The Mandinka are a beautiful people known for their musical abilities. They live throughout West Africa, predominantly in the Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. These are some of the poorest areas of the world and most live on less then $300 a year. Living on sustenance, the Mandinka form very close knit groups which depend heavily on each other. The Mandinka live in village groups that are independently governed by village elders and chiefs. The women work tending rice fields and planting other substance crops while the men pursue the cash crops of peanuts and corn as well as take on other jobs during the dry season.
A largely oral society, a Mandinka will many times speak 3-4 different languages. They are almost all familiar with Arabic from studying in Quranic schools and are predominantly literate in Arabic. Before the Islamic invasions the Mandinka were animistic followers, believing in spirits and in natural forces but during the invasions and since that time more then 90% have become followers of Islam.
The Mandinka are amazing dancers and are especially known for their dancing and singing. They are the makers of the kora and many dancers and singers will tell stories through the use of these instruments. It is believed that when the kora player plays the instrument and the singer become one.
Only 10% of the Mandinka are literate. Because of this, the Mandinka have a rich oral history that is passed down through praise singers or griots. This passing down of oral history through music has made music one of the most distinctive traits of the Mandinka. They have long been known for their drumming and also for their unique musical instrument, the kora. The kora is a twenty-one string harp-like instrument made out of a gourd covered with cow skin. The strings are made of fishing line. It is played to accompany a griots singing or simply on its own.
Travel brochures like to describe Gambia as the smiling coast or a welcoming getaway to Africa, where local culture is easily accessible. Wiping the gloss off of those descriptions, some of the smile still remains, though real hospitality is easier found up-country, away from the coastal resorts where mass tourism has somewhat distorted social relations and the respectful interaction otherwise typical of the country. Years of authoritarian rule have also resulted in a certain climate of distrust. Conversations are often conducted with care, and few people will express their views on governmental politics openly- you never know who might be listening. Being aware of the troubles that plague the population will help you to understand silences in conversation or the avoidance of topics, and gradually grant you an insight into the real Gambia, the one that lies beyond the polished smiles and tourist hustling.
Modern Gambian life consists of the scramble to make ends meet and get ahead, tempered by the pleasures of family, the obligations of community and a genuine concern for others welfare. Further upriver, an alternative reality emerges, one that is poorer and more isolated. Opportunities may be thinner on the ground, but the rhythms of river life are calmer and more dignified. Gambia has one of the highest population densities in Africa. The largest concentrations of people live among the Atlantic coastal zones where the tourist industry is strong.