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Total population
Regions with significant populations
Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau



Animism, Christianity, Islam

The Jola (Diola, in French transliteration) are an ethnic group found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. They predominantly inhabit the region of Casamance, in Senegal. Jola people are believed to have pre-dated Mande and Fula peoples to the riverine coast of Senegambia, and may have migrated into Casamance before the 13th century.

Jola language and people are distinct from the Dioula (Dyoula) Mande people of the Gambia, Upper Niger, and the Kong highlands of Burkina Faso.



Gambian Jola scholar and master akonting player Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta describes his people and their culture as follows:

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 Senegambian 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. 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 Senegambian region.

Their communities way of settlement are based on the extended family settlement, that are normally large enough to be given names of their own and independence. Names like Jola Karon, Jola Mlomp, Jola Elinnkin, Jola Caginol, Jola Huluf, Jola Jamat, Jola Joheyt, Jola Bayot, Jola Brin, Jola Seleky, Jola Kabrouse, Jola Jiwat, and Jola Foni etc (See article Patience Sonko-Godwin)

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 organizations. 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 great palm oil manufacturers and great palm wine tapers in the Senegambian region. They were the last ethnic group in the Senegambian region to accept Islam. 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 associate with the natural phenomena like sky, rain and the year. They call this one god Emit (God) or Ata Emit (Literally - To Whom Belong The Universe or The Master-Owner Of The Universe). (See article J. David Sapir) However, like any other religion, the Jolas have charms or sacred forests and sacred lands which they honour and communicate (not 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 (also Eneerti) (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 a Jola knows the difference between his/her God (Ata Emit) and the Bakin. Jolas are also 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 Kajando.

Like most of the indigenous ethnic groups of the Senegambian region, the Baga, the Serere, 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 (rare in most 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 socialism. 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.

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. 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.

The Ekonting, the Folk Lute of the Jola

Exclusively, the Ekonting, which is a three-string gourd instrument, is a Jola musical instrument. It has an internal pass through body dowel stick with a round gourd body and its sound box is made of a hemispherical calabash, with a nailed goatskin. Before the invention of nails, palm tree thorns or wood pegs were used as nails. The three strings, which are attached to a long neck, today are nylon fishing line. Before, they were made of palm tree roots. (Jola language: Kuhall kata kubekel). The neck is a bamboo stick (Mandinka language: Bangoe) that passes through the calabash to the other side. (See diagram) A hole is made in the sound box (calabash) to allow the sound to escape. The bridge of the Ekonting is not fixed to its skin as many lutes are. It is free, and can be moved back and forth on the skin of the sound box and it is always held in position by the pressure of the strings when it is in playing position.

The Galire of the Jola of Thionck-Essyl, Another Folk Lute of the Jola

Galire is a one string instrument, stretch on one curve made of mangrove's fine wood (about 1 meter). In first sight, it looks like an arc of a hunter. It's played with one hand holding a flexible fine string make of "feuille de ronier" beating on the arc's string, the other hand of the player at one end of the arc holding it (the arc) and adjusting the tune with his big finger, while the other end of the arc in the mouth of the player, singing. The vibration from the player's song on the string of the arc and the beating with the fine flexible string leads to a very good sound. Unfortunately young people with the exile to Cities, will let this instrument disappear completely from the repository of instruments of the Jola people of Casamance and Gambia. Here is a list of few Jola instruments: Note: I am using the Jola language of Thionck Essyl to name them. They may be called a little different in other village's tongue.

- Ewang (used during male initiation) - Fouindoum (one drum used during initiation) - Etantang (for Koumpo dance and Wrestling festivities) - Ediando (used by the women during initiation dances) - Gabilene (sound make with a corn of an animal) - Emombi (used ONLY during initiation - sacred and rarely seen - once each 20 to 30 years) - Elere - Bakitia [ it's like 2 maracas without the handle attached with one cord: >(**)=========(**)< where === stands for cord > and < stands for node and (**) stands for little calebasse or maracas with little stones ] - Efemme It's a calebasse reversed in a container full of water. Used by woman to "improviser" or replace a drum when it's raining. - etc ... there are many more that I can't remember the name.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade & The Creation of the Jola Diaspora

In the mid 1440s, the simple diverse folk population of the Senegambian region faced the most uncivilized and inhuman disintegration of its people, and their rich diverse cultures, by the Portuguese, the first Europeans who set out to seek slaves in Africa to sell to the New World capitalist. These Europeans came by medium size boats that they used to navigate both the Gambian river and the Cassamance rivers, since there were no infrastructures at this time to travel by land, invaded and took from this region the best workers, the best priests, the best natural doctors, the best folk musicians etc and took them to work in Spain and in Portugal. Later in the sixteenth century, when these European capitalists realized that they could make enormous profit by using the labour of the Africans to exploit the wealth of the Americas they started selling the African slaves to North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean countries to provide slave labour in the gold and silver mines and on the agricultural plantations, growing crops such as sugar, cotton, rice, and tobacco.

From 1445 to 1600 about one million Africans were taken from the West African region , particularly from the Senegambian region. The ethnic groups that suffered most during this slave aggression were those living along the coastal areas of the river Gambia and the river Cassamance, and these are the Manjagos, the Balantas, the Papels and the Jolas. There is still a very old saying among the elderly Jolas that the music of the Akonting in its initial stage was so sweet to the devils that the most outstanding Jola Akonting players who played late at night in the rice fields when work was suspended for the day and it was time to play the Akonting and dance and drink their palm wine until they got tired and then came home, that most of these Akonting players did not come home. On the following day when the people went out to search for them they saw prints of shoes on the ground which they associated with feet of devils because in those days Jolas didn’t use shoes or know how shoes looked like. This is how the Jola Ekonting came to the Americas.


The Jola speak a variety of dialects which may not, at times, be mutually intelligible, including:

  • Banjaal spoken in a small area south of the Casamance River.
  • Bayot spoken around Ziguinchor.
  • Ejamat spoken in a handful of villages south of Oussouye.
  • Fonyi (Kujamatay) spoken around Bignona.
  • Gusilay spoken in the village of Tionk Essil.
  • Karon spoken along the coast of Casamance south of Diouloulou.
  • Kasa spoken around Oussouye.
  • Kuwatay spoken along the coast south of the Casamance River.
  • Mlomp spoken in the village of Mlomp.


  1. ^ Klein, Martin A. "Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.2 (Autumn 2000): 315. Accessed through Gale (Cengage), 6 Aug. 2009

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