Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.
By David Stewart and Matt Martinich
Area: 11,300 square km. Located in West Africa and the smallest country in continental Africa, The Gambia is almost completed surrounded by Senegal. The country occupies a 50-kilometer wide corridor along the Gambia River from the Atlantic Ocean stretching over 300 kilometers inland. Tropical climate prevails year round with rainy and dry seasons and some fluctuation in temperature. Terrain consists of the Gambia River flood plain and some small hills along its peripheries. Drought is a natural hazard, as rainfall has decreased over the past few decades. Environmental issues include deforestation, desertification, and water-borne illnesses. The Gambia is administratively divided into five regions, one city (Banjul), and one municipality (Kanifing).
Serahuleh (Soninke): 6.6%
Creole/Aku Marabout: 0.7%
Other Gambian ethnicities: 0.9%
Mandinka are a Mande ethnic group and populate most areas, especially the interior. Fula and Wolof are Western Bantoid ethnic groups who reside in most areas, especially along the coast. Jola populate coastal areas near the Casamance Region in Senegal. Serahuleh are a Mande ethnic group and reside in several different areas. Serer live in northwestern areas along the Senegal border, whereas Manjago reside southwest of Banjul. Remaining ethnic minorities appear to primarily reside in the Banjul area.
Population: 2,092,731 (July 2018)
Annual Growth Rate: 1.99% (2018)
Fertility Rate: 3.42 children born per woman (2018)
Life Expectancy: 63.0 male, 67.8 female (2018)
Languages: Mandinka (24%), Fula [Fulani or Pulaar] (13%), Wolof (11%), Serahule (8%), other/unspecified (44%). English is the official language. Mandinka, Fulani languages, and Wolof are the most commonly spoken African languages. No languages have over one million speakers.
Literacy: 55.5% (2015)
Various West African Empires ruled Gambia prior to European colonialism, including the Ghana and Songhai Empires and the Mali Kingdom. The Portuguese took control of the Gambia River from the Kingdom of Mali in the fourteenth century and a century later sold exclusive trade rights to the British. During the 1600s and 1700s, Britain and France vied for control of the Senegal and Gambia Rivers and exploited the human population for slavery until the early 1800s. Modern-day boundaries for Gambia were established in 1889. Greater autonomy and self-government were explored following World War II. In 1965, Gambia achieved independence from the United Kingdom. Between 1982 and 1989, Gambia and Senegal formed the federation of Senegambia, which was unsuccessful. Both nations signed a friendship and cooperation treaty in 1991. In the past two decades, tensions between the two nations have occasionally occurred. A military coup overthrew the government in 1994 under Yahya Jammeh. In 1996, a new constitution was implemented, and presidential elections were held. Jammeh was consistently reelected president from the mid-1990s until 2016 when he was defeated in free and fair elections. President Adama Barrow has led The Gambia since 2017, and there has been renewed international relations and interest in the country since the ouster of the authoritarian Jammeh regime.
Nicknamed the “Smiling Coast,” Senegalese culture shares many similarities with The Gambia due to close proximity and the presence of most Senegalese ethnic groups in The Gambia. Daily life and society are strongly influenced by Islam, yet there is mutual respect between the Christian minority and Muslim majority. Most ethnic groups are traditionally Muslim. Polygamy, arranged marriages, and female genital mutilation are common. Cuisine consists of rice, vegetables, chicken, beef, fish, and fu-fu. Both alcohol and cigarette consumption rates appear low. Female genital mutilation rates are high.
GDP per capita: $2,600 (2017) [4.35% of U.S.]
Human Development Index: 0.466 (2018)
Corruption Index: 37 (2018)
The Gambia has a poorly developed economy as a result of a lack of natural resources, limited agricultural activity, and little foreign investment. Tourism from Europe and an emerging banking sector are areas that have contributed to recent economic growth and may lead to greater development in the future. Agriculture employs 75% of the workforce and generates 20% of the GDP. Major crops include rice, millet, sorghum, peanuts, corn, sesame, and cassava. Services employ 6% of the workforce and produce 65% of the GDP. Industries include food processing, tourism, woodworking, metalworking, and clothing. Guinea-Bissau, Vietnam, Cote d’Ivoire, Brazil, Spain, and Senegal are primary trade partners.
The government has stepped up its efforts to fight corruption with some success, although corruption is still widespread. Jammeh was successful in the 2000s in the prosecution of government officials and businessmen who misused their power or positions to illegally gain wealth. However, it was later discovered that Jammeh and his associates had stolen as much as one billion United States dollars in state assets.
Denominations – Members – Congregations
Catholic – 50,000
Evangelicals – 13,351
Seventh Day Adventists – 407 – 13
Jehovah’s Witnesses – 238 – 5
Latter-day Saints – less than 20 – 0
More than 95% of the population is Sunni Muslim. Christians constitute 4.2% of the population, are mostly Catholic, and tend to reside in southern and western areas. Other Christian groups include Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelicals. Muslims and Christians frequently intermarry. The syncretism of indigenous beliefs with Islam and Christianity occurs in some areas. The percentage of Christians in the population is comparable to several Muslim-majority nations in West Africa, namely Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal.
The constitution protects religious freedom, which is upheld by established laws and government policies. There have been no reports of recent societal abuses of religious freedom, and the law protects individuals against the abuse of religious freedom. Qadi courts are established for questions regarding marriage, divorce, and inheritance for Muslims and those who follow traditional Islamic law. Religious groups do not have to register with the government, and faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are subject to the same requirements for registration and licensing as nonfaith-based NGOs, which include having a board of governing directors with at least seven members and submitting annual reports regarding activities conducted by the NGO. Religious instruction is allowed in public schools and occurs for both Muslims and Christians but is not mandatory.
Urban: 61.9% (2019)
Brikama, Bundunka Kunda, Sukuta, Talinding, Faji Kunda, Banjul, Nema Kunku, Farafenni, Bakau New Town, Busumbala.
None of the ten most populous cities have a congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Twenty-one percent (21%) of the national population resides in the ten most populous cities.
In 1998, The Gambia became part of the Africa West Area. The Gambia has never been assigned to a mission. In 2018, the Africa West Area Presidency reported that they had met with members of the Church in The Gambia. However, no official branches operate in the country and the Church does not appear registered with the government.
Church Membership: less than 20 (2019)
The Church reported nineteen Latter-day Saints in The Gambia as of 2013. Membership consists of Gambians baptized abroad who returned to their home country or foreigners temporarily living in the country. Gambian converts are primarily found in Europe. In August 2010, the Belgium/Netherlands Mission baptized a Gambian convert in Antwerpen, Belgium.
Wards: 0 Branches: 0 (2019)
In 2010, the Church reported no organized congregations. In 2011, The Gambia was included in the Africa West Area Branch boundaries.
Languages with Latter-day Saint Scripture: English.
No indigenous languages have Latter-day Saint scriptures. Church materials translated into Wolof, two Fulani languages, and Mandinka include Gospel Principles and The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Humanitarian and Development Work
As of early 2020, there has been no known humanitarian or development work carried out by the Church in The Gambia.
Opportunities, Challenges, and Prospects
Few Muslim-majority nations allow religious freedom to the degree experienced in The Gambia, yet the Church has not taken an active initiative to establish an official presence. No legal obstacles appear to prevent an official Church establishment. Christian groups report no instances of harassment or discrimination from the Muslim majority. There appears to be no restrictions regarding proselytism or changing one’s religious status, albeit former Muslims may face ostracism and ridicule from their families and the community if they join the Church. The prominence of Islam in society may require full-time missionaries to primarily work by member or investigator referral rather than street or door-to-door proselytism.
The dominance of Islam in everyday life is one of the greatest cultural barriers for missionary work, yet greater tolerance of Christians and missionary work provide positive cultural advantages to the Church compared to several other Muslim-majority African nations. Conversion from Islam can led to ostracism from family and the community, but these consequences do not appear to be as severe as in most Muslim nations. Marriage between Christians and Muslims remains common. Those participating in a polygamous relationship must first end these relations in divorce and be interviewed by a member of the mission or area presidencies in order to be baptized. The Church may face challenges with converts abandoning the practice of female genital mutilation on their young women and girls due to its widespread occurrence among most ethnic groups.
The entire population remains unreached by the Church. The lack of mission outreach in Senegal until the late 2010s has likely contributed to the lack of an official Church presence in The Gambia today. The mission closest to The Gambia is the Sierra Leone Freetown Mission, which one day may administer Gambia as English is the official language of both countries. Missionary activity will most likely concentrate on Christians due to fewer cultural barriers and similarities in beliefs. Banjul appears the most practical location to begin missionary activity, as over half a million people reside in the metropolitan area, there is a well-established Christian community, and other large cities are more difficult to access and have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Isolated Latter-day Saints in The Gambia present good opportunities to establish a Church presence where they reside. Most ethnic groups have a visible presence in Banjul, which, over time, may allow for missionary activity to expand outside the capital.
Full-time missionaries have baptized and taught many Gambians living in Europe, especially in Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Italy. These converts provide a vital asset in establishing a future Church presence with indigenous members and leaders if they return to their home country. However, most Gambians living abroad likely do not return due to poor living standards.
Member Activity and Convert Retention
No convert baptisms have occurred in The Gambia. Member activity rates likely reflect those of the nations in which converts joined the Church. Activity rates among the approximately twenty members in the country may be too low to have permitted the organization of the Church.
Ethnic Issues and Integration
The Gambia has little ethnic conflict despite its diverse mix of West African peoples, allowing for greater ease assimilating differing ethnic groups into the same congregations.
Church materials are available in indigenous languages spoken by at least half of the population. Those who speak English as a second language can also benefit from English-language materials. Illiteracy is a major issue, as half of the population cannot read, warranting humanitarian and development projects geared toward improving literacy. Such projects would also likely assist in finding receptive investigators. Due to the diversity of languages spoken, large numbers of converts from differing ethnic groups may one day mandate the creation of language-specific congregations.
Few, if any, Gambians have served full-time missions. As of early 2020, no missionary activity had occurred in The Gambia.
There do not appear to be any Gambian members who live in the country that have had leadership experience abroad who can help meet essential leadership needs to organize a member group or branch. Following an initial Church establishment, leadership may rely upon full-time missionaries until capable male converts are baptized, retained, and trained.
The Gambia is assigned to the Accra Ghana Temple district. The country will likely be reassigned to the Freetown Sierra Leone Temple once the temple is completed.
The Gambia is one of several West African nations that remain without an official Church presence. Other nations in West Africa that have no reported congregations and few, if any, members include Guinea-Bissau and Niger. The Church experienced significant expansion into Muslim-majority West African nations during the latter-half of the 2010s, such as Senegal (2016), Guinea (2017), Mali (2017), and Burkina Faso (2019). The Church in Senegal, Guinea, and Mali has official branches in only the capital cities and generally report approximately one hundred members per country. A member group opened in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 2019 and the area presidency had provided authorization to organize the first official branch in late 2019. The only Muslim-majority nation in West Africa with a long-term official Church presence is Sierra Leone where the Church has experienced rapid growth over the past three decades.
Most missionary-minded denominations have a presence in The Gambia and experience slow growth. Only small increases in membership have been reported by Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses during the past decade. Evangelicals also report a small presence in the country. Nominalism and a lack of active participation in many denominations has been a significant barrier for growth.
The Gambia is one of the most tolerant Muslim-majority nations in West Africa and offers significant opportunity for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to grow due to freedom of religion despite the slow growth of most Christian denominations over the past decade. The recent establishment of the Church in Senegal, Guinea, and Mali has immediately produced good results and rapid growth in fledgling branches and member groups. However, other nearby nations with larger populations may take precedence over The Gambia due to limited missionary resources allocated to Muslim West Africa and the cautious manner in which the Church has expanded its presence in Africa. Gambian members petitioning area leadership to organize a member group in Banjul appears the most likely method that the Church will begin to establish an official presence in The Gambia. Humanitarian and development needs provide excellent opportunities for the Church to serve and establish a presence. Delaying an official Church establishment may result in missed opportunities if religious freedom conditions deteriorate or the population becomes more receptivity to Christianity one day and many join missionary-oriented Christian faiths that have maintained a long-term presence. The placement of even one senior missionary couple in Banjul could offer significant contributions to laying the foundation for consistent humanitarian activity and the initial establishment of the Church. Assignment of The Gambia to a full-time mission, such as the Sierra Leone Freetown Mission, would also permit greater attention and resources to establish a Church presence. Prospects for a future mission one day headquartered in Dakar, Senegal would also likely significantly improve the likelihood that the Church would establish an official presence in The Gambia complete with proselytizing missionaries.
 “Gambia,” Countries and Their Cultures, retrieved 14 September 2010. http://www.everyculture.com/Cr-Ga/Gambia.html
 “Anti-corruption Reforms in The Gambia Must Move Forward.” Transparency International. 27 March 2019. https://www.transparency.org/news/pressrelease/anti_corruption_reforms_in_the_gambia_must_move_forward
 “Gambia, The,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127234.htm
 “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: The Gambia.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 15 January 2020. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/the-gambia/
 “Where We Work.” Latter-day Saint Charities. Accessed 15 January 2020. https://www.latterdaysaintcharities.org/where-we-work
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