History in Africa, Vol. 5 (1978), pp. 257-271
Our ancestor came from Denya in Futa-Toro.
He was a Futa Fulbe called Koli 1.
Essau, Lower Niumi District The Gambia
The Sonko in Niumi are our relatives.
They say they are related to Koli Tengela, but I don't know how 2.
Badume, Jarra Central District The Gambia
— I —
Traditions of origin of most of the prominent Gambian Mandinka lineages tend to be bodies of myth containing small, but often recognizable, skeletons of historical truth. Members of these lineages typically think of one of several mythical, sometimes composite, figures as their ancestors. These figures are invariably great leaders, if not of western migrations with large followings, then of successful military expeditions in the west for the Mali empire. Usually, these traditions serve a particular purpose.
The ancestral figures symbolize the lineages' ties, real or imagined, to the Mandinka homelands and the center of Mandinka culture on the upper Niger River. The stories of their ancestors' early arrival or successful conquests in the western Mandinka region justify historically the positions of political and social prominence these lineages held throughout the last four centuries or more of the pre-colonial period.
Two of the three traditionally dominant lineages in the region of the Gambia known as Niumi have traditions of origin that are no exceptions to this rule. Niumi was one of more than a dozen Mandinka states that existed along the banks of the navigable Gambia River from perhaps as early as the fourteenth century until colonial times. Occupying forty miles of the river's north bank at its estuary, Niumi was long a focal point for the exchange of slaves and other commodities among Africans and between Africans and Europeans. By what was likely the early sixteenth century, seven extended families of three larger lineages — themselves segments of still larger, more widely dispersed groups of lineages having the same patronymics — emerged to rotate political leadership in Niumi and to dominate social and economic aspects of life in the state. Of these three lineages — the Jammeh, Manneh, and Sonko — the first two have traditions of origin typical of most others in the region. Members of the Jammeh lineage look to a figure named Sora Musa — supposedly a ruler of the Mandinka people and a famous Muslim pilgrim, who yielded political leadership to Mali's founder, Sundiata, and became one of his leading military officers — as their ancestor who brought Mandinka west to become the first settlers in Niumi. Similarly, the Manneh consider Tiramakan Traore, said to be another of Sundiata's military leaders, as their ancestor and leader of people out of Mali toward the west. Members of the Manneh lineage say their ancestors came to Niumi to help the Jammeh withstand outside aggression. In both traditions historical truth lies in the general connection of the lineages in the far western area with their spiritual, and in some cases truly ancestral, homelands. For the Jammeh, primacy, and for the Manneh, military strength in defense of the state, justify the lineages' traditional positions as part of Niumi's Sonko, elite ruling 3.
Members of the third major lineage living in Niumi, the Sonko, recite a tradition of origin that does not fit the typical mythical figure-Mandinka homeland model of the other western Mandinka lineages. This tradition smacks of illogic, in fact, for although the Sonko of Niumi speak Mandinka, live what is essentially the traditional Mandinka way of life, and for some centuries shared the Mandinka political institution of rulership (mansaya) with the two other Mandinka lineages in a Mandinka-style state (called a banko along the Gambia), they claim to be “pure Fulbe” and they trace their ancestry to Koli Tengela of the Fulbe state of Denya on the upper Senegal River and to a number of Koli's “brothers” whose names are the same as leading figures in Denya's early history. By itself, the tradition is as fascinating as it is potentially confusing.
All of the Sonko in Niumi, their lineage griot, and traditionalists and griots throughout the lower Gambia who have heard of Sonko origins from these people recite the story in similar fashion 4. The original Sonko, they say, was Koli Tengela, though some call him “Koli Sonko” or “Koli Bankere.”
According to this tradition, Koli left his homelands in Denya wearing a nine-colored, nine-cornered cotton hat and a distinctive pair of trousers. His brothers, Bubu, Pate, Yoro, and Labba Tengela, accompanied him to a nine-branched baobab tree in a region known in legend as “Bankere,” (which in Mandinka means “by means of force”) located in the northernmost reaches of Niumi. In the baobab lived a bat, who answered Koli's statement of “I have found my country” with the often heard, “I do not deny that, but you have found it with its owner.” Beneath the tree were two pots, one with cooked food and one with water. Each contained just enough to satisfy the needs of every person in Koli's group. Koli and his brothers built a shelter under the “Bankere baobab.” Beneath each branch they constructed a room; in each room they placed nine beds; and on each bed slept nine adults. It was thus that Koli and his followers settled in Bankere.
One day a bird with an ear of millet in its mouth flew into the Bankere baobab where Koli was resting. Admiring the millet, Koli ordered his slaves to follow the bird to discover its origin. The bird took them to the farms of the Jammeh, at the time the sole provider of Niumi's rulers, in central Niumi.
The Niumi ruler sent some of his own men to accompany Koli's slaves back to Bankere to greet Koli. When they returned they brought news of Koli's large number of followers. Feeling that such a body of people would be of great benefit to Niumi, the ruler invited Koli to bring his group to settle there. Koli agreed to do so. When the group arrived the Jammeh ruler asked them their patronymic and Koli replied:
— Our name is Bah. 5
— No, said the ruler, you are always quarreling among yourselves; your name is Sonkalakore — a group of quarrelsome people.
This, traditions usually note incidentally, is how their surname happened to change from the Fulbe Bah to Sonko.
At that time residents of Niumi were paying tribute to Salum. Nothing the Jammeh rulers could do would win their independence. The Niumi ruler explained to Koli the tributary conditions under which he would be living and Koli replied:
— When you go to a country and find the people all hopping on one leg, you, too, must raise a leg. Whatever befalls you will befall us.
For three years Niumi's residents continued to pay tribute to Salum. Then Koli convinced the Jammeh to refuse to pay, instructing them to tell “the Wolof” (as most informants refer to the people they were paying) that “only donkeys carry heavy loads; we are humans, not donkeys, and humans do not carry heavy loads.”
Koli agreed to support the Jammeh refusal to pay if the Sonko could “wear the hat that the Jammeh take off,” or, in other words, share political authority (mansaya) in Niumi with the Jammeh. When Salum's messenger came to Niumi to collect the annual tribute payment, the Jammeh gave him the pre-arranged message. His empty-handed return to Salum brought a second and then a third messenger with the same request. The second messenger returned with the same message as the first, but the third was lucky to return at all, Koli having greeted him with his sword. Next time the Salum cavalry came.
The subsequent Salum-Niumi war, as Sonko traditions continue, was fought in two stages. In the first, Koli told members of other lineages in Niumi's fighting force, particularly the Jammeh and Manneh, to leave the field to the Sonko. This and the Sonko warriors drove the invaders across the swamp at the northern edge of Niumi. The Sonko returned home, but Salum's cavalry returned, too. This time the Jammeh and Manneh joined the Sonko to repel them for good.
Three separate extended families of Sonko then settled
permanently in the villages of Berending, Essau, and Jiffet in Niumi. The family in the last village, however, abandoned it
and split in two soon after settling down, one branch moving to Essau to become a second “royal family” from that village and the other moving to the village of Sika in the remote southeast corner of Niumi. The Sonko in Berending and Essau then awaited their turns at mansaya.
But when the first Sonko, Demba Kotoo (“Old Demba”) became ruler, there were repercussions, for he ruled for 115 years and thereby prevented several generations of Jammeh and Manneh from ruling. Led by a Manneh, the frustrated members of these two lineages conspired and poisoned Demba Koto. Informed by a Fulbe slave of the circumstances surrounding his father's death, Dijang Sonko vowed vengeance against the Manneh and fought them until the valley running through western Niumi ran red with their blood. Sonko warriors drove the Jammeh and Manneh clear across Niumi to the state's southeastern corner and were poised to drive them from the region when an old woman came to Dijang and counseled restraint, advising them to “have peace now,” for “if you kill everyone you will have to work yourself. The head that rests in the shade is supported by those that are under the sun. If you kill them all off, no head will sit in the shade.”
Reluctantly, Dijang agreed, but he still insisted on exiling most of the dangerous Manneh lineage members, allowing only the Manneh extended families in two villages to remain in Niumi and share the rule. Thereafter, the traditions conclude, the three lineages co-existed peacefully, sharing rulership in a fixed rotational pattern that all honored religiously until the British usurped the authority of the last mansa and made him a government-backed seyfu (chief) instead.
— II —
Persons familiar with a wide variety of Senegambian myths, legends, and oral traditions can easily recognize that the Sonko “borrowed” this tradition. The characters and events come originally from traditions of the Fulbe inhabitants of the former Denya state in the Futa Toro region of the upper Senegal River valley and are included in many traditional accounts of Fulbe living in and around the Gambia. Perusal of appropriate sections of Sire Abbas Soh's Chroniques du Fouta the similarities between the legend of origin of Denya's founder, Koli Tengela, and the Koli Tengela whom the Sonko of Niumi claim as their ancestor. Denya traditions say that Koli Tengela lived under a baobab tree (the number of branches, huts, and beds being seven rather than nine) and followed a millet-carrying bird from the baobab to Denya exactly as the Sonko claim their ancestor did in coming to Niumi. Furthermore, the very names of Koli's supposed brothers, Bubu, Pate, Yoro, and Labba, occur in many Denya genealogies. Soh identifies them as specific saltigi, rulers of the former Denya state, or as grandsons of Koli Tengela. Even the story of the full cooking and water pots, though not taken directly from Denya traditions, is a frequent motif in Senegambian myths and legends 6.
Further examination of the history of Sonko traditions suggests that the Koli Tengela legend is a twentieth-century adoption, which Niumi's Sonko lineage used to help justify their monopoly of colonial political Gambia, to which British colonial process of change evolved. If indications pertaining to why the Sonko altered their tradition of origin are necessarily authority, and which griots, less formal traditionalists, and students of the history of the area helped to canonize as the largely circumstantial, evidence that the change did indeed take place and that over several decades the new tradition became an established part of Mandinka oral literature of the lower Gambia is unambiguous and crucial to any consideration of Niumi's past.
Before the twentieth century the Sonko of Niumi gave an entirely different account of their origins and early history. The earliest recording of a tradition of origin of the lineage occurred in 1786, when S.M.X. Golberry spent several days at the court of the Sonko ruler of Niumi negotiating a treaty for French commercial interests in the Seneambia. In Fragments d'un voyage en Afrique, Golberry wrote:
« Au commencement de la dixième année de l'hégire Amari-Sonko, celèbre guerrier manding, descendit de l'intérieur des terres de l'Afrique, à la tête de plus de vingt mille hommes arms, et suivi d'un grand nombre de femmes et de Marabouths ; il ravagea tous les bords septentrionaux de la Gambia, arriva vers l'embouchure du fleuve, livra plusieurs batailles au roi Salum, et resta maître enfin des territoires de Barra [as Niumi was called in the Portuguese-based trade language of the river], de Kollar et de Baddibou.
Il eut encore plusieurs années de guerre à soutenir, avant de rester paisible possesseur des contrées qu'il avait conquises ; mais à la faveur des renforts qui lui arrivèrent du pays manding, il sut s'y maintenir.
Ce fondateur des premieres colonies manding qui s'établirent sur les bords de la Gambie, fut à la fois intrepide guerrier, bon politique, et habile negociant ; cet homme intelligent et brave, sut obtenir la protection des Européens qui fréquentaient cette rivière ; et en échange des captifs et de l'or qu'il leur vendait, il se procura, des sabres, des fusils, des balles et de la poudre : avec ces moyens, il se fit redouter des Iolofs et du Bur-Salum, et força ce prince de lui faire irrévocablement, la cession de ses conquêtes, qu'à sa mort se partagèrent ses trois fils. C'est à l'aîné que resta le royaume de Barra, et ses descendants y règnent encore ; la famille du fils aîné d'Amari Sonko, y existe, partagée en cinq branches ; les aînés de chaque branche héritent successivement de la royauté, et à l'époque où j'étais à Albréda, l'héritier présomptif était un nègre nommé Sonko-Air, cousin du roi régnant 7.
Nearly a century after Golberry was in Niumi, a British trader, Thomas Brown, reported to administrators in Bathurst in 1871 on traditional authority in Niumi — something his forty years of commercial dealings in the lower Gambia must have enabled him to know well. Brown wrote the following, briefer version of a tradition nearly identical to the one Golberry reported:
« According to native tradition, at the beginning of the tenth year [of the] Hegira one Amari Sonko a Mandingo warrior came down from the interior and after several battles and some years of war, with the King of Salum, remained the master of Barra, Koular, and Badiboo, which he then formed into one kingdom. After his death, however, it became divided between his three sons and at a later period Koular was joined to Badiboo and now forms a part of that kingdom — Barra remaining a separate kingdom.
The descendants of Amari Sonko continued to reign until the year 1862 when Demba Sonko died. (Some collateral branches of the Descendants of Amari Sonko are yet living in Barra.) 8
What is especially noteworthy about these traditions fact that the basic elements are nearly identical to those in Sonko traditions recited today in the Sankola region of the almost all non-Niumi Sonko assert, ancestors of the Sonko lineage of Niumi lived before coming to the lower Gambia 9. Fitting the mythical figure-Mandinka homelands model of most other Mandinka lineage traditions, the Amari Sonko legend was probably the accepted tradition of origin of the related Sonko lineages in the western Mandinka region prior to the twentieth century 10.
Sometime between Brown's recording of the Amari Sonko legend in 1871 and the next recording of traditions of Sonko origin in Niumi seventy years later, the Sonko of Niumi stopped reciting the Amari Sonko legend and accepted the Koli Tengela tradition as their tradition of origin. It was in the heart of this period, of course, that European powers partitioned Africa and established colonial governments following the direct rule model in their particular possessions. Events that occurred when the British established indirect rule in the Gambia, and specifically when they set up “Native Authority” in Niumi, seem to suggest why during this time, or not long after, the Sonko felt it advantageous to adopt a new tradition of origin.
In 1889 England and France agreed on the boundaries of the British Protectorate of The Gambia. Six years later the last ruler of Niumi, Maranta Sonko of Essau, against the wishes of most of Niumi's other lineage heads, signed a treaty acknowledging the suzerainty of the Governor of the Gambia over himself and the people and territory of Niumi. Maranta became the first British-designated seyfu of Niumi and he held this position for nearly fifteen years. Approaching the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, as his health failed, Maranta asked the Governor to divide Niumi into two districts. Such division would ease problems of administration, he reasoned. The Governor agreed, separating “Upper Niumi” from “Lower Niumi.” Maranta remained seyfu of Lower Niumi until his death in 1910; then Sonko relatives succeeded him 11. To this day, only Sonko of Essau have been seyfu of Lower Niumi. Beyond coincidence, too, the Governor appointed Brima Sonko, a member of the other Essau Sonko family, to serve as the first seyfu of Upper Niumi. He was, by rights, a foreigner in Upper Niumi. Brima moved his family to the village of Sika in Upper Niumi 12, his descendants still live there. Members of the Sonko family of Sika would continue to serve as seyfus of Upper Niumi until 1972. In essence, then, by shortly after the end of the first decade of colonial rule members of the Sonko lineage, traditionally only one of three lineages that provided the rulers for the former state of Niumi, were able to become the single, dominant political force in not one but two administrative districts of the British colony of the Gambia.
It was very likely (though admittedly not certain) that the Sonko of Niumi adopted the new tradition of origin to facilitate their rapid rise to political dominance, or to lend historical legitimacy to the extablished fact of their dominance. Even without later embellishments, the Koli Tengela tradition gave the Sonko a claim to primacy in Niumi through their early, independent settlement in “Bankere”; it identified the lineage as the moving force behind Niumi's independence from Salum; it identified the Sonko as magnanimous military conquerors of the two rival lineages; and it identified the Sonko of Sika as early settlers of that village, when in reality, it seems, they settled there only when it became politically expedient to do so. All of these elements in the tradition provide the Sonko with a much more sound justification of the lineage's new, exalted position as monopolizer of colonial political authority in Upper and Lower Niumi. For these reasons — and perhaps others — the Sonko of Niumi and many others soon came to accept the Koli Tengela legend as the “proper” story of Sonko origins.
— III —
The earliest recording of what was to become the Koli Tengela tradition of the origin of Niumi's Sonko population occurred in 1942. It was then that George Lorimer, British Travelling Commissioner for the Gambia's North Bank Province (which included both Upper and Lower Niumi), as part of a colony-wide effort to find the “proper Native Authorities,” spent three months investigating Niumi's history “from the Native point of view.” Lorimer's informants on Sonko history had every reason to be biased. They were Nfamara Sonko, Maranta's successor as seyfu of Lower Niumi, and Momadi Sonko, a member of a second Sonko extended family. Both lived in Essau, the seat of Native Authority in Lower Niumi. The legend these informants told Lorimer was not nearly so embellished as versions collected more recently. In fact there was no mention of Koli Tengela himself, nor of his “brothers,” nor were there such embellishments as the millet-carrying bird or the full cooking pot. But the 1942 version contained full accounts of events that would substantiate the Sonko claim to leadership in both Upper and Lower Niumi 13. Lorimer's official “Report on the History and Previous Native Administration of Niumiside” lent the force of colonial authority to the Sonko tradition. Thereafter, the British based political decisions and colonial policy as they related to Niumi upon this “official” version of Sonko and early Niumi history 14.
With Lorimer's report, too, came the gradual canonization of the Koli Tengela version of Sonko origins and Niumi history by griots and other traditionalists from a wide region in the lower Gambia. Today it is virtually impossible to hear anything but the Koli Tengela version of Sonko origins within a radius of more than 100 kilometers of Niumi in any direction. Griots, family elders of most Mandinka lineages, noted authorities on local tradition, and even quite a few children residing in this area know the basic elements of the Koli Tengela legend and consider it to be Sonko history. Not one of these people could say anything about a legendary figure named Amari Sonko, even when asked. The nearest persons I could find who knew something similar to the Amari Sonko tradition lived in Badume, Jarra Central Division, The Gambia; Wuropana, Senegal; or Berekolong, Guinea-Bissau 15. These villages are 100, 140, and 200 kilometers respectively from the village of Essau in Niumi.
But in addition to traditionalists, scholars with interests in the region, who have included unquestioningly at least portions of the Koli Tengela legend in their studies of Gambian or western Mandinka history, have brought about further buttressing of the tradition. In 1969 S.M. Cissoko spent several weeks traveling through a large part of the lower Senegambia, recording oral traditions from various Mandinka lineages. He then collaborated with Sambou Kaoussa to translate, edit, annotate, and publish these traditions in Recueils des traditions orales des Mandingues de Gambie et de Casamance. To obtain traditions of the Sonko lineage of Niumi, Cissoko interviewed “des princes du clan Sonko,” Boubakar Sonko and his brother, Sekou Sonko, both of Essau. They provided him with “la version officielle,” which he published, and which was in fact the basic Koli Tengela legend. In the published version Cissoko's own annotations lend credence to the tradition.
Following a passage stating that “Koli Sonko,” a Fulbe, came from Denya and settled in Sadialo and then Bankere, Cissoko notes :
« Ce personnage originaire de Denia (N.O. de la République de Guinée) est plus loin identifé au fameux Koli Tenguella conquerant peul qui lutta contre l'Empereur du Mali vers 1534. Nous savons que l'aventure de Koli Tenguella se termina au Futa Toro où il conquit un royaume et fonda la Dynastie des Koliabe. Koli Sonko est donc un personnage autre, peut-être un compagnon du Tenguella 16. »
Three years after the appearance of Cissoko's collection of traditions Charlotte Quinn published Mandingo Kingdoms of the Senegambia, largely a study of nineteenth-century interaction among traditional African societies, evolving Muslim groups, and Europeans in the Gambia. Discussing “The Mandingo Kingdoms and Their Rulers,” Quinn devotes nearly two full pages to traditions of origin of the ruling lineages of Niumi. She writes of the Sonko,
« Later still a lineage called Sonko, which now claims to have Fula as well as Mandingo origins, from the east and settled near the border of Salum in a town called Bankiri. In Mandinka, bankiri means “by force,” and the Sonko were known as great fighters. They were employed at first as agents for the Bur Salum, whose residence was at Kahone, and collected tribute, a tax on all agricultural products, from the Serer and Wolof communities around them. Eventually they fell out with the Wolof rulers and moved south to the banks of the Gambia, where the Mane and the Jame still sought a means to throw off Wolof rule. The Sonkos were promised a share in the land and the kingship in Niumi if they could end the tribute payments. When they succeeded in doing so, however, the earlier settlers are said to have tried to go back on their bargain, and a battle followed at which the Jame and Mane were defeated. The Sonko lineage settled at Berending, later at Essau and Jiffet as well. The peace made between the three families at that time is said to have lasted ever since 17. »
Quinn did not use Cissoko's published traditions from the area. Where, then, did she get her Sonko tradition? She read it in the Gambia Archives — the 1942 report of George Lorimer. In fairness, Quinn attempted to corroborate Lorimer's account — something she admits is difficult to do — by conducting her own interviews in Niumi. However, her choice of informants was hardly better than Lorimer's. She interviewed Landing Sali Sonko of Essau and Landing Omar Sonko of Sika, the seyfus of Lower and Upper Niumi respectively 18. Without collecting considerably migrated more oral material from a wider area and from informants a considerable distance from Niumi, Quinn was not to obtain information that would allow her to examine likely Sonko traditions of origin critically.
A final manifestation to date of the entrenchment of the Koli Tengela legend in Senegambian literature, oral and written, concerns the work of a Senegambian griot cum west African historian, Dembo Kanouté. One-time head of a Senegambian musical troop, Kanouté took it upon himself, with a degree of official Senegalese backing, to visit several West African countries and, some years thereafter, to recite, have translated and transcribed, and ultimately to publish a Histoire de l'Afrique authentique 19. It is, in fact, a group of random oral traditions relating to West Africa. Kanouté's final chapter entitled “Installation de Coly Sonko,” is a true conglomeration of fragments of many separate traditions from the lower and middle Gambia. The story of “Coly Sonko” and Niumi contained therein is so embellished as to make it nearly unrecognizable as the legend recited in and around Niumi, though it does identify Coly and the Sonko with ultimate settlement in Essau and Sika and with political leadership in Niumi. The larger, long-range effects of Kanouté's publication of corrupted versions of many West African oral traditions — with the possibility, as Kanouté mentioned in 1975, of the use of his volume in certain Senegalese schools — remains to be seen. But for the Sonko of Niumi it is clearly another step — if perhaps a disjointed, sideways one — in rendering into print and thereby giving additional credence to the basic elements of their “official” history.
— IV —
Thus, over much of the last century, the tradition of origin of one Gambian Mandinka lineage went through a discernible process of change. Though for want of evidence the exact timing and specific details of the change remain vague, the general process, which took place over quite a few decades, is much more clear. Once persons in the Sonko lineage began accepting the new tradition of origin as their own, which they did most probably to justify historically the lineage's new monopoly of political authority in Niumi, the process was left for others to complete. An outside source, in this case, a British administrator intent upon finding and making known the “official” tradition of origin of the Sonko, lent authority to the legend and, simultaneously, griots and other traditionalists in the region added the legend to their repertoires. Finally, students of the Mandinka in the Gambia helped entrench the tradition in Senegambian oral literature by including it in their published works. Indeed, once adopted by the lineage, the tradition's ultimate acceptance was perhaps inevitable, with but the time required for each step in the process remaining a matter of variance. But inevitable or not, the result of this process has been the exclusion of the old, perhaps original legend, and the inclusion of the new legend, in the living and changing body of western Mandinka oral traditions.
* I am grateful to the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship that sponsored research for this study. I am grateful, too, to David Gamble and Winifred Galloway for providing me with materials I feared were inaccessible, and to Stephen Bahoum, George Brooks, S.M. Cissoko, and B.K. Sidibe for assistance at various stages of the preparation of this article. Of course, none of these people bears responsibility for what appears in the article; I do.
1. Boubakar Sonko, oral interview conducted by S.M. Cissoko in Essau, Lower Niumi District, The Gambia, February 1969. Recordings of this interview and others in Cissoko's collection are deposited in the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, Dakar, Senegal.
2. Ansumana Sonko, oral interview conducted by the author in Badume, Jarra Central District, Gambia, January 20, 1975. Recordings of this interview and others in my collection from Gambia and Senegal are deposited in the Gambia Cultural Archives, Banjul, and in the Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University, Bloomington (accession number 75-185-F).
3. For more thorough discussions of Niumi's early history, traditions of the Jammeh and Manneh lineages, the role oral traditions play in Gambian Mandinka society, and the use of these traditions to study the history of the western Mandinka, see my The Early History of Niumi: Settlement and Foundation of a Mandinka State on the Gambia River, [Papers in International Studies, Africa Series, 32] (Athens, Ohio, 1977).
4. The story of Sonko origins that follows is a composite account from the following oral narratives: Unus Jata, Berending, Lower Niumi District, The Gambia; Alhaji Omar Sonko, Kanuma, Lower Niumi District, The Gambia; Ibrahima Njie, Berending, Lower Niumi District, The Gambia; Landing Nima Sonko, Berending, Lower Niumi District, The Gambia; and Alhaji Maranta Sonko, Essau, Lower Niumi District, The Gambia. These informants were interviewed by the author between September 1974 and April 1975. Also adding to the story was information provided by Boubakar Sonko and Seku Sonko of Essau, and by Bakary Sonko of Berending, each interviewed in February 1969 by S.M. Cissoko, and by the late Bamba Suso, probably the most noted Gambian griot of his day, in an interview taped by Radio Gambia in 1973.
A copy of this last recording is available in the Gambia Cultural Archives, Banjul.
5. Bah, or Ba, is the patronymic of one of the most prominent Fulbe lineages living near the Gambia River. Members of this lineage trace their ancestry to Denya and Koli Tengela, whomthey often call Koli Tengela Bah. The Bah claim no relationship to the Sonko. See Ba Tamsir Ousmane, "Essai historique sur le Rip (Senegal)," Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Afrique Noire, Series B, 19(1957), pp. 565-66.
6. Sire Abbas Soh, Chroniques du Fouta Sénégalais, ed. Maurice Delafosse and Henri Gaden (Paris, 1913), pp. 120- 23.
7. S.M.X. Golberry, Fragments d'un voyage en Afrique (2 vols.: Paris, 1802), 2:pp. 159-60.
8. Thomas Brown to the Administrator, Bathurst, September 27, 1871, Gambia Public Record Office, Banjul, 1/29.
9. El Hadji Bakari Sonko, oral interview conducted by S.M. Cissoko in Berekolong, Sankola, Guinea-Bissau, March 1969; Ansumana Sonko and Yesa Sonko, oral interview conducted by the author in Badume, Jarra Central District, The Gambia, January 20, 1975; Wula Naso, oral interview conducted by the author, Wuropana, Senegal, January 18, 1975.
10. A legend of Amari Sonko is also recited in the more central Mandinka regions. One such is recorded in Maurice Delafosse's Haut-Sénégal-Niger (reprint of 1912 edition, Paris, 1972), 2:p. 183.
11. George Lorimer, “Report on the History and Previous Native Administration of Niumiside, and more especially of Lower Niumi, together with recommendations as to the future administration of Lower Niumi and suggestions as to the possible future relations of this district with Upper Niumi and Jokadu Districts ,” Gambia Public Record Office, Banjul, 2/2390.
13. Ibid. Of course, it is impossible to discover where Sonko traditionalists came upon the Koli Tengela-Denya connection to add to their tradition. As noted above, stories of Koli Tengela circulate fairly widely throughout the entire Senegambia region, and these elements could easily be “picked up” by reciters of the story. However, there is another possibility. In 1931 W.T. Hamlyn, Superintendent of Education for the Gambia, wrote A Short History of the Gambia, which he introduced in the colony's schools soon thereafter. On pages 12 and 13 of the book, describing the early history of the Fulbe in The Gambia, Hamlyn wrote:
« From 1559 to 1586 they were ruled over by a Fula named Koli Tenila or Tenguella. He was called on by the Fulas to help them against the Mali Keitas, and, after allying himself with the Susus he set up a kingdom on the Futa-Jallon plateau. He attacked the Sereres of the Casamance and the Gambia, and after defeating them he married the daughter of their chief thus allying them with himself.
The Fulas and their flocks and herds became so numerous that at length the country could no longer support them, and they decided to seek some other land in which to live. The following story is told of their journey to find another land. The king and his elders were sitting under the Council tree, discussing the question when a parrot settled in the tree above their heads, dropped a grain of millet before the king and flew away to the north. This was taken by the wise men to be an omen that there was plenty of food in the land from which the parrot came and that Allah had sent the parrot to guide them to a fertile land. They therefore travelled to the north following the parrot who is said to have stopped at each resting place at night and to have flown before them during the daytime.
Koli led his people to the north as far as the banks of the river Senegal and took the Bondu region from the Joloffs. This portion of the country between the rivers Gambia and Senegal remained in the power of the Fulas for many years, and was known to the Portuguese as Grao Foule. But later again the Joloffs went into Bondu again in a peaceful manner and became the allies of the Fulas, and the whole country later became known as the Grand Joloff. Koli and his successors founded the Denianke dynasty which lasted for several centuries. »
The effects of this passage and others in Hamlyn's book (which incidentally, has been revised and/or reprinted three times since 1931 and is still in use in Gambia schools) upon oral traditions in the Gambia are not documentable but one would be mistaken not to suspect the influence of a widely-read schoolbook on African oral literature.
14. It is not surprising, then, that Alhaji Maranta “Mang Foday” Sonko of Essau, a grandson of Niumi's last mansa and first seyfu, holds the seat in Parliament from Lower Niumi and is one of The Gambia's most prominent men; that Landing Sali Sonko, also of Essau and a member of the second “ruling lineage” from that village, is the seyfu of Lower Niumi; or that until 1972 the seyfu of Upper Niumi was Alhaji Landing Omar Sonko, a descendant of the district's first seyfu.
15. See note 9 above.
16. M. Cissoko and Sambou Kaoussa, Recueils des traditions orales des Mandingues de Gambie et de Casamance (Niamey, 1969), p. 9. Emphasis in original.
17. Charlotte Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of the Senegambia: Traditionalism, Islam, and European Expansion (Evanston, 1972), pp. 38-39.
19. Dembo Kanouté, Histoire de l'Afrique authentique, trans. Tidiane Sanogho and Ibrahima Diallo (Dakar, 1972).