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ALTERNATIVE NAMES: Jola-Fogny, Jola-Fonyi, Diola (French)
LOCATION: Casamance Region of Southern Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea Bissau
LANGUAGE: Jola or Diola; dialects: Banjaal, Bayot, Ejamat, Fonyi, Gusilay, Karon, Kasa, Kuwatay and Mlomp
RELIGION: Islam (primary), Traditional (Indigenous) Religions and Christianity


The Jola (also known as Diola in French) are a heterogenous ethnic group found in Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. They comprise 10% of the population in The Gambia and 6% of the population in Senegal. In The Gambia they are concentrated in the Foni area of southwest The Gambia; hence, another name for them is Jola-Foni. In Senegal they are concentrated in the southern region of Casamance. The Casamance region is separated from the rest of Senegal by the territory of the former British colony of The Gambia. Jola people have long claimed that they are marginalized by their government that is dominated by ethnic Wolof, a majority group in Senegal. In 1982, a few years after Senegal obtained independence from France, Jola people, who form the majority in Casamance, rose up against their government demanding independence from Senegal on the basis that they were isolated geographically from Senegal proper. Since then, there have been sporadic fights between the rebel movement in the Jola homeland and the government of Senegal.

Although little is known about the origins of the Jola, it is believed that the ancestors of the present Jola people settled this region long before the 13th century, predating other groups, such as the Mande and Fula peoples. Archeology of the mouth of the Casamance River shows evidence that by AD 200 there were groups of people who were well-adapted to coastal habitats and who had spread out to the islands bordering the mouth of the Casamance River. There were advanced hunter-gatherers, as well as groups who subsisted on shellfish from the mangrove flats and fish from the ocean. Some of them practiced advanced agriculture and raised livestock, notably cattle. They also worked metal, from which they forged spears and agricultural implements.

By the time the Portuguese arrived in the middle of the 15th century, the Jola were well established and largely isolated from other groups, with very few contacts with other people in the region. When the Europeans came to the region, they instituted slavery. While the Jola fiercely resisted both enslavement and participation as middle men in the trade, other groups, such as the Manding, located along the Lower and Upper Gambia River and inland along the Middle Casamance and Geba Rivers, were involved in trade with the Europeans in slaves and gold. The Jola, located on the coastal zone, did not engage in any trade with outsiders, nor did they have any chiefs to rule, preferring rather to be acephalous societies (those without a ruling chief or head). They resisted any intrusions into the homeland by their neighbors and the new arrivals, the Europeans. As such they were considered to be a dangerous group and were bypassed by the Portuguese, who sailed past them at the mouth of the Casamance and Cacheu rivers in order to trade with other people further upriver.

Even when colonial rule was imposed by the British in The Gambia and the French in Senegal, the colonial rulers had great difficulty in subjugating them. Although the Jola had appeared weak and fragmented, they maintained strong stockades and an attitude of fierce independence. Over time, however, the Jola began to accept the new reality of colonialism; by 1905 they had began to pay taxes to the new European masters.


The Jola are found mainly in Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea Bissau although a small number exist in other countries in this region of West Africa. The largest numbers are located in the Casamance region of Southern Senegal. It is a strip of forested and river bottom land between The Gambia and Guinea Bissau. A substantial number of Jola live along the south bank of the Gambia River, where they farm different types of crops, particularly rice. While Senegal was colonized by the French, the British claimed the area around the Gambia River as their territory. Awkwardly, The Gambia, a small sliver of territory on both sides of the Gambia River, sticks deep into Senegal, cutting off the Casamance region from the rest of Senegal. The Jola thus feel isolated from the rest of Senegal and have, since 1982, demanded independence from Senegal. The Casamance region has seen fighting since then, between a breakaway rebel movement and government forces, making the region unstable and dangerous. A smaller number of Jola are found in the northern part of Guinea Bissau, just to the south of the Casamance region of Senegal.

The Casamance region is regarded as the most beautiful area of Senegal. The region receives a greater amount of rainfall than the rest of Senegal. It is characterized by hot temperatures with a low-lying geography and a few hills to the southeast. It is well endowed with fertile soils that are suitable for agriculture, but it does not have high-value minerals. The regional economy is heavily dependent on the cultivation of rice and other crops. Pristine beaches along its coastline have seen an increase in the tourist industry.

Close to the coast there are thick mangroves and forests that are very compact and difficult to access. They offered protection to the Jola during times of slavery and colonization. There are a few large deer and several species of monkeys. But, what the region lacks in fauna, it makes up for in the rich variety of bird species. The turtle-doves with their characteristic songs, the francolins that fly away as soon as they see you, the calaos perched at the top of the large cheesemonger trees, the blackbirds with their shiny plumes and pretty bluish reflections, the black and white corbels, vultures, and many others are all present in the Casamance region.


The language for the Jola is referred to as Jola or Diola. There are many dialects of this language, some of which are unintelligible to each other. Jola belongs to the Bak group of the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Banjaal is spoken in a small area south of the Casamance River, while Bayot is spoken around Ziguinchor, the capital city of Casamance. Other dialects are spoken in a handful of villages, such as Ejamat, Fonyi, Gusilay, Karon, Kasa, Kuwatay, and Mlomp. The multiplicity of dialects in the Jola homeland is testament to the isolation of the Jola from the rest of the peoples in this region and often from each other.


Like most African societies, the Jola have a rich tradition of legends, folktales, and myths, which serve as a means of handing down traditions and customs from one generation to the next. Folktales impart moral values and prepare young people for life, as there are many lessons to be learned from the tales. There are many stories of legendary heroes who led their people into battle against other hostile ethnic groups and races. Other legends trace the origins of the Jola. For example, one folktale talks about two sisters traveling on the Senegal River. Their boat hit an object and was split in half. One sister, Aguene, drifted south to become the mother of the Jola, while the other sister, Anecho, drifted north to become the mother of the Serer people.

The use of natural surroundings and the animals that abound in these environments are omnipresent in African folktales, and the Jola are no exception to this rule. Consequently, the monkey, the hare, the lizard, the bird, the deer, the snake, the hyena, and other animals take on human characteristics of greed, jealousy, honesty, loneliness, and so on. It is through the behavior of these animals that important lessons are imparted to children. For example, one folktale tells of the adventures of Hare and Hyena. Hare is seen by the Jola as a cunning individual that is able to talk his way out of any trouble. Others see Hare as a trickster.

Many of the folktales feature an unjust situation that is remedied by a child, often with the help of a benevolent spirit or some old woman who has been treated courteously. The troublemakers end up being severely punished, while the victims end up rich and live happily thereafter. It is through folklore that family values and interpersonal relations are reinforced. If one breaks a tradition or any of the prescribed taboos, then one can expect to be punished by the supernatural world. It is expected that sons and daughters should be obedient and subservient to their elders, treating them with dignity. Strangers from afar should be treated with hospitality, and sons should be brave and help protect their homeland.

There is also a rich tradition of proverbs among the Jola and related ethnic groups. For example, “However long a stick is in the river, it cannot become a crocodile.” This proverb implies that a stranger can never become a true citizen of Jola home-land. Another proverb talks about the importance of interpersonal relations and the interdependent nature of Jola people: “The best medicine for a person is another person.” On nurturing independence in children: “A tree that grows in the shade of another one will die small.” On learning to occupy one's position of humility and lie low when necessary: “If the dog is not at home, he barks not.”


The traditional Jola believe in the existence of a supreme being called Emit, or Ata Emit, the one who resides in the sky. They associate this entity with natural phenomena of the sky, rain, and the seasons. Similar to other indigenous religions in Africa, the Jola have shrines, charms, sacred forests, sacred lands, and secret masquerades, all of which play a central role in Jola cosmology. They worship and pray to these entities to protect their families and villages and to offer generous providence for the well-being of Jola society.

Christianity came among the Jola with the arrival of the Portuguese and other European powers, who introduced Catholicism to many converts. However, during the 20th century, there has been a shift from Christianity to Islam, because of strong influences from the northern part of the country, which is largely Muslim. Today, over 90% claim to be Muslim, with about 3% claiming to be Christians. However, the majority practice their traditional beliefs concurrently with Islam or Christianity. It is not unusual for a Jola individual to seek Western medical help for treatment and, at the same time, consult the traditional healer for herbs and amulets.


In traditional Jola society there were indigenous celebrations for the initiation ceremonies of boys and girls. Other holidays included a celebration immediately after the rice harvest. Today, the Jola also celebrate holidays that are mandated by the modern government and those that are associated with Islam and Christianity. Official holidays in Senegal include New Year's Day (January 1), Independence Day (February 18), and Liberation Day (July 22). Christmas is also observed by all. It is marked by special watch night services at the Christian church, with children singing carols. Easter is also observed. In The Gambia, the major state holidays include New Year's Day (1 January), Independence Day (4 April), and International Workers' Day (1 May). During the holidays, people cook ceremonial food and dress up in bright traditional outfits. Other religious holidays include Good Friday, Easter Monday, Eidal-Fitr, Eid-al-Adha, the Islamic New Year, and Muhammad's birthday.


The Jola have several initiation ceremonies for boys and girls; however, in the modern era, the introduction of Islam and Christianity has brought modifications in these traditions. Initiation ceremonies are secret affairs not to be divulged to the opposite sex. Male initiation ceremonies take place in the sacred forests. The boys undergoing initiation (which includes circumcision) are secluded for substantial periods of time, undergoing tests of endurance and training sessions in the morals and customs of Jola society. Circumcision for boys generally occurs at some time between the ages of 6 and 8. Girls also undergo an initiation ceremony at some time between the ages of 13 and 25. Girls are secluded in an initiation hut. Men are not allowed in the female initiation ceremony just as the females are not allowed in the boys' ceremony. However, in both ceremonies, boys and girls learn to endure hardship, obey orders, respect their elders, be courageous, and understand traditional wisdom.

When a baby boy is born, it is secluded for up to seven days and then brought out for naming according to the dictates of the Islamic religion. There is an animal sacrifice, usually a chicken or a goat. At this ceremony, the child becomes a Muslim. For women, marriage is an important rite of passage. Among the Jola, death is considered a rite of passage into the afterworld. Every Jola wishes for a good funeral, which is often accompanied by rituals and rites. Traditional funeral ceremonies among the Jola require a huge feast in which many cattle are slaughtered and offered as a send off sacrifice for the dead. In addition, guns are fired to honor the departed.


The Jola pride themselves on their fierce loyalty to their group. They prefer an acephalous, rather than a hierarchical, political system. With a classless system in their social institutions, they are unlike their neighbors, who have griots (history keepers and tellers), slaves, nobles, leather workers, and so on. Because they are a classless society, all individuals are considered to be equals, although elders are to be respected by the young people. The old are respected as the repository of traditional wisdom. Extended families are loyal to one another, which results in a sense of community and interdependence.


The Jola live in large villages and depend on the cultivation of crops, such as rice, peanuts, millet, some vegetables, as well as the tapping of palm wine. Peanuts (known as groundnuts) are grown as a cash crop. Usually, a village is composed of two large extended families, which intermarry as a tightly integrated community. Within the villages, the Jola live in simple homes made of mud walls and grass thatched roofs. Sometimes, bamboo matting and reeds are used to form the walls. This type of construction offers great relief in the hot climate. Those who are well off are able to construct modern rectangular homes, with corrugated iron sheets as roofing material and cement for outside and inside floors.

The village is often organized in the form of a series of compounds. A compound consists of a series of houses around an open courtyard. A grass or reed fence might enclose the houses from the outside. Members of a compound might all be related, tracing their descent to a common male ancestor. Men and women have their own huts and separate sections within the compound. At night, women may go to join their husbands in the husband's huts. Within the compound disputes are settled by the oldest man of the lineage.

The Casamance region, the homeland of the Jola, has fertile soils, which offer an excellent opportunity for subsistence farming. As a hardworking people, they produce enough food for themselves, with the excess sold to others. However, malaria is an ever-present threat because it is hard to control mosquitoes in such a swampy environment. Other diseases, such as measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia, result in high infant deaths. HIV/AIDS also poses a new threat to the Jola way of life.


For women, marriage is a second rite of passage as they often have to leave their homes to join that of their husband. Polygamy is allowed, and one can have as many as four wives. Co-wives often share household chores and responsibilities for gardening, cultivating rice, food preparation, and care of the children. Men are responsible for cash crops, such as peanuts, citrus fruits, and mangoes, which are sold to provide resources for the family. Families help each other economically and otherwise. A son might be educated by the extended family. In turn, he is expected to contribute to the extended family, should he become gainfully employed in one of the distant cities, such as Dakar. Thus, each relative is seen as a form of social safety valve in times of trouble. The entire community is also expected to gather at times of important life events, such as birth, circumcision, weddings, and funerals.

Marriage itself is a family affair, rather than an individual affair between two people. It is often a protracted process, in which girls are betrothed to a future husband while they are still young and the future husband is expected to work for his in-laws while waiting for the girl to become of age. Marriages are often blessed in a mosque, following the Islamic tradition. The marriage celebration generally involves the entire village.


The Jola wear colorful dresses, shirts, and pants fashioned from locally made cloth. Women generally wear long skirts with a loose blouse. For religious festivals, men wear long robes of different colors, as dictated by Islam. For those who work in urban areas, suits, ties, and other Western fashioned clothes are often worn by both men and women.


The main staple food for the Jola is rice. Fishing communities will usually take their rice with fish. Those in more forested areas gather and preserve various edible leaves and fruits. The Jola also like to prepare their dishes with palm oil. Cassava is another important food crop, which is pounded into flour to make a hard porridge called fufu. Fufu is usually served with stew made from beef, goat, sheep, or chicken. Yassa is a favorite dish from Casamance. It is made of chicken or fish marinated in lemon juice, pepper, and onions, and then baked. It is usually served with plain rice.


In rural areas, modern education is not seen as important. It is often considered a nuisance that hinders children from fully participating in the daily chores of farming and raring livestock. Parents prefer to send their children to Islamic schools, where instruction takes place either very early in the morning or late in the evening leaving the children to help out with farming and raising livestock during the day. It is mostly in urban areas and towns that a modern education is valued.


The Jola have a rich cultural heritage and love their many festivals throughout the year. Perhaps their most enduring legacy is their famous musical instrument, the akonting (or ekonting) or folk lute. It is a banjo-like instrument with a skin-headed gourd body, two long melody strings, and one short drone string. Some believe that it was a precursor to the Western banjo. Thus, music, song, and dance are an important aspect of Jola culture. Men and women sing as they go about their daily chores of gardening or while paddling canoes. During festivals, there is much drumming, singing, and dancing. At night or during the day, children may sing and dance in groups. When boys are taken into the secret forest for circumcision, they are accompanied by the singing of war songs to give them courage.


Most Jola are engaged in agricultural production and the raising of livestock. They are a very hardworking people. Women tend to the rice fields and vegetable cultivation while men concentrate on millet and peanut farms. They use traditional implements, such as hoes for ridging and weeding. Th ose who can afford ox plows use donkeys or cattle to do the cultivation. Occupations among the Jola include rice cultivation, honey collecting, palm wine tapping, fishing, oyster collecting, and other agricultural activities. Some of the women may be employed as housemaids in the households of rich Gambians. Wealth among the Jola, particularly for women, is measured in terms of how much rice she owns.


Traditionally, wrestling was an important part of Jola society. It prepared young men for the prowess of war and other conflicts. Today, the most important sporting activity is soccer. In urban areas basketball and tennis are also played.


The most common form of entertainment among the Jola is music and dancing. The Jola enjoy listening to music and dancing to the ankonting, as well as drumming. The many festivals and ceremonies are often accompanied by much feasting and dancing.


The Jola have a secret society of masked dancers that often play at important events, such as funerals and initiation ceremonies. Elaborate masks are made in the form of animals, such as the large deer found in their environment. They also carve from wood many implements used in their day-to-day lives, such as drums, bowls, mortars, pestles, and canoes for fishing. With the budding tourist industry in the Casamance region, some Jola have begun to specialize in the carving of animals, drums, and decorative masks for sale to visitors.


Since the early 1980s, the Casamance region has witnessed political instability. Some factions among the Jola took up arms to free the region from Senegal and obtain independence or autonomous rule. Over three thousand people have been killed in the skirmishes between the rebel groups and government forces since 1982. However, in recent years tensions between the two forces appear to have eased somewhat.


There is a clear division of labor by gender in Jola society. Women are expected to do household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. Furthermore, women have a lower status in comparison to men as they are considered to be dependent on male relatives. Men have the rights to what their women produce. Islamic and traditional customs, including the custom of polygamy, place women in an inferior role. Women are discriminated against when it comes to issues concerning marriage, divorce, and devolution of property upon the death of a husband.

In the modern legal systems of The Gambia and Senegal, there exist policies that attempt to promote gender equality; however, disparities by gender continue to widen. It has also been noted that female genital mutilation/cutting is practiced by about 15% of Jola. Although many programs, policies, projects, and plans have been geared towards the elimination of all forms of harmful traditional practices, especially female genital mutilation, the lack of general commitment and will on the part of government authorities has hindered their successful implementation. Domestic violence against women is also an ever-present problem, as there are no specific laws against it.


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—by E. Kalipeni