Gambia

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Introduction to Gambia

Gambia is a sliver in the side of Africa, one of its tiniest countries, but its attractions are just as bright as any in the region. Its capital city, Banjul, is a uniquely African experience, with a streetside culture that chases away the holiday daze of glitzier cities.

And for an even more 'traditional' outlook, a quick trip upriver brings you into the Gambian heartland, where the colourful buzz of weekly markets vies with boat trips through mangrove creeks and bike jaunts to mud-hut villages for your attention.

Although Gambia 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 country's greatest draw lies in its people, their culture and the amiable atmosphere of daily life. Whether you're making conversation at a kerbside coffee stall or shouting yourself hoarse at a weekend wrestling match, you're sure to come away with as warm a feeling for Gambians as they tend to show to travellers.

Full country name: Republic of The Gambia

Area: 11,300 sq km

Population: 1.4 million

Capital City: Banjul

People: Mandinka (42%), Fula (18%), Wolof (16%), Jola (10%), Serahuli (9%), other African (4%), non-Gambian (1%)

Language: English, Wolof, Fulah, Mandingo

Religion: Muslim (90%), Christian (9%), indigenous beliefs (1%)

Government: republic under multiparty democratic rule

GDP: US$1.3 billion

GDP per capita: US$1,000

Annual Growth: 3.8%

Inflation: 2.2%

Major Industries: Processing peanuts, fish and hides; tourism; beverages; agricultural machinery assembly, woodworking, metalworking; clothing

Major Trading Partners: Japan, Senegal, Hong Kong, France, Switzerland, China, Côte d'Ivoire, France, UK, Germany, Indonesia

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Citizens of the member countries of ECOWAS, some Commonwealth countries, Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain do not need a visa/entry permit for a maximum of 28 days. There is a visa fee plus a processing fee for all other applicants.

Health risks: hepatitis, yellow fever, rabies, typhoid, malaria (This is particularly bad up-country in the wet season)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +0

Dialling Code: 220

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The Islamic (or Hejira) calendar is a full 11 days shorter than the Gregorian (Western) calendar, so public holidays and festivals fall 11 days earlier each year. In March then February for the next few years, Ras as-Sana is the Islamic celebration of the new year. Tabaksi (also called Eid al-Kebir), an important two-day festival commemorating the moment when God substituted a ram for Abraham's son as he was about to slay him at God's command, will be in early February or late January for the next few years. Eid al-Moulid celebrates the prophet Mohammed's birthday around May. Ramadan is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (presently in October), commemorating the month when the Quran was revealed to Mohammed. Out of deference, Muslims take neither food nor water until after sunset each day. At the end of Ramadan (called Eid al-Fitr), the fasting breaks amid much celebration.

Though not so important as it is in Senegal, Grand Magal (48 days after Ras as-Sana) celebrates the return from exile of the founder of the Mouride Islamic Brotherhood. On a secular note, the International Roots Festival is a new but highly publicised annual celebration aimed at getting Americans and Europeans of African descent back in touch with Africa. Festivities include displays of Gambian music, dance, art and craftwork, plus excursions to historical sites - including, of course, the Roots village of Jufureh - as well as seminars and educational workshops. The festival takes place in late June and/or early July.

Other Public Holidays:

1 January - New Year's Day

18 February - Independence Day

March or April - Good Friday, Easter Monday

1 May - Workers Day

June or July - Eid al-Moulid

22 July - Anniversary of the Second Republic

25 December - Christmas

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Best time to Visit

The best time to travel in Gambia is from November to February, when conditions are dry and relatively cool. However, around this same time of year the dry, dusty harmattan winds blow off the Sahara. December to February is the local trading season, assuming the rains come when they should, and everybody's a little more relaxed than usual, perhaps with a bit of extra money to spend, so the markets are at their liveliest. During the wet season (June to October), popular tourist areas are less crowded and cheaper, and the country still gets an average of five hours of sunlight per day. The only problem you're likely to notice is some smaller dirt roads washing away. The peak tourist season lasts from October through April, which coincides with the visits of the migratory birds.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Dalasi

Meals

Budget: US$0.50-3

Mid-range: US$3-8

High: US$8-15

Deluxe: US$15+

Lodging

Budget: US$6-10

Mid-range: US$10-20

High: US$20-100

Deluxe: US$100+

Travellers to Gambia have a range of food and lodging options before them. If you're travelling on a tight budget, as little as US$12per day is enough to get by (if you don't spend long in the Atlantic coast resorts), though upping the ante to US$15-25 can make the night's sleep and belly's fill sweeter. With US$30-50 per day at your disposal, you can stay in decent hotels, eat well and travel comfortably (whenever comfort is available), but if you really want to throw down, you can easily top US$200 a day and see how the royal half lives.

You can change money at banks and exchange bureaus in Banjul, Serekunda and some of the Atlantic coast resorts. Upcountry, the only place with a bank is Basse Santa Su. Some banks charge a commission to cash travellers cheques, but those that don't have poorer rates, so you get about the same return regardless of which you choose. The exchange bureaus on the Atlantic coast usually offer slightly better rates than the banks and don't charge commission. You can draw cash with a Visa or MasterCard at some of the bigger banks, like Standard Chartered. Black market dealers offer around 5% better rates than the banks, but the inevitable risks make it seldom worthwhile to do business on the street.

Tipping for favours rendered is part of life for 'rich' foreigners in Gambia - and, West Africa being among the poorest places on the planet, all visitors are considered rich. If someone goes out of their way to help you find a hotel, for example, an appropriate cadeau ('gift,' or tip) might be enough money for a drink. A tip of 10% is appropriate in nicer hotels, restaurants and taxis. The 'gift' becomes a completely different matter when you have to pay to get something done, and this sort of bribe - often referred to as a 'dash' - is, again, a way of life in Gambia.

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Attractions

Banjul

One of the smallest capital cities in Africa, Banjul lies on an island at the mouth of the Gambia River. The city has a sleepy ambience, more like a large village than a national centre. If you've come to experience old Africa this city is a far better bet than the nearby Atlantic coast resorts.

The vibrant heart of Banjul is Albert Market, a colourful, lively and chaotic where you can experience the city at its African best. Nearby on MacCarthy Square is the War Memorial and the Fountain, erected to commemorate the coronation of Britain's King George VI in 1937.

Abuko Nature Reserve

Abuko is unique among West African wildlife reserves in that it's fenced, well managed and easy to reach. It has amazingly diverse vegetation for a park of only 105ha (260ac), which is nourished by a stream that runs through its centre, allowing both riverside and savanna species to flourish.

The park also boasts a wide variety of birdlife as well as a small animal orphanage. Some of the animals you can see in the orphanage include hyenas, lions, bushbucks and various species of monkeys. In the reserve itself, look also for duikers, porcupines, bushbabys, crocodiles and plenty of snakes.

Atlantic Coast Resorts

Northwest of Serekunda the Atlantic coast resorts of Bakau, Fajara, Kotu and Kololi make up the heart of Gambia's tourist industry. Along this 10km (15mi) stretch of beach lie plenty of hotels, complete with water sport rentals, a golf course and beaches ideal for swimming and sunning.

Bakau, the northernmost resort, boasts a fine botanical garden established during colonial times. Bakau's other focal point is the Kachikaly Crocodile Pool, a sacred site for the local people, who come here to pray, as among some tribes in Gambia crocs represent the power of fertility.

Jufureh

Jufureh is a village on the northern bank of the Gambia River about 25km (15mi) from Banjul. It became famous in the 1970s following the publication of Roots, in which author Alex Haley tells the story of Kunta Kinte's capture in Jufureh and transportation as a slave to America some 200 years ago.

The village springs into action as busloads of tourists arrive. Women pound millet at strategic points, babies are produced to be admired and an old lady called Binde Kinte makes a guest appearance at her compound. Photos are produced of Haley and Binde Kinte and of the griot (storyteller) who first told Haley the tale of his family.

Serekunda

As island-bound Banjul can expand no further, Gambia's largest town, Serekunda, has become the nation's de facto capital. Once a small village, it's now the primary transport hub and activity centre of the country. It also comes across as such - crowded, bustling and 100% African.

For first-time visitors fresh off the plane the coach trip through Serekunda's sprawling suburbs can be a shocker. The streets are lined with shops, stores, stalls and merchants of every cast. But a stroll around the town centre or its thriving main market is highly recommended for a taste of unrelenting, in-your-face, urban West Africa.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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