The Gambia

The Gambia, population 1.8 million, is one of the smallest countries in Africa. "The" is part of its official name. The country is 200 miles long and nowhere more than 30 miles wide, stretching along both banks of the Gambia River. Except for a short Atlantic coastline, it is entirely surrounded by a much larger country, Senegal. These boundaries, like so many others in Africa, are the product of rivalry among 19th century colonial powers. The British made a colony out of the river, its banks and its port. France controlled the surrounding area. As a result, English is the official language of The Gambia today. In Senegal it is French. But the first languages of people on both sides of these borders are the same, predominantly Mandinka and Woloff.

 

The Gambia became independent peacefully in 1965. It is a constitutional democracy, but one in which its first leader, Dawada Jawara, remained in power for three decades, first as prime minister, later as president. He was deposed in a military coup in 1994. The coup leader, Army Lieut. Yahya Jammeh, was elected civilian president in 1996. He was reelected in 2001, 2006 and 2011 for five-year terms.

According to the World Bank, The Gambia is among the poorest countries in Africa. Income per person in 2013 was $510 a year, but much less than that in rural areas.

The country's main export, groundnuts (peanuts), is subject to the whims of both weather and markets. There is a growing tourist industry. Luxury hotels have sprouted along its Atlantic beaches. There are few other natural resources. President Jammeh announced in 2004 that oil reserves had been detected offshore in Gambian waters, but these have not yet been brought into production.

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