The country of The Gambia is situated along the banks of the River Gambia in the Sahel zone of West Africa. The river empties into the Atlantic Ocean in an 11-mile mouth which stretches from Cape St. Mary at the south to Jinnak Creek (in Senegal) at the north (Gamble 1988). The river originates in Guinea and travels for over 680 miles through Guinea, Senegal, and (for the final 200 miles) The Gambia. With the exception of a 30-mile stretch of The Atlantic Ocean along the country's western border, The Gambia is entirely surrounded by Senegal (see Map 1). The country's boundaries were defined by England and France at the end of the 19th Century -- partly from determining the furthest point inward that the river could be navigated (Gray 1966).
The Gambia is small (less than 11,000 square km), flat (its highest point is less than 200 meters above sea level), swampy, hot, and (becoming) deforested. For most of the country, the rainy season lasts from late June to early October -- bringing over 600 millimeters of rainfall via monsoon winds blowing in from Guinea (Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1989). During this time, the country's many swamps and creeks (called bolongs) rise -- often flooding nearby land. After the dry season sets in, the water evaporates. Upriver (where the water is freshwater), the process enables rice to be produced. Downriver (where the water is saltwater due to the proximity of the ocean), the process causes the soil to become salty and unusable. In recent years, the saltwater has moved further upcountry (Gamble 1988). Early in the dry season (January, February, ...) the Harmattan winds arrive from the Sahara bringing with dry and dusty air. Eventually, the heat follows -- upcountry high's getting to the 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 1447, the Portuguese navigator Nuno Tristao reached the mouth of the River Gambia and ushered in the age of European exploration of the region. In the early 16th century, a number of Portuguese (possibly fleeing the Inquisition) came to the country, inter-married with the local people, and settled -- they were the first European settlers in The Gambia (Gray 1966). In the late 16th Century, the English arrived and, after a heated rivalry with France, eventually became the primary colonial power in the region. Having given up on hopes of extracting large material riches from the region, the English placed emphasis on the slave trade -- first by profiting from it (according to Gray up to 3700 a year were being exported in the 1780's) and later (after slavery was outlawed in England) by using key military postings along the river to fight it. After coming to agreement with France on the boundaries, England established The Gambia as a colony on August 10, 1889. The Gambia gained its independence on February 18, 1965 and Prime Minister Dawda Jawara became its first president. Banjul was established as the capitol. President Jawara remained in office (via elections) until July 22, 1994 when he was overthrown in a bloodless coup. The head of the coup, Yaya Jammeh, is the current acting ruler.