Senegal and The Gambia

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | iHeart Radio | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Nestled in the heart of West Africa lie two nations with distinct identities yet tied together by a common geography and history: Senegal and The Gambia.

The landscape of this region wasn’t always as fragmented as it is now. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was carved into the separate entities we recognize today, a division that has persisted into contemporary times.

Efforts have been made to bridge the divide, but the boundary between these two countries still presents challenges.

Learn more about the fascinating story of Senegal and The Gambia and how their odd borders came to be on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you just take a look at a map of Senegal and The Gambia, you will instantly know that something is out of place. Without any knowledge of the history of the region, your intuition will tell you, just by looking at the borders of the two countries, that something is not right. 

If you aren’t familiar with the region, I’ve included a map of Senegal and The Gambia on the artwork for this episode, so you can see what I’m talking about by looking at your podcast player. 

Senegal completely surrounds the Gambia, save for a small section of coastline. 

It is as if someone jammed a country inside Senegal. I’ve heard it described that if Senegal were a mouth, The Gambia would be the tongue. 

At its narrowest point, The Gambia is only about 20 kilometers or 12 miles wide. It is the smallest country on the continent of Africa. 

I’ve covered many small countries in previous episodes, so I’m not unaccustomed to them, but even by the standards of small countries, The Gambia is odd. 

It is also very inconvenient for Senegal to have an entire independent country stuck in the middle of it. A simple trip that might take 30 minutes would either require two international border crossings or driving hours out of your way to go around the country. 

Normally, when I do an episode about a country, I talk about a single country, but it is impossible to talk about either Senegal or The Gambia without talking about the other, so for this episode, they are going to a double treatment. 

The collective region of Senegal and The Gambia is known as Senegambia. It is both a historical term and a geographic term. The region of Senegambia refers to the two countries today but traditionally referred to the region from the Senegal River in the north to the Gambia River in the south. However, there are some who have defined the region as being even broader all the way to Sierra Leone. 

It is the westernmost point of the African continent. The first evidence of humans in the region dates back about 350,000 years. 

There is ample evidence of ancient humans in the region, most notably the Senegambian stone circles. The stone circles are in four major areas, consisting of 29,000 stones, 17,000 monuments, and 2,000 individual sites. 

The Senegambian stone circles, located in both Senegal and The Gambia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today. 

The region was historically part of various Western African empires, including the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Empires.

Much of the wealth of the region came from trade with the interior of the Sahara, much of which was transported on the Senegal and Gambia rivers, some of the only westwardly flowing rivers in the region.

The Senegambia is located in the Sahel which is the arid region just south of the Sahara. It is aird but it is not a desert. Unlike much of the sahel, however, it does have a rainy season due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. 

One of the first profound changes to the region came in the 11th century with the arrival of Islam. The first converts to Islam were the Tukulor of the Senegal River Valley. They are part of the greater Fula ethnic group that lives in the region. 

Islam was brought to the region by Berber and Tuareg traders who came from North Africa as part of the trans sahara trade routes. One of the primary forces for spreading Islam was the creation of Sufi brotherhoods in the 19th century.  They successfully integrated Islamic practices with local traditions, contributing to a distinctive form of Islam in Senegal and Gambia. 

All of this is important background to understanding the region, but it doesn’t explain the current situation with the borders between the two countries. 

That, not surprisingly, has to do with the arrival of Europeans. 

The first Europeans to visit the Region were actually the Portuguese who had sailed down the West Coast of Africa in an attempt to sail around Africa to get to India in the 16th century. 

The Portuguese began the West African slave trade, which came to dominate the region over the next several centuries. 

Eventually, other European powers, such as the Dutch, British, and French, attempted to establish a presence in the region. The French established their headquarters on St. Louis Island in what is today Senegal.

Both the Portuguese and the French actually had a limited presence in the region with regard to the amount of land they actually controlled. 

Well into the 19th century, Europeans were mostly limited to islands that they controlled, which were often given to them by local rulers. From these islands, such as Goree Island and St. Louis Island, slaves would be loaded onto ships that would take them to the Americas. 

By the latter half of the 18th century, Europeans weren’t satisfied with just controlling islands off the coast.  They wanted to control more of the interior. 

The French controlled the Senegal River, which is currently located on the border of Senegal and Mauritania and flows all the way into Mali. 

There are very few rivers in this part of West Africa, so being able to control a river was of strategic importance. The rivers allowed for easy access to the interior of Africa, so they were highly prized. 

The British wanted in on the action, so they established a presence along the Gambia River further to the south. 

By 1828, the British controlled the river itself via gunboats, and a one-mile strip along the north bank of the river was given to them by a local king. 

During the 1860s and 1870s, there were talks of a land swap between Britain and France to unify the Senegambia region. The French would get the Gabmia, and the British would get some other French possession in Africa in exchange. 

After much discussion, the exchange never happened.

As France began directly controlling more territory inland in Africa, the British responded by making the area under its control, that being the river and the banks on both sides, a colony in 1888.

The French had always recgonize British control over the Gambia River and the British had likewise recgonized French control of the land outside of it. The question was, where exactly was the border between them to be drawn?

The joint Anglo-French Boundary Commission was established, and a survey team arrived in 1891. The border that they drew paid no attention to political and cultural realities on the ground. Many of the local rulers had the domains split between British and French control. 

There is a story that is always told that the border was determined by how far British ships on the river could fire a cannon on either bank. That story is not true, but there might have been canons fired from ships as warning shots.

The end result was a British colony along the Gambia River, with a strip of land along either bank ranging from about 5 to 10 miles from the river. The entire colony was 11,300 square kilometers or 4,400 square miles. By comparison, it is smaller than Connecticut but larger than Delaware. 

English became the official language in British Gambia, while French was spoken in surrounding Senegal.

Fast forward to 1959. Decolonization is in full swing for British and French colonies. 

Senegal was merged into the Mali Federation, which was a union of Senegal and Mali. The union was short-lived, and on August  20, 1960, Mali and Senegal both declared independence.

In 1965, The Gambia achieved independence from Great Britain. The Gambia was initially part of the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state but became a republic in 1970 after a referendum.

Here, I should note that the country’s official name is “The Republic of The Gambia.” The word “the” is actually part of the formal and informal name of the country. It isn’t called “Gambia.”

While the countries were now independent, the problem of one country inside the other still existed. 

For example, Senegal had strict trade policies which favored French goods. The Gambia had a very open trade policy with almost no tarriffs. The end result was a large amount of black market activity with cheap goods being smuggled from The Gambia. 

Steps were taken to solve this problem in the early 1980s.

In 1981, a coup attempt in The Gambia was put down by Senegalese soldiers at the request of the Gambian president.

Both countries signed a treaty to create a loose union known as Senegambia. The two countries agreed to unite their militaries, security forces, economies, and monetary systems. Each country kept its own cabinet, but the confederation itself had a president who was always the president of Senegal, and the vice president of the federation was the president of The Gambia. 

However, the marriage was never a happy one. One big issue was that of the military. The Gambia had no military, so they would have to have created one. They eventually did, but they were junior partners to Senegal. In 1989, there was a border issue with Mauritania, and Senegal removed all its troops from The Gambia to deal with the threat. 

Another problem is that the federation was mostly championed by elites in each country. There was little grassroots support for the federation. Despite the same ethnic groups existing in both countries, relatively peacefully I might add, there were many people at this point who had a unique identity as Senegalese or Gambian and didn’t want to lose it. 

The federation formally ended on September 30, 1989, with both sides agreeing it was for the best. 

One of the unintended consequences of the end of the federation was the rise of separatists in Senegal’s Casamance region. If you look at a map, this is the lower jaw of Senegal, which is basically everything south of The Gambia. 

Both Senegal and The Gambia have had their own problems since achieving independence with democracy, but I would personally say that both countries have done a better than average job than most African countries. 

Likewise, having been to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Banjoul, the capital of The Gambia, I’d say both countries have a significantly higher standard of living than most other West African countries I’ve visited, save for Ghana. 

Today, the odd border situation still remains. There hasn’t been any action taken to revive the federation, but at the same time relations between the two countries has been friendly and they work together on a number of issues. 

So, for the foreseeable future, it appears that the smallest country on continental Africa will remain firmly entrenched almost completely inside of another country.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener luminos77, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write: 

Pure gold and yes, that episode exists!

It took me decades, but as of a few years ago I made curiosity my guiding light in life. Best decision I ever made. Based on a recommendation from my longtime friend Bryan, I started listening to this show on 5/18/23 and couldn’t put it down. I still can’t!

I earned my key to the Ohio Chapter of the Completionist Club on 12/31/23 with the Salt episode. To say that you turbocharged my curiosity is an understatement. I feel that I now have a much broader foundation of knowledge, which is the point of your show! It’s not hyperbole when I say that I’ve shared hundreds of episodes with family and friends. As of this review, you’re two unique episodes shy of 1100! Keep up the awesome work, Gary!

Thanks, luminos! Curiosity is the foundation of all knowledge. If you don’t want to learn, you will not learn. If you want to learn, nothing can stop you from learning. One of the biggest problems in schools today is that they do no instill a sense of curiosity about the world around them. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.