As The Gambia marks its 50th birthday, here are 10 really fascinating things you didn't know about this river nation

Marbles, chimps, rivers..and Africa's first DNA bank, there's so much more to know.

THE Gambia gets into Africa’s “cool” club of countries just for the fact that its name is prefixed by “The”. It truly is one of a kind - an Anglophone strip surrounded by a sea of Francophone West Africa. 

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence - a momentous occasion for the tiny country which was the first and last British colony in West Africa. It became a British Crown Colony in 1889 and achieved independence on 18 February, 1965.

In celebration, we’re taking a moment to delve deeper into the country’s history and quirks, and the findings are fascinating: 

1. The Gambia is the smallest country on the African continental mainland. It is bordered to the north, east, and south by Senegal, and has a small coast to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.

2. The country uses a stone-voting system to elect their president. Introduced in the early 1960’s to address the high levels of illiteracy in the country, Gambians use glass marbles which are cast in separate iron-made drums (the ballot box) for each individual party/candidate. When a marble is put into the drum it hits a bell whose sound tells spectators that a vote was cast. Since the sound is like a bell, on election day bicycles are banned from the immediate proximity of polling stations. 

3. The Gambia was the first African country to establish a national DNA bank. With the ultimate goal of health improvement, it is the first time a sub-Saharan country had a centralised structure and database for archiving DNA samples. It was funded by the Medical Research Council in 2000 as one of 14 DNA collection sites created to study the genetics of complex diseases. It has a special, though not exclusive, focus on malaria, HIV and tuberculosis. 

4. The capital of The Gambia was initially founded by the British as a base for suppressing the slave trade. Founded in 1816, Banjul was previously known as Bathurst - named after the then Secretary of State for the British Colonies, Henry Bathurst. 

5. The Banjul port accounts for almost 90% of the country’s trade in terms of volume and weight. It also serves as the lynchpin in trade and distribution of cargo to The Gambia’s landlocked neighbour - Mali.

6. The Gambia is home to Africa’s longest running chimp rehabilitation project. River Gambia National Park, is home to five islands commonly known as Baboon Islands. Since 1979, a chimpanzee-reintroduction project has been conducted here by the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project (CRP). Chimpanzees confiscated from the illegal animal trade are reintroduced into the wild in the park. The project has been groundbreaking for the country - wild chimps disappeared from The Gambia in the early 1900s but now four separate social groups can be found on Baboon Islands. 

7. The Gambia only has two universities, the University of Gambia and the American International University West Africa, and they’re both relatively new. The University of Gambia was established by an Act of the National Assembly of the Gambia in March 1999 while the American International University West Africa, initially intended for Guinea and with a specialisation in the health sciences, opened in 2011. 

8. The country was named after the Gambia River. This river, which flows from East to West for about 483 kilometres, is the last major West African river that has not been dammed. However, a hydroelectric dam, known as the Sambangalou project (which has a 128 megawatt capacity and will produce 402 GWh of energy), is currently being constructed. 

9. The Gambia was the first African country that a serving US president ever visited. In 1943 on his way to Casablanca, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, first stopped for the night in Banjul. 

10. In 2013, The Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth. The Gambia’s decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth 48 years after joining it came as the west African nation branded the 54-member grouping, which includes the UK and most of its former colonies, a “neo-colonial institution”.

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