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The Gambia

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The national flag of the Gambia.

Look very closely at a map of West Africa, just where the continent bulges out to the west. You'll see quite a collection of smallish countries there; Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal. Now look a little closer. If you look carefully, you might just spot a bit where it looks like a child has poked its finger into Senegal, or got bored and decided to colour in around a river just for the sake of it. Look really closely, and you'll see that this is a country after all, and - tiny though it is - it's full of delights. Welcome to The Gambia.

In A Groundnut Shell

Now we've got our bearings, let's learn a little more:

  • Apart from its 80km of Atlantic coastline, The Gambia is entirely surrounded by Senegal. Although it was a British protectorate until independence in 1965, the colonisers barely left the river - perhaps wary of their French neighbours.

  • The country has a long, thin shape, following the river Gambia. According to legend, the British set its borders purely on the basis of how easily it could be defended; by working out how far from the river its warships could fire.

  • It covers an area of 11,500km, a tenth of which is water, and is Africa's smallest mainland state. Depending on your taste, this could be about the same area as the Falkland Islands, half the size of Wales or just under two Delawares.

  • Banjul is the smallest capital city of any in Africa, with a population of just 80,000. Known until independence as Bathurst, it is surrounded by river, sea and wetlands, making growth impractical. Nearby Serrekunda is reckoned to be the largest city, with Brikama to the south not far behind.

  • Its population was estimated in July, 2006 at around 1.6million, with about half under the age of 16. It is very much a tribal country, with five ethnic groups making up 95% of the population. The dominant group is the Mandinka, who make up 42%.

  • Officially, 90% of the population are Muslim, 9% are Christian and the remaining hold traditional Animist beliefs1. Many Muslims and Christians nonetheless take Animism quite seriously, regardless of their main religion.

  • Over half of The Gambia's Gross Domestic Product comes from the 180,000 tourists that visit the country each year.

  • This is not a nation renowned for its sporting prowess. The Gambia has never won an Olympic medal or qualified for the finals of a major football tournament, and its cricket team is the worst in the ICC rankings. Little wonder, then, that their under-17 football team is much celebrated. The 'Baby Scorpions' not only won the Africa section in 1995, but also went to Peru and beat Brazil in the final.

A Brief History

Very little is known of Gambia's inhabitants before the coming of the European traders in the 15th and 16th Centuries. It is believed, but by no means certain, that the earliest inhabitants of the valley were the Jola, an ethnic group that still makes up around 10% of the population. Whoever was there certainly left their mark; around 100 stone circles still remain in the country, the most famous of which is at Wassu, near Kuntar in the east of the country. The Carthaginians were the first traders to arrive, and the rather sketchy descriptions given by the great explorer Hanno were in use for over 2,000 years after his visit in about 470BC. The area was ruled by overlords from Ghana and Guinea until the 14th Century, when small tribal Mandinka kingdoms controlled various parts of the valley.

The Colonial Years

Written histories begin with the Portuguese who, under the rule of Henry the Navigator, were trying to find a way into the heart of Africa to trade with the legendary wealthy kingdoms they believed lay beyond the coast. In 1447, Nuno Tristão made the first detailed European exploration of the mouth of the river, and in the next decade the Portuguese established small trading stations along the river. Their cloth, guns and trinkets were readily traded for slaves, and they made their main trading base on St Andrew's Island, about 20 miles upstream of the river's mouth. It was named after a sailor who was buried there, but soon it was renamed James Island.

In the following century, the British arrived, closely followed by adventurous merchants from the Netherlands, France and the Baltics. Squabbles began over trading rights, particularly over James Island and nearby Albreda, on the North Bank; in 1651 the Duke of Courland's2 explorers built a fort on James Island, only to be kicked out by the British ten years later. The fort became the biggest departure point for slaves for over 100 years, dominating the river around it, and in this time the skirmishes rarely ceased.

Trading slaves was big business, and formed part of a trading triangle. European goods were shipped south to Gambia, where they were traded for slaves - naturally, the traders wouldn't capture their own, but get local tribes to do the dirty work for them - which were taken to the Americas to trade for cotton, sugar or tobacco, which was returned to Europe. It was very profitable, though not good for the slaves, most of whom never saw America. If a third survived, the trip was considered a great success.

Finally kicked off James Island for good by the French in 1779, the British moved downriver. Slave trading became less profitable, partly due to import taxes, and a few far-sighted campaigners like William Wilberforce were winning the moral argument against the trade. In 1808, they banned their ships from trading in slaves, set up their headquarters at Bathurst on St Mary's Island eight years later and took on a new role as anti-slavery policemen. They declared the river as a Protectorate known as the 'Settlement on the River Gambia' and built a new base 200 miles upriver on MacCarthy Island (now known by most as Janjanbureh). Thanks to British influence, the slave trade was finally abolished by all Europeans in the area in 1833, though Gambian tribes traded slaves between themselves until 1895.

Meanwhile, the French were on a major mission to colonise West Africa. The British, distracted by their escapades in India, took their eye off the ball and almost left it too late to consolidate their position in Gambia. In 1889, they formally claimed the country at the Paris conference, hoping to trade it with the French for better land elsewhere. Agreement was never reached, and Gambia would be a 'Crown Colony and Protectorate' (the Colony being Bathurst and its environs, the Protectorate the rest of the country) for over 70 years.

The country remained a backwater, almost an afterthought compared to the more profitable parts of the Empire elsewhere. The Gambia was still largely run by local chiefs, and most of its people literally made peanuts - the most financially important crop. Infrastructure was never developed; there were no roads, few schools and fewer doctors. The 85% of the population that lived outside Bathurst had no democratic representation, and the Colony was becoming a financial liability to the British. Finally, a constitution was drawn up in 1951, and a revision in 1959 led to abolishment of the Colony - the country would now be run by an elected House of Representatives.

Three years later, the first independent government was formed by David Jawara of the People's Progressive Party and PS N'Jie of the United Party. On 18 February, 1965, Gambia was admitted to the Commonwealth as an independent state, with Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State. Jawara became its first Prime Minister, and was knighted by the Queen the following year. In 1970 after a referendum, the Queen was dispensed with, the country's name changed from 'Gambia' to 'Republic of The Gambia' (conventionally shortened to 'The Gambia'), and Jawara became its first President.


At first, independence was kind to Jawara. The dalasi was introduced in 1971 as The Gambia's new currency, two years later Bathurst was renamed Banjul, and groundnut harvests produced trade surplusses. It couldn't last; by the late 1970s, new opposition parties had been formed, poor harvests had affected the economy, and Jawara's government began to be seen as corrupt. A coup attempt in October 1980 failed, and a defence agreement with Senegal saw that country's troops flown in to keep the peace. A more serious coup was put down the following year while Jawara was attending Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer's wedding; a week of fighting between revolutionaries and a coalition of members of the British SAS and Senegalese troops cost 1,000 lives.

Jawara responded by entering into an agreement with Senegal. The Senegambia Confederation would guarantee protection for The Gambia by Senegal, on condition that moves were made towards a union of the two nations. However, accusations of corruption continued to plague the government, protests were common, and another coup was attempted in 1988. When Senegal pulled out of the Confederation due to a lack of progress towards union, the writing was on the wall.

Problems with pay to soldiers returning from war-torn Liberia almost caused another coup attempt in 1990, and when the situation repeated itself in 1994, anger boiled over. Apparently abused by Nigerian officers, and having not been paid for several months, Gambian soldiers turned on the government on 22 July, 1994; Jawara and his government fled, and 29-year-old soldier Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh took control. Interestingly, like the country's first inhabitants, Jammeh was born a Jola.

The army would rule the country for two years, when there would be free, democratic elections - of a sort. All political parties active during Jawara's presidency were banned, and the age for candidates set at 30 to 65, meaning that many well-respected politicians were not able to stand. The army intimidated those who were prepared to stand against their leader, and the state-controlled TV and radio stations barely mentioned the opposition. It was little surprise that the now civilian Jammeh won, nor that he would remain in power until the present day.

Jammeh's reign has been by no means dictatorial, and has been a fairly stable one by African standards. Concerns remain over the country's human rights record - suppression of opposition voices and detentions are not uncommon - and corruption and bribery of officials are barely disguised. High taxes on the media also mean that most newspapers and radio stations can only survive with government assistance. Jammeh's popularity is assured by his public support of high-profile schemes such as road improvements and popular farming initiatives, and even with sky-high inflation and a large national debt, it appears that he may be in charge for a long while yet.

The Basics

There's plenty more to The Gambia than a history of slavery, colonies and coups.

Gambian Life

The Gambia is very much a country of villages, even if some of them are quite large. The centres of the larger towns are often busy, full of traffic and chaotic, but even so the majority of transactions will take place in markets. There are no high-rise blocks; extended families live together in one or more houses enclosed by a 'compound', the boundary of which could be anything from a high concrete wall to a piece of string tied to two sticks. Even though tourism accounts for more than half of GDP, the overwhelming majority of people work in agriculture, and even tourist workers usually go back to their villages in the wet season to work the family land.

It is not uncommon for Muslim men to have several wives; most Gambians are Muslim, and polygamy is perfectly acceptable. This can cause a little confusion if a woman introduces another to you as her 'wife'! Islam also forbids its followers to drink alcohol, and - almost - everyone follows this rule. Gambians have traditionally made up for this by chewing kola nut, a bitter fruit that works as a stimulant when chewed, but many young Gambians also smoke marijuana3.


Fly south to The Gambia from Europe and you'll spend a good 2½ hours flying over nothing but desert. In fact, The Gambia is the first significant patch of greenery you'll come to, so it's hardly surprising that it's a favoured stop for many migrating birds. In fact, over 560 species have been recorded in The Gambia, and some of them are real beauties. You'll find several species each of kingfishers, hornbills, sunbirds, bee-eaters, plovers and rollers amongst them, and some of them are sensationally beautiful.

While the country is not a bona fide safari destination, you'll find plenty of terrestrial life. In the fresh water of the eastern river Gambia, you might be lucky and spot hippos, and chimpanzees can also be spotted from river boats; crocodiles seem to live in any patch of fresh water anywhere in the country, and it's unlikely you'll leave without spotting at least a few of the country's monkeys. More elusive species include bushbucks, hyenas, leopards and aardvarks. Even though most are harmless, you might want to avoid the forty or so snakes that are found in The Gambia, which is probably a good thing as they'll be quite keen to avoid you, too. Nine of them are potentially fatal, including the puff adder, which is Africa's biggest natural killer after the mosquito.

At sea and in the river mouth, bottlenose and Atlantic hump-backed dolphins regularly follow boats, and further out you might be lucky enough to spot passing whales.

The country is surprisingly diverse in terms of habitats. There are large areas of wetland, as well as coastal forests, freshwater jungle, and savannah. There are seven officially-protected National Parks and Reserves, as well as a smattering of other wildlife sites managed by local or European owners.


There is no great tradition of visual art in The Gambia, so music is the primary creative outlet. Whether it be birth, marriage, death or festival, music provides the backdrop to every social occasion, and it has a very unique West African flavour. Each tribe has brought its own instruments and styles, and it is quite likely that you will hear a combination of tribal influences every time you hear music.

Perhaps the most influential of all are the jalis, who are the musicians of the Mandinka tribe. If you see a musician with a kora, a kind of half-harp, half-lute, the odds are he is a jali. Traditionally, jalis became musicians because their fathers were musicians, and the knowledge of how to play the instrument may well have been handed down through dozens of generations. Usually, the jali is played unaccompanied, except by the voice of its player.

As in many other West African countries, drumming music is frequently heard. The rhythms are normally very intense, and many drums may be used to provide different tones. Although most tribes have drumming traditions, the accepted masters are the Fula, who stomp, flap their arms and perform acrobatics to accompany their drummers. Even watching the Fula dance is exhausting.

More recently, Gambian music has been influenced by other styles, chiefly jazz, reggae and hip-hop. If you hear more modern sounding music, it's likely to have been made by Senegalese artists, and ambitious Gambian musicians will often gravitate towards Dakar to seek fame.

1Animism is a loose term, used to describe a belief system where plants and animals have individual souls.2Courland is now part of modern Latvia and Lithuania.3Do not, however, be tempted by the apparently lax attitude towards the drug. It is very much illegal and, if caught, you're highly unlikely to find a sympathetic ear at your embassy.

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