The Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa, however it is larger than the various island nations surrounding the continent. At just under 11,3000 square kilometres (5361 square miles), it is about a third of the size of Maryland. The tiny nation lies on the West Coast of Africa, at latitude equidistant from the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator. Engulfed on three sides by neighbouring Senegal, the Gambia borders the Atlantic Ocean on its fourth side with 60 km (37 miles) of coastline. Some compare the country’s shape to a crooked finger extending 480 km (298 miles) long and averaging of 35 km (22 miles) wide, including the Gambia’s namesake, the mangrove-lined Gambia River. Originating from the Guinean highlands, the Gambia River splits the country into a north and south bank, channelling around the several islands in its path.
The Gambia has two seasons: the dry season (late October to mid-June) and the wet season (late June to mid-October). The dry season is generally cooler, especially in the evenings, with virtually no precipitation. The wet season brings high humidity and torrents of rain—1.02 meters/40 inches per year on average. The range of temperatures is much smaller in the wet season than in the dry season. (34°C = 93.2°F and 15°C = 59°F)
The population was recorded as 1.5 million in 2003, with projected growth rate of 3-4% per year. Population density in The Gambia is about 132 persons per square kilometre. The age distribution is as follows:
The five main ethnic groups, Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Jola, and Serehuli compose 96% of the Gambian population, according to the latest estimates. Mandinkas account for up to 42% of the people and Fulas, making up 18% of the population, are the second largest group. Wolof is number three at 16%, though this group seems larger near the coast as most live in the areas close to Banjul. Jolas, at 10% of the population, and Serejulies at 9%, are the smallest of the six main groups. Composing the remainder of the population include the native Aku, Serer, and Manjango, as well as peoples originating from Mauritania, Senegal and Lebanon, some of whose families have lived in the Gambia for generations. Finally, small portions of the population are expatriates from other African countries as well as other continents, especially Europe.
The official language of the Gambia is English—the language of academic instruction and the formal business world. Those with the least access to education are the least likely to speak it, and thus English is more widely understood close to the coast rather than up-country. Native local languages, including Wolof, Mandinka, Jola, Fula and Serejulie, are most commonly spoken in the home and among friends. Along the coast at least, Wolof is generally regarded as the language used at the market and for informal business transactions.
Banjul is the administrative capital of the Gambia, located on St. Mary’s Island at the mouth of the Gambia River. Serekunda and its suburbs are by far the most populated areas; other large towns include Brikama, Basse, Farafenni, Kerewan, Janjanbureh (formerly Georgetown), Kunataur, and Mansa Konko.
The Gambia has not been accepted as a democracy until fairly recently. A bloodless 1994 coup d’etat against President Jawara hoisted Colonel Dr. Alhaji Yaya A.J.J. Jammeh into power when he was only twenty-nine years old. The coup at first had a questionable impact on the country, as foreign aid ceased from almost all Western nations, the tourism industry grinded to a halt, and allegations of human rights violations arose. As the government slowly stabilized, the situation slowly improved—along with the nation’s infrastructure and education. In October 2001, the first election since the coup, President Jammeh won 54% of the popular vote with questionably honourable tactics. The second election in October 2001, where Jammeh won 53% of popular vote, was pronounced “free and fair” by the global community. At the time of writing, the next election is set for October 2006.
The Gambian flag is composed of thick green, blue and red stripes, separated by thin white stripes. According most Gambians, green stands for agriculture, red for defence, blue for the Gambia River, and white for peace.
The dalasi (denoted by “D” on price tags) is the national currency, divided into 100 bututs. At the time of writing (March 2006), approximately GMD28 = USD1.00, or GMD1 = 0.03, and has been relatively stable for the last few years. You can check the latest exchange rate at www.xe.com/.
The official GDP of the Gambia (2005) is $443.7 million. Services, including the tourism industry, compose 52% of the GDP, though profits from tourism are mainly confined to the vacation-friendly dry season. Agriculture is the second largest contributor to the economy, at 35% of the GDP. Groundnuts, cotton and sesame are the chief cash crops, while fishing and forestry take advantage of two of the country’s few natural resources. Industry provides a mere 13% of the GDP. The annual purchasing power GDP per capita in the Gambia is $1,900, though this figure might be misleading as the average Gambian earns a mere $330 a year. The discrepancy between the GDP per capita and the average wage can be partly explained by the percentages of the work force that occupy each sector of the economy—a whopping 75% of Gambians work in the agricultural field, while industry and services (including tourism) employ only 19% of the Gambia’s labourers. Six percent of Gambians workers hold jobs with the government.
The Gambia is classified as a developing nation. Based on the Human Poverty Index (which ranks nations based on proportion of newborns not expected to reach age 40, the number of illiterate adults, the proportion of people with no access to running water, and underweight children) the Gambia ranks 155 of the 175 nations listed.