|Country Information & Lifestyle|
Kunta Kintes Roots are here in The Gambia
The Gambia is situated in the western most tip of Africa and is encircled by its neighboring country Senegal on all sides, apart from the Atlantic side. The Gambia is one of the continent’s tiniest countries and is a thin strip of mainly low plateau, which decreases in height as it nears the Atlantic coast. The plain is broken in a few places by the river and its tributaries. Mangrove swamps, park-like savanna and unspoiled beaches all feature in the Gambia’s landscape.
Although the country is largely defined by its natural features – from the Gambia River, which runs the length of the country, to the golden beaches of its Atlantic coast resorts - the county’s greatest draw lies in its people, their culture and the amiable atmosphere of daily life. Only one-sixth of the land is arable and the poor nature of the soil makes it suitable mostly for one crop – peanuts. The major domestic export products of The Gambia consists of groundnut products, cotton, fish and fish products, fruit and vegetables.
The Gambia has a sub-tropical climate with two variations of distinct dry and rainy seasons. The dry season generally starts in October and ends around mid-June each year. The other distinct climatic season is the rainy season, known locally as "Nawet", which is caused by the summer heat making the air in the Sahara to rise thus creating an area of low pressure which encourages monsoons as it meets with the north east trade winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean in an inter-tropical front. This rainy period starts around the middle of June and ends around the middle of October with August being the wettest month of the year.
The capital, Banjul, is one of the smallest cities in Africa and is a uniquely African experience. Situated on an island at the mouth of the Gambia River called St.Mary’s Island, the small port has a sleepy ambiance reminiscent of a large village. The skyline of Banjul is graced by the twin minarets of the King Fahad Mosque and the State House. MacCarthy Square has a colonial atmosphere, with pleasant 19th-century architecture. Worth a visit is the African Heritage Centre displaying and selling objects of art from all around the Gambia. Albert Market and its surrounding roads are a great place to shop for local crafts, silver jewelry, batiks, clothes and fruit and vegetables.
Take a pirogue on the quiet waterways of Oyster Creek, the main waterway separating Banjul Island and the mainland. The creek is a popular destination for bird-watchers, anglers and anyone keen to just laze around on a boat. The dense mangroves are particularly interesting and home to a variety of fish and other wildlife. If you travel to Banjul, think of taking the ferry to Barra just for the trip and its sights and sounds. Fort Bullen at Barra Point was built by the British 200 years ago to cover the approaches to Banjul and the river.
Basse Santa Su is located 375 km from Banjul in the Upper River region and is the major trading center for the upper reaches of the Gambia River. Basse is a vibrant mix of linguistic diversity and there exists historical architecture to see all around. Handsome trading houses built at the turn of the century can be seen here. One of the old warehouses, built during the colonial era, has been converted into a museum, cultural center, bookshop and restaurant called Traditions.
By the riverside at Perai Tenda can be found a multitude of abandoned shops formerly operated by European, Gambian and Lebanese merchants in the days when up-river commerce offered substantial profits for private traders. The popular tourist destination of Tendaba is 160km (100 miles) from Banjul by river or road. Further upriver, the fascinating circles of standing stones around Wassau have now been identified as burial grounds more than 1200 years old.
Up river, the water wildlife is more interesting where you can see crocodiles, dolphins and hippos. The main feature along the river is the incredible variety of birds and most of the bird trips are boat trips along the creeks of The Gambia at dawn or dusk. The river is also closely linked with the slave trade, the remains of slave trading posts can be seen along its length. Visitors who want to see more of the countryside may cross by ferry from Banjul to Barra and travel by road to Juffure and Albreda, around 50 minutes.
The small village of Juffure, 30 km upstream in the Upper Niumi District, became famous in the 1970s following the television release of the bestselling book Roots written by Alex Haley, a descendant of Kunta Kinte. The series told of Kunta Kinte’s capture in Juffure by slave traders and his subsequent enslavement in America around 200 years ago.
Albreda, only 500 metres from Juffure, where Kunta Kinte was enslaved, was the main French trading post before they withdrew from The Gambia. Albreda is a tranquil village community and home to the Slavery Museum where you will find some historical artifacts such as chain neck-locks, foot-locks, yokes, as well as a comprehensive historical testament to the diabolical trade in Black Ivory. The ruins of the factory – a fortified slaving station built by the French in the late 17th century. Not far is a shop selling some of the finest batik in the country. While there take an opportunity to visit Kunta Kinte's family relatives such as Binta Kinte, the widow of the griot Fofana who narrated the story of Kunta Kinte to Alex Haley.
Very close to both villages is James Island (which is the colonial period ruins of a slavery station) and the 'Portuguese chapel' of San Domingo which later came to be known as Sandi Munko Joyo. Nearby there are also the old ruins of Maurel Freres and the CFAO trading post.
On either side of the fishing area Gunjur offers one of the quietest beaches in The Gambia. Enjoy mile upon mile of unspoiled golden sands occasionally peppered with stone outcrops. The Bijilo resort is further to the south of Kololi and includes a section of Atlantic coast beach which is home to the Golden Beach and Bijilo Beach hotels, as well as a number of small lodges and guesthouses.
Bijilo is much more densely fringed with Rhun Palms and coconut trees as well as an assortment of wildlife such as hornbills & monkeys. There are a number of restaurants & bars dotted along the shore such as the Bamboo Bar and often you can see Serer fishermen landing their catches from their pirogues.
The town of Birikama, capital of the western region, is located about 38 km south east of the coastal resorts and south from the airport of Yundum. The main attraction of the town is the Brikama Craft Market and factory which produces and sells hundreds of teak wood carvings, batiks, djembe drums, masks and other souvenirs. Brikama town has traditionally been an agricultural trading hub dealing in groundnuts and palm oil.
On the edge of the town is a sacred grove site, the Santagba, at a place called Kotakali. This is the site of the original first settlement by the Mandinkas in the 13th century. The reason it is so well preserved is because the locals say that there are Jin living in the place and it is sacrilege to cut down trees for wood or gather its fruits.
5 km to the north east of Brikama is the Makasutu Culture Forest, a lush green wilderness and a private eco-tourist reserve. There are five luxury lodges within the park which is right on the tributary within lush bush mangroves. Here you can enjoy some Jola traditional tribal dancing, drumming and singing as well as a meal at the Baobab Restaurant & Bar serving typical Gambian meals. You can take a guided canoe ride among the mangroves and creeks, try some traditional herbal medicines, see people weaving, silversmiths at work as well as fishermen and farmers whose practice has remained unchanged over the years.
The island of Janjanbureh lies about 300 km up river and covers an area of about 7.7 square miles. The port town, Georgetown, was the second city of colonial days and is still the administrative center. The area is now a top eco-tourism destination as many areas are covered in tropical forest and the island’s water front is ideal for fishing and wildlife spotting where you can see crocodiles and hippos. There are also plenty of bird species to be spotted there.
It is an ideal spot for a few days excursion to get away from the coastal resorts and stay at the Bird Safari Camp, Baobolong or the Janjang Bureh Camp which can be reached by river cruise or by car. You can still view many buildings from the colonial period such as the old slave market, and the commissioner’s residence. There is also the Foroyaa Sooto Freedom Tree Monument where it is believed that any slave who managed to touch the tree were given their freedom.
Jinack Island is located off the north bank of the estuary of the Gambia River, separated from the mainland by the Niji Bolon. The island is part of the National Park of Niumi, a marine protected delta area, and is aiming to be an eco-tourist holiday destination. The island itself has over 11 kms of unspoiled, fairly shallow beaches which are often visited by dolphins. The resident wildlife includes hump-backed and bottle-nose dolphins, green turtle, Nile crocodile, West African manatee, hyenas, primates, duiker, snakes and lizards.
The Gambia has seven national parks and nature reserves. The Abuko Nature Reserve was the first reserve and is located in the Western Region within easy reach of the main coastal resorts. It is the most visited tourist attraction in the country and is the nearest tropical forest to Europe. There are over 290 bird species, crocodiles, monkeys, bush babies, and an animal orphanage which cares for monkeys including chimpanzees.
The village of Kartong is in the Gambia's Western Division near the beach and is at the southern most tip of the country on the Kombo Coastal Road, almost on the Senegalese border near the mouth of the Allahein River. This far south you can be assured of some pretty secluded and deserted beaches mostly used by fishermen landing their catch. This is as far south as you can go by car and you will find a military checkpoint just after the center of the village on the main road. The village hosts the Kartong Festival which offers an opportunity to experience local traditions and culture in the form of music, art and dance from West Africa.
It is often said that The Gambia is the River, and the River is Gambia. It is a major tourist attraction and the dominant feature running through the heart of the country. This West African waterway is approximately 700 miles long, rising in the Fouta Djallon plateau in Northern Guinea, flowing generally northwest through SE Senegal then west, dissecting The Gambia, to the Atlantic Ocean at Banjul.
The former village of Serrekunda Market Town, in Gambia is the largest town in Gambia and is located a few km inland from the coastal resorts of Kololi and Kotu. Serrekunda really consists of nine villages which have merged over the years into one large urban sprawl. It is made up of wide, sprawling suburbs, heavily overcrowded, and is loud and bustling in nature. It's central hub is Serrekunda Market and Sayer Jobe Avenue which is packed with local shops, merchants, craft sellers, and street peddlers from all over West Africa and some Arab countries. It is the place to visit if you want to experience 'culturally vibrant' urban African life.
Located in Dippa Kunda you can see the batik making process from the design, waxing, boiling to the finished product. This is one of the major batik factories in the Gambia supplying many of the local stalls with locally made batiks.
Around 11km south of the Atlantic coast resorts on the Kombo coastal highway is the small fishing village of Tanji which lies along the coast and includes the beach area itself. The main features of the village are its bonga fish smoking houses, the lines of African pirogues and fishermen and housewives lining the shore and haggling over prices. Around 3km north of the fishing village is the Tanji River Bird Reserve made up of woodland, scrub and lagoons including mangrove swamps, reefs and encompass the small islands of Bijol Island (Kajonyi). These different environments attracts a wide range of more than 300 bird species which offer a great opportunity for bird watching. You can also find many mammalian species around the Bijol Islands such as minke whales, dolphins, monk seals as well as green turtles. Special permission is required to land on the islands as they are a protected habitat.
Tanji Village Museum is actually more like an African village, with mud and thatched huts containing displays of traditional artifacts and furniture. You can also talk to and interact with the craftsmen at work. There is also a Mandinka traditional family compound on display in the museum complex. The museum is well worth visiting if you want to get away for a quiet bit of cultural tourism. There is a base for camel riding if you are feeling a little more adventurous.
The Gambia is a diverse multi-cultural society with many ethnic groups. Its size and the tempering influence of Islam in the Gambia context may indeed explain why it has a reputation for being a peaceful country, as compared to that of other countries in Africa, there is a minimum of inter-tribal and racial frictions. Different ethnic groups do have variations in the way they conduct marriage weddings, funerals, however, it is Islam which is the over-riding guide to such ceremonies.
There are 8 main ethnic groups in Gambia living side by side with a minimum of inter-tribal friction, each preserving its own language, music, cultural traditions and even caste systems though there is an increasing amount of cultural interaction and fusion. The single largest ethnic group in Gambia is the Mandinka, (Mandingos) an agricultural people with a hereditary nobility. The Wolofs are very prominent in the capital city of Banjul and in the Senegambia region. Their language is the lingua franca for Gambia and can be heard being spoken in trading centers and family compounds.
The people called the Creoles or Akus, are descendants of freed slaves who first came to The Gambia in 1787 from Sierra Leone and who rank among the bureaucratic elite as well as being prominent in the private professional classes. The Jola or Kujamat people are predominantly organized around the cultivation of rice and are mainly based in the Foni district of the Western Division. Theirs is a uniquely segmentary society with no tradition of having a paramount chief. Their traditional location in swamps and deep forests meant that they were among the last people to be converted to Islam.
The Fulanis or Pol Futa as they are sometimes known, are mainly engaged in herding of cattle and running their ubiquitous small corner shops. The Serahule people are involved mainly in farming, trade and property development. They can be found in their largest numbers in the Basse region.
A person's life in Gambia is marked by a series of rites of passage or traditional rituals. These include the so called naming ceremonies, marriages, funerals male initiation and circumcision. People of both the main faiths and all ethnic groups more or less go through all the rituals. Every village family belongs to a lineage clan a Kabillo and they are responsible to the the Alkalo, the chief.
Traditional Gambian dishes cooked in homes are mostly rice, the staple food, with a covering of various spicy sauces and made with either fish, chicken, beef, lamb or gota, cooked with vegetables, spices and sometimes peanut butter. Some of the best known authentic dishes are 'Domoda' (peanut butter sauce), 'supakanja' (okra stew), 'benachin' (Jolof Rice), 'Chere' (couscous type millet), and chicken 'Yassa' (fried chicken in onions).
The Gambia may be a small country but certainly has a lot to offer from culture, tradition, history to wildlife, bird life and gorgeous beaches. Come and see this little gem for yourself, it is sure not to disappoint.