Monday, 30 May 2011

The Twelve Queens of Niumi

By Suntou Touray (Oral narration by Finna Camara)
Oral historians and bards salute the twelve queens of Niumi from the ancient past. Niumi lies at the coastal point of the present day Gambia. The Sonkos who emigrated from the Kaabu Empire settled largely in Niumi.
The Sonko dynasty at some point had only Queens that succeeded each other, that is until love changes the tradition. The names of the Twelve Queens are not all recounted by the bards’, however, the number is not disputed by many oral commentators.
The names frequently mentioned of the Queens are:
Mama Adama Sonko
Calama Koi Sonko
Nyanpuran Jan Sonko
Sajike Sonko
Sawuya Nding Sonko

The rest of the Queens are relics of history, all efforts will be made to try to find out who they are.
The tradition to make women reign came to an end when the beautiful and most lust after Queen Mama Adama couldn’t find a suitable suitor. She was reigning unmarried for some time. The women league went into full gear in helping the Queen find a match, a Princely male. (An African hunter in the photo)
One day, a hunter who frequents the river by Berending (a settlement) was spotted by local women doing their laundry. One of them immediately suggests that, they should inform the Queen about the man. Hamadadou Seckan is very handsome, tall and strongly built. The adoring women only wished him for the Queen.
On return to the Village, they went straight to the Queen. The characteristics of the Hunter were recounted to the attentive Mama Adama. She without hesitation knew, the women folk at last found her a potential match, a suitable man.
However, Hamadadou Seckan (Mansa Demba Sonko) belongs to the old tradition of hunters’ secrecy and dress code. This is what makes the story so intriguing. Hunters in the past wore strange clothes, woven with horns, talisman, red ink, animal bones, cowry cells etc. In short, they look fearful.
With all the uncanny attire, the towns’ women knew the hunter is a handsome reveals that, women can tell a lot about men than they pretend to admit.
The Queen instructed the women to be on the lookout for the Hunter. “Should he appear, tell him to come and see me”. The women went again to the river for their usual laundry. Again the Hunter arrives at his usual midday time. He usually collects water for his dogs, whilst he quenches his own taste.
The women stood back and call out “Baba Nyima” Handsome man, “our Queen wish to see you”. Hamadodou Seckan (Mansa Demba) told them, “but you know that, the way I am dress, I cannot go into town this way”. Hunters enter their houses through the back door.
The women again informed the Queen that, the hunter came but decline to visit because he was in traditional attire, he cannot violate that routine and enter the village the way he is dress. The Queen thinking on her feet rose up. She thundered that, “tell the hunter to wear whatever clothes you have that is not yet wet, and come to see me, it is a command”.
The third time, the ladies were desperately waiting for the hunter. As soon as he surfaced, he was confronted with spear clothes to wear. As soon they told him you must see the Queen today, he gave them the usual excuses. They informed him that, he put on the unwashed clothes to see the Queen. To this suggestion, Hamadadou obliged.
Love Conquers
The fully dressed Hamadadou approached the village of Berending with the women. As soon as they arrived at the throne of Mama Adama Sonko, she stood up. She was mesmerised by the beauty of Hamadadou. She instructed him to seat on her throne. He declined. However, Mama Adama demonstrated her love by instructing, her largess to beat the Tabalalo (special Drum, an announcer).
The Drum is only sounded on special occasions or in emergency situations. When the villagers heard the drum, they went straight to the Queen. There she was, beautiful, elegant and majestic with a broad smile. The elders enquire what the matter is. Mama Adama with a broad smile says “I have given myself and throne to this man; this is the man I love and wish to spend the rest of life with”.
Hamadadou Seckan was Coroneted, Mansa Demba Sonko. His last name was replaced to that of the Queen and he became the King of Niumi who contracted the Kaabu warrior, the wandering Kelefa Sanneh to bring under the rule of Niumi the settlement of Barriar. Kelefa Sanneh was eventually betrayed by Mansa Demba himself after the fall of Barriar. Mansa Demba feared that, Barrair has been a strong antagonist of Niumi Berending. He couldn’t conquer the town.
His fears were that, in the retelling of the battle of Barrair, the Sonkos of Niumi will not be narrated, because they relied on the bravery of a wandering Jawaro (warlord). Kelefa was ambushed by his own host unexpectedly and killed. Some historians believe that, all this event took place around the 1820s to 1840s.
‘Bimuso, muso kajelefe ila korokan, yeba nghee suutele,yaba batonkolon’
Fena Camara is a bard from Sinbanding in Cassamance, his younger brother is the eloquent poet/historian Yahya Camara base in Dakar.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful story! Do u have more from the Sonko Dynasty?


Indeed there is more to come. I enjoy following this stories. They enrich our everyday lives.


Thanks for this nice and educative piece, on the twelve queens of
Niumi.Their rule has been phenomenal and much talked about by oral
historians.Unfortunately, much hasn’t been written about their
achievements, and/or successes in their reign.Yero has mentioned
an author , Prof. Donald Wright’s book on Niumi; called “The World
And A Small Place In Africa,” which is good read. He came to
Atlanta few years ago on our annual book review July 4th events;
and did some reviews of the book and many loved it. Another who
did some work in this area is David Gamble; and he cites Wright
often in his history of the Gambia.

Here are some of the observations we know that he chronicled in terms of the
rulers of the seven towns in Niumi, where the major three ethnic groups at the
time shared the kingship in rotation. He notes :- (1) Bakendik …Jamme or
Jammeh clan had …10 rulers
(2) Kanuma …..Maane or Manneh clan had …9 rulers
(3) Sitanunku …Jamme or Jammeh clan had …8 rulers
(4) Esseu or Essau Jelenkunda Sonko clan had 9 rulers
(5) Bunyadu …Maane or Manneh clan had …..7 rulers
(6) Esseu or Essau ….Mansaring Su …Sonko…8 rulers
(7) Berending ………………… Sonko clan …..8 rulers
We know that the Jammehs who where predominantly from Baddibu Illiasa, and later
settled at Bakendik where also first time settlers at Sitanunku.Their king was
said to be Samake Jamme or Jammeh, but was preceeded by queens or the queens you

The history of Niumi has been a little bit more complicated to understand than
other regions of the Gambia.For example the make up Niumi – Niumi Baato i.e. the
sea or river area, and Niumi Banta i.e. the upland area; have both been
tremendously influenced by Sine/Saloum and Joka or Jokadu. The former –“Niumi
Baato” because of its estuaries and swamps is in the main inhabited by
fishermen/women, salt producers, oyster and shrimp farmers.Thus a Niuminka could
belong to any of the ethnic groups in or bordering Sine or Saloum or Jokadu, and
Kiang and Jarra figure prominently historically.

The latter “Niumi Banta” is the mainland or upland area, where agricultural
activity takes place, where nearly most crops can be cultivated.In the early
history of Niumi, all the ethnic groups played key roles in its formation, but
with advent of colonial incursions especially from the 17th and 18th century
onwards, things changed dramatically. The first port of call on the river was
Barra, and was regarded and called the kingdom of Barra instead of the kingdom
of Niumi.Indeed, Niumi was not even officially registered by the colons until
1885 in administrative government documents, and took twelve more years – 1897
as a protectorate of Niumi and not Barra. In essence what they tried to kill,
had to come back …..Niumi came back; but of course without the rule of the
eminent queens.

Probably, one of the few places that can boast of peace and tranquility amongst
its ethnic groupings and formations is in Niumi.What is today called Upper and
Lower Niumi is dotted with villages/towns like Bakendik, Medina Serigne Mass,
Bakalar, Pakala, Bafuloto, and towns and villages that survived the Soninke
marabout wars like Ndungu Kebbeh, Bantanding, Fafanding, Baria are still
reminders of struggles waged a while ago.Kelefa Sanneh, Maba Jahou, and Sait
Matti Ba have all impacted the demographic make up of Niumi in the past century,
where as Albadar (Albreda) and Juffure – two major colonial trading posts are
still testimonial relics of Niumi.We wonder what the queens would say after what
transpired since they left us.Keep it coming, Suntou. That was a nice piece on
our history. Thanks.

kayjatta said...

Great narrative!!! As some one who hailed from Niumi, this story caught my attention instantly. I will be checking back for updates. Thanks for the effort Mr. Touray.

Anonymous said...

Long time Kayatta. I missed your frank talk. I will follow up the story deeper. I like Niumi.

kayjatta said...

Thank you Mr. Anonymous.