The Gambia Today

New hope has returned to The Gambia. In a presidential election held in December 2016, former businessman Adama Barrow won a surprise victory over long-time ruler Yahya Jammeh. The momentous event caught many by surprise, not least of all Jammeh himself, a strong-armed leader who, since overthrowing the government in a 1994 coup, had shown little desire to relinquish power. When Jammeh reneged on his promise to accept defeat, the international community intervened, strongly condemning his actions, and several West African nations sent troops into Banjul. In January 2017 Jammeh went into exile (likely in Equatorial Guinea, though his exact whereabouts remain unknown), allegedly absconding with more than US$11 million from state coffers.

President Barrow has ambitious plans, and has taken aim at The Gambia’s widespread corruption, starting with his predecessor. Shortly after winning office, Barrow announced plans to establish a truth commission to investigate Jammeh’s alleged human rights abuses. Barrow’s other pledged goals include creating a free and independent judiciary and laying the foundation for job creation, particularly among the youth. The Gambia certainly faces grave challenges, with nearly 60% of the nation mired in poverty.

Culture

Holiday brochures like to describe Gambia as the 'Smiling Coast'. Hospitality certainly is part of Gambian culture, but it's more easily found upcountry, away from the large tourist centres.

Years of authoritarian rule have resulted in a climate of distrust. Conversations are often conducted with care, and few people will express their views on governmental politics openly – you never know who might be listening. Short-term travellers might not readily notice this. Yet being aware of the troubles the population faces will help you understand the country better and grant you an insight into the real Gambia that lies beyond the polished smiles and tourist hustling.

People

With around 115 people per square kilometre, The Gambia has one of the highest population densities in Africa. The strongest concentration of people is around the urbanised zones of the Atlantic Coast. Forty-five per cent of the population is under 14 years old.

The main ethnic groups are the Mandinka (comprising around 34%), the Fula (around 22%) and the Wolof (about 12%). Smaller groups include the Diola – also spelled Jola (11%), the Serer and Manjango. About 96% of the population is Muslim. Christianity is most widespread among the Diola.

Arts & Craft

The kora, Africa's most iconic instrument, was created in the region of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau after Malinké groups came here to settle from Mali. Famous kora players include Amadou Bansang Jobarteh, Jali Nyama Suso, Dembo Konte and Malamini Jobarteh.

In the 1960s, The Gambia was hugely influential in the development of modern West African music. Groups like the Afro-funky Super Eagles and singer Labah Sosse had a huge impact in The Gambia, Senegal and beyond. Today, it's locally brewed reggae and hip hop that get people moving. Even the president has been seen rubbing shoulders with the world's reggae greats, proud to hear his country nicknamed 'Little Jamaica'.

Banjul's national museum has a few good examples of traditional statues and carved masks on display. Leading contemporary artists Njogu Touray and Etu produce colourful works from mixed materials. Fabric printers such as Baboucar Fall and Toimbo Laurens push the art of batik in new creative directions.

Environment

At only 11,295 sq km, The Gambia is mainland Africa's smallest country. It's also the most absurdly shaped one. Its 300km-long territory is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal and dominated by the Gambia River that runs through it. The country is flat, and vegetation consists mainly of savannah woodlands, gallery forests and saline marshes. Six national parks and reserves protect around 4% of the country's landmass. Some of the most interesting ones are Abuko, Kiang West and Gambia River. The Gambia boasts a few large mammals, such as hippos and reintroduced chimps, but most animal lovers are drawn to the hundreds of spectacular bird species that make The Gambia one of the best countries in West Africa for birdwatching. The main environmental issues are deforestation, overfishing and coastal erosion.