Culture

Republic of The Gambia is the official name of The Gambia. The country was named after the Gambia River, which flows from East to West for three hundred miles, the entire length of the country. Gambia is a small country with a population of 1.2 million. It straddles the Gambia River on either side.

Gambia is on the western coast of Africa, surrounded on three sides by Senegal. Situated on a sandy peninsula between the mouth of the Gambia River and the Atlantic Ocean, Banjul, the capital, was founded by the British as Bathurst in 1816 as a base for suppressing the slave trade. The Gambians changed its name to Banjul in 1973, eight years after independence. Gambia is the smallest country in Africa with a total area of 4,363 square miles (11,300 square kilometers), slightly less than twice the size of Delaware. Gambia has the typical West African climate: there is a hot, rainy season (June to November), and a cooler, dry season (November to May). It is a relatively flat land with its lowest point being sea level at the Atlantic Ocean with the maximum elevation being 174 Feet (53 meters) in the surrounding low hills. The Gambia River is the dominant geographical feature of the country, providing both a useful means of transportation and irrigation as well as a rich ground for fishing, boating, and sailing.

The total population of Gambia, from a July 1999 estimate, is 1,336,320. The main ethnic groups in Gambia are the Mandingo (42 percent of the overall population), Wolof (16 percent), Fulani (18 percent), Jola (10 percent), Serahuli (9 percent), other Africans (4 percent), and non-Africans (1 percent). By age, the population is distributed as follows: (per a 1999 estimate) 0–14 years, 46 percent (male, 305,839; female, 304,905); 15–64 years, 52 percent (male, 341,947; female, 348,163); 65 years and over, 2 percent (male, 18,706; female, 16,760). The population is growing at a rate of 3.35 percent per year. The birthrate is 42.76 births per 1,000 population, and the death rate is 12.57 deaths per 1,000. The infant mortality rate is 75.33 deaths per 1,000 live births. Average life expectancy is 54.39 years; for women it is 58.83 years compared with 52.02 years for men.

English is the official language but indigenous languages include Mandinka, Wolof, and Fula.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation.The first written mention of Gambia is in the work of Hanno the Carthaginian in his writings about his voyage to West Africa in 470B.C.E.Gambia at various times was part of different West African kingdoms, including the kingdoms of Foni, Kombo, Sine-Saloum, and Fulladou. Its various ethnic groups migrated to Gambia from different areas of West Africa. Trade was vital to Gambia, especially trade with Ghana, Songhai, and the Mali Empire (between the Atlantic Ocean and the River Niger), Kanem-Bornu, and the Hausa States.

By 1500C.E., trade with Europe was established. In the 1450s, Venetian explorer Alvise Cadamosto, under commission from Portugal, was the first European to reach the Gambia River. The English were not far behind, coming to West Africa to buy gold and spices. The Portuguese successfully barred English trade for one hundred years. At the end of the sixteenth century, however, the English and French managed to establish trade in the area.

After numerous conflicts the British, in the Treaty of Versailles of 1783, gained control of the Gambia River. In 1807, the British abolished slave traffic on the river.Muslims were involved in the trans-Saharan slave trade, as well as more legitimate trade. Along with trade, merchants brought Islam and Muslim culture to Gambia. More directly, Muslim Berbers from Mauritania were the direct agents of Islam to the Gambia and Senegal. As in other parts of West Africa, rulers in the Gambia became Muslims and used its law, the Shariya, to consolidate their power.

Gambia became part of a larger British colony, the Province of Senegambia, which included present-day Senegal and Gambia. The Senegambia has the distinction of being the first British colony in Africa. The French took Senegal in 1799, and the British agreed to base their trade around Bathurst and Fort James. In 1821, Gambia became a crown colony as part of the colony of Sierra Leone. In 1843, however, the Gambia was separated from Sierra Leone. The Gambia became a British Protectorate in 1888.

The British did not begin to develop Gambia properly until after World War II when administration posts were set up. Internal self-government came in 1963. Independence Day was 18 February 1965 when Gambia became a sovereign republic within the British Commonwealth of Nations. In 1969, Gambia and Senegal formed Senegambia, but in 1982 the confederation was dissolved with the mutual consent of both partners.

Although the Gambia is comprised of people of many different ethnic groups, there seems to be relative harmony among them and among people of different religions. Gambia has a generally good human rights record, and there is a great desire among its peoples to have the country taken seriously in the world community.

Gambia is a multiethnic country; major ethnic groups include the Fula, Jola, Mandinka, Serahule, and Wolof. There is no part of The Gambia that is inhabited by one single ethnic group. This close dwelling has led to a sharing of many cultural traits among the groups, which has led to a movement toward a Gambian national culture. There has been a concentrated effort to represent the various minority ethnic groups in government. In addition to indigenous ethnic groups, there has also been an annual migration from Senegal, Guinea, and Mali. Many people from those countries come to trade in groundnuts (peanuts) and stay to settle.

The Wolof and the Mandinka are the major ethnic groups. The Wolof live mainly in the capital, Banjul. The Mandinka are the largest single ethnic group in the country. These groups represent the former Empire of the Wolof in the Senegambian region and the Mandingo Empires of Mali and Songhai. Creoles form a large element within the local elite. Additionally, there are Mauritanians, Moroccans, and Lebanese in the country. These groups are mainly traders and shopkeepers. English is commonly spoken by members of all ethnic groups since it is the official language of the country. Each ethnic groups speaks its own language as well. Harmony among ethnic groups is the general rule, so much so that Gambia is considered to be a melting pot of West African ethnic groups.

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