The Diola People


The Diola, also known as the Jola, Yola, Dyola, or Diula, is among the largest eth-nicity in southern Senegal, mainly concen-trated in the Casamance region. Recent data shows there are 1.2 million in Gambia (10 percent of the total), 1.2 million in Senegal (4 percent of the total), and another 800,000 in Guinea Bissau, with other smaller populations in Burkina Faso and Mali. Their language belongs to the Bak group of the West Atlantic family of languages of the larger Niger-Congo phy-lum.

Following the break up of the King-dom of Mali, Malinke/Mande nobility gained power over many other commun-ities less politically organized, including the Diola. Mande influence grew both along the Gambia and Casamance Rivers, where a number of states emerged with Mande and later Fulbe leadership over a Diola base.The Diola appear to have been living in the region between the Casamance and Gambia rivers in early historic times and were conquered by the Malian general Tiramakhan Traore in the 1260s, though the lower river basin remained outside of Malian control.

Mali’s system was gener-ally to not replace local political authority, but to make it subject to the Malian king or mansa. There does not appear to have been any political authority above the level of individual villages in the Diola region, leaving more organized state building to the Mande, who emerged as local nobility. Numbers of Mande moved into both the Gambia and Casamance and settled in separate villages from the local Diola. The Mande language became that of the state, and Islam was associated with the Mande and later with the Fulbe.

In 1360, the Malian empire suffered from problems over succession and much of the western part broke away, forming the Wolof-speaking kingdom of Jolof, but the Mande ruled the region called Kabu (Gabu) and remained tied to Mali until the 15th century. In the 15th century, con-tact with European traders developed along the Atlantic coast, and the Portu-guese established trading posts. It is noted that the term casamance is the Portuguese rendering of the Mande Kasa Mansa or King of Kasa, the name of one of the Mande kingdoms in the region. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, English, French, and Dutch also arrived and set up trading posts to purchase mainly slaves.

By the end of the 17th century, nearly 1 million Africans, many from the Sen-egambia region, had already been taken to the Americas. However, by 1801, the numbers taken from the Gambia/Casa-mance region were less than 1 percent of the enslaved African total. The Diola were among the people greatly affected by the slave trade, and a number of their words passed into American English via West African slaves, such as the term nguba for the American plant peanut, which passed into usage as goober pea,andthe term bangoe for the neck of the three- or four-stringed, long-necked lute, which passed into usage as banjo.The Diola, in general, differ from the other groups in the Senegambia area because they did not develop distinct classes.

They have remained generally organized into independent village com-munities; however, in the Oussouye region, the Floup Diola developed a monarchy with a king who presides over religious fes-tivals, and still does today.The Portuguese in the 15th century brought Christian missionaries, but few Diola were converted to Christianity until the French colonial period. Today, a good number of Diola are Catholics, though those who were under the control of jihad leadersinthe 19 th century to the early 20th century converted to Islam.Most of the Diola remained followers of their traditional religion or had converted to Christianity before the jihads of the 19th century.

In 1843, the Mande allied them-selves with the Muslim Fulbe of Futa Jalon in the Guinea highlands and launched out to defeat the Diola and bring them into Islam. In the 1850s, Muslim forces gained the upper hand in the fighting, which spread north to the Gambia under British rule. The main jihad leader Ma Ba Diakhu was not defeated until the 1860s, when he was defeated by the non-Muslim Serer kings of Sin and Salum and their French allies. Leadership of the jihad south of theGambiafelltoFode Kaba, who was eventually defeated by the French in 1901.Although the jihad was primarily among the non-Diola peoples of the region, the Diola suffered the effects of the wars the most.

A number of them living in the areas under jihad leaders converted to Islam, and today around 50 percent Diola are Muslims.Following Senegalese independence, the Casamance region felt that it was not receiv-ing attention from the national government, and a mainly Diola resistance movement grew. From the 1980s into the 2000s, a low-level civil war was fought between a local separatist group and the Senegalese government. The Diola opposition to the Senegalese state formed into the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC)ledbyaCatholicpriest,Father Augustin Diamacoune. The conflict was brought to an end in 2004 in an agreement between the government of President Abdoulaye Wade and the MFDC.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Baum, Robert M. Shrines of the Slave Trade:Diola Religion and Society in Pre-Colonial Senegambia. Oxford: Oxford Uni-versity Press, 1999.

Collins, Robert O. Africa: A Short History.Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2008.

Ross, Eric. Culture and Customs of Senegal. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Schaffer, Matt and Christine Cooper. Man-dinko: The Ethnology of a West African Holy Land. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1987.