Gambia - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of the Gambia
Formation 1965 / 1965
Population 1.8 million / 466 people per sq mile (180 people per sq km)
Total area 4363 sq. miles (11,300 sq. km)
Languages Mandinka, Fulani, Wolof, Jola, Soninke, English*
Religions Sunni Muslim 90%, Christian 8%, Traditional beliefs 2%
Ethnic mix Mandinka 42%, Fulani 18%, Wolof 16%, Jola 10%, Serahuli 9%, Other 5%
Government Presidential system
Currency Dalasi = 100 butut
Literacy rate 46%
Calorie consumption 2345 kilocalories
The history of The Gambia can be traced back to 500 C.E.
when the region was endowed with agricultural prosperity and the knowledge of smelting iron. The iron was turned into tools, cookware, and weapons and helped develop trade in the region. Between 500 and 1000, numerous stone circles were built between the Saloum and Gambia Rivers. The British Isles are well known for their ancient stone circles and menhirs, especially Stonehenge and the large ceremonial complex at Avebury, and similar stone structures are found throughout Europe, the Near East, and North America. Few, however, know about the stone circles found in The Gambia and southern Senegal, which have between 10 and 24 standing stones.
Although not as old as those of Europe, their construction was just as labor intensive, and the people who built them left hundreds behind. The sizes and shapes of the stones vary, though many are round with a flat top. Some are square, some have a ball cut in the top of the stone, and some smaller stones have a cup-shaped hollow on top. The largest stones found, thought to weigh as much as ten tons apiece, are at Niai Kunda.
Most of the stones are laterite, a red-brown iron-bearing sandstone, common in the area. Laterite was a perfect medium for working because it is a relatively unstable rock, which makes it easy to quarry. However, once exposed to air it hardens and is capable of withstanding considerable weathering, as The Gambia’s circles attest. Lab tests performed at the University of Dakar have dated the stones to around 750 (±110), before the Mandinka moved into the region. In spite of excavations, which found human remains, not much is known about the stones, their meaning, or the symbolism implied by their differences. The circles almost certainly were communal cemeteries. Some group, or even groups, had the time, the workforce, and the desire to construct them. The reasons for the various shapes, as well as the identity of the engineers who built them, remain mysteries.
By 1000 trade had increased significantly between the countries in the northern and southern regions of the Sahara. It is believed that the region was part of the Ghana Empire and the Songhai Empire successively.
Around the 14th century Gambia became part of the Mali Empire, founded by the charismatic ruler Sundiata Keita (c. 1190–c. 1255). The Mali Empire was the dominant force in the Sahara and controlled trans-Saharan trade, which brought it in contact with the powerful Arab chieftains. The Mali Empire was influenced by the teachings of Islam and eagerly embraced the religion.
But by the 15th century the influence of the Mali Empire was fading, and a group of Malinke (subjects of the Mali Empire) settled in the region near the Gambia River. They brought the teachings of Islam with them and came to be known as Mandinka. The Wolof, from Senegal, and the Fulani, the nomadic West African tribe, also began settling in the region around the same time.
The first European contact in the region came through the Portuguese in 1455, when navigators reached the Gambia River. Slavery was a part of the African culture before the arrival of Europeans.
However the Portuguese spread slave trade to other parts of the world and enjoyed a monopoly in this trade until the mid-16th century when their interests were threatened by the French and British. By the end of the 16th century Portuguese rule in the region had ended, and the British and French began fighting for dominance as the slave trade was the main source of revenue in the region. It is estimated that more than 3 million slaves were exported from the region during the colonial period.
The capital city of Banjul was called Bathurst until 1973. In 1816 Tumami Bojang, the king of the Kombos, who owned St. Mary’s Island, sold it to the British.
The British established Bathurst, named after Henry Bathurst (1762–1834), third Earl of Bathurst, then the colonial secretary. In 1820 the river Gambia was declared a British Protectorate. Slavery was abolished in all the colonies of the British Empire in 1834. The British tried to put an end to slave trade in the region, but were unsuccessful. In 1886 Gambia became a Crown Colony, and a year later the French and the British settled their ownership dispute in the region by defining the boundaries of Senegal (a French colony) and The Gambia.
British rule in the region continued until 1965, when the country was officially granted independence.
Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara (b. 1924), the leader of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), was sworn in as the first president of the Republic of The Gambia.
The article the was added before Gambia and the country was named “The Republic of The Gambia.” The Gambia became a republic in the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970, following a referendum. An unsuccessful coup in 1981 failed to bring a change in leadership. Also in 1982 Senegal and The Gambia signed the Treaty of Confederation, which led to the formation of The Senegambia Confederation. However, the idea of a unified culture and economy failed to win people’s votes in both countries, and The Gambia withdrew from the Confederation in 1989.
Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara remained the president of The Gambia until 1994, when he was forcibly displaced by a military coup led by Lieutenant Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh (b. 1965) and the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC). Jammeh was named president of The Gambia, and a transitional plan for restoring democracy was announced by the AFPRC. According to the plan fresh elections took place under international supervision, and Jammeh was reelected president of The Gambia in 2001.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Located in the western part of Africa, The Gambia is largely surrounded by Senegal with the Atlantic Ocean toward the west.
The Gambia River is one of the striking geographical features of the region, and the flood plain is flanked by low hills. It divides the country (lengthwise) into two equal parts. Gambia owes its diverse vegetation to the subtropical climatic conditions.
Mangrove forests dominate the areas along the Gambia River, while open savannahs (grasslands dotted with a wide variety of trees) and dry grasslands provide some greenery to the semi-arid Sahel region.
The Gambia has a subtropical climate, characterized by a long dry season followed by a short spell of rain. Humidity is a cause for major discomfort preceding the rainy season. The average day temperature between December and February is 75°F and 86°F from June to September.
The Gambia has a liberalized market-based economy with agriculture forming its backbone. Agriculture is the primary occupation of more than 75 percent of the population. Groundnuts (similar to peanuts), corn, rice, millet, and sesame are the chief crops.
The government has initiated many economic reforms that have contributed to the development of the region. A major problem is the trafficking of people for sexual exploitation and forced labor, especially children. There is as yet no comprehensive effort on the part of the government to halt these crimes.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
More than 63 percent of the population resides in the rural areas. But each year more and more rural youth are migrating to the cities in search of employment and a better life. Even though the urban population is greatly influenced by Western ideology and values, Gambians across the country still hold onto their traditions. Indigenous dress styles (depending on the tribe or ethnic group), as well as extended families, continue to be an integral part of the society.
The Gambia is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, each having its own customs, language, and traditions. The Mandinka are the dominant ethnic group, followed by other groups such as the Wolof, the Fula, and Serahule. It is estimated that more than 3,500 non-Africans, including Europeans and people of Lebanese origin, live in The Gambia.
Despite the ethnic diversity, there is minimal ethnic violence. Approximately 90 percent of The Gambians are Muslims while 9 percent are followers of Christianity.
The indigenous people have divided their society on the basis of status. Warriors and traditional nobility are at the top, followed by farmers, traders, and tradespeople, such as blacksmiths, weavers, and so forth. The griots (pronounced “GREE oh”), the traditional storytellers are the lowest in the caste system but are held in high esteem, because they are responsible for passing on oral history and traditions and can recite a family or village history from memory.
They are the custodians of the histories of the villages and their people.
Greeting each other is an important tradition of The Gambia. The Wolof and the Mandinka people have a special ritual for greeting each other that lasts for half a minute. Even in the urban areas, the greeting may be in French or English, but is never forgotten.
It is an integral part of The Gambian culture.
The Gambia has a rich musical tradition. The balafon (similar to a xylophone), ngoni (a lute), drums, and kora (a 21-string harp) are traditionally used as accompaniments during musical performances.
The griots and poets have carried on the ancient tradition of preserving family and village histories by bringing them alive through songs and long narratives. The griots, while playing the kora, sing praises and recite stories of the people’s glorious past, thereby arousing a sense of pride among the ethnic groups. The griots are the living encyclopedia of Gambia’s historical past and the custodians of its rich cultural heritage. They can recite different chapters of tribal history for many hours and even for days on end.
The Gambian cuisine offers a wide variety of traditional delicacies. These include benechin, a rice-based dish cooked in vegetable and fish sauce, and plasas, a fish or meat dish cooked with vegetable leaves in palm oil and served with fufu (a starchy accompaniment made of yam or plantain; the African equivalent to mashed potatoes).
In The Gambia, it is customary for people to eat from a communal bowl. Mats are spread on the ground, and the food bowl is placed at the center.
The meal is usually brought in large bowls and, if sauce is an accompaniment, then the oldest female of the house brings the sauce in another bowl. Washing hands is a ritual religiously followed prior to eating.
Men sit on the mats after removing their slippers, and food is served in the large communal bowls. In the villages men eat from the same communal bowl, while women eat from their own. Little boys eat with the men, and girls eat with the women.
In Gambian society, birth and pregnancy are secretive affairs. During the entire period of pregnancy people refrain from talking about it and are rather discreet in their behavior. The news is kept private, because the Gambians believe that talking about it can endanger the life of the unborn child, causing some harm to befall it. After the birth of a child, certain rituals are performed to ward off evil. For example fire burns for a week in a house where a child is born, and the mother has to remain indoors.
The naming ceremony takes place one week after the child’s birth. The father or his relatives have the right to name the child, and the father is responsible for inviting friends and family for festivities and rituals. The naming ceremony takes place early in the morning and begins with an elder shaving the child’s head or cutting a lock of hair and saying a prayer. Then the priest whispers the chosen name in the child’s ear, while the griot (“praise-singer”), or musical entertainer, says it aloud for the entire community to hear. Once the name has been announced, the child’s hair is buried. On this day, livestock and poultry are sacrificed, and food is offered to the guests. Later in the evening a huge feast is held followed by drumming and dancing.
COMING OF AGE
Circumcision is a ritual performed at puberty among the Mandinka, the Fulas, and the Jolas. Young boys between the ages of 8 and 12 years are circumcised in special ceremonies in accordance with the customs and traditions of the ethnic group. Ritual genital cutting (also called female genital mutilation, FGM) for girls, a highly controversial practice that has been banned in many countries, is still performed in the Gambia. The Foundation for Research on Women’s Health, Productivity, and Environment (BAFROW), a Gambian women’s organization, reports that seven of the Gambia’s nine ethnic groups practice FGM, and estimates that between 60 to 90 percent of women in the Gambia have had these operations.
Almost 100 percent of Fula and Sarahuli women have had their genitals removed.
The Wolof tribe prefers a different manner of welcoming adulthood. When they reach puberty, children spend a time in seclusion (in modern times it is only a few days) during which they are taught lessons on adulthood, tribal history, traditions, and customs, and informed of their duties and responsibilities as adults. While boys customarily wear white robes with a triangular hood, girls wear specially designed bead-dresses.
At the end of this instruction period a big ceremony is held at the village to welcome the initiates back into village life. Parents prepare special clothing for the initiates, which they wear for several days after their return.
Socializing, feasting, dancing with masks, and drumming are highlights of the initiation ceremonies.
Arranged marriages are the norm in many parts of Gambian society. The suitor, or his family, sends kola nuts (an indigenous fruit of West Africa used to make soft drinks) to the family of the bride-to-be; this is considered an official proposal. In Islamic society a marriage needs to have the consent of both the bride and groom. If the bride’s family accepts the gift of kola nuts, then the marriage is considered fixed.
Kola nuts are considered a symbol of purity and for this reason are used as offerings for marriages. The suitor must also give money and other gifts to the bride’s family. All this is in addition to the bride price fixed by the bride’s family and which the suitor has to negotiate and pay in order to win the right to court his bride-to-be.
After the bride’s price has been paid, the bride’s family gives a dowry to the groom, which consists of clothes, jewelry, utensils, and all the equipment needed by the newly married couple to set up their house. A religious leader performs the legal rites of Muslim marriages, which are usually performed in the bride’s family home in the presence of the fathers or guardians of both the bride and the groom.
If the bride price is paid at the time of marriage, the groom can take his bride with him, and they immediately embark on their new life. Otherwise another ceremony takes place at a later date (when the bride price is paid), after which the groom may take his bride home.
Partying, dancing, and drumming are all part of the wedding celebration. All wedding guests are expected to contribute food or money to the couple, the bride’s parents, and the griots (“praise-singers”).
In Gambian society the family and friends of the deceased person express their grief by sobbing and wailing. When a person discovers the death of a villager, he wails out loud to inform the other members of the community. The village elders then inform the family and friends of the death and make arrangements for the burial. The dead body is washed and dressed in a white shroud and is either placed in a coffin or on a mat. Men carry the body to the mosque where prayers are offered for the deceased. Then the body is taken for burial and the bereaved family gives money or food to the needy in the name of the dead person. The third, seventh, and the 40th day following the burial are also days for the family of the deceased to practice charity.
According to Islam the mourning period of a widow lasts four months and 10 days, during which time she has to remain confined to the house and wear simple clothes without adornment.