The Gambia - Background information

Natural history
People and culture          


Ker Batch National Monument, The Gambia by Ariadne Van ZandbergenA museum display at the Ker Batch National Monument, one of four UNESCO-inscribed stone circles in Senegambia © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Abridged from the History section in The Gambia: the Bradt Travel Guide


It wasn’t until the early 1960s that The Gambia again entered the international arena. In 1962, the Gambian parliament – the House of Representatives – was formed. A popular young man by the name of David Jawara, from upcountry, had founded a political party called the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) at the start of the decade. This party easily won the elections to form a majority in the House of Representatives. Following this the country gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1965. David Jawara was inaugurated as prime minister, though the Queen of England still remained as titular head of state. One of the first things to change was the name of Bathurst, which reverted to its former name of Banjul. Also around this time Gambia was renamed as The Gambia, due in no small part to the fact that it was often getting confused with the African state of Zambia.

From 1965 to 1975, The Gambia prospered. World groundnut prices increased threefold and the tourist industry grew from just 300 visitors during 1966 to over 25,000 ten years later, earning the moniker ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa’. Initially most of the tourists came from Sweden, but gradually more and more came from the United Kingdom. It was during this period, in 1970, that The Gambia became a fully fledged independent republic. Prime Minister Jawara became president and also changed his name from David to the local equivalent, Dawda.

However, this high couldn’t last forever and groundnut prices began to fall sharply in the late 1970s, making most Gambians worse off than they had been before independence. In 1980, a group of disillusioned soldiers staged a coup, but President Jawara asked for help from the Senegalese and the attempt failed. Later in 1981 there was another coup attempt while Jawara was away in London, and his family were taken as hostages and held prisoner in the Medical Research Council buildings in Fajara. Again the Senegalese army helped, along with special forces soldiers from Britain who secured the release of the president’s family, and the coup failed once more. At this time the tourist industry was still growing and became a vital source of income for the Gambian government. Politics became more volatile and support for opposition parties grew, especially the ‘Movement for Justice in Africa’ (MOJA). Eventually the leaders of MOJA were arrested or were forced into hiding.

In 1982, President Jawara announced that The Gambia and Senegal armed forces would be fully integrated and the Senegambian Coalition came into being. This policy lacked popular support among the Gambian population, especially with the Mandinka who saw the coalition as a takeover bid by the Wolof (who are the predominant ethnic group in Senegal), and tensions flared in the country. However, Jawara won the elections in the same year, and the following elections in 1987, as he still had a large popular backing. Jawara was widely praised for advancing human rights and for his attempts to improve The Gambia’s economy, which led to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) establishing its secretariat in Banjul in 1989. However, in the late 1980s things went from bad to worse in The Gambia as groundnut prices continued to fall. At the same time the International Monetary  Fund, on whom The Gambia relied heavily, restructured its agricultural subsidies and spending on public services were cut. The remote upcountry areas were hit the hardest and there were cases of malnutrition and even starvation in the poorest areas. There were two more failed coup attempts during this period.

In 1989, relations became strained between Senegal and The Gambia and the coalition was dissolved. Senegal imposed severe border restrictions between the two countries, but by 1991 things had cooled down and a new treaty of friendship and co-operation was signed between the neighbours. In 1992, the PPP was reelected for its sixth term in power

Natural history

By Craig Emms and Linda Barnett, with additions and adaptations by Philip Briggs

Abridged from the Natural History section in The Gambia: the Bradt Travel Guide

The Gambia is justifiably proud of its rich natural heritage. This pride is manifested in many different ways, including the Banjul Declaration of 1977, the far-reaching and forward-thinking wildlife law, and the provision of eight protected sites totalling nearly 4.9% of the land area. The Gambia is also meeting its international obligations in preserving the world’s biodiversity by being a signatory to many international conventions, including the Convention on Biodiversity.

River Gambia, the Gambia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image LibraryThe River Gambia is the country's main feature © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

One of the tools used to prevent overexploitation of wildlife is the Wildlife Act of 1977. In essence the law is fairly simple: in order to safeguard the country’s wildlife and natural history, all wildlife is protected by law, and anyone who is found hunting, selling, importing or exporting, or keeping wild animals as pets is breaking the law and may be prosecuted, fined and imprisoned. The only exception to this rule is the hunting of a number of species that are considered to be pests. These include warthog, giant pouched rat and francolin. Such hunting is licensed and organised by the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management. 

The Gambia is also a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES). Please remember this if you are offered any live or indeed any part of a dead wild animal to buy (eg: a skin, horns or turtle shell). It is illegal to export any of these items from The Gambia, or even to have them in your possession while in the country. 

Geology and geography

The Gambia is a flat country with a highest point of only 53m above sea level. It lies on a vast plateau of sedimentary sandstone that stretches from Mauritania in the north to Guinea Conakry in the south, and is tilted slightly towards the Atlantic. The main feature of the country is the River Gambia, which enters The Gambia about 680km from its source in the Fouta Djallon Highlands in Guinea. The river flows in a general east–west direction until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and cuts a winding, shallow valley for itself through the surrounding sandstones and claystone. The river has also laid down a series of alluvial deposits such as clay and sand which have partly filled this valley. Some of these deposits have been fairly recent in geological time. The river flats are normally separated from the surrounding plateau by a series of low sandstone hills, especially in the east of the country. In some places, though, extensions of the plateau have formed impressive cliffs that overlook the river.

The wildlife


Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, River Gambia National Park, The Gambia by Ariadne Van ZandbergenThe country supports an introduced population of common chimpanzee © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

At present, five primate species are widespread and relatively common in The Gambia: western red colobus, patas monkey, green (or callithrix) monkey, Guinea baboon and Senegal bushbaby. The first four are fairly easy to see diurnally in the right habitat. The country also supports an introduced population of common chimpanzee, confined to three islands in the River Gambia National Park, and possibly a relict population of Campbell’s monkey.


Malchite kingfisher, The Gambia by Manja, ShutterstockMalachite kingfishers are one of around 600 bird species recorded in The Gambia © Manja, Shutterstock

Birds are a major and vital part of every habitat in The Gambia and can be seen just about everywhere. Unlike many of the ‘little brown jobs’ that can be found in Europe and North America, Gambian birds tend to be more colourful and confiding, therefore making a birdwatching trip to the country a visit to remember. It can also be a great introduction to many species that can be found elsewhere in Africa. Although thousands of birdwatchers visit The Gambia each year, many of them concentrate on the best-known and most easily accessible sites. This means that for the more adventurous there is still a real chance of adding a new species to the country list, as we ourselves have done on several occasions. Almost 600 bird species have been recorded in The Gambia, a phenomenal number considering the small size of the country. Yet there are many reasons why this is so, including the vast array of different habitats, ranging from the coast, through saltwater and freshwater wetlands, Guinea and Sudan savannah, woodlands and forests, to agricultural land, towns and villages. The Gambia is also visited by hundreds of thousands of European birds during the northern winter, as well as by smaller numbers of African birds that migrate from the north and south during the summer.

Wildlife viewing

Many people think of West Africa as being relatively poor in wildlife, especially when compared with the great national parks of East Africa. And it is true that the region is now relatively impoverished in terms of glamorous large mammals. All the same, there is wildlife everywhere in The Gambia, whether it be sparkling dragonflies or colourful butterflies, noisy frogs, scampering lizards or sleepy crocodiles. And there are still some large mammals too: hippos, leopards and warthogs, as well as dolphins and a range of monkeys. 

People and culture

Abridged from the People and culture section in The Gambia: the Bradt Travel Guide

The people

Children, Georgetown, The Gambia by Marco MuscaràLocal children in Georgetown © Marco Muscarà

The Gambia is a nation containing a myriad different peoples from all over the world. However, the majority of the country’s historical inhabitants are made up of eight different tribes. These are the Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Jola, Sarahule, Serer, Aku and Manjango. Many recent immigrants from surrounding countries including Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone have joined them. Many of these immigrants have fled from the civil wars and rebellions plaguing their homelands to seek peaceful co-existence in The Gambia. Mauritanians, intensely proud and dressed in their long, loose, sleeveless robes of blue, run many of the small shops in every village and town that seem to be open all hours. Businessmen from Ghana also run The Gambia’s biggest fishery complex at Ghana Town. Alongside these there is also the expat community, which ranges from newly arrived Europeans to second- and third-generation Lebanese, many of whom opted to keep their Gambian passports when they were given a choice of nationalities at the time of independence in 1965. 

Although it is not possible to tell the peoples of the different indigenous tribes apart by their appearance, each ethnic group has its own traditions, language and background. Conversely, the small size of the country, generations of intermarriage and the unifying force of Islam have also contributed to a great sharing of cultural heritage among the tribes and peoples of The Gambia.


Festivals and ceremonies

International Roots Festival, The Gambia by Ariadne Van ZandbergenThe International Roots Festival is a vibrant example of how Gambian heritage and culture is showcased and celebrated © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

During your stay in The Gambia, you are very likely to hear, before you see, a Gambian ceremonial occasion taking place. Festivities such as weddings, naming ceremonies, initiation ceremonies and other special Muslim and Christian festivals are celebrated by lavish feasting, drumming, music and dancing. A village will also celebrate the arrival of a special guest, the event being marked by the dancing of the kanali – a group of women dancers.

Festivals and ceremonies are loud and colourful events, with participants having new clothes made and dressing elegantly. Of course they are also costly affairs and so traditionally contributions are made to the host family in the form of money or food. 

If you are invited to a celebration, you will be expected to bring something. You should also expect to give a present or some money to the griots (musicians and oral historians) that come to these events.

Festivals and ceremonies are very important and much of African life is centred on such events, which help to reinforce the social structure.


Artwork is all around you in The Gambia. Not only in the market stalls, or bengula (meeting place), near the hotels or craft markets in Banjul, but also in the metalworkers’ yards, and the woodworkers’ and tailors’ shops along every road.

Music and dancing

Drumming is an essential part of West African traditional music, and the music itself is at the heart of the culture. It is through the music that history is passed from generation to generation, social structures are reinforced, and traditional skills are perfected. Particularly in rural areas, the beating of drums is a characteristic Gambian sound, heard on most nights of the week, and often during the day.

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