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The Gambia


new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

Country profile: The Gambia

Where is The Gambia? Amid the storms and turmoil of modern Africa, the mini-state of The Gambia provides an interesting tale of survival. Its origin was an accident of history. As a British colony it grew along the two banks of the River Gambia, up from the old port of Bathurst (now the capital Banjul), making it a long thin enclave in Senegalese territory. In the 1870s the French, who ruled Senegal, tried to exchange 'their' Gabon for The Gambia. Under pressure from the Liverpool trading lobby - hoping for riches - the British refused.

Looking back, Gabon might have been a better deal for the British since The Gambia has few natural assets. As a colony, with its peanut/groundnut monoculture, it was the poorest in West Africa. The British believed it would not be viable as an independent state and in the early 1960s encouraged a merger with Senegal. But this idea met resistance from the new Gambian political class and so the country became independent in February 1965. Since then it has sought to diversify economic activity with tourism, a little market gardening and fishing. Peanut and fish processing, brewing, shoes, perfume and brick production are some of the developing industries.

The Gambia's pleasant beaches and its fame as the birthplace of Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley's book Roots have helped place it firmly on the tourist map.

But package tourism from Europe does not benefit Gambians who live in great poverty away from the tourist centres. The country's economy remains extremely fragile and many people rely on cross-border smuggling with Senegal to supplement their meagre incomes.

Relations with the 'big brother' (Senegal) have probably been The Gambia's main political headache in its 28 years of independence. Most of that period has seen political peace, even if multi-party democracy has in practice meant permanent rule by the party of the President, Sir Dawda Jawara.

This state of affairs was disrupted by the attempted coup of July 1981, which was only put down with the intervention of Senegalese troops under a mutual defence treaty.

The resultant Senegambian Confederation lasted for just eight years, foundering in 1989 on Gambian fears of being swallowed up.

Since then it has been impossible to establish an economic union between the two countries. Political separateness continues though troubles in the Senegalese province of Casamance led recently to a flood of refugees, making Gambians aware of the impossibility of existing in isolation. In spite of the contrasting French and British cultures imposed by colonialism, the people of Senegambia are one group, seemingly bound to live together.

Kaye Whiteman


LEADER: President Alhaji Sir Dawda Jawara

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US $260 (US 21,790)
Main exports: Peanuts. Tourism is the second biggest foreign-currency earner. Agriculture employs about 80 per cent of the workforce both on peanut production and food crops such as rice, maize, millet, sorghum and cassava. Some fruit and cotton farming also.
Main imports: Food, live animals, basic manufactures.

PEOPLE: 875,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 138 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Mandinka people are about 42 per cent of the population; also Fulla, Wolof and other groups.
Religion: Islam, traditional religions and some Christianity.
Languages: English is the official language; others used are Mandinka, Wolof, Fulla, Jola and French.

Sources: The State of the World's Children 1992; The State of the World's Population 1992; World Bank Report 1992; The Africa Review 1991/2.

Last profiled in May 1984



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Not much disparity; small urban population.

1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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LITERACY [image, unknown]
Very low at 27%, but local languages were not written until recently.

1984 [image, unknown]

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Dependent on aid for some food and all petroleum.

1984 [image, unknown]

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Repututation for civil liberties but one party remains in power.

1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Islam strong, but women can own land and are the main food growers.

1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
44 years (US 76 years). One of the lowest in the world. Malaria is endemic.

1984 [image, unknown]



Politics now

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Centre right; President has executive power.


NI star rating

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