The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves.
Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another.
Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.
The Soninke are an ancient West African ethnicity that probably gave rise to the much larger group that is called the Mande of which the Soninke are part. The Soninke language belongs to the northwestern Mande group but through the dynamism of its speakers has loaned many words and concepts to distant ethnic groups throughout the West African ecological zones. Mande groups such as the Malinke and Bambara may be descendants of the Soninke or a Proto-Soninke group. The Soninke are the founder of the first West African empire, Ghana, which they themselves call Wagadu, from the 6th to the 12th centuries
Catherine Cymone Fourshey
A predominantly rural territory with few urban centers historically, the Gambia holds little in the way of well-known luxury resources commonly discussed in studies of western Africa. People of the region, in particular women, have exploited both riverine and oceanic food and material resources. The limited scholarship available on Gambian women reveals they have been essential to those endeavors contributing to economy, politics, society, and family institutions. Often by pursuing seemingly less-lucrative endeavors, women have been prominent actors innovating production and acquisition techniques as well as product uses in this mixed agricultural and aquatic economy, from precolonial to contemporary times. Despite few raw materials or luxury resources, and in certain contexts great limits on their authority, women of the Gambia River region were central to economic life historically, developing household food production and trading their surplus agricultural, aquatic, and manufactured goods. In different eras and contexts, Gambian women have been agricultural innovators and technologists; catchers, processors, and traders of aquatic resources; merchants of manufactured and crafted items; and educators. In essence, they created intellectual, economic, and artisanal opportunities for themselves and others in their communities. These activities allowed women to influence and propel economic and political agendas over time. In particular, women have been credited with critical developments in rice production technologies going back at least to the 16th century, though women’s expertise in this realm likely has much deeper historical roots. This knowledge and set of skills related to rice agriculture made Mandinka women of the Gambia River region critical to West Africa’s Upper Guinea coast and also to life in the Americas as enslaved producers. Mandinka women and men became a large demographic represented in southeastern US plantations and communities because of their well-developed techniques in rice cultivation. Gambian women significantly influenced the eastern and western Atlantic worlds.
The modern-day nation of The Gambia, which achieved independence in 1965, is a relatively small territory hugging the banks of Gambia River for a narrow fifteen miles from the north and south banks. Starting 300 miles inland to the east (upriver), the river flows west into the Atlantic Ocean (downriver). Looking back in time at this region bordering the river, it is important to consider Gambian women’s lives over time in the context of both centralized and non-centralized political units. In the orbit of centralized states such as Ghana (4th–13th centuries), Takrur (9th–14th centuries), Mali (13th–15th centuries), and Jolof (14th–16th centuries), women (and men) negotiated shifting expectations over time. Certainly Gambian women have been born into, circulated among, or married within several local cultural and linguistic traditions that include Aku, Bambara, Fula, Jola, Mandinka, Manjago, Serahulle, Serer, and Wollof. However, scholars have written more about women and gender for these groups in neighboring countries. Non-centralized political and social affiliations typically provided women a great deal of authority and autonomy. However, most positions and statuses women were privy to historically were reshaped and often greatly diminished from the 19th century onward due to processes of the slave trade, Islamization, and European colonialization. With the rise of Atlantic-world trade small numbers of coastal Gambian River women expanded their spheres of influence and wealth by forming both marital and economic alliances with Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British men. By the 20th century a number of women pursued various forms and levels of education in efforts to increase their opportunities in the social, political, and economic arenas. In essence, in each historical era women of the Gambia River have sought out knowledge, expertise, and skills in order to achieve their ambitions regardless of the political, religious, or social order dominant at the time.