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George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.


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Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Senegambians mind-mapping diagram

Part Seven
Cultural Impact of Indonesia
— 34 —
Senegambians Peoples

Northwest of the Peripheral Mande, along a narrow strip of the Atlantic seaboard extending northward to the border of the Berber-speaking Tasumsa of Mauritania, live a group of peoples whom we shall denote collectively as the Senegambians since the majority reside in Senegal and Gambia. Some, however, inhabit Portuguese Guinea and French Guinea, where the westward expansion of the Nuclear Mande has confined them to an ever more restricted coastal zone and has enveloped one remnant group, the Tenda, in an interior pocket. All are Negroes, and all speak languages of the Atlantic subfamily of the Nigritic stock. They are consequently linguistic cousins to the six Atlantic tribes whom we found, in the preceding chapter, similarly submerged by the expanding Peripheral Mande. Their principal tribal divisions are listed and identified below.

  1. Baga (Bago), embracing the Binari, Fore (Mbulunich), Kalum, Koba, Mandenyi, Manduri, Sitemu, and Sobane. They number about 45,000, of whom a few have been converted to Islam.
  2. Balante (Ballante), with the Kunante. They number about 170,000.
  3. Banyun (Bagnoun, Bainuk, Banhun), with the kindred Kassanga and Kobiana. They number about 10.000.
  4. Biafada (Biafar, Bifra, Byafada). They number about 10,000.
  5. Bijogo (Bidyago, Bijago, Bijuga, Bisago, Bissago). They occupy the Bijagos Archipelago and number about 20,000.
  6. Diola (Dyola, Yola), embracing the Bayot (Adayamat), Felup (Ayamat, Fulup, Huluf, Kabil, Karon), Filham (Filhol, Fogny, Fulun), Her, and Jiwat (Djiwat). They number about 150,000.
  7. Landuma (Landoma, Landouman), with the detached Tiapi (Tyapi). They number about 20,000.
  8. Nalu (Nalou). They number about 10,000.
  9. Pepel (Papel), with the Bram (Bola, Burama), Mandyako, and Mankanya (Mancagne). They number about 135,000.
  10. Serer (Kegueme, Sarer), embracing the Non (Nono) and Sin (Sinsin). They number about 300,000.
  11. Tenda, embracing the Badiaranke (Badian, Badyaranke, Udyade), Bassari (Basari, Biyan), Boeni (Tenda Boeni), Koniagi (Awunlen, Coniagui), and Mayo (Tenda Mayo). They number about 25,000, of whom the Boeni alone are Moslems.
  12. Wolof (Djolotf, Jaloff, Jolof, Ouolof, Yallof), with the Lebu. They number about 850,000 and are Moslems.

At one time the Senegambians extended farther north into coastal Mauritania. Around the eleventh century, however, the Berbers, pressed from the north by the Arabs, pushed the Wolof southward to near the mouth of the Senegal River, and the latter in turn partially displaced the Serer. The Tukulor of the middle Senegal, who were then politically dominant in the region, accepted Islam at that time and proselytized the Wolof. Several centuries elapsed, however, before the conversion of the latter was complete, and Islam has never penetrated the rest of the area to any appreciable extent. About 1350 the Wolof conquered the Tukulor and ruled a kingdom of some magnitude until around 1520. Though the Wolof never succumbed to the Malinke, the latter advanced deeply into Serer and Diola country. The Senegambians suffered further losses of territory with the occupation of Fouta-Djalon by the Fulani and the westward advance of the Susu at the expense of the Baga. Despite these reverses, they still number almost 2 million.
Geographical condition being much more favorable than in the coastal areas previously described, Sudanic agriculture penetrated the Senegambian territory effectively at an early date. The inland Tenda still preserve the full roster of Sudanic plants, but the coastal tribe today cultivate only cotton, cow peas, earth peas, gourd , millet, oil palms, okra, roselle, sesame, and sorghum. We cannot attribute their loss of status to the Malaysian bananas, taro, and yams, for the last two never spread this far north. The crop to which the Sudanic complex has yielded precedence is rice, which we have previously found as the staple also among the Kru and Peripheral Mande.
Historical records attest the cultivation of rice in the western Sudan in the fifteenth century, but it doubtless arrived considerably earlier, not by overland diffusion from East Africa but through the mediation of the Arabs. The Senegambians grow both the swamp and upland varieties of this cereal, using as their basic agricultural implement the spade, or footplow, rather than the usual African hoe and digging stick. Maize and manioc from the New World provide a significant supplement to rice and the Sudanic crops, and lesser borrowings include melons, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. As in North Africa, but in contrast to most other Negro areas of the continent, tree crops assume a position of considerable importance, notably bananas and coconuts from the Malaysian complex, mangoes from the Indian, papayas from the American, and limes and oranges from the Greco-Roman. All tribes keep cattle, sheep, and goats, but only the Balante, Pepel, Serer, Wolof, and the Bayot subtribe of the Diola milk their animals. Dogs and chickens appear to be universal, but horses, donkeys, ducks, and bees are kept only sporadically. Of parricular interest is the prominent place held by pigs in the animal husbandry of at least the Balante, Banyun, Biafada, Bijogo, Diola, and Pepel groups. Unfortunately our sources do not reveal whether these animals represent a recent introduction by the Portuguese or a survival, as among the Nuba and Prenilotes, of the ancient pig culture of North Africa, now largely obliterated through Islamic influence.
Except among the Tenda, fishing assumes an importance second only to agriculture. It is accompanied by the extensive use of shellfish, whose antiquity is evidenced by innumerable kitchen middens along the coast. Hunting holds a much less significant place in the economy, but there is considerable gathering of wild fruits and roots, berries, and kola, shea, and palm nuts. Trade is well developed in the north, and regular markets appear among the Diola, Pepel, Serer, and Wolof. Men hunt, fish from boats, clear new land, and tend cattle, horses, and donkeys, whereas women fish along the shore and in inland streams, collect shellfish, tend pigs, goats, sheep, and poultry, and do such milking as is practiced. Both sexes engage in agricultural work, but male participation tends to predominate in the north, female in the southern tribes. Gathering is done largely by men among the Baga, Banyun, and Bijogo, by women among the Balante, Tenda, and Wolof.
The Senegambians live in extended-famiy compounds, each, consisting of a cluster of huts arranged, usually in a circle, around an open space and often surrounded by a fence or, in the north, by a hedge, wall, or palisade. Among the Baga, Biafada, Bijogo, Tenda, and Wolof the compounds adjoin one another to form compact villages, but elsewhere they are semidispersed with intervening gardens or plantations. The dwellings conform in general to the widespread cone-cylinder pattern with mud walls and thatched roofs, but local variations are marked. Thus walls are sometimes constructed of mats, plaited bamboo, sun-dried bricks, or stone rather than mud, and rectangular or elongated structures with pyramidal or hipped roofs appear among the Baga and Diola, some Banyun, Pepel, and Landuma, and a few Wolof.
Petty paramount chiefs exercise political authority over the Baga, Bijogo, Landuma, Nalu, Pepel, and Tenda, but the Biafada, Balante, Banyun, Diola, and some Serer recognize no government beyond the level of the local headmen and councils of elders. Complex states exist only among the Wolof and certain Serer whose dynasties appear to be of Wolof origin. Succession is matrilineal—normally by the next younger brother or, in default of such, by the eldest son of the deceased's eldest sister. The sources specifically attest this rule for the Landuma, Serer, and Tenda, and even for several states of the strongly Islamized Wolof, but suggest that succession is patrilineal among the Baga, Banyun, and Diola.
Comprehension of the complex political structures of the extreme north requires some preliminary understanding of the prevailing social stratification. The other tribes of the area either possess only a few slaves or lack them altogether. They have no endogamous castes—except for griots, or bards, among the Tenda—and in other re peers they reveal an essentially egalitarian organization. The Serer and Wolof, however, reflect Islamic influence in an extraordinary multiplication of stratified statuses. The monarchical Serer, for example, clearly distinguish the following levels:

  1. Royalty
  2. A landed aristocracy of Malinke origin
  3. A seminoble class embracing the sons of aristocratic fathers and common mothers
  4. A class of superior commoners descended from indigenous Serer of high status
  5. A hereditary military class, descended from former Malinke warriors by nonnoble wives, who constitute the standing army, pay no taxes, and enjoy special privileges, such as stealing from commoners
  6. Free peasants
  7. A special class of crown servants, recruited from war captives and free volunteers, who owe allegiance solely to the king, live in special villages, and share some of the privileges of the warrior class
  8. Debt slaves pawned by the heads of matrilineages who find themselves in financial straits
  9. Hereditary house servants, who are descended from slaves but who, unlike the latter, may not be sold
  10. True slaves, acquired by purchase
  11. Members of several despised endogamous castes, notably smiths, leatherworkers, butchers, an griots

Each state of the Wolof type is ruled by a powerful paramount chief whose person is taboo and who has certain of the attributes of a divine king. The following details pertain to the Serer of Sine and Saloum, whose political structure has been particularly fully described. The king maintains an elaborate court in a capital town and collects taxes in kind through an administrative organization of district chiefs and local headmen. He is served by crown servants, who sometimes even hold minor administrative posts. His mother—or, if she is dead, her sister—enjoys exceptional prestige, rules a number of villages in her own right, and exercises judicial authority over all adulterous women. The highest minister of state, always a commoner lest he aspire to the kingship, exercises judicial powers over all freemen, supervises the chiefs of the three important frontier provinces, appoints a new king when the office becomes vacant, and, though he himself is appointed by the king, has the power to depose him. A second minister commands the army, represents the slaves and hereditary servants of the kingdom, and judges offenses in these classes. Like the prime minister, however, he is subject to the appellate jurisdiction of the king, who reserves to himself all judicial cases involving nobles and royalty. The third minister similarly represents and judges all crown servants and in addition serves as palace minister, master of ceremonies, chief of police, and royal executioner. The ruler is permitted to marry only women of common origin, so that his sons are ineligible to succeed him. He selects an heir presumptive from among his close matrilineal kinsmen and endows him with a special fief, but when the king dies, the prime minister is free either to confirm his choice or to appoint another royal male to ascend the throne.
Circumcision is general, and most tribes also practice clitoridectomy. These are usually, though not universally, associated with initiation ceremonies at puberty, which ty pically involve a period of instruction in a sequestered “bush school,” as among the Peripheral Mande tribes farther south. The Pepel take the heads of slain enemies as trophies, and the Tenda occasionally practice ceremonial cannibalism, but neither custom seems to prevail elsewhere.
All tribes save the Wolof tolerate premarital sex freedom for girls. Marriage involves bride-price in livestock, commonly including pigs and frequently premamal bride-service as well. Preferential cross-cousin marriage prevails in several tribes. Polygyny occurs to only a limited extent among the Bijogo and Tenda but appears to be general elsewhere. The Serer and Wolof permit it only to the nonsororal form. Each co-wife has a hut of her own, and the husband spends a fixed period with each in rotation. The household unit is invariably an extended family, but the precise form which it assumes can rarely be ascertained from the incomplete data usually presented on residence rules.
Matrilocality is specifically reported for the less acculturated Bijogo, where women own the houses, but elsewhere the sources usually mention only patrilocal residence. However, the data on inheritance and succession, which are definitely matrilineal among the Landuma, Serer, Tenda, and some Wolof, make it clear that avunculocal residence also occurs with some degree of frequency, and this is supported by reports of matrilineal descent for the same tribes and for the Bijogo. The Serer and Tenda definitely possess exogamous matrisibs, and the Wolof observe double descent, having agamous kin groups of both unilinear types. The Baga in the extreme south possess exogamous patrilineages, but for the central tribes our principal authority, who shows no comprehension of social structural principles, merely denies totemism and asserts patrilocal residence and patrilineal inheritance. Until these allegations are confirmed we must probably assume, with Arcin (1907), that “the matrilineate is general among these peoples” and that deviations from it are attributable to recent historical influences.

Selected Bibliography