25+ Facts About The Gambia You Should Know

Discover 25+ fascinating facts about The Gambia!

The Gambia, officially the Republic of the Gambia, is a small nation in West Africa. The Gambia’s captivating array of attractions belies its tiny size. Within its borders, you’ll come across golden-sand beaches backed by swaying palms, scenic lagoons, unspoiled stretches of wilderness, picturesque mud-built villages, and a spectacular range of wildlife. Here are some interesting facts about The Gambia.

Facts about The Gambia

1. The Gambia is the smallest country on the African mainland. 

Occupying a total area of 10,689 km² (4,127 sq mi), The Gambia is the smallest nation within mainland Africa. Comparatively, The Gambia is roughly the same size as Jamaica or slightly less than twice the size of the US state of Delaware.

2. The shape of The Gambia resembles that of a snake or a crooked finger.

One of the most fascinating facts about The Gambia is how it is shaped unlike any other nation in the world. The Gambia is less than 50 km (31 mi) wide at its widest point and resembles a bizarre, elongated crooked finger or a slithering snake. It is completely surrounded by Senegal on the north, south, and east.

3. The Gambia has an 80 km (50 mi) long coastline.

The Gambia has one of the shortest coastlines for a sovereign nation at 80 km (50 mi). Its coastline is located in the west of the country along the Atlantic Ocean. This small coastline, however, is of great economic advantage to The Gambia, as it allows the nation to house an ocean port.

4. The Gambia was formerly known just as “Gambia.”

Formerly just “Gambia,” the country’s name was changed to “The Gambia,” post-independence to eliminate confusion with the country of Zambia and the town of Kambia in Sierra Leone. The Gambia is one of the very few countries for which the definite article is commonly used in its English-language name. 

5. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in The Gambia. 

One of the lesser-known facts about The Gambia is that the Portuguese were the first known Europeans to set foot in the country. In the mid-15th century, the Portuguese established trading stations along the Gambia  River, to purchase slaves and commodities in exchange for cloth, guns, and other manufactured goods. 

6. The Gambia’s name comes from Portuguese. 

The Gambia name stems from the Gambia River which cuts directly through the middle of the country. The Gambia River’s name itself stems from the Portuguese word câmbio, meaning “exchange”, a common activity along the river.

7. The Gambia is often referred to as “The Smiling Coast.” 

The Gambia is nicknamed “The Smiling Coast” due to its position on the map of Africa. It cuts through the middle of Senegal in a way that appears like that of a smile on the map of the continent.

8. There are no mountains in The Gambia. 

The terrain of The Gambia is pretty flat and most of the country is a floodplain or mangrove swamp. The country is devoid of any mountains and the highest point in the country is Red Rock which is only 53 m (174 ft) above sea level. 

9. The Gambia is a former British Protectorate. 

With the decline of the Malian Empire in the late-16th century, the British, Dutch, and French trading companies were all trying to establish a presence on what’s now the coast of The Gambia. Britain won lasting influence in the River Gambia area after the Napoleonic wars and in the 1820s, the British declared a Protectorate, the “Settlement on the River Gambia.”

Britain’s establishment of “The Crown Colony and Protectorate of the Gambia”

was formally agreed at the Paris conference of 1889. The Gambia’s present-day borders were also carved out at the same time when France and Britain agreed to set the boundary at 10 km (6 mi) north and south of the Gambia River.

10. The Gambia gained independence in 1965.

In the 1950s, the pan-African momentum for breaking free from the shackles of colonialism was rapidly catching on in The Gambia. However, in a manner similar to that of many other countries in West Africa, The Gambia’s progression to independence was not a heroic one.

The Gambia became self-governing in 1963, although real independence was achieved on 18 February 1965. Five years later on 24 April 1970, The Gambia became a republic.

11. Banjul, The Gambia’s capital is the least-populated capital on the African mainland.

The Gambia’s laidback, low-rise capital Banjul lies on the small, flat St Mary’s Island at the mouth of the Gambia River. Home to a city-proper population of around 35,000 Banjul is the least-populated capital city on the African mainland.

12. Serekunda is the largest city in The Gambia.

The Gambia is one of quite a few countries where the capital is not the country’s largest city. The country’s largest city and commercial hub Serekunda is situated 13 km (8 mi) southwest of Banjul.

13. Kunta Kinte, the central character in the bestselling 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, is from The Gambia.

The Gambia once sat at the center of the slave trade and the country’s Kunta Kinteh Island, formerly known as James Island, was once a major waypoint of the Transatlantic slave trade. American author, Alex Haley, highlighted the slave trade from this region in his best-selling novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

The book tells the story of Kunta Kinte—a young man kidnapped from The Gambia when he was seventeen and sold as a slave—and seven generations of his descendants in the United States. Roots was adapted for a popular TV miniseries (Roots) in 1977 and 2016.

14. A variety of ethnic groups live in The Gambia.

The main ethnic groups are the Mandinka (comprising around 34%), the Fula (around 22%), and the Wolof (about 12%). Smaller groups include the Jola (11%), the Serahule, Serer,  Bambara, and Manjago.

15. English is the official language of The Gambia.

As a result of the British influence over The Gambia, the official language of the nation is English and it dominates the media.

16. The currency of The Gambia the Dalasi (GMD).

The dalasi has been the official currency of The Gambia since 1971 when it replaced the Gambian pound.

17. Over 20 different regional languages are spoken in The Gambia.

Despite being such a small country, over 20 tribal languages are spoken in The Gambia. Five of these – Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Jola, and Serer – are in common daily use. Either Wolof and Mandinka serve as the lingua franca in the country.

18. Over 95% of the population in The Gambia is Muslim.

Islam is by far the most prevalent religion in The Gambia and the majority of Muslims in The Gambia adhere to Sunni laws and traditions. Despite this, Islam has not extinguished traditional beliefs and even the most devout Gambian Muslims practice Islam that blends the teachings of the Koran with animist beliefs.

19. The Gambia was subjected to one of the most vicious and bizarre dictatorships from 1994 to 2017.

Since taking power in a bloodless coup in 1994, Yahya Jammeh presided over one of the worst dictatorships in recent African history. A sunglasses-wearing, limo-loving despot, Jammeh ruled with an iron fist for over 22 years through a mix of superstition and fear.   

While in power, Jammeh used any and all means at his disposal to repress political dissent in The Gambia. Anyone who spoke up against his cruel, outlandish ways was subject to unlawful imprisonment, state-sanctioned torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary executions. 

Jammeh was notorious for his bizarre and, at times, belligerent behavior. His eccentricities included performing ritual exorcisms and claiming to heal everything from AIDS to infertility with herbal remedies and magical incantations. A virulent homophobe, Jammeh threatened to decapitate all homosexuals, because they are “anti-God and anti-human.”

In 2013. Jammeh withdrew The Gambia from the Commonwealth by saying the British had taught his nation nothing except how to sing ‘Baa, Baa Black Sheep’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’ By the time he was ousted from power in 2017, Jammeh stole more than 11 million USD from The Gambia’s state coffers. 

20. The Gambia is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in The Gambia are Kunta Kinteh Island and the Stone Circles of Senegambia.

21. The national sport of The Gambia is a form of wrestling known as ‘Boreh’.

Traditional wrestling or ‘Boreh’ plays an important part of Gambian culture and remains the country’s national sport. A wrestling match in The Gambia is part sport and part celebration with a dance accompanied by the sound of drums.

22. The national football team of The Gambia is nicknamed “The Scorpions.”

In recent years football fever has swept The Gambia and the national football side of The Gambia is nicknamed “The Scorpions.” Unfortunately, the men’s national football team has tasted very little success at the international level and has never even qualified for the FIFA World Cup.

23. The Gambia has never won an Olympic medal.

Although The Gambia has sent athletes to every Summer Olympic Games held since 1984, the nation is still waiting to win an Olympic medal. The Gambia is yet to compete at the Winter Olympics.

24. People cast their votes in elections in The Gambia by dropping stones in holes.

One of the most fascinating facts about The Gambia is its unique voting system  – instead of ballot papers, voters use marbles. The system was introduced in the early 1960s to address the high illiteracy levels in the nation.

Each party/candidate competing in an election has a drum painted with its own identifying colors and their party symbol/photograph. On election day, voters are issued a marble each and proceed into an enclosed space where they are faced with the drums with photos of the candidates embossed on them.

Once they choose their candidate, the voters then slip the marble into a small hole in the top of the barrel. By falling, the marble hits a bicycle bell whose sound clearly indicates to the polling officials that a vote was cast.

Sawdust or sand is sprinkled on the bottom of the barrel so that no second sound is heard. Bicycles are also banned from the immediate proximity of polling stations. When the voting process has ended, votes are counted swiftly by placing the marbles into special trays with either 200 or 500 holes.

25. The national dish of The Gambia is Domoda.

Domoda is a rich peanut stew often made with palm oil, bitter tomatoes, and chicken or beef served with white rice.

26. The Gambia is not at all LGBT-friendly.

LGBT activity is completely illegal in The Gambia. Homosexual acts are punishable with life imprisonment. Contributing to the lack of acceptance of homosexuals in The Gambia is a pervading belief that homosexuals are cursed or bewitched.

27. There are no railways in The Gambia.

Although there has been talk about constructing a railway for many years, The Gambia is still devoid of railways.

28. The national animal of The Gambia is the spotted hyena.