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Gambia History, Language and Culture

History of Gambia

Before the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century, the nation’s history was preserved in oral traditions. Ancient stone circles, known as the Wassu stone circles, are evidence of an early population; however, not much is known of it.

According to, the area now known as The Gambia was part of the Ghana Empire ruled by the Serahuli between the 5th and 8th centuries. It later became part of the Mali Empire under the Susu and Mandinka in the 13th century, which declined by the 16th century.

In the 15th century, Europeans started to explore the river and coast area – the River Gambia soon became a busy trading zone for gold and slaves. During the colonial period, several European powers contested ownership of the river with Britain eventually prevailing, and The Gambia became a British Protectorate in the early 1820s, surrounded by French-ruled Senegal.

The drive for Gambian independence gained momentum after World War 2 and in 1961 the first universal franchise election was held, with Dawda Jawara winning. The Gambia became the last of Britain’s West African colonies to attain full independence, mainly because it was so small and poor that doubts surfaced about its economic viability. A merger with Senegal was suggested but rejected when the issue of how to share power could not be resolved. Eventually, in 1965 The Gambia achieved independence and Jawara became the country’s first Prime Minister before assuming the role of President when the country became a republic in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth.

A period of hope and relative prosperity matched by an era of political stability followed and with elections conducted every five years, The Gambia is one of the oldest multi-party democracies in Africa. However, dissatisfaction within the military and a failed coup in 1981 led to the establishment of the Senegambia Confederation in 1982, which aimed to unify the political, economic and defence structure of the two countries. The confederation lasted until 1989 when the project was aborted.

Nonetheless, close relations have remained between the two since the divorce. A bloodless coup in 1994 caught everyone by surprise but was welcomed by the majority of the population and Yahya Jammeh, a military man, assumed control and promptly banned political activity. In response, Western governments withdrew support for the country and the tourist industry collapsed, only recovering when Jammeh called elections in 1996, which he won.

Since the turn of the century, The Gambia has had a period of relatively high economic growth backed by a tourist boom and apparent stability. The country retains strong connections with Britain and is one of the few parts of West Africa where English, rather than French, is the official language. Under the surface, however, Jammeh became increasingly repressive and was involved in human rights violations. His time in office saw the oppression of LGBTQ+ people, anti-government journalists and opposition parties.

In December 2016, Adama Barrow won the democratic election; however, Jammeh refused to concede and, after being threatened by the African Union, fled to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017. In 2018, The Gambia officially rejoined the Commonwealth after the nation announced its exit in 2013.

Did you know?

• Contemporary Gambian music fuses Western sounds with Sabar, the traditional drumming and dancing of the Wolof and Serer peoples.

• The River Gambia is navigable deep into the continent, which made it a frequently-used site for the slave trade. Once slave trading was declared illegal in the 19th century the river became a strategic factor in its end.

• The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa.

Gambia Culture

Religion in Gambia

Over 90% Muslim, with the remainder holding either Christian or animist beliefs.

Social Conventions in Gambia

Handshaking is a common form of greeting; Salaam aleikum (Peace be upon you) is the traditional greeting. Naka nga def (Wolof for: How are you?) is widely used on the coast; Kori tanante (Mandinka for: How are you?) is widely used inland. Gambians are extremely friendly and welcoming, and, in general, visitors should not be afraid to accept their hospitality.

You should exercise common sense in their dealings with the persistent would-be guides, known locally as bumsters, who operate in some tourist areas. Many Gambians are Muslim, and their religious customs and beliefs should be respected by guests; however, most understand western customs and the English language. Visitors should remember that the right hand, not the left, must be used for the giving or receiving of food or objects.

Casual wear is suitable, although beachwear should only be worn on the beach or at the poolside. Only the most exclusive dining rooms encourage guests to dress up for dinner. Traditional culture in music, dancing and craftsmanship flourishes in the many villages in up-country Gambia. Travellers are advised not to photograph Banjul airport or military bases, and to ask the permission of any locals if wishing to photograph them and their village.

Language in Gambia

The official language is English. The most widely spoken local languages are Fula, Jola, Mandinka, Pulaar, Soninke, Serer-Sine and Wolof.

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