The smallest country in continental Africa, The Gambia is a sliver of a country on either side of the River Gambia, surrounded on the north, east, and south by Senegal, with beautiful Atlantic Ocean beaches on its west. With less than half the land area of New Jersey, the country was once much prized for its trading access to the interior of Africa (especially slaves), and today is one of the poorest countries in the world. With a population estimated at 1.5 million, it is less than 28 miles wide.
Although the country is bisected by the River Gambia, there are no bridges across it (although one was just opened from the North Bank Road to the island of Janjanbureh, to cross on to the south bank still requires a ferry. All up and down the river, ferries (for vehicles) and small boats allow people to cross. Home to pygmy hippos and a subspecies of Nile crocodile, rich with fish, the river originates in the Futa Jalon highlands of Guinea, passes through part of Senegal, to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean at Banjul. At its mouth, it is seven miles wide, seeming less like a river than an inland sea.
The area was an early terminus for the trans-Saharan trade. Its first export was salt. Arab and Berber traders from the Middle East and North Africa came to west Africa and took away salt, slaves and (from places that had them, gold and ivory), bringing textiles, beads and…Islam, which took hold in the 11th Century. The area around the Gambia and Senegal Rivers was part of the Mali Empire from the 13th through 16th centuries and Mandinka rulers were dispatched to the Senegambia from the areas of what are now Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the south.
In the 15th Century the Portuguese began a lucrative trade with the people living along the River and the trade routes reversed, now bringing things down the river bound for the Americas and Europe. The Portuguese sold their trading rights on the Gambia River to the English in the 1680s. For 200 years England vied with France for control of trade in goods and slaves in the area. This was finally settled at the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 and The Gambia became an English colony. Trade was lucrative. More than 2 million slaves are estimated to have been shipped out of the Gambia River; most famously, in “Roots,” Alex Haley traced his ancestors to the Gambian village of Juffereh, where a slave museum funded by Haley has been built.
When England passed laws banning the slave trade in 1807 it did so aggressively, trying to stop the slave trade not only on on the river, but in surrounding French colonies (some would say more motivated more by national and economic rivalry than by humanitarian concerns.) They established Bathurst on St. Mary’s Island in 1816 (now the nation's capital, and renamed Banjul) and emplaced a battery of six 24-pounder guns to interdict the river mouth. Borders were firmly established by treaty with France in 1888, probably at the Treaty of Berlin that carved up West Africa among the European Colonial Powers. Of course, native Gambians had no say in this.
The Gambia achieved independence from England in 1965 with a constitution and an elected president the next year. The president, Dawda Jawarah, was overthrown in a military coup in 1994. One of the leaders, a young Army lieutenant, became president and is now His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor Colonel Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh. He has been elected as President in several elections and his party rules with a “strong hand,” with frequent arrests of politicians and journalists guilty of “sedition” (i.e., criticizing the President.) After the 1994 coup, the U.S. withdrew all economic assistance, except Peace Corps, which enjoys a good relationship with the country.
Agriculture and fishing are the mainstays of the economy and the tourist industry brings in much-needed foreign capital during the winter months, when British and European tourists come to take advantage of the beaches. Ground nuts (peanuts) are the major export. The Gambia is a major transshipment point for all sorts of goods from West Africa. The fishing industry has been gradually taken over by fishermen from Senegal. Tons of fish, both fresh and smoked, are exported to neighboring nations yearly, though, according to a recent National Geographic article, fishermen are having to range farther and farther offshore as coastal waters are increasingly depleted and global warming takes its toll.
Crocodiles and hippos inhabit the upper Gambia River. There are several varieties of monkeys, baboons, pythons, and Nile monitor lizards. Occasional hyena packs roam the bush at night. Bush buck can be seen in some of the nature reserves. However, much of the wildlife has fallen victim to the growth of the human population. In 1992, Peter Matthieson included Senegal and The Gambia in his book African Silences, which chronicled his search for wildlife that was no longer there. However, The Gambia is on a major migration route and boasts well over 400 species of birds. Birdwatchers from all over Europe come to The Gambia in the winter to view and photograph the wide variety of wildfowl.
The human population density is slightly more than 366 people per square mile, making The Gambia the fourth most densely populated country in Africa. (By comparison, neighboring Senegal has a density of 139 people per square mile.) Forty percent of the population lives in urban areas. The Gambia has a youthful population, with approximately 45 percent under age 15.
Economically, The Gambia is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The average family subsists on about the equivalent of $1 a day. In a recent Development Index listing of 177 countries, The Gambia was in the bottom 20. About 75 percent of the labor force works as subsistence farmers; agriculture contributes about 22 percent to GDP. In contrast, the service sector (i.e., distributive trade, banking, hotels and restaurants, transport, and communications has grown to represent more than 70% of GDP.
Seven different tribes inhabit The Gambia. The Mandinka are most numerous but are outnumbered in the capital by the Wolof, who migrated from Senegal, mostly in the 19th Century, fleeing the Marabout Wars. The Fula (Fulani, Peul, Fulbe), traditional herders, are spread all across The Gambia, as they are all across this latitude of Africa. The President’s tribe, the Jola, who may be the oldest tribe in the country, primarily live in the south where they overlap the border into the Casamance region of Senegal. An admixture of Serahule, animist and Christian Manjiago, and Serrer, round out this complex mosaic of cultures. Unlike many parts of Africa, all these groups live in peace among each other.