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LOCATION: The Gambia

POPULATION: 1 million

LANGUAGE: English; Wolof; Mandinka; Jola; Fula

RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; traditional African beliefs


The Gambia is a country of about 4,000 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) occupying both banks of the River Gambia for a distance of about 200 miles (320 kilometers). "The" is part of the country's name. It is surrounded, except for the coastal region, by Senegal. The first inhabitants came from the north to the region of The Gambia around 750 ad. These people made stone circles (wheels) and were associated with ironworking. They occupied an area of the north bank of the River Gambia.

The river was visited by early Portuguese explorers in 1455. Portuguese traders gradually settled along the river, seeking gold, ivory, and animal hides. The English, also looking for gold, began exploration in the early seventeenth century in the upper river region.

The British and Portuguese established colonies on the islands in the Caribbean and in North and South America around this same time. Then they began to send people from Africa to work as slaves in their American colonies. A British law was passed prohibiting international slave trading in 1807. To control shipping activity at the mouth of the River Gambia, the British town of Bathurst (later renamed Banjul) was built on the island of Banjul (later renamed St. Mary's). People freed from slave ships settled there.

In the middle of the nineteenth century groundnuts (peanuts) became the major export of the country. They grew well in The Gambia, and provided peanut oil, much in demand in Europe. The country was not peacful, though. Religious wars raged between militant Muslims known as the Marabouts and nonbelievers (known in The Gambia as Soninkes).

The Gambia became independent in 1965. Five years later, D. K. Jawara (1924) became the new republic's first president. He continued to be reelected to this post until 1994. That year, a military coup (violent overthrow of the government) was led by four army lieutenants. President Jawara fled the country. The constitution was suspended, political activity forbidden, and the press restricted. In 1996 a new constitution was written by one of the coup leaders, Yaya A. J. J. Jammeh (1924), by then a colonel. He resigned from the military to run for president. Since all former politicians were prohibited from taking part in the election, he had little opposition. Jammeh was elected president in September 1996.


The population is over 1 million, making it the most densely populated country in western Africa.

The River Gambia flows into the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and is affected by the ocean's tides. In the 1990s, low rainfall caused the River Gambia's water level to become low. Salt water from the Atlantic Ocean flowed into the River Gambia. Salty water had a bad effect on the cultivation of rice along the river.


Mandinka is spoken throughout the country. Wolof is the language of the capital, Banjul, and the language of commerce. A number of dialects (regional varieties of the language) can be heard. The language of government and education is English. However, beginning students in the lower grades of provincial schools are taught in their native language.

The native languages have rich vocabularies. Children have word games such as riddles, tongue twisters, and sometimes secret languages of their own.


Legends are related by professional entertainers, who are known by many names. Some people call these entertainers griots; the Wolof call them gewel, and the Mandinka, jalolu. Their storytelling is accompanied by a musical instrument. The audience is expected to respond to the narrator with appropriate interjections.

Folktales are abundant. One tells of the adventures of Hare and Hyena. Hare is seen by the Wolof as a gewel who is able to talk his way out of any trouble. Others see Hare as a trickster.

A common folktale plot features an unjust situation that is remedied by a child, often with the help of a spirit or an old woman who has been treated courteously. Those who caused the trouble are punished, and the sufferers end up rich and happy again. A whole series of family values is reinforced in the tales. Trouble comes to those who break taboosfor example, a daughter should be obedient and polite, a son should be brave, the old should be treated courteously, and strangers should be received hospitably.

Proverbs are used in everyday speech. For example, "However long a stick is in the river, it cannot become a crocodile," means that a stranger can never become a true native, and "The best medicine for a person is another person," stresses the importance of human relations.


Over 85 percent of Gambians are Muslim (followers of Islam). Christians (about 12 percent) are found mainly in the urban areas. A small percentage of the population practice traditional beliefs. In the Jola area there are still a few shrines where offerings are made to spirits believed to influence human destiny.

From an early age, children are taught to recite and copy verses from the Koran (the sacred text of Islam). Discipline in Koranic schools is strict. Most students stop going to school after learning the essentials, but a few go on to more advanced Arabic studies. The main tenets of Islam are the observation of the month of fasting (Ramadan), when food and drink are prohibited during daylight hours; saying the five daily prayers; if possible, going on the pilgrimage to Mecca (called the hajj); giving alms to the needy; and belief in Allah as the only God. The major religious festivals are occasions of celebrationsthe Muslim New Year, Muhammad's birthday, the feast at the end of Ramadan, and Tabaski (Eid al kabir), commemorating Abraham's sacrifice of a sheep in place of his son.

Christian missionsthe Roman Catholic mission, the Methodist mission, and the Anglican Churchestablished churches, built schools, and played a major part in education. Mission work outside the capital is limited and is primarily associated with education and social development.


Official holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Independence Day (February 18), and Liberation Day (July 22), commemorating the military coup. Christmas is also observed by all. It is marked by special watchnight services at the Christian church and children singing carols. From Christmas week to the New Year, large lanterns (fanal) in the form of ships and houses, lit by candles or batteries, are paraded around the streets, accompanied by drumming. During this period many traditional masked figuresthe kankurang, with dresses of leaves and red bark, and the kumpo (Jola), which is like a revolving haystackjoin in the festivities.

Christians in Sanjul celebrate the feast of St. Mary (August 15), the patron saint of the island. Easter is also observed. The Muslim festivals, listed in the section on religion, depend on the lunar calendar, so according to the Western calendar, dates vary from year to year.


The major stages of life are marked by special rites. After birth a child remains indoors for seven days and various protective devices are made. Then the baby is brought out for naming. Its head is shaved, which marks a change in status. The name is bestowed, prayers said, and an animal, usually a fowl but sometimes a sheep, is sacrificed. The meat is eaten later in the day. The child is then regarded as a Muslim.

In childhood there are initiation ceremonies for boys that involve circumcision and a period of training "in the bush." They learn to endure hardship, obey orders, respect their elders, and understand traditional wisdom. Some boys are circumcised early in life at hospitals or clinics, but still have to undergo the training later. Girls, except for the Wolof, have a similar period of training. Wolof girls often have a ceremony of lip tattooing, which is regarded as a test of courage.

Marriage for women also represents a rite of passageseparation from their family of birth, and incorporation into their husband's community. Marriage is a long process. An engagement may take place while the girl is still young. The husband performs services for his in-laws and has visiting rights. At a later date the marriage is formally arranged at a mosque ceremony attended by representatives of the families concerned. Marriage money to be paid is discussed. Later ceremonies involve the formal transfer of the bride to her husband.

Death also represents a transition. A service is held at the mosque before the body is taken to the burial ground. A "charity" (alms) is made on the third and the fortieth day, the last marking the final separation when the deceased is considered to have joined the ancestors. Traditional ceremonies among the Jola involve the slaughter of many cattle and the firing of guns.


The exchange of greetings is an important social skill. Greetings differ according to the time of day, the location, whether they take place within the family or in a formal social occasion or a passing situation, and the age and relative social status of the participants.

The initial greeting is the Arabic salaam aleekum (Peace unto you), to which the reply is maleekum salaam. Then follows the general greetings, "Have you spent the day in peace?" or "Have you spent the night in peace?" depending on the time. The reply is always "Peace" only. Surnames are exchanged. If one does not know a person's surname it is appropriate to ask. This is to honor the clan of the person spoken to. One can ask where the person has come from, so that one can ask about the people there, too, either in general terms ("How is your father?" or "How is your wife ?") or by name. On leaving one says "I am going," and one is asked to convey greetings to their destination.

When visiting, the person who arrives initiates the greetings. If one reaches a door where knocking would not make a sound one says kong, kong instead. A person should first greet one of higher rank, or superior position, such as a village head, chief, or religious teacher. People of equal rank often address each other at the same time. The code of greetings must be followed before any other matters are raised.


The Gambia is beset by a host of diseases, of which malaria is the most prevalent. Because of the vast areas of swamp it is impossible to control the mosquitoes that carry the disease. On the other hand, smallpox has been eradicated, sleeping sickness has become rare, and polio and leprosy are under control. But infant mortality is high. Diseases such as measles, whooping cough, and pneunomina are often fatal to small children. A program of immunization is helping matters. However, poor waste disposal and contaminated water lead to intestinal infections. HIV/AIDS has also increased in recent years.

Medicines are in short supply and are expensive. Hospitals and clinics are unable to meet the needs of the people. To receive attention requires a wait of many hours. The ratio of doctors to population is 1 to 15,000.

Supermarkets and stores have a variety of products, but most are beyond the reach of the ordinary person. Among young people there is a great demand for cassette players and transistor radios. Businessmen, politicians, senior civil servants, professionals such as lawyers and doctors, and those employed by international bodies maintain a high standard of living with cars and Western-style furnishings.

In rural areas most houses are built with mud walls. The outside and floors may be cement. The roof is thatched when circular houses are made, but corrugated sheeting is used with square and rectangular houses. In some villages bamboo matting and reeds are used to form walls. In the hot climate these are quite comfortable.

An inadequate water supply now presents problems. With a shortage of rain in recent years, and with the intensive clearing of vegetation for cultivation, streams have dried up and the general water table has fallen. Deeper wells have had to be dug. Where pumps have been installed, their maintenance has often proved difficult.

At one time there were river steamers that went up and down river. Now there are only a few small vessels used by tourists for short trips. People generally travel by road, using converted trucks that carry goods and passengers, small buses, "bush taxis" (ram-shackle old vehicles), and a few large government buses, which are always extremely overcrowded. Crossing the river is a slow business. Most owners of passenger vehicles prefer not to cross, and instead let their passengers off at the ferries to find alternative transport on the other side.

In Banjul, a large influx of motor traffic conveys people from suburban areas to work and school. In the evening there is a rush hour out of town. With heavy road traffic and overloaded vehicles, roads deteriorate rapidly and are difficult to maintain. Where earth roads still exist they become corrugated and develop potholes from the rains.


In rural communities people live in compounds consisting of a series of houses around an open courtyard. These are inhabited by a group who trace their descent in the male line. There are distinct men's and women's sections in the communities. Small children stay in their mother's house. Adolescent boys have a house of their own. At night a woman goes to join her husband.

The oldest man of the lineage settles disputes and allocates land. Each man farms his own land, and contributes to a common millet farm. Women have their own rice fields and in the dry season cultivate gardens. An enormous amount of labor falls on their shoulders, including cooking, drawing water, washing clothes, caring for small children, gathering wild products, farming, and gardening. Daughters are expected to help their mothers as much as they can.

A man can marry up to four wives. Most marriages tend to be arrangements between families, but a young man may state a preference that he would like his family to follow. If she has her mother's support, a girl may refuse a marriage offer she dislikes. In urban situations there is greater freedom of choice. A husband can divorce his wife by pronouncement in front of witnesses; a woman must go to the chief's court. A divorced woman can marry again by her own choice. A widow may also remarry after a period of mourning, though if she has children, she normally marries someone in her husband's lineage so that the children continue to be brought up in the same compound. In the villages age groups unite people. For example, young men perform communal labor and organize entertainment.

All ethnic groups except for the Jola and some Fulbe have a strongly stratified social system that includes an old-ruling family from which the chief was chosen, high-ranking powerful families, and ordinary peasant farmers. Smiths, musicians, and leatherworkers formed special castes, each marrying within their own category. In the old days there were also slaves, those born as slaves and more recent captives. Consciousness of social status is still important when it comes to marriage, but the drift of people to urban centers and education have tended to obscure many of the old distinctions.


Clothing of locally made cloth is worn by rural people when working on their farms. Schoolchildren wear uniforms made of imported cloth, each school having its own colorsshorts and shirts for boys, and skirts and tops for girls.

Women wear a long skirt, generally of local cloth, with a loose upper garment of imported cloth. Another cloth is used to carry a child on the back. Women always wear "a head tie," a large square of material that can be tied in a variety of fashions. Hairstyles are elaborate and show both age differences and changing trends in fashion. On festive occasions women, particularly the Wolof, wear many layers of clothing.

Men wear elaborate robes for religious ceremonies and special festivals. In offices Western-style clothing is generally worn. There is a large trade in second-hand clothes from the United States. Young men like to copy American fashions with jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps.


The Mandinka eat rice as their main food, though millet is also consumed. The upriver Wolof depend on millet and sorghum, but urban Wolof use rice. Root crops like cassava and yams are used sparingly.

In general, a small snack is eaten in the morningsome fruit or leftovers from the previous day. A light meal is taken in the middle of the day, and the main meal is eaten in the evening. Men eat from a common calabash, or bowl. If several families are present in a compound, each household may contribute a dish to meals. Women and children eat separately. When a boy matures and develops good manners he joins the adult men. Eating is done with the right hand, the hands being washed before a meal. (The left hand is used only for unclean tasks.)

The staple food, boiled or steamed, is served with a sauce of leaves, flavored with dried fish or shellfish, and vegetables. In the rainy season many varieties of leaves are available. In the dry season garden productssuch as tomatoes, eggplant, okra, bitter tomato, and shallots, onionsare grown. Wild fruits are eaten by children. Mango trees are abundant in most villages, as are papaya (pawpaw). In the western zone, oranges, limes, and bananas are cultivated.

Meat is rarely eaten except for major festivals, though boys sometimes hunt small animals. Chickens are kept for such occasions as naming or marriage celebrations, or to honor an important visitor. Near the coast there is always fresh fish, but most fish consumed is sun-dried or smoked. Where cattle are kept, curdled milk is used with millet.

Each ethnic group has its own cuisine. The Jola have a dish, caldu, made from fish (rock bass) served with rice. Jola, because they live in a more forested zone, make use of many leaves and fruits and are skilled in collecting, processing, and preserving them. Some people in Banjul are fond of dishes prepared with palm oil, a popular dish being fufu, made from cassava. Mandinka have a dish called domoda, which is rice with a rich sauce of vegetables and groundnut (peanut) paste. The dish includes tomato puree, peppers, onions, limes, bitter tomato, okra, and, when available, meat.

Wolof use chere (steamed millet flour), to which dried baobab leaf powder is added. A sauce accompanies it. A favorite dish is benachin (literally "one pot") in which all the ingredients are cooked together. Yassa is chicken marinated with lemon juice, vinegar, onions, pepper, and oil. The chicken is then grilled and the marinade is heated and poured over it. Fish with rice (cheb u jen), flavored with garlic, lemon, bay leaf, pepper, and tomato paste, is a popular urban dish.


A little more than one-fourth of Gambian adults over age fifteen are literate (can read and write). More men than women can read and write. The rate for men is about 40 percent, and for women, about 16 percent. In the 1990s, school enrollment was increasing for both boys and girls, which may help balance things out. Almost 60 percent of boys and about 50 percent of girls were enrolled in primary schools (the first six years). Only about 20 percent of all Gambian students go on to high school.

In urban areas a higher proportion of children attend school. In rural areas children are expected to help their parents in daily work, so they are reluctant to send their children off to school. In some communities there is a conflict between Islamic schools and Western schools. Islamic instruction is generally held in the very early morning, or by firelight after dark, and does not conflict with daytime work.

There is a teachers' training college where instruction is provided in the fields of education, agriculture, health, and domestic science. There are no universities in The Gambia. Gambians go to universities in Europe, Canada, or the United States.


Music and song are important in Gambian culture, and can be divided into two types: personal music and group music. Examples of personal music are a man singing while he weeds a garden or paddles a canoe; playing a one-stringed fiddle while herding cattle; and singing to soothe restless animals at night.

Group music may be casual or performed for an audience. Cancing is often involved. The group repeats a chorus or claps while a lead singer or drummer sets the pace. Children play singing games. Traditional warriors' songs are sung to give boys courage as they go for circumcision. Weddings include songs sung at different points in the ceremony. Songs are also sung for special ceremonies, to bring rain, or to effect a cure. Challenge songs are sung at wrestling matches.

There is music performed by professionals to an audience, either to patron families or at a formal concert. Professional musicians undergo a long apprenticeship and belong to a special caste (class of citizens).

There are a variety of works in English by Gambian authors, including plays by Gabriel Roberts; poetry by Lenrie Peters (1932), Malick Faal, Tijan Sallah (1958), Swaebou Conateh, and Kahadija Saho; novels by Lenrie Peters and Ebou Diba; and short stories by Tijan Sallah and Nana Humasi (Nana Grey-Johnson, 1951).


About three-quarters of the people are engaged in agricultural crop production and raising livestock. There is limited small-scale manufacturingprocessing groundnuts (peanuts), smoking fish, and preparing hides. A number are employed in service occupations such as house building and furniture making. Many are engaged in trade, both full-time in urban shops and markets, and part-time in rural areas, when farming has ceased. A number of people were once engaged in the tourist industry, but tourism has declined since the military coup. Smuggling constitutes a substantial activity.

In agriculture, the women are concerned with rice cultivation and dry-season gardening, the men with millet and groundnut farming. Farm work using traditional hoes for ridging and weeding was extremely arduous, but the introduction of animal tractionox plows, weeding machines pulled by donkeys, and carts for transportation of cropshas eased the burden. At the same time, it has necessitated more thorough clearing of the land, resulting in soil deterioration.


Soccer is the main field sport. International matches are played in a major stadium built by the Chinese.

Basketball is becoming an increasingly popular activity among teenagers. Tennis and golf are played mainly by those who have lived abroad or by expatriates. Wrestling competitions are popular during the weekends.


Radio Gambia broadcasts the early morning call to prayer, followed by readings from the Koran. News is broadcast in English and the major Gambian languages (Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Jola, and Serahuli). A television station was opened in December 1995. Video cassettes are available in a few stores. There are a few small movie theaters where films imported from India are shown. The National Dance Troupe performs primarily for tourists.

Games include a form of checkers played with black and white counters on a board, ludo (Parcheesi), and wori, in which counters are moved around a board with six cups on each side, the aim being to outnumber and capture the opponent's counters at the end of each move. Among young men card games are popular.


Wood carving, traditionally limited to the making of implements and utensilsbowls, mortars, pestles, and canoesis now geared towards the tourist market. Carvings of animals, decorative masks, model canoes, and drums are made for sale to tourists.

Goldsmiths and silversmiths make earrings, brooches, and bracelets, which are especially noted for their filigree work. Leatherworkers make sandals and covers for charms, which are worn by nearly everybody.

Weaving is a traditional art, the cloth being woven on narrow looms. The strips are sewn together to make cloths worn by women as skirts. Locally made cloth is worn in most traditional ceremonies. Dyeing has reached a high standard. Imported textiles are often used as a base, and artistic batik works are produced for the tourist market. Tie-dye and "resist" techniques are used to make a great variety of designs.

A special art is making lanterns (fanal) from paper and wood in the shape of ships or houses. These lanterns are lit by candles or with battery-powered lightbulbs and paraded around town during Christmas week.


In the constitution of 1970 a major section was devoted to human rights. The Gambia became the location of the African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies, which opened in 1989. Discussions on the human rights and police procedures were free and open. This was changed by the military government in 1994. The constitution of 1970 was abolished. Political activity was forbidden, freedom of the press restricted, and criticism of the government forbidden. Arrests for political reasons became common. The death penalty, abolished in 1993, was reinstated.

Marijuana grows easily in the country, and it is a problem among the youth. Severe drug laws are now in effect.


Gamble, David P. The Gambia. Oxford: Clio Press, 1988.

Sallah, Tijan M. Wolof. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1996.

Zimmermann, Robert. The Gambia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.


Internet Africa Ltd. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. The Gambia. [Online] Available, 1998.