The River Gambia is geographically central to The Gambia itself and has had a profound effect on the development of the country, providing a trade route between the coast and the interior from the earliest times. The boundaries of The Gambia closely reflect the course of the river; its northern and southern boundaries are never more than 15 miles away. Mangrove swamps line the river banks, while most of the remaining countryside is bush savanna. The Gambia’s short stretch of Atlantic coastline has attractive sandy beaches.
There is an abundance of bird life in The Gambia with diverse habitats such as the coastal areas, the rivers and swamps, the rice fields and the bush attracting a wide variety of species. Wildlife is generally restricted to small mammals; monkeys and baboons are quite common and there are crocodiles in the streams and hippopotamuses are sometimes seen up river.
The Gambia has a land area of about 4361 square miles with an estimated population of almost 2 million and is the smallest mainland African country. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and its larger neighbour Senegal surrounds its land borders.
Evidence indicates that this part of West Africa has been inhabited since around 2000 BC. In the 5th century BC Carthaginian explorers were the first to note the existence of established settlements which traded with the peoples from the African interior. In the early centuries AD the area came under the influence of the expanding Empire of Ghana which was based in Mali and subsequently the Shongai Empire. By the 15th century the River Gambia area was under the influence of the Mandinka Kingdoms. A result of this early history of trading, settlement and influence is the diversity of ethnic groups in The Gambia today. The principal ethnic groups are Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Jula and Serahuli and although each group continues with its own language and traditions, there is harmony and stability. Around 90% of the population is Muslim, with the remaining 10% being Christian. Gambians take their religion and culture seriously, but different groups respect and live alongside each other and inter-marry. This includes all the schools we have visited, which are a mixture of Muslim and Christian children and teachers.
From the mid – 15th century onwards European traders were beginning to arrive, travelling up the River Gambia into the interior. The Portuguese, French, Dutch and British were trading slaves and gold from the River Gambia area from the 16th century; disputes over trading rights and territory were frequent and continued until the 1800s. The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833, although the French continued to trade for another 40 years. As the slave trade disappeared, many of the trading centres such as Jufureh and Albreda were abandoned by the traders and their buildings fell into ruin, leaving the stories to be kept alive by the ‘griots’ or story tellers. The Black American writer Alex Haley traced his family’s origins back to the village of Jufureh in his book ‘Roots’.
The Gambia was administered as a British Crown Colony from 1821, jointly with Sierra Leone; in 1888 it became a separate colony. In 1965 The Gambia became an independent country within The Commonwealth and it became a Republic in 1970. In 1982 Senegal and The Gambia formed the Senegambia Confederation with the aim of establishing a full political and economic integration. However, the scheme foundered and relations between the two countries deteriorated. In 2014 President Jammeh declared that The Gambia would no longer be part of The Commonwealth.
In more recent times democracy has returned to The Gambia and in the election of 2016 Jammeh was defeated. The incoming President Adama Barrow took up office in early 2017 after intervention by the ECOWAS countries, a neighbouring collective of African states. The ECOWAS military presence ensured that the new President was able to begin his term of office, although no shots were fired and no resistance offered by those still loyal to Jammeh. President Barrow promptly rejoined The Commonwealth.
The main currency in The Gambia is the Dalasi (GMD), with an exchange rate of about GMD60 to the British pound. An important feature of The Gambia’s economy is agriculture, which employs the vast majority of the labour force. The most important crop is groundnuts which represents a large proportion of export earnings. Of growing importance to the economy is the tourist industry which is also an important source of foreign exchange. The climate of The Gambia is well suited to tourism because it has a lengthy and distinct dry season between November and May. At this time the days are warm and the nights cool: there is virtually no rain and the humidity is moderate with temperatures mostly around 30 degrees Celsius. The main attractions are the wonderful weather, resorts along the Atlantic coast, the bird-life and the friendliness of the people. Going on holiday in The Gambia is a great way to support the Gambian people and have a good time too! It is indeed ‘The Smiling Coast’.