Africa’s Tiniest County is its Most Diverse

By Liz Goldner

The Gambia, officially the Republic of The Gambia, is the smallest country on the African continent. Located in Western Africa, it is bordered to the north, east, and south by Senegal, with a small coastline on the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The River Gambia flows through the center of the country and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Banju is the capital of the country.



A wide variety of ethnic groups live in The Gambia with a minimum of intertribal friction, each preserving its own language and traditions. The Mandinka tribe, an agricultural people with a hereditary nobility, is the largest tribe in the country. The Wolofs are very prominent in the capital city of Banjul, as are the Ajus, descendants of freed slaves who rank among the bureaucratic elite. The Jola people are predominantly organized around the cultivation of rice, and the Fulas around the herding of cattle. The Sarahuli people are involved in local trade. While each of these groups speaks its own language, English is the official language of The Gambia. The word for “Peace” in the Mandinka language is “Kairo.” In the Wolof language, it is “Jamma.”

Approximately 3,500 non-Africans live in The Gambia, including Europeans and people of Lebanese origin. Muslims constitute more than 90 percent of the population.

The majority of Gambians live in rural villages, although more and more young people have been coming to the capital in the last decade in search of work and education. In spite of urban migration, the traditional emphasis on the extended family, as well as indigenous forms of dress and celebrations, remain integral parts of everyday life.


Culture in The Gambia is the product of very diverse influences. As the country is small, without natural barriers, it is home to most ethnic groups present throughout western Africa, especially those in Senegal. Europeans culture is also influential but not in the area of traditional African music.

Among the Mandinka, people known as “griots” are revered as historians, praise-singers and musical entertainers since ancient times. Once attached to noble families, griots arranged marriage terms, mediated disputes and set history to music. Their principal instruments are the balafon, similar to a xylophone, the ngoni, a small traditional lute, and the kora, a cross between a harp and a lute with 21 strings. Gambians consider the kora to be a symbol of national culture and pride.

All Gambian tribal groups have oral traditions, and many of their folktales have been translated into English. In both the Fula and the Wolof traditions, there are many stories about the Hyena and the Hare, the character who becomes Brer Rabbit in the folklore of the United States. In the Wolof versions, Hare came from the griot caste.

The word for “Peace” in the Mandinka language is “Kairo.” In the Wolof language, it is “Jamma.”

Pa Bobo is one of The Gambia’s foremost musical artists:
a kora player, a singer, a bard, and a ‘Jali’ of the Mandinka people.


The Gambia was once part of the Ghana and Songhai Empires. The first written accounts of the region come from records of Arab traders who established the trans-Saharan trade route for slaves, gold, and ivory in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. In the 15th century, The Gambia was part of the Kingdom of Mali.

In 1588, Antonio, Prior of Crato, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, sold exclusive trade rights on The Gambia River to English merchants. In 1618, King James I granted a charter to a British company for trade with The Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

James Island, in the middle of the River Gambia, two kilometers south of the villages, Jufureh and Albreda, was captured by the English in 1661. The fort there was used as a trading base, first for gold and ivory, then for slaves. The site is significant for its relation to the beginning of the slave trade and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. James Island is also the collection site for soil for the Common Ground 191 art project, according to Chris Zimmer, a representative of the United States Embassy in The Gambia.

During the late 17th century and throughout the 18th, England and France struggled for political and commercial supremacy in regions of the Senegal and Gambia Rivers. The 1783 Treaty of Versailles gave Great Britain possession of The Gambia but the French retained a tiny enclave at Albreda on the north bank of the river, which was ceded to the United Kingdom in 1857.

Approximately three million slaves are said to have been taken from the region during the three centuries of transatlantic slave trade. Most of those slaves were sold to Europeans by other Africans. In 1807, slave trading was abolished throughout the British Empire, while the British tried unsuccessfully to end the slave traffic in The Gambia. The British established the military post of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816. Banjul was at times under the jurisdiction of the British governor general in Sierra Leone. In 1888, The Gambia became a separate colonial entity.

In 1889, The Gambia became a British Crown Colony, and in 1901, received its own executive and legislative councils, gradually progressing toward self-government. A 1906 ordinance abolished slavery.

During World War II, Gambian troops fought with the Allies in Burma. Banjul served as an air stop for the U.S. Army Air Corps and a port of call for Allied naval convoys.

General elections were held in the country in 1962, and full internal self-government was granted in 1963. The Gambia achieved independence on February 18, 1965, as a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. On April 24, 1970, The Gambia became a republic.

The relative stability of the country was broken by a violent, unsuccessful coup attempt in 1981, led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang. Senegalese troops defeated the rebel force. In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Senegal and The Gambia signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. The result was that the Senegambia Confederation aimed to combine the armed forces of the two nations and to unify economies and currencies. The Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh


In July 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) seized power in a military coup d'etat. The AFPRC announced a transition plan for return to democratic civilian government. The Provisional Independent Electoral Commission (PIEC) was established in 1996 to conduct national elections. Retired Col. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh was sworn into office as President of the Republic of The Gambia in November 1996. The PIEC was transformed to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in 1997 and became responsible for the registration of voters and conduct of elections and referenda.

In late 2001 and early 2002, The Gambia completed a full cycle of presidential, legislative, and local elections. President Yahya Jammeh took the oath of office on December 21, 2001. The APRC maintained its strong majority in the National Assembly. President Jammeh was re-elected for a third five-year term on September 22, 2006.. In the January 2007 parliamentary elections, the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) won 42 of the available 48 elected seats.



The Gambia has a liberal, market-based economy, characterized by traditional subsistence agriculture, reliance on ground nuts for export earnings, low import duties, minimal administrative procedures, a fluctuating exchange rate with no exchange controls, and a significant tourism industry.

Agriculture accounts for about 30 percent of gross domestic product and employs about 80 percent of the labor force.. Industry accounts for approximately 14 per cent of GDP and services for approximately 54 percent. The limited amount of manufacturing is primarily agriculturally based.

In recent years India, Thailand, and China have gained increasing proportions of Gambian exports. The African sub-region, including Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Ghana are also important trade partners. China and Brazil have become important source countries for Gambian imports. The U.K., other EU countries, and Senegal also command a large share of Gambian imports.






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