Africa’s Tiniest County is its Most Diverse
By Liz Goldner
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.
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.”
3,500 non-Africans live in The Gambia, including Europeans
and people of Lebanese origin. Muslims constitute more than
90 percent of the population.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
President Yahya Jammeh
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.
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
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.
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
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.