24 interesting facts about the Gambia

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The most interesting facts about the Gambia, from washing in a sacred crocodile-infested pool to using marbles to vote in elections.

The Gambia River accounts for several interesting facts about the Gambia
The Gambia River accounts for several interesting facts about the Gambia (Shutterstock)

Fast facts

Official name: Republic of the Gambia
Population: 2,221,301
Area: 11,300 sq km
Capital city: Banjul
Major languages: English, Mandinka, Wolof, Fula
Major religions: Muslim 95.7%, Christian 4.2%
Time zone: UTC (Greenwich Mean Time)
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

Interesting facts about the Gambia

1. The Gambia is located in West Africa on the Atlantic coast and is entirely surrounded by Senegal.
– Source: Britannica

2. The Gambia was named after the Gambia River that flows through the heart of the country.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

3. An unusual shape, the Gambia occupies a long narrow strip of land that surrounds the Gambia River. At its narrowest, the country is just 15 miles (25km) wide and at its widest, it is still only 30 miles (50km) wide. Its territory extends almost 300 miles (480km) from the Atlantic coast into the interior.
– Source: Britannica

A map of the Gambia
A map of the Gambia (Google Maps)

4. The Gambia is the smallest country in continental Africa. Only the island nations of Cape Verde, Comoros, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Seychelles are smaller.
– Source: World Bank

5. The Gambia is one of only two countries in the world that officially have “The” attached to its name. The other country is The Bahamas.
– Source: BBC News

6. In 1964, one year before gaining independence from the UK, then-Prime Minister Dawda Jawara wrote to the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names and requested The Gambia keep ‘The’ in their name so as to avoid confusion with Zambia who was also about to gain independence.
– Source: BBC News

7. The Gambia’s flag has red, blue, and green stripes separated by two thinner stripes of white. The blue represents the Gambia River; red represents the sun and the equatorial position of the country; green stripe represents the agricultural produce; white stands for peace and unity. 
– Source: Britannica

The Gambia's flag
The Gambia’s flag (Shutterstock)

8. The Gambia was once part of the Empire of Ghana from the 5th to 11th century and then later the Empire of Mali from the 13th century.
– Source: Lonely Planet

The first known European to visit the Gambia was when Venetian explorer Alvise Ca’ da Mosto – in the service of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator – arrived in 1455.
– Source: Britannica

9. The Gambia was a British protectorate from 1894 until 1965 when it gained independence with Dawda Jawara as prime minister.
– Source: BBC News

10. The Gambia’s capital city, Banjul, is positioned on Saint Mary’s Island at the mouth of the Gambia River. The Mandinka people used to gather fibrous plants on the island for the manufacture of ropes. “Bang julo” is Mandinka for “rope fibre” and mispronunciation over time caused the term to become Banjul.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

The Gambia's capital city, Banjul
The Gambia’s capital city, Banjul (Shutterstock)

11. The Gambia became one of the few countries to leave the Commonwealth when in 2013, the then-president Yahya Jammeh called it a “neo-colonial institution”. However, in 2018, the country rejoined.
– Source: The Commonwealth, BBC News

12. In 1994, following a bloodless coup, Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh took control of The Gambia. Jammeh ruled the country with an iron fist, winning four oft-criticised elections, until 2017 when he went into exile after losing an election to opposition candidate Adama Barrow.
– Source: BBC News, BBC News

13. Jammeh was known for his eccentricity and ruthlessness. In 2013, he vowed to stay in power for “a billion years” if God wills; he ordered the execution of criminals and political opponents on death row, and in 2008, he warned that gay people would be beheaded.
– Source: BBC News

A statue of former president Yahya Jammeh
Yahya Jammeh is also responsible for several curious facts about the Gambia (Shutterstock)

14. In 2007, Jammeh falsely claimed he had found a cure for Aids. The treatment involved months of confinement, during which his victims were forced to drink herbal concoctions.
– Source: The Guardian

15. In 2015, President Jammeh announced his full titles was “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa”. Babili Mansa can be translated as “chief bridge builder” or “conqueror of rivers” in the Mandinka language.
– Source: BBC News

16. The UNESCO-listed Kunta Kinteh Island, a small island in the Gambia River that was formerly known as James Island. The island played a pivotal role in the slave trade when captives were transported downriver from the 1500s to the early 1800s.
– Source: Lonely Planet

Ruins on Kunta Kinteh Island
Ruins on Kunta Kinteh Island (Shutterstock)

17. The Gambia River is famous for its diverse wildlife which includes almost 600 species of bird as well as manatees, hippos, crocodiles and troops of wily colobus monkeys.
– Source: Lonely Planet

18. For decades, Gambians used to cast votes in elections with marbles instead of ballot papers. The system was introduced in the early 1960s to address high levels of illiteracy in the country. The system was last used in the 2016 election but is expected to change to ballot papers soon.
– Source: CNN

19. The Gambia is co-host to the UNESCO-listed Stone Circles of Senegambia. The site comprises four groups of stone circles which include over 1,000 monuments spread over a 100km wide band along around 350km of the River Gambia. The of the monuments were created over 1,500 years ago.
– Source: UNESCO

The Stone Circles of Senegambia
The Stone Circles of Senegambia (Shutterstock)

20. The Gambia is known as ‘the smiling coast of Africa dues to the warm-hearted Gambian people.
– Source: Lonely Planet

21. The highest point in the Gambia is only 53m above sea level. The unnamed location is unofficially known as Red Rock and is the lowest high-point of any African nation.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book, US Geological Survey

22. The Kachikally Crocodile Pool is considered a sacred site by Gambians. Crocodiles represent the power of fertility in the Gambia, so women who encounter problems with conceiving often visit the crocodile-infested pool to pray and wash.
– Source: Lonely Planet

A crocodile at  Kachikally Crocodile Pool
A crocodile at Kachikally Crocodile Pool (Shutterstock)

23. The Gambia was where Lucy, a celebrity chimpanzee who was raised as a human by American psychotherapists, lived for several years. Lucy learnt to dress herself, serve tea and use sign language before she was re-wilded under the care of psychology student Janis Carter in the Gambia in 1979. Carter lived with Lucy for nearly seven years.
– Source: New Scientist, The Guardian

24. Carter still runs the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in the Gambia on Baboon Island which is home to over 100 of the primates. Today, humans are not allowed to set foot on the island so “chimp-viewing experiences” are run from boat tours.
– Source: Loney Planet

Chimpanzees on Baboon Island
Chimpanzees on Baboon Island (Shutterstock)

Every effort has been made to verify these facts about the Gambia. However, if you find an error or have any questions, please contact us.