An Introduction to The Gambia’s Mandinka People

The Great Mosque of Djenne, on the site of the original mosque build during the Mali Empire
The Great Mosque of Djenne, on the site of the original mosque build during the Mali Empire | © Kibi86 / Pixabay
Sheriff Janko

The Mandinka or Mandingo, make up the largest ethnic group in The Gambia. They are a West African ethnic group descended from the Mali Empire. Read on to learn more about their origins.

Loved by over 40s

The generic name of this linguistic group varies from region to region depending on the dialect of the people, but the widely accepted generic name is Mandé. The origins of the Mandinka ethnicity in The Gambia can be traced back to Manding (Kangaba), which was one of the kingdoms of the ancient Mali Empire. The group is believed to be one of West Africa’s largest ethno-linguistic groups, with an estimated global population of 11 million.

Mandinka people from the early 20th century in traditional dress


According to oral historians, there are four variations of the Mandinka group (as they are referred to in Senegambia, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Mali). These include Mandinga, Mandinka, Mandingo and Mandinko as they are widely referred to in areas close to the Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau borders, all the way to Saloum and throughout the whole of present-day The Gambia. However, the group gained their independence from previous empires in the 13th century and founded their own kingdom, which stretched across West Africa. It was in the second half of the 19th century that this linguistic group converted to Islam, and today 99 per cent still practice the faith.

The Great Mosque of Djenne, on the site of the original mosque built during the Mali Empire


The Mandinka arrived in The Gambia during the 14th century, at a time when the Mali Empire was at its height. The Mali Empire having been founded by Sundiata Keita. Historians argue over this, but many believe that the reasons for emigrating to the west include the need to find a favourable climate for agriculture in the Senegambia region in order to boost crop production. Another reason given is that many Mandinka merchants wanted to move to areas where there was less competition in trade. The areas west of the Mali empire did not take part in the trans-Sahara trade, and so these Mandinka traders believed they would have a better chance to grow rich. A general named Tiramang Taraore led the expansion westwards, accompanied by thousands of settlers. As a result, they conquered and settled in large parts the Cassamance region in Senegambia and Guinea Bissau.

A map of the Mandinga homeland

Each settlement was ruled by one of Taraore’s sons or generals. Taraore never returned to Mali and later died in Basse, a major town in present-day Gambia. But what is clear is that when the great Mali Empire broke up, smaller Mandinka kingdoms remained all over the region, where the Empire had been. The Mandinka kingdom in The Gambia was the Kaabu kingdom, with its capital in Kansala in Guinea Bissau. Later on, the Kaabu kingdom became an empire with 14 smaller kingdoms within it. The Kaabu empire lasted until 1860s when it was destroyed by a large Fula army.


Most Mandinka live in family compounds in traditional rural villages and are fairly autonomous. They are led by a chief and group of elders. The linguistic culture is rich in tradition, music, and spiritual ritual. In many traditional societies in The Gambia, there was a social hierarchy as well as a political one. In a social hierarchy, the top level, or upper class, is thought of as the most important, while the lowest level of society is not highly regarded. Traditionally, Mandinka society was divided into four main groups, namely nobles, commoners, caste group and slaves.

Aly Keita playing the balafon

The Mandinka use an array of unique musical instruments, including the kora (a 21-string lute-bridge-harp) and the balafon (a kind of wooden xylophone or percussion idiophone which plays melodic tunes and usually has between 16 to 27 keys), which griots use to narrate the great Mandinka history.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.