About The Gambia

History . Government . Economy . People and Culture . Environment . Further Information


While The Gambia is continental Africa’s smallest nation, its history and heritage encompass some of the continent’s most significant and influential events and people. The history of The Gambia is inevitably linked to outside influences. As early as the 13th century, the area became part of the Empire of Mali, with Muslim Mandinka traders from Mali spreading into the area.

The Gambia later became a battleground between the French and the British for control of the slave trade. The country’s odd shape and boundaries are said to stem from the resolution of this conflict, when cannonballs fired by a British ship sailing along the Gambia River demarcated the country’s borders. The Gambia is now a narrow strip of land on either side of the lower Gambia River, which also winds through the heart of modern Senegal.

The country gained independence from Britain in 1965 and became a republic of the Commonwealth in 1970, with former Prime Minister Dawda Jawara becoming the nation’s first president.

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The almost 30-year reign of Dawda Jawara ended on July 22, 1994, in a coup d’état. The coup’s leader was Colonel Yahya Jammeh, the former chairman of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council. The military government originally set a four-year timetable for a return to civilian rule, but on the recommendation of a National Consultative Committee formed by Jammeh, this timetable was reduced to two years. Jammeh was elected president in September 1996. Jammeh’s new party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, won the parliamentary elections held in January 1997, completing the country’s return to democratic rule.

President Jammeh was returned to office in the October 2001 presidential elections, in which he received nearly 53 percent of the votes and won all but five of the 48 open constituencies.

The legislative branch is made up of six elected rural councils (Basse, Brikama, Georgetown, Kerewan, Kuntaur, and Mansakonko), plus the Kanifing Urban Council and the Banjul City Council. Certain prerogatives are retained by the traditional chiefs in rural areas, who continue to play an active, though declining, role in local administration and policies.

The judicial system is a combination of British common law, Islamic law, and traditional law. Most civil and criminal proceedings are under the jurisdiction of civil courts, topped by a Supreme Court. However, cases that involve traditional or religious matters such as marriage or land rights are handled first by traditional or Islamic courts.

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The Gambia is one of the least developed countries in the world, with a per capita gross domestic product estimated at $1,770 (2001). Between 1993 and 1999, the average growth in GDP at constant market prices, otherwise known as deflated GDP, was 3 percent.

The service sector (i.e., distributive trade, hotels and restaurants, transport, and communications) continues to contribute significantly to GDP, rising from 67.9 percent in 1991 to 70.6 percent in 1998.

The agricultural sector, which employs about 75 percent of the labor force, provides seasonal employment and contributes about 22 percent to GDP. One factor that constrains development in this area is an overdependence on traditional practices and tools. To achieve its hopes for development, it is crucial for The Gambia to address the issue of low technology in the agricultural sector and its implications for productivity.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the tourism sector has emerged as a potential source of rapid economic growth. The Gambia’s mild climate, long stretches of sandy beaches, and close proximity to Europe make it an attractive destination for European tourists. Providing both employment and foreign exchange earnings, the tourism sector accounts for between 10 percent and 12 percent of GDP.

The industrial sector, made up of manufacturing, construction, and utilities, is rather small and accounts for about 11 percent of GDP. The Gambia has yet to fully exploit the potential of manufacturing. Items currently manufactured include soap, plastics, steel, and metal fabrication. Groundnut (peanut) processing also plays a major role. The growth of the sector is constrained by a number of factors, notably the lack of skilled personnel. Continuing shortages of utilities like electricity and water and lack of basic infrastructure also hamper growth. Finally, the sector lacks meaningful links with other sectors of the economy.

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People and Culture

The Gambia’s population is made up of five major ethnic groups, several minor ones, and a large number of foreigners.

The Mandinka make up approximately 40 percent of the people, the Fula 19 percent, the Wolof 15 percent, the Jola 10 percent, and the Serahule 9 percent. Although these groups are represented in each of the country’s six administrative divisions, they are concentrated in particular areas. Mandinkas are the majority in the western half of the country, particularly in the North Bank. Wolofs predominate in the capital, Banjul, and in some areas of the North Bank. Fulas and Serahules are largely concentrated in the east around McCarthy Island and the Upper River Division, with Jolas in the Western Division. The rest of the country’s population is composed of the minor ethnic groups, Serer, Aku, and Manjago, and people from other African countries and non-Africans. The country’s official language is English.

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 annual population growth rate is estimated at 4.1 percent, which is attributed mainly to high adolescent fertility. The Gambia has a youthful population, with approximately 45 percent under age 15. The Gambia is still one of the poorest countries in Africa, ranking 160 out of 173 countries worldwide in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index.

The Gambia’s major indigenous groups have a highly stratified society in which status is determined by birth. At the top of the social ladder are traditional noble and warrior families, followed by farmers, traders, and persons of low caste (i.e., blacksmiths, leather workers, woodworkers, weavers, and griots). Although griots make up the lowest caste, they are highly respected for being in charge of passing on oral traditions. Slavery is long gone, but many descendants of former slaves still work as tenant farmers for old slave-owning families.

People in The Gambia place great importance on greetings. Wolofs and Mandinkas, for example, greet one another with a lengthy ritual that starts with the traditional Muslim greetings, Salaamu aleikum and Aleikum asalaam (“Peace be with you” and “And peace be with you”) and continues with questions about each other’s families, home lives, villages, and health. The answers usually indicate that everything is fine and are often followed with the expression, Al hamdulillah (Thanks be to Allah).

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More than 20 years of drought in the Sahel (a region south of the Sahara) has severely impacted natural resources in the area, reducing forested areas, biological diversity, and land productivity. Despite the river flowing through its center, The Gambia is no exception to the regional decrease in forested land. Tree-planting efforts in the region are estimated to be only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the level required to balance losses of woody vegetation due to land clearing, charcoal production, fuel collection, and brush fires. If the pattern of below-normal precipitation persists, a permanent reduction in the carrying capacity of the affected lands is probably inevitable.

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 Further Information

Following is a list of websites for additional information about The Gambia.  Please keep in mind that although we try to make sure all these links are active and current, we cannot guarantee it. If you do not have access to the Internet, visit your local library.  Libraries offer free Internet usage and often let you print information to take home.

A note of caution: As you surf these sites, be aware that you will find bulletin boards and chat rooms in which people are free to give opinions and advice based on their own experiences. The opinions expressed are not those of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government. You may find opinions of people who were unhappy with their choice to serve in the Peace Corps. As you read these comments, we hope you will keep in mind that the Peace Corps is not for everyone, and no two people experience their service in the same way. The mantra that we live by in The Gambia is that "Your experience and service will be what you make of it."

General Information About The Gambia

On this site, you can learn anything from what time it is in Banjul to how to convert from the dollar to the dalasi. Just click on The Gambia and go from there.

Visit this site for general travel advice about almost any country in the world.

The U.S. State Department’s website issues background notes periodically about countries around the world. Find The Gambia and learn more about its social and political history.

This site includes links to all the official sites for governments worldwide.

This online world atlas includes maps and geographical information, and each country page contains links to other sites, such as the Library of Congress, that contain comprehensive historical, social, and political background.

This United Nations site allows you to search for statistical information for member states of the U.N.

This site provides an additional source of current and historical information about 228 countries.

Current News About The Gambia

A Gambian Web portal

International Development Sites About The Gambia

Information about United Nations programs in The Gambia

Demographic profiles of the countries in which the World Bank has programs

Information about the Catholic Relief Services’ work in The Gambia

Recommended Books

  1. Dettwyler, Kathrine A. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa
  2. Burke, Andrew, and David Else. The Gambia and Senegal (2nd ed.). London: Lonely Planet, 2002. This introduction to the cultural richness of West Africa is full of practical tips.21
  3. Hughes, Arnold, and Harry A. Gailey. Historical Dictionary of The Gambia (3rd ed.). Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999. This revised edition updates a story that goes back many centuries.
  4. Tomkinson, Michael. Tomkinson’s Gambia (2nd ed.). Oxford: Tomkinson Publishing, 1995. This book, which contains 300 color illustrations, was commended for "its wit, erudition, and flair."

*This information was obtained from http://www.peacecorpswiki.com/.

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