Gambia (aka The Gambia) is a country, but it is also a river (The Gambia River) which goes through several countries: Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea. This can get confusing because when historians say “the Gambia” they sometimes mean the country and sometimes mean the river. Imagine if some of the time when people said “Mississippi,” they meant the state of Mississippi, but other times they meant Minnesota, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.
At least The Gambia is not “The Congo,” which is simultaneously a river; a river system; and two countries (Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo, not the same place). Detouring into U.S. history a bit, it’s estimated that more than 50% of the African slaves brought to the U.S. were kidnapped from along the Gambia and Congo rivers and their tributaries. (Both of these rivers are in West Africa.) Much the same way a modern kidnapper might throw someone into a car, slavers threw people into boats so they could speed away from rescuers on foot and isolate captives.
This strikes me as particularly heartbreaking because a river is a river. It’s where you get water. It’s where you build settlements. Even knowing there are slavers on the river, you can’t really stay away from the river. So when you get caught, you probably feel angry at yourself, completely irrationally, as though it is pain you did to yourself, and this double bind is an idea which makes me furious.
Also, less relevantly, it reminds me of how in The Matrix they have to stay away from highways.
Back to the country of Gambia. It’s the smallest country on mainland Africa, with an area of 4361 square miles. (That’s four times the size of Rhode Island. Let’s all look down on Rhode Island for a minute. And it’s a little more than half the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, so let’s think about what this implies concerning Rhode Island.) Gambia the country is essentially the riverbanks of Gambia the river for the half of its length (the westernmost half, the half that ends with the Atlantic Ocean). At its widest point, Gambia is 31 miles wide. It’s entirely surrounded by Senegal on the sides which are not the Atlantic Ocean.
About half the population lives in urban settings. There’s a lot of ethnic diversity, with the most commonly spoken languages being Mandingo, Fula, Wolof, Serer, and Jola. English is used in government and school contexts. A lot of people speak French as well. And Gambia has its own sign language, which is based off of Dutch sign language but integrates a lot of local gestures; it’s not at all related to American Sign Language (although it’s picked up some British and French sign words). The main religion is Sunni Islam, and 95% of the population is Islamic, but freedom of religion is protected in the constitution.
The most popular sport is wrestling. The main exports are fabric, wood, and nuts. The average number of children for a woman to have is four. There is a history of welcoming refugees and immigrants, even though Gambia is not a wealthy country. (The opposite.)
Human rights in Gambia have liberalized substantially since 2016, when an authoritarian ruler named Jammeh, who had been the dictator for 22 years, was forced out with help from ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States), who continue to maintain a small peacekeeping force in the country. Gambia is now a presidential republic with a largely reformed judiciary. They are still going through the work of truth and reconciliation commissions, and working on what form reparations should take. I hold a lot of hope for them. I think their next elections are in 2021, so I’ll be watching how those go.