Gambia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Gambia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



The Gambia, a country on the western coast of Africa, fronting the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal encloses the country on the other three sides. Straddling the Gambia River, the country extends eastward for about 320 km (200 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean. At its widest, this narrow country measures only about 50 km (30 mi) across.

The Gambia, also called Gambia, is the smallest country on the African mainland. Among African countries, only the Seychelles, a group of islands off the eastern coast, cover a smaller area. The port city of Banjul is the capital of The Gambia, but Serrekunda is the largest city.

The Gambia is a largely agricultural country, and its people are poor. Peanuts, the main crop, are grown largely for export. Tourism also helps the economy. Beaches along the Atlantic coast draw visitors to The Gambia, as does the rich bird life along the Gambia River.

The Gambia became a British colony during the 1800s. It gained its independence in 1965. Following independence, The Gambia was regarded by Westerners as a stable democracy until a bloodless military coup in 1994 removed its president. Yahya Jammeh, the military leader who became president after the coup, was subsequently reelected.


The Gambia has an area of 10,689 sq km (4,127 sq mi), less than twice the area of the state of Delaware. It occupies both sides of the lower Gambia River, which is the dominating natural feature of the country. The river cuts a winding course through a low plateau, which slopes from a maximum elevation of 50 m (160 ft) down to sea level. The river narrows to 4 km (2.5 mi) at Banjul and then broadens, providing an excellent harbor.

The river banks are low and fringed with mangroves for the first 130 km (80 mi) from the coast. Behind the mangroves are swamps that are suitable in many places for rice cultivation. The slightly elevated and rather flat land that slopes up from the river valley has a light, sandy soil on which the villages are built and where peanuts and grain crops such as millet and sorghum are grown.

Climate in Gambia

The Gambia has a tropical climate with well-defined rainy and dry seasons. The rainy season lasts from June to October. Agricultural production must be concentrated during this season. Rainfall varies considerably from year to year, averaging about 1,020 mm (about 40 in). But it ranges from less than 750 mm (30 in) to more than 1,500 mm (60 in).

The dry season extends from November to May. During the months of March, April, and May, the harmattan, a hot, dry, dusty wind, frequently blows from the Sahara, bringing temperatures that exceed 38°C (100°F) to the interior of the country. Temperatures along the coast range from 18°C (65°F) in winter to 32°C (90°F) in summer.

Natural Resources of Gambia

The main natural resource of The Gambia is the Gambia River, one of Africa’s best navigable waterways. Small ocean-going vessels can go upstream for about 200 km (125 mi) from the coast, and smaller craft can continue for another 200 km. The country’s soil is mostly poor and sandy, except in the swamps along the rivers. However, this sandy soil is ideally suited for the cultivation of peanuts, upon which the economy depends. Fish are increasing in economic importance. Seismic surveys have indicated the possibility that petroleum and natural gas exist offshore.

Plants and Animals in Gambia

The natural vegetation of the upland areas consists of wooded, but open, savanna. However, intensive clearing for agriculture has destroyed most of the original tree cover. The government has set aside some areas as forest parks and has planted trees in other areas. Mangroves grow in abundance along the Gambia River, and oil palms have been planted on plantations.

Wild animal life has become scarce in The Gambia, but bird life is exceptionally rich, especially in the large mangroves near the rivers. The animals most commonly seen include monkeys, baboons, wild boar, and several species of antelope. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles can be seen in the central and upper zones of the Gambia River. Lions and hyenas live in the Abuko Nature Reserve, 24 km (15 mi) from Banjul.

Environmental Issues in Gambia

The Gambia has lost 91 percent of its original forest habitat, which has been cleared for agriculture and fuelwood. As a result, many of the big-game animals are no longer found wild in the country, although some parks and nature reserves have been established, including Baboon Island, also known as The River Gambia National Park. With government incentives encouraging growth in the number of fishing companies, overfishing has emerged as a problem.

Saltwater has intruded farther upriver, causing agricultural lands to become saline, and desertification has increased. Water-borne diseases are prevalent along the river and its estuaries, where large numbers of people live.


A variety of ethnic groups live side by side in The Gambia while preserving individual languages and traditions. The main ethnic groups are the Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinke), Fula, and Wolof. The Mandinka, the largest ethnic group, make up more than 40 percent of the country’s inhabitants. The Fula (Fulani), about 18 percent of Gambians, predominate in the eastern part of the country. The Wolof, about 16 percent of the people, live mainly in Banjul and the western region. Smaller groups include the Jola, who live in the western region, and the Serahuli, whose rulers introduced Islam into the region in the 12th century. There is also a small Creole community, the Aku, who are descended from liberated slaves and from European traders who married African women. Most of The Gambia’s people live in rural areas. In 2005, 26 percent of the population lived in urban areas.

Population Characteristics of Gambia

The population of The Gambia (2009 estimate) is 1,782,893, making it one of the least populous countries of Africa. Still, the country has a fairly high overall population density of 178 persons per sq km (462 per sq mi), and the population is increasing at a rate of 2.7 percent a year. Banjul, formerly called Bathurst, is the capital and only seaport. The largest city is Serrekunda, a transportation hub and commercial center.

Religion and Languages spoken in Gambia

The great majority of the people of The Gambia are Muslims. Most of the rest are Christians, and a small percentage follow traditional African religions. English is the official language, but each ethnic group has its own language.

Education in Gambia

Primary education in The Gambia is free but not compulsory. In the 2006 school year 181,800 children were enrolled in primary school (62 percent of this age group), while 90,400 were enrolled in a secondary school (34 percent of secondary school-aged children). The country’s institutions of higher education include The Gambia College, in Bríkama, and several technical and training schools.


The Gambia’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture. Peanuts are the main crop and a major export. Sporadic drought conditions cause large fluctuations in the peanut harvest. The gross domestic product (GDP) in 2002 was $357 million, or $260 per person. (GDP is a measure of the value of all goods and services a country produces.) The Gambia’s exports do not pay for its imports.

Agriculture and Fishing in Gambia

Some 82 percent of the working population of The Gambia is engaged in agriculture. Rice and millet, as well as cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, are raised for local consumption. Peanuts are grown primarily for export; the crop amounted to 100,000 metric tons in 2007. The sale of peanuts and peanut products accounts for about two-thirds of total yearly domestic exports by value. The government has made efforts to diversify agricultural production by encouraging the planting of oil palms, citrus trees, cotton, and other plants.

The coastal villages of The Gambia engage in fishing. In 2007 the fish catch was 34,912 metric tons, mostly from marine waters. Shad was by far the most common catch in Atlantic waters. The Gambia exports fish and fish products.

Manufacturing, Currency, and Trade in Gambia

Manufacturing in The Gambia is limited mainly to the processing of agricultural products and to the building of fishing boats. Factories press peanuts for their oil. Other manufactured goods include beverages, clothing, footwear, and handicrafts. Much of the fish catch is salted, dried, or smoked at seaside facilities. Local crafts include leatherwork, cloth dyeing, and the silverwork and goldwork for which the Wolof are noted.

The country’s unit of currency, adopted in 1971, is the dalasi (24.90 dalasi equal U.S.$1; 2007 average), consisting of 100 butut. Currency is issued by the Central Bank of The Gambia (founded in 1971).

The cost of The Gambia’s yearly imports is usually much more than its export earnings; in 2007 imports totaled $300 million and exports were valued at $11 million. The main trading partners for exports were Japan, Belgium and Luxembourg, Senegal, Guinea, France, and the United States; principal partners for imports were the China, Côte d’Ivoire, Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Germany, Senegal, Thailand, and the United States. The Gambia’s tourist industry is a growing source of foreign exchange.

Transportation and Communications in Gambia

The Gambia River is navigable for about 200 km (about 125 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean by small oceangoing vessels. There are 3,742 km (2,325 mi) of roads; the construction of a major road south of the river reduced the importance of the river as a major artery of transportation. The country has no railroads. An international airport at Yundum, near Banjul, was upgraded with a new terminal in 1996. It has been expanded and outfitted by the U.S. space agency NASA to serve as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.

The government operates the country’s only television stations. Radio broadcasters include government-operated and commercial stations. There is one daily newspaper, The Daily Observer, and several weeklies. The government licenses private radio stations and newspapers, and all journalists not working for state-run media must register with the National Media Commission. They work under severe restrictions.

Tourism of Gambia

Tourists from Europe began to visit The Gambia in the 1960s, and by the mid-1970’s tourism had become an important sector of the economy. British travelers make up about two-thirds of the tourist arrivals. Foreign visitors come to The Gambia for the winter sunshine and to enjoy the beaches, bird life, excursions on the Gambia River, and the traditions of the Gambian people. Most tourists arrive during the months between November and February and stay near Banjul and the Atlantic beaches. Few tourists visit The Gambia during the hot, rainy season between May and September, and the hotels and restaurants mostly close during this period.


Until the military took over The Gambia’s government in a bloodless coup in 1994, the country was governed by a 1970 constitution. A new constitution was approved by public referendum in 1996 during the presidency of military leader Yahya Jammeh. It took effect in 1997. Under this constitution a popularly elected president serves as head of state for a five-year term. The president may serve an unlimited number of terms. The country’s legislative body is the unicameral National Assembly. Forty-eight of the legislature’s 53 members are popularly elected to five-year terms; the other 5 are appointed by the president.

The judicial system consists of a supreme court with unlimited jurisdiction, an appeal court, and subordinate magistrate and divisional courts. Civil actions between Muslim citizens are handled by special Muslim courts that follow Islamic Sharia law. Minor civil and criminal cases are tried in group tribunals.


Stone circles, tools, and pottery found near Banjul indicate early occupation of the area. Evidence of iron work dates from the 8th century AD. Numerous ethnic groups entered The Gambia after the 13th century. Chief among these were the Mandinka, Wolof, and Fulani peoples. Early states paid tribute to the Mali Empire; the different groups later created small kingdoms in the valley of the Gambia River.

European Arrival and Rule

In 1455 Portuguese explorers entered the region and soon established trading stations along the river. These were supplanted in the 17th century by companies from England and France that had royal charters. The English and French were primarily interested in the slave trade and possible sources of gold, and they struggled for control of the river. Under the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783, the French abandoned their claims in the area to the British in exchange for land in Senegal.

After the prohibition of slave trading throughout the British Empire in 1807, the British tried to control the traffic in the area by establishing a trading station at the mouth of the Gambia River. This effort led them to purchase Banjul Island from the ruler of a local kingdom in 1816. The station grew into the town of Bathurst (now Banjul). Peanut trade from the settlement began by 1829.

Ongoing warfare between the Soninke and followers of Islam called Marabouts hampered British expansion into the upper river areas until the European race for African territory began in the late 19th century. To protect its position, Britain then claimed the Gambia River. In an 1889 agreement with France, The Gambia’s present boundaries were established. The area became a British protectorate in 1894. In the following years, British administrators governed the population largely through local rulers, and Britain encouraged economic self-sufficiency.

After World War II (1939-1945) Britain belatedly began to develop The Gambia and to train some Africans for administrative posts. Political parties were formed and in 1960 nationwide elections were held for members of the territory’s legislative council. In the 1962 election the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) gained a substantial majority, and its leader, Dawda Jawara, became the first prime minister.


The Gambia became independent on February 18, 1965, with Jawara as prime minister. In a 1970 national referendum Gambians voted to form a republic, and Jawara was elected president. He and his PPP won the 1972 and 1977 elections. In 1981 a coup attempt was crushed while Jawara was visiting the United Kingdom. The coup failed because troops from Senegal intervened under a mutual defense pact, but about 1,000 people died in the conflict.

A consequence of Senegal’s aid in putting down the coup was the creation in 1982 of a confederation with Senegal, Senegambia, with President Abdou Diouf of Senegal as president and Jawara as vice president. The confederation resulted in closer economic cooperation, but never supplanted the political systems of the two nations and never won the full approval of Gambians. Jawara retained the presidency of The Gambia in the elections of 1982 and 1987, and the confederation with Senegal collapsed in 1989. Despite accusations of corruption and misrule, Jawara was reelected as president of The Gambia in 1992.

The Gambia began to develop its own armed forces for the first time after the 1981 coup attempt, and in the early 1990s the young officers of this force grew impatient with their meager pay and with government corruption. A bloodless coup on July 22, 1994, forced Jawara into exile and led to the proclamation of Lieutenant (later Colonel) Yahya Jammeh as president. European countries and the United States objected to these maneuvers and pressed the military regime to restore democracy. For two years the government banned political activity and prosecuted cases of official corruption.

Recent Developments

Under international pressure to hold democratic elections, Jammeh oversaw the promulgation of a new constitution that virtually guaranteed him victory in September 1996 presidential elections through candidate age limits and financial restrictions on political parties. Jammeh disbanded the Provisional Ruling Council, retired from the army, declared himself a candidate for president, and restored political activity while prohibiting three major political parties (including the PPP) from participating in the elections. A number of countries that had provided aid to The Gambia cut off their funds after the 1994 coup.

Jammeh won the 1996 elections, which were widely criticized for their unfairness. Jammeh was reelected president in October 2001. This time international observers called the elections largely free and fair. As a result, the United States lifted sanctions it had imposed on The Gambia following the coup by Jammeh. The return to democratic elections allowed The Gambia to again attract foreign aid, investment, and tourists. The president was praised in many quarters for improving the country’s infrastructure including initiating the building of many more roads, schools, and hospitals. However, a repressive new media law introduced in 2002 led to the jailing of a number of journalists accused of libel and sedition. A prominent critic of the law, the newspaper editor Deyda Hydara, was shot dead in mysterious circumstances in 2004. Prior to 2006’s presidential election the opposition candidates objected to the ruling party registering voters from outside the country. Nevertheless, in September 2006 Jammeh won a third presidential term when securing more than 67 percent of the popular vote, despite a lower turnout than in 2001. The election was described as broadly fair by international observers.

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