A Silver in the side of Senegal, tiny Gambia attracts thousands of tourists to linger on its beach-lined shores, or head up country to see a staggering number of bird species
Capital: Banjul, Population: 1.6 Million, Area: 11,300 Sq km, Official language: English
A quirk of colonial history, The Gambia is one of the worlds’ unlikeliest countries. About 300 kilometers long, but averaging only 35 kilometers wide, The Gambia Stretches only a few square kilometers north and south of the Gambia River, and is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, bar some 80 kilometers of Atlantic coast that define its western edge. There is not much space for exciting natural features: there are no hills or mountains, no deserts or imposing bush lands. Temperatures are not quite as even as the land is flat, however – averaging around 250C from December to April and 300 C from May to September
History in a Nutshell
Little is known about ancient history in the Gambia region, but the impressive Wassu stone circles in Eastern Gambia indicate that people settled here as early as AD 500. For centuries, the region formed part of West Africa’s rising and falling pre-colonial empires. One of these was the empire of Mali, ruled by the Malinke people – a branch of the Malinke settled in the region of The Gambia, and became one of the dominant ethics group. With colonial expansion, the Portuguese, French and British all tried to claim the region, and with the carving up of Africa in 1884-85, Britain was granted this tongue of land wedged into French territory. The Gambia finally shook off British colonial rule in 1965, though Queen Elizabeth remained titular head of state until 1970. Since the military coup on 22 July, 1994, The Gambia has been ruled by Yahya Jammeh, and though the nation has not seen any major conflict in that time, it suffers from autocratic rule and restrictions on civil liberties and the press.
The Gambia's famous beaches - the very ones that attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year - are 'fake'. The original beaches had almost disappeared because of illegal sand mining 'spraying' the beaches back on was a multi-million dollar project.
The Gambia's two most iconic buildings, Banjul's Arch 22 and Yundurn Airport, were actually designed by a Senegalese architect - the controversial Pierre Goudiaby.
Comprising 42 percent of the population, the Malinke are The Gambia's largest ethnic group, followed by the Fulani (18 percent), Wolof (16 percent), Jola (10 percent) and Sera huli (nine percent). Culturally, however, the Wolof are far more prominent than their humble population share suggests: the country is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, and its strong Wolof culture spills across all borders. Around 90 percent of Gambians are Muslim; the remaining 10 percent is comprised of both Christians and those professing traditional beliefs.
The Gambia's main source of revenue is the tourist industry; other important sources include groundnuts (peanuts) and the fishing industry. The apparent discovery of oil off The Gambia's shores in 2004 (proudly proclaimed by the president) so far has not turned it into one of the world's oil-rich nations - with a GDP per capita of US$1900, The Gambia is still one of the world's poorest countries (it is placed at 183 out of 232 nations).
The Punta Kinteh family, made famous in Alex Haley's book Roots
The Gambia Is the country of the ‘anti-super slave’, claiming the titles for both smallest African nation and most understated capital. ‘Smallest nature reserve’ could be added to the list. The Abuko Nature reserve near Banjul is a compact area with a stunning variety of mammals and birds - all easy to spot from well-placed hides. And there are plenty of other protected areas to cheer a nature lover's heart. Ornithologists are at risk of never wanting to return from the mangrove creeks and marsh plains of the Baobolong Wetlands or the savanna woodlands and tidal flats of Kiang West National Park.
On a global index of odd capitals, Banjul would be a strong contender for one of the top spots, less because of what it is than what it is not. It is neither big and bustling, nor nauseating and noisy; there are no new buildings rising to the skies, no traffic clogs the streets and the city falls into a comatose state at 8pm every day. Despite this, Banjul has a charm all its own. There is an endearing intimacy to the crumbling colonial buildings and clapboard houses, the colorful scenes of Albert market and the pushing and shoving around the ferry terminal - an intimacy that is possibly unique to Banjul, the capital the world nearly forgot.
African-Americans in search of their roots
Tourist –hustling youngsters
Exotic birds caught on film
The Malinke, The Gambia's largest ethnic group, are famous worldwide for their griot - a caste of musicians, praise-singers and historians. The griot's most famous instrument and African symbol, the kora (a type of harp or lute with 21 strings), is widely believed to have originated in the area of today's Gambia. To this day, some of West Africa's most prestigious families of kora players live here, including the descendants of renowned kora player Annadou Bansang Jobarteh.
While traditional music is alive and well in Africa's smallest nation, the popular scene is not exactly thrilling - perhaps due to the lack of the kind of urban grit that usually drives the sounds of cities around the world. Tata Dindin Jobarth and Jalibah Kuyateh are among the biggest names of the 'modern griot'. The booming reggae rhythms spilling out onto every street should certainly clarify why the country is frequently dubbed 'Little Jamaica', however!
Lounging on the beach at the resort hotels of Fajara, Kotu and Kololi
Trying to spot shimmering tail feathers in Abuko Nature Reserve
Steering a pirogue through the magnificent mangrove creeks of the Baobolong Wetlands
Weaving your way through the charming chaos of Serekunda market
Watching dozens of pirogues return from sea with their glistening catch at the tiny fishing village of Gunjur
Teasing the strings of the kora (an African harp-lute) with the famous griot families of Brikama
Strolling through the sleepy backstreets of Banjul
Best Time to visit: November to March