Where is The Gambia? West Africa? Central Africa? Is The Gambia in Senegal? Here’s everything you need to know.

Dust filled the battered Mercedes as my friend Omar drove us along The Gambia’s North Bank Road. We’d crossed the country’s namesake, The Gambia River, in the morning, after a laborious wait for the ferry that connects the two sides of this great African waterway. But once we’d made it over from Banjul, the nation’s capital, it took us less than a day to drive the entire length of the country.

And the next day, after an afternoon and morning spent exploring the ancient Senegambiam stone circles and looking for chimpanzees along the river, we drove back to Banjul along the South Bank Road. It would have been quicker if there weren’t so many police checks and military types asking for ‘gifts’ (TIA, as they say), but the entire journey showed exactly how small The Gambia really is.

The Gambia’s curious geography means that it never extends for more than 20 kilometres or so on either side of the river. Colonial history ensures that, aside from a stretch of coast along the Atlantic Ocean, mainland Africa’s smallest country is almost entirely swallowed by the borders of Senegal. Defined by The Gambia River, and contained by its larger neighbour, Tha Gambia’s geography is fascinating.

If you can already pinpoint this slender nation on the map, you’re doing great. For everyone else, I decided to put together this guide to The Gambia’s geography and geopolitics. Keep reading, as I answer the important question, ‘Where is The Gambia?’.

Where is The Gambia?

The Gambia is a small sliver of land found entirely within Senegal, and the country’s distinctive geography ensures that it stands out on the map of Africa. It is the smallest country on the African mainland, extending about 480 km inland from the western coast, as it follows the meandering path of The Gambia River. This river, the lifeline of the nation, bisects the country and empties into the Atlantic Ocean as it meets Banjul, the capital, at the river’s mouth.

The origins of The Gambia’s peculiar shape lie in the colonial past. During the 19th century, European powers divided Africa, with Britain securing the area around The Gambia River for trade, particularly in peanuts and palm oil. This historical delineation created a country only about 50 km wide at its broadest point, surrounded almost entirely by Senegal, except for its short western coast on the Atlantic.

This geography has significantly influenced The Gambia’s culture, economy, and politics. The river not only provides vital resources and lands for agriculture but also shapes the nation’s cultural and historical identity. The Gambia’s position along significant trade routes contributed to its diverse culture, marked by influences from various African ethnic groups and its colonial history.

A map of The Gambia, showing the route and basin of The Gambia River. By Kmusser.

Read more: How to Travel From Senegal to The Gambia (Including Overland Border Crossings)

Facts about The Gambia

Here are the most important facts to know about The Gambia:

  • Official Name: Republic of The Gambia
  • Geographical Location: West Africa
  • Size: Approximately 11,300 square kilometres (smallest country on mainland Africa)
  • Capital: Banjul
  • Population: Around 2.7 million
  • Official Language: English
  • Major Ethnic Groups: Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Jola, and others
  • Major River: Gambia River
  • Political System: Presidential Republic
  • Independence: Gained from the United Kingdom on 18 February 1965
  • Economy: Predominantly based on agriculture, tourism, and fishing
  • Currency: Gambian Dalasi (GMD)
  • Climate: Subtropical with a distinct hot and rainy season and a cooler dry season
  • Time Zone: Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)
  • International Dialing Code: +220
  • Wildlife: Home to a variety of wildlife including monkeys, hippos, and a diverse array of bird species.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in Africa? Everything You Need to Know.

What’s The Gambia’s geography like?

The geography of The Gambia plays a central role in its national identity. As the smallest country on the African mainland, The Gambia is notably narrow and elongated, a shape largely dictated by the Gambia River, which flows through the middle of the country.

Here are the country’s major geographical features:

  • The Gambia River: This major geographical feature runs the entire length of the country, over 480 kilometres from east to west, and is vital for agriculture, transportation, and fishing. The river’s basin is fertile, supporting a variety of crops and forming the backbone of The Gambia’s agricultural economy.
  • Landscape: The country’s landscape is characterised by a mixture of savannah and woodlands. The areas closest to the river are marked by lush vegetation and mangrove swamps, especially near the Atlantic coast. Further from the river, the terrain transitions to open savannah and woodland, which are more arid.
  • Climate: The Gambia has a subtropical climate, with a distinct hot and rainy season from June to November, and a cooler dry season from November to May. This climate supports diverse ecosystems and a wide range of flora and fauna.
  • Biodiversity: The country is rich in biodiversity, particularly in terms of birdlife. The river and its surrounding environments provide a habitat for numerous bird species, making it a popular destination for birdwatchers. Additionally, there are various species of mammals, reptiles, and freshwater fish.
  • Size and Borders: The country’s small size and unique shape, being nearly surrounded by Senegal except for its western coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, give it a compact but strategically significant geography, especially in terms of regional trade and transportation.
Map of The Gambia. From Wikipedia.

Read more: Where is Senegal? Everything You Need to Know.

What’s the capital of The Gambia?

Situated on St. Mary’s Island, at the mouth of the Gambia River, Banjul is the capital of The Gambia. Initially established as a trading post by the British, Banjul has played a pivotal role in The Gambia’s history since its 19th-century founding.

Covering a modest area, the city is home to a population of approximately 40,000 residents, making it one of the smallest capitals in Africa. Despite its size, Banjul is the administrative heart of the nation and a central hub for The Gambian economy.

The city’s architecture reflects its colonial heritage and modern African influences. Key landmarks include the Arch 22, a commemorative gateway that offers panoramic views of the city. Banjul also serves as an important port and is a gateway to exploring the biodiversity of the Gambia River. From here, you can catch boats along the river, or you can take the infamous Banjul ferry to the North Bank.

The Banjul-Barra Ferry.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in West Africa? Everything You Need to Know.

How many regions are there in The Gambia?

The Gambia is divided into five administrative regions and one city with a status equivalent to a region. The regions are:

  1. Central River Region
  2. Lower River Region
  3. North Bank Region
  4. Upper River Region
  5. West Coast Region

The national capital, Banjul, is classified as a city and constitutes its administrative division, separate from the five regions. Each of these regions is further subdivided into districts, and they all play a significant role in the administrative and local governance structure of The Gambia.

The South Bank of The Gambia River, viewed from the North Bank.

Read more: 14 Best Places to Visit in The Gambia

Is The Gambia the smallest country in Africa?

The Gambia is the smallest country on the African mainland. Its total area is approximately 11,300 square kilometres, making it significantly smaller than most other African countries.

However, it’s important to note that while The Gambia is the smallest country on the mainland, it is not the smallest in Africa overall. That distinction goes to island nations like Seychelles and São Tomé and Príncipe, which are smaller in land area than The Gambia.

The Gambia’s unique geography, being a narrow strip of land surrounding the Gambia River, contributes to its status as the smallest mainland African nation.

A beach on The Gambia’s Atlantic coastline.

What’s ‘Senegambia’?

‘Senegambia’ is a term that historically and culturally refers to the region encompassing the present-day countries of Senegal and The Gambia. This term is particularly significant because of the close geographical, historical, cultural, and linguistic ties between the two countries. The Gambia is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, except for its small Atlantic coastline, creating a unique interdependence and interaction between the two nations.

Historically, the term gained specific political significance in the 1980s with the formation of the Senegambia Confederation. This was a short-lived political union between The Gambia and Senegal, established in 1982 to promote economic integration and regional security. However, the confederation was dissolved in 1989 due to various political and practical challenges.

In a broader sense, Senegambia is often used to describe the shared cultural and ethnic heritage of the region, which includes groups like the Wolof, Mandinka, and Fula, who live on both sides of the Senegal-Gambia border.

The Senegambian stone circles, found on either side of The Gambia-Senegal border.

Why isn’t The Gambia part of Senegal?

The fact that The Gambia is an independent nation rather than part of Senegal is a result of historical circumstances, particularly related to colonialism and the division of Africa by European powers.

  • Colonial History: In the scramble for Africa during the 19th century, European powers divided the continent into various territories. The Gambia was colonised by the British, while the surrounding areas, constituting modern-day Senegal, were colonised by the French. This colonial division created separate administrative and political entities, leading to the development of distinct colonial legacies.
  • Cultural and Linguistic Differences: Despite geographical proximity, The Gambia and Senegal have different colonial histories that have influenced their respective cultures and official languages. English is the official language of The Gambia, while French is the official language of Senegal. These linguistic differences are a legacy of their separate colonial pasts.
  • Attempts at Unification: There have been attempts to unify the two countries, most notably through the establishment of the Senegambia Confederation in 1982. This political union aimed at promoting cooperation and integration but was dissolved in 1989 due to various challenges, including political differences and a lack of a unified vision.
  • Independence Movements: The Gambia pursued its own path to independence from British rule, which it achieved in 1965. Since then, it has maintained its status as an independent nation with its own governmental structures and policies.
  • Geopolitical Considerations: The geopolitical landscape of West Africa during the decolonisation period also played a role. The boundaries set by colonial powers were largely maintained after African nations gained independence to avoid further conflicts and complexities.
The flag of an independent Gambia.

Read more: 15 Best Places to Visit in Senegal

Is The Gambia an Islamic country?

The Gambia is predominantly an Islamic country. Islam is the main religion practised by a majority of the population. The influence of Islam is evident in the country’s culture, traditions, and daily life. Islamic holidays are nationally observed, and mosques are prominent features in both rural and urban landscapes.

While Islam is the predominant religion, The Gambia is known for its religious tolerance, with a history of peaceful coexistence among different religious communities. There is also a Christian minority, as well as practitioners of indigenous African religions. The Gambian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and this principle is generally respected and upheld in practice.

African traditions co-exist alongside Islamic beliefs in The Gambia.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in Central Africa? Everything You Need to Know.

Why is it ‘The Gambia’?

The use of the definite article ‘The’ in ‘The Gambia’ is unique among countries and has historical and geographical reasons:

  • Geographical Distinction: The name ‘The Gambia’ is derived from the Gambia River, which flows through the centre of the country. The use of ‘The’ helps to distinguish the nation from the river itself. It emphasises the country’s identity as the land surrounding this important geographical feature.
  • Historical Naming Conventions: During the period of European exploration and colonisation, it was common for explorers and mapmakers to refer to rivers with the definite article ‘The’, and the lands around them were often named accordingly. Hence, the territory around the Gambia River became known as ‘The Gambia’.
  • Colonial and Legal Precedence: In English legal documents during the colonial era, the country was often referred to as ‘The Gambia’ to formalise its status as a specific entity, distinct from other British colonies in Africa. This formal designation stuck and was carried over upon the country’s independence.
  • International Recognition and Identity: Upon gaining independence in 1965, the country officially adopted ‘The Gambia’ as its name, and it has been internationally recognised as such. The use of ‘The’ in the country’s name has become a part of its national identity.
A colonial relic overlooks The Gambia River.

FAQ: Where is The Gambia?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic ‘Where is The Gambia?’:

Q1. What is The Gambia?

The Gambia is a country located in West Africa. It’s known for its unique geographical shape, being the smallest country on the African mainland.

Q2. Where is The Gambia located geographically?

The Gambia is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, with its western border facing the Atlantic Ocean. It is situated along the Gambia River, which runs through the country’s centre.

Q3. How did The Gambia get its shape?

The Gambia’s distinctive narrow, elongated shape is the result of historical colonial demarcation. It was carved out during the Scramble for Africa, a period of rapid colonisation of the African continent by European powers.

Q4. What is the capital of The Gambia?

The capital city of The Gambia is Banjul, located at the mouth of the Gambia River on the Atlantic coast.

Q5. What languages are spoken in The Gambia?

English is the official language, but several indigenous languages are widely spoken, including Mandinka, Wolof, and Fula.

Q6. What is the climate like in The Gambia?

The Gambia experiences a subtropical climate, with a hot and rainy season and a cooler, dry season.

Q7. How accessible is The Gambia for tourists?

The Gambia is known for its accessibility to tourists, particularly from Europe, with direct flights available to its international airport near Banjul.

Q8. What are some key historical facts about The Gambia?

The Gambia gained independence from British rule in 1965. Its colonial history and the impact of the transatlantic slave trade are significant aspects of its historical narrative.