New Internationalist

Gambia

Issue 135

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COUNTRY PROFILE

Gambia

Map of Gambia

Leader: Alhaji Sir Dawda Jawara

Economy: GNP $250 per head (1981)

Monetary Unit: Dalasis

Main exports: Peanuts, tourism

Main imports: Rice, oil

People: 595,000 (1981 est)

Religion: Islam, traditional religions, some Christianity

Languages: official: English, others Mandinka, Wolof, Fulla, Jola, French

Ethnic groups: Mandinka (42% of pop), Fulla (18%), Woof (l6%), Other (24%)

Health: Life expectancy: less than 50 years

Infant mortality: 145 per 1,000 (1981)

Source: World Bank Atlas 1982 and IME, International Financial Statistics 1983, Africa Guide 1983.

MANY people in the West first started asking where Gambia was when black American author Alex Hailey decided to make a Gambian, Kunta Kinte, the central character in his best selling book Roots. Today Gambia, independent since 1965, entertains nearly 24,000 tourists, every year — Swedes, English and Germans who come for the winter sun, the glorious beaches and the fun-loving West African atmosphere.

Not everyone in Gambia welcomes the advent of tourism. The older generation and the radicals feel that it distorts the morals of the young and encourages people to leave the land in favour of the bright lights of the costal resorts.

But it is peanuts rather than tourism that are the foundation of the Gambian economy. The crop is grown on the upland slopes along with millet and sorghum. Rice, the country’s staple food, grows along the banks of the Gambia river. Although the upland soil is no longer very fertile, there is still enough land for anyone who wants to farm.

The unhealthy reliance on peanuts (it provided 43 per cent of the export revenue in 1982) has prompted the government to search for alternative sources of income. Cotton is increasingly being planted and both coastal and river fishing is being developed with Arab and Norwegian aid.

Of course none of this helps the country grow more food. Gambia imports about half its food requirement and for almost a decade has been reliant on donations of food aid. The latest five-year development plan has made food self-sufficiency top priority and a number of expensive and elaborate irrigation projects are underway.

Whether they succeed or not will depend upon the efforts of the women who are the major growers of the nation’s food. In the past their needs and aspirations have largely been ignored by government and aid agencies. Unless this attitude changes the extra burden of work needed to bring self-sufficiency may simply be more than Gambia’s female work-force can bear.

Until 1981 Gambia had the reputation of being one of the most peaceful and trouble-free nations in all Africa. The country did not even have an army or Ministry of Defence. Not surprisingly the attempted coup in July 1981, while Prince Jawara was attending Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding in London, was a shock to people both at home and abroad. Around 500 people were killed and many more were injured or put in prison.

Although the coup was put down after the intervention of troops from neighbouring Senegal, and the President and many of his Ministers are all now safely back in office, it is unlikely that Gambia will ever be quite the same again.

A confederation with Senegal, ‘Senegambia’, was declared in 1981 and political and economic union are gradually becoming a reality. In fact the division was only made in Napoleonic times by the British who wanted to undermine French influence in this part of Africa.

Denzil Phillips


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Tradition of smallholder farming and small urban population.
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High National Debt, high food imports and food aid.
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‘Women are the main food growers, owning land. Islam is strong.
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[image, unknown] A centre right democracy heavily reliant on Senegal and the West.
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In English 15%, in Arabic 20%. Until recently local languages were not written down.
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Reputation for civil liberties tarnished by reaction to attempted coup.

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Less than 50 years. Malaria is endemic.

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