Gambia — History and Culture
Gambia’s history is not quite as dark as that of neighboring African countries which underwent violent wars, but it did experience the slave trade. The country was once an important trading port because of the River Gambia and many European powers tried to control access. It was Britain who won, making Gambia a British Protectorate by the 1820's. As a result, English became one of the national languages of the country, which makes it a friendly place to visit for foreigners.
The 5th to 11th-century empire of Ghana and the 13th- to 15th-century empire of Mali once made up the region currently known as Gambia. Towards the end of 1456, James Island welcomed the first navigators from Portugal, who immediately began trading along the coast of West Africa. From the 15th to 16th centuries, the Portuguese exchanged iron, firearms, salt, pots, gunpowder, and pans for gold, ebony, ivory, and beeswax.
Baltic Germans built their James Island fort in 1651, but the British displaced them in 1661. French ships, African kings and pirates constantly threatened the British, so newer forts were established at Bathurst (modern-day Banjul) and Barra, as well as on the mouth of the River Gamba. Fort James served as a slave post until the practice was abolished in 1807. Meanwhile, the British continued to move upstream and finally, in 1820, the entire region was declared a British Protectorate and classified a crown colony in 1888.
The desire for independence became stronger after WWI when some Gambians were recruited to join the Allies only to find out that they were still considered second-class citizens. Self-governance did not happen until 1963, and it took Gambia two more years to finally achieve complete independence. David Jawara, the People’s Progressive Party leader, was appointed the prime minister.
Gambia is the last of the Britain’s colonies to gain full independence because of its size and poverty issues, but they have showed signs of progress. In 1981, a failed coup was conducted by the military leading to the 1982 Senegambia Confederation. This almost unified Senegal and Gambia, but the idea was terminated in 1989. Both countries still maintain good ties, making it easy to go on daytrips between Gambia and Senegal.
There was another coup in 1994, and although there was no bloodshed, it halted the tourism industry. Luckily, this has since recovered in the 1996 elections when Yahya Jammeh won. In recent years, Gambia has been experiencing steady economic growth and still maintains close ties to the UK.
Gambia may be small, but it is home to multi-cultural people with several ethnic groups. Gambians are generally bi-lingual and able to speak English. It is also common to meet locals who know three or four indiginous languages. More than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, while the rest are either animists or Christians.
The diversity contributes to the colorful local culture. While most of the practices are based on Islam, ethnic traditions are also tolerated and respected. More than 80 percent of Gambians live in rural areas, though many young people are moving into Banjul to work or study. More people are also learning Western values and habits, and many of them appreciate or listen to pop music.
It is customary to shake hands and say Salaam aleikum, which means, "Peace be upon you," as the traditional greeting. Gambians are generally peaceful and friendly, so there is no need to be afraid or embarrassed when they treat you hospitably.
Casual clothes are suitable everyday, with swimwear confined to the pool or the beach. High-end dining restaurants encourage dressing up for dinner. Businesspeople are expected to be in suits and ties or wear jackets when attending meetings.