A crowded ferry boat on the River Gambia

Gambia, The Smiling Coast - in a Nutshell

Author: Sue
Date: 9th March 2020
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A Very Brief History of the Gambia

  • Arab Muslim merchants began to trade with indigenous West Africans in the area which is now The Gambia throughout the ninth and tenth centuries.
  • The first European Colonists to arrive here, were the Portuguese, in 1455. But they moved on.
  • Following this, there was a long colonial struggle between France and England, for possession of The Gambia. It eventually became a British protectorate and colony, in 1765.
  • The Gambia finally achieved independence, almost two hundred years later, in 1964, initially as a constitutional monarchy. The prime minister at that time said that one of the reasons they like to have ‘The’ in their name, is to avoid confusion with Zambia.
  • The Gambia left the Commonwealth in 2013. Its president said the British had taught them nothing, except how to sing Baa, Baa Black Sheep and God Save the Queen.

Gambia - Facts and Factoids

  • The Islamic Republic of Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa. It is a thin wiggling strip, almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, situated on both sides of the lower reaches of the Gambia River, the nation's namesake, There's a snippet of coastline (50 miles), with beach resorts, where the River Gambia empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Tourism is the major source of income, followed by agriculture. Subsistence farmers grow cereals, cotton and peanuts (groundnuts).
  • The river, with its mangrove swamps, is a birdwatcher's paradise - home to over 600 species
  • As its name suggests, The Gambia is predominantly a Muslim country.
  • In the 1970s the tourist board adopted the name 'The Smiling Coast' of The Gambia, to reflect the friendliness of the people and apparently, the shape of the river mouth on the map. Though, that takes a little imagination.
  • The Gambia is home to nine different tribes. The largest of these tribes is the Mandinka (or Mandingo),
  • The official title of the Gambian president is Sheikh Professor Doctor President.
  • People cast their votes in elections, in The Gambia, by dropping stones, or marbles, into holes.

Is the Gambia a Poor Country?

The economy is built on a small patch of tourism, peanuts and money sent home from abroad and a third of the population live below the poverty line. There have been periods when people were only eligible for government aid if they had supported the president in the elections.

Is the Gambia Safe to Visit?

The Gambia has a relatively developed tourist scene, with numerous hotels of varying standards and some lovely beaches. Nevertheless, and unsurprisingly considering the poverty, there is still a high level of petty crime and many overly persistent hawkers on the beach.

What to See and Do in The Gambia?

See my post What to See and Do in The Gambia

Getting In and Out

Crossing the River Gambia

The ferry across the river Gambia to Senegal is fun, on my first visit, the vehicles jam-packed and their owners happy to pose for pictures. The reverse journey on my third trip, is an annoying taste of the worst of Africa. The ferry is out of action - there’s a problem with the mooring platforms - and the local fishermen are mopping up all the business, overcharging and loading their craft to the gunwales with passengers.

This time, I’m traversing the Gambia, as I am driving north to south through Senegal. And I’m really wishing that we’d taken the easterly route, which involves driving much further, but uses the relatively new bridge over the river. The boats bob out precariously, lucky people in a few are all equipped with life jackets. They are also, alarmingly, helping to bail out. The dock is tall, the water low and the vessels have high sides. The passengers are given shoulder rides out and then scramble along planks propped inside the hull, to their perches. This is my ignominious fate. But first there are arguments about how much we will pay and blatant attempts to extort money made by ‘customs officials’. I tell them I’m happy for them to search my bags, but they don’t dare go that far and we are allowed to proceed. Then, there is another row about how much to pay for porterage of the bags, following which the outboard motor cuts out, when we finally do leave the berth.

The ride across is fairly uneventful, there’s just a gentle swell and guide Mountaga and I are the only passengers. It’s a piggyback, rather than shoulder ride, on the other side and another debate about the price for carrying the bags through the throng to the street. And then another one, as we have to carry all the bags back again, as Mountaga can’t find our new driver and hasn’t thought it necessary to communicate with him, before our arrival.

The Road Border South to Casamance

The border posts on the road back into Senegal are dilapidated, and the immigration official wants to be my friend, which means he wants money. Everyone wants money. There are posters plastered on every wall, warning against sex trafficking and FGM.  Gambia is most definitely two parallel worlds.

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