The Gambia, population 2.3 million, is one of the smallest countries in Africa. "The" is part of its official name. The country is 200 miles long and nowhere more than 30 miles wide, stretching along both banks of the Gambia River. Except for a short Atlantic coastline, it is entirely surrounded by a much larger country, Senegal. These boundaries, like so many others in Africa, are the product of rivalry among 19th century colonial powers. The British made a colony out of the river, its banks and its port. France controlled the surrounding area. As a result, English is the official language of The Gambia today. In Senegal it is French. But the first languages of people on both sides of these borders are the same, predominantly Mandinka and Woloff.
The Gambia became independent peacefully in 1965. For three decades it was a constitutional democracy, ruled largely by one party. In 1994 a military officer, Yahya Jammeh, seized power in a coup. During Jammeh’s 22-year rule many political enemies were jailed, tortured or killed; newspapers were harassed; public protests were brutally disrupted. Jammeh was voted out of office in December 2016. At first he refused to relinquish power. Other West African countries massed troops on his border and persuaded him to go into exile in Equatorial Guinea. A new elected government, headed by Adama Barrow, has freed scores of political prisoners, largely restored major constitutional rights including freedom of the press, and has launched lengthy hearings by a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to determine who in the Jammeh administration should be punished and who should be forgiven.
According to the World Bank, The Gambia is among the poorest countries in Africa. Income per person in 2018 was the equivalent of $710 a year, but much less than that in rural areas. Almost 49 per cent of the country’s population lives below the nationally established poverty line. The Gambia’s main export, peanuts, is subject to the whims of both weather and markets. Tourist hotels along the Atlantic shore are another main industry. Apart from these the country has few natural resources.