The People
Fulani Cattle Herder: The Fulani (or Fula) of eastern part of The Gambia are a nomadic people who travel with their cattle herds in search of grazing grounds. Because the Fulani do not grow their own crops, they trade milk and meat for grains and farm produce. The Fulani comprise about 18 per cent of the population of The Gambia, which is home to more than ten different ethnic groups. Members of the Fulani native group can be found throughout West Africa.
Coastal Rain Forest of The Gambia: A coastal rain forest near Banjul, the Gambian capital, has been set aside as a nature reserve. The wide mouth of the Gambia River dominates the country’s Atlantic Ocean coast. Along the coast and the river’s banks, mangrove swamps are sustained by annual rainfall exceeding 1,016 millimetres (exceeding 40 inches).
Kora Music: The kora is a plucked harp lute of 16 to 21 strings played primarily in Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea. It is used as accompaniment by the region’s griots, praise-singers and historians, who represent a long and primarily male tradition in West Africa. Their songs preserve stories of historical events and offer criticism on contemporary social issues. The main section of a kora piece is strophic, which means that it repeats the same melody with different words. That section is followed by one featuring heightened speech and a freer rhythm, which expands on material introduced in the first section.
Mangrove Riverbank: The Gambia is a small, narrow country that lies on both banks of the Gambia River in West Africa. The tangled prop roots of these mangroves form an impassable barrier on the river’s banks near Banjul, the country’s capital. The jumble of roots catches mud and debris and stabilizes the riverbanks. Near its mouth, the Gambia’s waters are warm and brackish—ideal conditions for the mangrove swamps.
The Gambia is inhabited by five major ethnic groups: the Mandinka (42 per cent), the Fulani or Fula (18 per cent), the Wolof (16 per cent), the Jola (10 per cent), and the Serrahule (9 per cent). About 5 per cent of the population is composed of Europeans, Americans, Mauritanians, Lebanese, Syrians, and people from neighbouring countries.The Mandinka are descendants of the Mali Empire, whereas the Fulani migrated from the Guinea Highlands. Larger Mandinka settlements are found upriver (east of the capital), but a few are found in the area of Banjul, which is the capital. Wolof people are from the Senegambia area; it is believed that they and the Jola have always lived in the region. The Serrahule, who are basically traders and live in the Banjul area, migrated from Mali and Mauritania. The largest cities are Sere Kunda, Banjul, Brikama, and Bakau.
Although English is the official language, most Gambians speak Mandinka or Wolof. Other local languages include Fula, Creole, Jola, Serere, and Serrehule. None of these languages is written, although members of the religious elite sometimes use Arabic characters to write in Wolof or Mandinka. Official business and school instruction are conducted in English. Most Gambians who have attended school speak English, and Gambians with contacts in Senegal also speak French. The study of French is encouraged in the secondary school curriculum.
About 85 per cent of Gambians are Muslim, 13 per cent are Christian, and the remaining 2 per cent have animist beliefs. Religious differences are not emphasized, and religious freedom is guaranteed. Most Christians live in Banjul, Bakau, and Serrekunda. Muslims pray five times daily, give alms to the poor, and try to make a pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah), Saudi Arabia, at least once in their lifetime. Muslims also fast each year during the month of Ramadan (Werikorr in Wolof), going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset each day.
Adorned with Gambian Gold: An elaborately tied scarf and spectacular gold earrings indicative of her wealth lend a stately air to a woman in The Gambia. In the capital, Banjul, vendors sell traditional crafts such as batik prints and gold jewellery to the tourist trade.
Many people mix Western and African clothing (European-style trousers with an African shirt, for example). Some men may also wear an “ambassador suit” (also called a safari suit). While most older women wear a traditional colourful dress (called a deppeh or grandmbuba), older men wear haftan yi (long, tailored robes) or waramba yi (shorter, more flowing robes). Younger women often wear a dagit (skirt and blouse outfit) with a malan (wraparound skirt always worn with a dagit. Many women also wear striking jewellery.
Greetings play an important role in both social and business meetings, and are usually initiated by the younger person. A handshake is followed by the phrase Salama lay kum ("May peace be upon you"), to which the response is Ma lay kumma salam ("May it be upon you, too"). When greeting older people, one may start by saying their first name once and their last name several times. Greetings may last a minute or two and include enquiries about the individuals and their families. When a girl greets an older person, she may shake hands, but she may also curtsy to show respect; in the past she would have knelt. Boys do not kneel or curtsy when they greet their elders. A person of the same age group as one's parents is greeted as "Mother", "Aunt", "Father", or "Uncle", regardless of their relationship with the greeter; these titles are combined with the first names (for example, "Aunt Marie"). This greeting is especially common in and near Banjul, Sere Kunda, and other cities. In some other towns, especially in the east, the Mandinka greeting Summo lay ("How are people at your house?") is common. The customary response is Ibbi jay ("They are fine", or "They are there"). The Wolof also use Na ka nga def ("How are you?") and respond Ma ngi fi rek ("I am all right", or "I'am here"). To beckon, Gambians wave all fingers inwards with the palm facing down. The left hand is avoided for most activities (shaking hands, passing items, eating), but it is used to shake hands with someone departing on a long trip as a sign of wishing them a safe journey. Eye contact with older people is considered disrespectful.
The Lifestyle
Gambian Women Farming the Land: Women tend a village garden in The Gambia, where they are the primary cultivators of the rice and vegetables with which they feed their families. Farming occupies most people in this small, developing African nation, and groundnuts are the main cash crop and chief export. Gambian farmers also grow millet, papayas, bananas, and citrus fruit.
The extended family is still central to Gambian society and is the source of individual strength, pride, recognition, and social standing. Gambian families tend to be large and three generations may live together in one household. The father is normally head of the family, and most Gambians refer to one another by their family title of brother, sister, aunt, grandfather, and so forth. It is common to call more than one person father or mother, and there are various kinds of “relatives”, including friends and colleagues who have no blood relationship. Although younger women often work outside the home, most older women do not.While the practice of arranged marriages is rapidly diminishing in urban areas, it is still common among rural families. Men and women share family responsibilities, but women are responsible for household chores while men provide the family income. Although polygamy is still practised, especially in rural areas, only a few men have more than one wife.
For breakfast, bread with butter or jam and hot tea are popular in urban areas. People might also eat ruy (pap), chura (porridge), or accara (fried bean flower), all of which are sold by street vendors as well as being prepared at home. Rice is the main staple, and most Gambians eat rice and stew for lunch. The stew, which always includes spices and vegetables (aubergine, cabbage, cassava, and often okra), may have a fish, chicken, beef, or groundnut-butter base. Other popular lunch dishes include benachin (a rice dish), superkanja (okra soup), and domoda (groundnut-butter stew). Dinner may be leftover rice from lunch, chereh (a form of millet couscous), fried fish, beef sauce with bread, or salad with potatoes, and chicken or beef. Gambians eat more fish than beef, but couscous with a special beef sauce is popular for certain festivals. Pork is sold in some urban markets, but Muslims are forbidden to eat it.Most Gambians eat three meals a day. Breakfast is usually eaten between 7 AM and 9 AM, lunch between 1 PM and 3 PM, and dinner between 7 PM and 9 PM. Many wage earners, however, do not have lunch until after 4 PM, when government offices close. Eating patterns are different in farming communities, where lunch is the most important and largest meal of the day. Most Gambians sit on a floor mat to eat; older adults may sit on a low stool or bench. Although some urban Gambians use cutlery for eating, most prefer to eat with their hands from communal bowls. The left hand steadies the bowl while the right is used to eat. Conversation is limited. Food does not have to be finished. It is impolite for children to reach for meat in a bowl; they must wait to be given a portion. Children also look down while eating and do not engage in conversation with their elders. Leftovers are divided equally among the children. Since eating and drinking at the same time is not acceptable, drinks are usually served after a meal. Water is usually served before soft drinks. Burping after a meal is not considered rude; it is seen as a positive comment on the food. It is often followed by a word of thanks to the cook or to Allah for providing the meal.While eating on the streets is rare among adults, people might eat groundnuts or oranges sold at street stands. Children may eat on the street and adults may chew kola nuts or bitter kola. Kola nuts are round and contain caffeine; bitter kola nuts are elongated and taste bitter, but are not a stimulant.
Visiting is one of the ways Gambians maintain strong bonds with friends and relatives, on whom they usually call without prior notice. Tradition dictates that guests must always be made welcome and never turned away. Even when about to leave home, a person will stop for a conversation with an arriving visitor. The most common time for visiting is in the late afternoon or evening, when the sun is lower and there is enough shade to be outside. Visitors who call at mealtimes are expected at least to taste the food.Although visitors are not expected to bring a gift for their hosts, it is not unusual for people to bring a mango or some other fruit from their own tree, if they have one. Similarly, visitors from other towns will normally bring a gift of anything from vegetables to a chicken. In some cases, when a guest leaves, the host may offer a gift in the form of a taxi fare.
Gambia River Mangroves: Mangroves, bamboo, and cotton trees flourish along the swampy banks of the Gambia River. Because of its high saline content, water from the river cannot be used for agricultural irrigation, even far inland. Now a major transport route, the river was once a channel for the slave trade based on Banjul Island, site of The Gambia’s capital city, Banjul.
Visiting friends and relatives is the main recreational activity; festivals and ceremonies such as weddings, burials, and naming ceremonies also play an important role in Gambian life. The country has beautiful beaches, but the only Gambians who use them much are hawkers trying to sell goods to tourists, and young men who play beach soccer or go swimming. Soccer is the most popular sport, but Gambians also enjoy wrestling, athletics, tennis, basketball, and cricket. Family outings are not common. Playing cards or draughts is popular.Television programmes are provided only at night. There are cinemas in Banjul, Sere Kunda, and Bakau, but many Gambians prefer to watch videos at home rather than visit the cinema.
The Gambia' official public holidays include New Year' Day (1 January), Independence Day (18 February), Easter (Good Friday to Easter Sunday), Labour Day (1 May), and Christmas Day (25 December). Most holidays, except Labour Day, are celebrated with festivals, which include ethnic dances, house parties, social dances, and local wrestling competitions. Muslim holy days that also have official recognition include Id-el-Fitre (Koriteh in Wolof; a three-day feast at the end of Ramadan), Id-el-Kabir (Tobaski in Wolof; the Feast of the Sacrifice, held in conjunction with the summer pilgrimage to Mecca), and Maulud-el-Nabi (Gammo in Wolof; Muhammad' birthday). Muslim festivals fall on different days each year because they are set by the lunar calendar.
Offices are open 8 AM to 4 PM, Monday to Thursday, and shops remain open until 6 PM or 7 PM. Businesses close on Friday by 1 PM for the afternoon Muslim prayers. Almost all buying and selling in The Gambia, except in a few large or well-established stores, is subject to bargaining. Goods are sold in the market, in shops, and on side streets. Wage earners work an average of 40 hours per week.
The army seized power in 1994, and Yayeh Jameh declared himself head of state. Before the military coup, a president, directly elected for a five-year term, was head of state and selected the cabinet from parliament. Parliament had 50 members, 36 of whom were directly elected by those aged 21 or over. The country has five political and administrative divisions (Lower River Division, MacCarthy Island, North Bank Division, Upper River Division, and Western) in addition to the city of Banjul.
The Gambia was once part of various large African empires, including the Serrahule and Mandinka empires of the 5th and 6th centuries. The country's modern history is closely linked to the Gambia River. It is believed the Portuguese were the first Europeans to navigate the river in 1455, but it was not recognized as a European possession until 1783, when the British claimed the river and its surrounding territory. It became a formal British colony in 1888 and remained so until February 1965, when The Gambia became an independent state and a member of the Commonwealth. In April 1970 the country became a republic under the leadership of President Dawda Jawara.In July 1981 political turmoil led to an attempted coup while Jawara was in England for the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. The coup lasted for eight days before Senegalese troops intervened, at Jawara's request, to end the rebellion. As a result of Senegal's involvement, the two countries joined together in closer union, establishing the Senegambia Confederation in September 1981. Close diplomatic relations and the loose confederation continued until August 1989, when Senegal withdrew; another friendship treaty was signed in 1991. The 1992 elections were won by President Jawara despite strong opposition, but on 22 July 1994 soldiers led by Yayeh Jameh seized power in a bloodless coup.
Preparing for a Better Harvest: Bending low over tender new plants, a Gambian farm worker spreads compost to fertilize the soil. The economy of The Gambia is based almost entirely on agriculture. Women traditionally plant and harvest subsistence crops while men cultivate cash crops. Although peanuts are the mainstay of the economy, the government has recently encouraged rice production as well.
Agriculture employs the majority of the labour force. About half of the arable land is used for growing groundnuts, the major export, but cotton, rice, millet, corn, fruit, vegetables, and sorghum are also grown, and The Gambia exports seafood to Europe. In the past decade, however, tourism has been the mainstay of the economy and an important source of foreign exchange. In 1966 tourist arrivals were a mere 300; in 1995 they were estimated at 86,000. Despite the break-up of the Senegambia Confederation, trading links with Senegal remain crucial to The Gambia. As in many other African countries, living standards are low. The currency is the dalasi.
Banjul, The Gambia: Banjul is the capital and largest city in The Gambia. Located on an island at the mouth of the Gambia River, the city is linked by bridge to the mainland. Most of The Gambia’s manufacturing takes place in factories in or near the capital.
Peanut Mountain: Workers balance heavy loads as they climb a mountain of groundnuts (or peanuts) in The Gambia. When the country became independent from Britain in 1965, its economic viability was in doubt, but a steady rise in groundnut prices on the world market gave The Gambia the necessary financial boost. Groundnuts are still the nation’s principal crop and major export, but efforts are under way to diversify the economy.
Taxi Ride in The Gambia: A crowded taxi stops for yet another passenger in the countryside of The Gambia. Almost all Gambians are black Africans belonging to one of five main ethnic groups. This small, narrow West African nation has relatively little fertile soil and no valuable mineral deposits. From both sides of the Gambia River in the nation’s interior, flat, sandy plateaus extend into surrounding Senegal.
Banjul’s Busy Streets: Banjul, The Gambia’s capital and largest city, lies at the mouth of the Gambia River on the tip of a peninsula. Separated from the mainland by a swamp and mangrove creeks, the site is technically an island. Although the population of the small city is growing, the swamps prohibit expansion of its boundaries. As a result, The Gambia’s busy Atlantic port is extremely crowded.
Crossing the Gambia River: A ferryboat crosses the Gambia River, the most significant natural feature of The Gambia. In the late 19th century, the British established a colony along the winding length of the river and maintained control over The Gambia until it became independent in 1965. Except for a small strip of coastline on the North Atlantic, The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal.
Since 1985 the government has been improving Banjul’s roads. The main road linking Gambia’s major cities, and leading upriver, is paved, but the only other paved roads are the major streets in cities. Public buses run from Banjul to other cities, but they are very crowded. People usually walk in the cities and take the bus from one city to the next. Taxis are usually available.The Gambia has a modern telephone system, but most Gambians do not own a telephone. Public telephones are available for use at a fee. There are several newspapers and two radio stations. Radio Gambia is controlled by the government, but the other radio station (Radio Syd) is privately owned.
There are no tuition fees at the primary education level, and nurseries and kindergartens are available. From the age of eight, pupils spend about six years in primary school. About one-fifth go on to secondary school for five years, provided that they pass the Common Entrance Exam. Those who do not pass may go to secondary technical school for four years. Secondary school graduates may spend a further two years in Sixth Form as preparation for college. There is a highly specialized technical institute (Gambia Technical Training Institution) and a teacher-training college (Yundum College), but The Gambia has no university.
The Gambia has a national health-care system with adequate facilities in Banjul and the Kombo. The government provides regional health centres for upriver locations, and assigns government doctors and nurses to staff them. Private doctors are also available. The government immunization programme is fairly extensive, but infant mortality remains very high—143 deaths per 1,000 live births (1990)—because of poor hygiene and nutritional deficiencies. Life expectancy is among the lowest in the world, averaging 45 years (1995).
From southernmost Africa, the range of the leopard, Panthera pardus, sweeps in a great arc north through the rest of that continent and then across southern Asia as far as Java and the Russian Far East. It avoids only the driest reaches of the Sahara and the Eastern Desert. Throughout its vast and varied range, the adaptable leopard is remarkably tolerant of people, although people do not always return the favour. Its appetite for goats, sheep, and dogs angers farmers and pastoralists, and its spotted coat makes the leopard a target of hide-hunters. Black leopards also have a spotted coat, but the spots are difficult to discern against the coat’s dark, glossy background.
Nile Crocodile
Crocodylus niloticus The Nile crocodile, which can weigh as much as 1 metric ton and can measure 6.5 metres (21.3 feet) in length, has killed more people on the African continent than any other animal. These mammoth reptiles feed mainly on fish and inhabit rivers, lakes, marshes, and coastal areas in Africa south of the Sahara and Madagascar. Shortly after World War II (1939–1945), the population of Nile crocodiles dropped sharply because they were being hunted for their valuable skins and because boat traffic had intruded near their nesting sites along the Nile. As a result of habitat degradation and excessive hunting, their numbers continue to decline today.
African Tree Pangolin
Manis tricuspis With overlapping brown scales on its back, this nocturnal West and Central African pangolin looks more like a slender pine cone than a mammal. When threatened, it will roll into a tight ball, exposing only a shield of scales. The pangolin lives high in the trees of the rain forest. Toothless, it uses its long snout and 18-centimetre (7.1-inch) tongue to probe for ants and termites.
Africa is so closely identified with the lion, Panthera leo, that many people are surprised to learn that a small population of lions endures in the Gir National Park of northwestern India. Lions once ranged throughout the Middle East, and even into Europe, where Macedonians and Greeks hunted them only 2,000 years ago. Even societies with no history of lions of their own, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have adopted the imposing cat as a symbol of national power. The very name of Singapore means “Lion City”, and the Chinese and Tibetans so revere the lion that they have bred several small dogs—the Pekingese, Lhasa apso, and shih-tzu—in its image.
Spotted Hyena
Crocuta crocuta The hyena’s long, muscular neck, furry round ears, and long front legs combine to look like a cross between a dog and a giraffe. However, the hyena belongs to the cat family, hunting at night and sleeping in the day in dug-out caves on the plains of eastern and southern Africa. Persistent and opportunistic, a pack of hyenas will spend hours wearing down their prey before closing in for the kill. The hyena is also adept at stealing other animals’ kill.
African Jacana
Actophilornis africanus This African water bird lives on the floating vegetation of ponds, lakes, and slow-moving streams, nesting on flimsy piles of weeds or lily pads. The male jacana must often hold the eggs under its wings when it roosts because its weight alone submerges the nest. Despite its aquatic home, the jacana rarely swims.
Hippopotamus amphibius This 3,600-kilogram (7,937-pound) mammal, a relative of the pig, is well adapted to aquatic life and spends its days lounging in rivers and lakes. Native to Africa south of the Sahara, a hippopotamus weighs 27 kilograms (60 pounds) at birth and can run and swim within five minutes. Its eyes, ears, and nostrils are set high on top of its head so they remain above water when the hippopotamus submerges. Its characteristic yawn is actually an aggressive gesture, and a competing male will slash another with its tusk-like teeth.
Upupa epops Reaching 30 centimetres (11.8 inches) long, with a fan-shaped crest and black-and-white striped tail and wings, the hoopoe is easy to spot. This elaborately decorated bird from southern Europe, Asia, and southern Africa spends its days probing the soil for insects and grubs. Although timid, the hoopoe can elude most birds of prey. The bird’s nest is easy to identify by its foul-smelling accumulation of faecal matter.
Red-headed Weaver
In the savannas of Africa, the male of the red-headed weaver, Anaplectes rubriceps, uses palm-frond strips 60 centimetres (24 inches) in length to build an elaborate nest. He is a compulsive builder, often constructing several more nests than he actually needs. The rounded nest features a long, funnel-shaped entrance and hangs from a branch, offering excellent protection from enemies. Upon completing a nest, the male hangs upside down from the nest’s entrance and advertises himself to nearby females.
White-backed Vulture
Gyps africanus This vulture is not an early riser. It must wait for the sun to warm the ground, creating updrafts on which it can soar for hours. Its bald head and neck are adapted to sticking its head into carcasses. The white-backed vulture inhabits the open plains and savannas of southern Africa. There is a similar species of the white-backed vulture, Gyps bengalensis, found across southern Asia.
African Buffalo
An exception to the generally critical condition of the world’s wild cattle is the status of the African buffalo, Syncerus caffer. This imposing creature, frequently cited as the most dangerous of all large African animals, continues to range from semi-arid savannas to rain forests and from lowland swamps and reed-beds to high mountain meadows. The buffalo has retreated in many places as a result of hunting, settlements, agriculture, and a virulent disease called rinderpest, but the population still includes well over a million animals. Many people are familiar with the large, dark, heavy-horned buffalo of open country. The dwarf, reddish race from the dense equatorial forests is less well known.
Wild Cat
Felis sylvestris While this nocturnal hunter from the mountains of Europe looks like a large domestic cat, it is one of the fiercest of all cats and is untamable. Growing up to 75 centimetres (29.5 inches) long and weighing up to 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds), the wildcat is stouter and longer than a domestic cat. It hunts rabbits, grouse, and poultry, and it zealously defends its home territory.
Although considered outstandingly ugly by humans, a boar warthog, Phacochoerus africanus, looks just fine to the sow who loves him, warts and all. At mating time, those fibrous protuberances, which are much more prominent in the male, protect him from being injured by the tusks of other males when they engage in ritualized duels. In much of Africa south of the Sahara, the warthog shares its habitat of grasslands and open woodlands with the aardvark, whose burrows it frequently usurps. An adult warthog may back into one of these burrows to face a would-be predator with its formidable sharp tusks. When not deterred by this defence, lions or African wild dogs may enjoy a hearty warthog meal.
Official name Republic of The Gambia
Area11,300 square kilometres 4,363 square miles
Major cities (Population)Banjul 209,000 (1990)
Population1.1 million (1995)
RegionWest Africa
Population growth rate3.8 per cent (1990-1995)
Population density42 persons per square kilometre 256 persons per square mile (1995)
Per cent urban25.5 per cent (1995)
Per cent rural74.5 per cent (1995)
Life expectancy, female47 years (1995)
Life expectancy, male43 years (1995)
Infant mortality rate143 deaths per 1,000 live births (1990)
Literacy ratesTotal 39 per cent (1995)
Female 25 per cent (1995)
Male 53 per cent (1995)
Ethnic divisionsMandinka 42 per cent
Fulani 17 per cent
Wolof 16 per cent
Jola 10 per cent
Serrahule 9 per cent
Other 5 per cent
Other indigenous languages
ReligionsMuslim 85 per cent
Indigenous beliefs 2 per cent
Christian 13 per cent
GovernmentMilitary government seized power in 1994
PartiesPeople's Progressive Party (PPP), National Convention Party (NCP), Gambian People's Party (GPP), United Party (UP), People's Democratic Organization of Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), People's Democratic Party (PDP)
Independence18 February 1965 (from the United Kingdom). The Gambia and Senegal signed an agreement on 12 December 1981 that called for the creation of a loose confederation to be known as Senegambia, but the agreement was dissolved on 30 September 1989.
Constitution24 April 1970
Voting rightsUniversal at age 21
GDPUS$378 billion (1994)
GDP per capitaUS$346 (1991)
Government expendituresUS$48.9 million (1990)
Government revenuesUS$80.8 million (1990)
Government deficit/surplusUS$31.9 million (1990)
Monetary unit1 dalasi (D) = 100 bututs
Major export partnersJapan, European countries, African countries, United States
Major import partnersEuropean countries, Asian countries, former Soviet republics and eastern Europe, United States
Exports Groundnuts and groundnut products, fish, cotton lint, palm kernels
ImportsFoodstuffs, manufactured goods, raw materials, fuel, machinery and transport equipment
IndustriesGroundnut processing, woodworking, metalworking, tourism, manufacture of beverages, agricultural machinery, clothing
AgricultureAccounts for 23 per cent of GDP (1991) and employs 8 per cent of labour force (1987); imports one-third of food requirements; major export crop is groundnuts; other principal crops are millet, sorghum, rice, corn, cassava, palm kernels, citrus fruits; livestock include cattle, sheep, goats; poultry are also raised; forestry and fishing resources not fully exploited.
Natural resourcesFish; farmland suitable for growing groundnuts; oil palm, cedar, and mahogany trees