Mandinka Jalang).

Unfortunately people who don’t understand how Jolas pray and relate to their God think that the Jolas have no God but spirits, because they offer sacrifices to the Bakin. But the Jola knows the difference between his/her God (Ata Amit) and the Bakin.

Jolas believed strongly in living a good humanistic life in this world. They believe that if one lives a bad life in this world when the person dies the soul of the dead person is punished to become an exile spirit and with no bed to lie on (In Jola Cassa this exile spirit is called A Holowa). This exile spirit becomes a roaming spirit with no respect from the other spirits.

All Jolas, before the influence of Islam and Christianity in their ways of beliefs, placed great respect in the proper observation of funeral ceremony, and still today some do, for they are of the belief that it enables the dead person’s soul to go to its final destination, (his or her ancestors). It was and still is strongly accepted by those Jolas who still practise their ancestral religion that without performing these funeral sacred rites, the soul is prevented from entering the presence of the creator (Ata Amit), and the ancestors.

Like most of the indigenous ethnic groups of the Senegambia region, the Pepel, the Manjago, the Balanta, the Konyagi etc, the Jola ethnic group did not develop a political scale that expanded beyond village level compared to ethnic groups that migrated to the region like the Sonikes and the Mandingos. But this does not mean they did not develop a sophisticated political system.

The egalitarian nature of their societies, structured around the limited village environment gave them the possibilities to develop a political system based on collective consciousness, which they worked through their initiation rites. In a sense the Jolas political achievement in the village was representative socialism based on leadership among equals. It was totally tied to their religious belief (Bakin). This political achievement to any one who knows politics is not easy to reach if the society that runs it does not have well defined rules of administration and penalties.

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