The Gambia is the smallest country on the African continent and is completely surrounded by Senegal. It lies on the westernmost tip of Africa. The Gambia bores itself from the African west coast like a long, curved finger inland. On the coast, the country is still 48 km wide, but it gradually narrows to 24 km; in total Gambia is 320 km long. The river Gambia cuts the country in half from west to east, so it divides the country in two again, which is very drastic. There are hardly any possibilities to cross the river. But the Gambia is one of the best navigable rivers in West Africa.
The Gambia has about 1.5 million inhabitants and with 110 inhabitants per km2 is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Most people live in the coastal region, where the four main cities are located, Banjul, Serekunda, Bakau/Fajar and Brikama. There are several ethnic groups living in The Gambia, of which Mandinka is the largest with 44%. There are also the Fula (about 18%) and the Wollof (about 12%) of the population. The Mandinka and the Fula live mostly in the countryside and farms agriculture and cattle breeding, while the Wollof live more in the urban areas, where they are mostly engaged in trade.
English is the official language in education, government and the judiciary; about half of the population has a reasonable to good command of this language. The most important tribal language, Mandinka, is the language in which the tribes communicate with each other.
The economy of The Gambia is one of the weakest in the world. The Gross National Product per capita is € 350 (in the Netherlands more than € 20,000).
The Gambian economy rests mainly on the agricultural sector. Agriculture’s most important export product is peanuts. This is a shaky basis, because prices on the world market fluctuate strongly. Spices, papaya and mango are also exported on a smaller scale. They grow rice, cassava and couscous for their own use.
April and May, the dry months before the rainy season, are known as ‘hungry season’. The winter stocks are exhausted and it is waiting for the new harvest. Every year it’s waiting to see how big the yield will be, a lack of rain or a plague of locusts can destroy the whole harvest.
The acreage of agricultural land is decreasing sharply due to soil depletion. In the last 30 years, rainfall has decreased by 30%, making drought an increasing problem, as well as erosion due to deforestation. The government tries to combat the latter problem by banning the felling of (fire) wood and by planting new trees. But reforestation has only just begun.
Most of the fresh fish caught on the ocean and in the river is sold to restaurants and tourist hotels. For the locals the fish is offered for sale at the local market and at roadside stalls. Part of the fish is smoked and goes to Ghana as an export item.
The tourist industry provides an increasing share of the national income and thus contributes more and more to the employment and prosperity of the population. However, tourism is mainly concentrated in the west along the coast with its beautiful beaches, so only the population in the west benefits from this. The inhabitants in the interior often only live to survive.
The processing of groundnuts, the assembly of for example small agricultural machines, the manufacture of clothing and woodworking provide some light industry.
The informal sector with small trade in fruit, vegetables and music cassettes provides another source of income. Despite this, unemployment in The Gambia is high and the vast majority of Gambians live in absolute poverty (less than $1 per day to spend).
The Gambia is very dependent on imports for food, fuel, means of transport and semi-manufactured goods. Most imports come from China (23%), but also countries like Senegal (11%) and the Netherlands (5%) trade with The Gambia. A lot of food such as onions, potatoes but also eggs and chickens, comes from the Netherlands.
Nowadays about 55% of the children are in primary education. Since a few years, primary education at the government schools for girls is free; as a result, illiteracy has decreased. Although the education is paid for by the government, the parents have to pay the costs for books, exercise books, pens and the school uniform themselves.
Many children do not attend school all year round; during the harvest season they are needed at home to help out on the land.
For most children, further education is not feasible because the costs are too high for the parents.
Health care in The Gambia is at a very low level. There is a shortage of almost everything: there are too few clinics, too few doctors, too few trained nurses, and too few medicines. In rural areas thousands of people depend on the (maternity) clinics that are located in the larger villages. Patients have to walk there or be brought with a donkey cart, because in rural areas there are often no cars for that purpose. In these small health clinics there is usually a midwife and a nurse, but almost never a doctor. For laboratory research they have to rely on the district hospitals. In the interior there are two hospitals, one in Bansang and one in Farafenni.
From a medical point of view in The Gambia, the greatest care is given to mother and child, i.e. checks before childbirth, childbirth itself and the control of the infants. However, the maternity clinics and the “consultancies” often have hardly any equipment (e.g. baby scales and blood pressure meters).
Women regularly die in childbirth. Infant mortality is also high.
On average, 48 out of 1,000 babies die at birth and some 125 do not reach the first year of life. The government already organises large vaccination campaigns against measles and polio. Much attention is also paid to HIV-Aids prevention.
In the densely populated coastal strip there are more medical facilities than in rural areas, but even there patients often have to go to one of the larger hospitals for further research. During the journey with the overcrowded bush taxi, this patient is a source of infection for the other passengers.
The main causes of death are malaria and diseases caused by drinking contaminated water (such as diarrhoea, hepatitis A and typhoid).
The life expectancy of the people in The Gambia is only 53 years, and only 3% of the population is older than 65 years.