The Serahule are the fífth-largest ethnic group in The Gambia. Also known as Serahuli, Sarahuli, Sarakole, Serakule or Soninke, they are some of the most well-known people in West Africa because of their rich history and role as traders.
Highly organised traders among them became famous in West Africa and consituted a Serahule subgroup known as Wangara.
The term "Wangara" is used even today in different parts of West Africa - such as Ghana and Burkina Faso - to identify Serahules who live in urban areas where they're involved in trade and other activities. It's virtually synonymous with "Serahule'.
The Serahule settled in large numbers in The Gambia from the 1850s, fleeing from vvars in the región. Many of them also went to The Gambia to look for jobs and stayed.
They have their own identity as a distinct ethnic group but are also a mixture of the Mandinka, the Fula, and the Berbers.
In The Gambia, they're found mostly in the extreme Upper River región - which is the eastern part of the country - where they constitute the largest ethnic group. The highest concentration of the Serahule population is in the town of Basse located in the easternmost part of The Gambia.
The area where they live vvas once occupied by the ancient kingdom ofWuli.
They're traditionally farmers, growing groundnuts and cotton as vvell as other crops, but have also distinguished themselves mostly as traders and as entrepreneurs in many areas including real estáte and the diamond business in Sierra Leone; also as pottery makers and as goldsmiths. They are sonie of the leading businessmen in The Gambia today.
They conduct trade in local markets selling a wide variety of goods. They also take their goods to other parts of the country and have established extensive commercial networks outside Gambia.
Like most ethnic groups in West Africa, the Serahule had a caste system around which their traditional life was organised. The vestiges of this system are clearly evident in their lives even today, mostly in the rural areas where the traditional vvay life has not changed much since the olden days.
Polygamy is also common among the Serahule. Arranged marriages are also common. Modernisation has done little to change the social order in the traditional society of the Serahule; a phenomenon that has also been observed in other traditional societies in The Gambia and elsewhere across the continent because of the resilient nature of African cultures. Traditional societies are the most conservative. Many of them are resistant to change even today.
The entrepreneurship of the Serahule is also clearly evident in their traditional society in which roles are clearly defined in a stratified or hierarchical way.
They have blacksmiths, leather workers, carpenters, and so on, each occupying a special place in the traditional society. As in most traditional societies in West Africa, the Serahule also have praise singers known as jamo in their language.
But in spite of their reputation as traders, their society has relied mostly on farmers to sustain it.
Customs and traditions play a central role in their lives. Most of them are Muslim but they also practise traditional beliefs. One of the most important rituals is circumcision, a practice demanded by both Islam and the traditional society.
One of the main reasons Islam was able to spread among the Serahule and other indigenous groups was its conformity with a number of traditional practices such as circumcision and polygamy.
Gender roles are another feature of Serahule traditional society. Men usually work on the farms while women take care of the children and the household.
Serahule women are also known for dyeing cloth. In fact, dark blue Índigo is identified with the Serahule. They consider it to be an integral part of their identity as a people. It's also identified with their traditional society.
The rock foundation of this society is the extended family as is the case among other groups in The Gambia and elsewhere across Africa. Age seniority and gender also play a very important role in the extended family and in society as a whole.
Serahuli society was also stratified into the nobles known as the Nore, the artisan class comprising the Jaare or praise singers, the Tagge or smiths, and the Garauke or leather workers.
Although they were not permanent residente for the most part, the Serahule were found scattered in many Gambian districts with their largest concentration in the Upper River División of The Gambia.
The Serahule had long been associated with the Mandinka as long distance traders from Senegal and Upper Niger regions. Corning from the Senegal valley to The Gambia, they would hire land from the Mandinka chiefs and grow groundnuts for a few years, just long enough to be able to buy the goods they wanted from the European traders before returning home.
Of course the Serahule were predominantly traders, but they also engaged in farming. They grew groundnuts and cotton and their women folk are noted for manufacturing decorated clay pots.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Serahule, mobile and without local ties, proved themselves useful to the local Gambian kings as mercenaries and were paid out of the profits from the raids which they undertook. In Numi, for example, Demba Sonko, King of Niumi, during the 1850s, hired a band of 700 Serahule to maintain order within the kingdom and exact custom duties from its rebellious eastern districts.
Despite being a minority ethnic group in The Gambia, however, the Serahule are today among the leading entrepreneurs of the country and have contributed immensely in its economic activities through their skills as renowned traders." - (Dawda Fall, "The Serahule," in the Daily Observen Banjul, The Gambia, 19 February 2008).