Gambia, The Catholic Church in

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The smallest nation on the African continent, the Republic of the Gambia is located on the northwest coast of Africa, extending west to east for 200 miles in a narrow strip along both banks of the Gambia River and surrounded by senegal. The fertile floodplain region along the length of the river allows for the production of groundnuts and the raising of livestock, while fishing and tourism also contribute to the Gambian economy. Ethnically the Gambians are members of Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, Dyola and Serahuli tribes, as are the surrounding Senegalese.

The mouth of the Gambia River was discovered by Portuguese traders traveling the Atlantic Ocean in the mid-15th century, although the river would not be traversed by Europeans until the British did so c. 1618. Granted to the British in the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 and incorporated into Sierra Leone, the Gambia provided a means of fighting the slave trade through its fort at Banjul (1816). It became a British colony in 1843, and a protectorate in 1893, in part because of tribal wars in nearby Senegal. Gambia became an independent member of the British Commonwealth on Feb. 18, 1965. Gaining its independence in 1970, it joined Senegal as the federation of Senegambia in 1982, but that association lasted only seven years. In July of 1994 President Dawda Kairaba Jawara was overthrown in a military coup led by Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, but peace was quickly restored and in August of 1996 civilian elections were resumed under a new constitution.

Christianity was introduced into the region in the wake of the Portuguese explorers, although evangelization efforts did not meet with any real success until the early 19th century. By 2000 Catholicism remained a minority faith in Gambia, a country that had thus far remained immune to the religious and ethnic conflicts proliferating in that part of Africa. During a meeting in 2001, Pope John Paul II encouraged Gambia's new ambassador to the Vatican to "make courageous decisions that will lead people along the road to peace," a reference to Gambian efforts to mediate the violence in nearby Senegal. The faithful in the country's 52 parishes were tended by 11 diocesan and 12 religious priests, while 13 brothers and 65 sisters aided in maintaining the Gambia's 41 primary and 11 secondary Catholic schools as well as hospitals, clinics, shelters and other humanitarian efforts. The government put no limits on religious instruction, which was made available in both public and private schools.

Bibliography: Bilan du Monde, 2v. (Tournai 1964) 2:401402. Annuario Pontificio. For additional bibliography, see africa.

[j. bouchaud/eds.]