Reaching the Nations International Church Growth Almanac

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.

The Gambia

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Area: 11,295 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 divisions and one city. 

Population: 1,778,081 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: 2.589 (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 4.96 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 52.05 male, 55.62 female (2010)


Mandinka: 42%

Fula: 18%

Wolof: 16%

Jola: 10%

Serahuli [Soninke]: 9%

other African: 4%

non-African: 1%

Mandinka are a Mande ethnic group and populate most areas, especially the interior.  Fula and Wolof are Western Bantoid ethnic groups are appear to reside in most areas, especially along the coast.  Jola populate coastal areas near the Casamance Region in Senegal.  Serahuli are a Mande ethnic group and reside in several different areas.

Languages: Mandinka (42%), Fula [Fulani or Pulaar] (17%), Wolof (10%), Soninke (9%), Jola-Fonyi (4%), Bainouk-Gunyaamolo (2%), Balanta-Kentohe (2%), Mandjak (2%), Serer-Sine (2%), other (10%).  English is the official language.  No languages have over one million speakers.

Literacy: 40.1% (2003)


Various West African Empires ruled Gambia prior to European colonialism, including the Ghana and Songhai Empires and Mali Kingdom.  The Portuguese took control of the Gambia River from the Kingdom of Mali in the 14th 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 has been consistently reelected president ever since coming to power in the mid-1990s.[1]  


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.[2]  Both alcohol and cigarette consumption rates appear low.  


GDP per capita: $1,400 (2009) [3.02% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.456

Corruption Index: 2.9

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 which have contributed to recent economic growth and may lead to greater development in the future.  Agriculture employs 75% of the workforce and generates 31% of the GDP.  Major crops include rice, millet, sorghum, peanuts, corn, sesame, and cassava.  Services employ 6% of the workforce and produce 55% of the GDP whereas industry employs 19% of the workforce and generates 14% of the GDP.  Industries include food processing, tourism, woodworking, metalworking, and clothing.  India, China, France, and Senegal are primary trade partners. 

The government has stepped up its efforts to fight corruption with some success although corruption is still widespread.  The president was successful in the past decade in the prosecution of government officials and businessmen who misused their power or positions to illegally gain wealth.  Corruption in the Gambia is not viewed as a major deterrent to economic growth and foreign investment as local laws regarding economic activity are generally respected.[3]


Muslim: 90%

Christian: 9%

indigenous beliefs: 1%


Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic  30,000

Seventh-Day Adventists  1,243  5

Jehovah's Witnesses  208  3

Latter-Day Saints  less than 20  0


90% of the population is Sunni Muslim.  Christians constitute 9% 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.[4]  The percentage of Christians in the population is comparable to several Muslim- majority nations in West Africa, namely Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal. 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

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.  Two qadi courts are established for questions regarding marriage, divorce, and inheritance for Muslims and follow traditional Islamic law.  Major Christian and Muslim holidays are recognized by the government.  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 non-faith based NGOs.  Religious instruction is allowed in public schools and occurs for both Muslims and Christians, but is not mandatory.  The government has cautioned its Muslims citizens regarding extremist Islamic groups and has maintained positive relations with both Muslims and Christians.[5] 

Largest Cities

Urban: 57%

Brikama, Bakau, Banjul, Farafenni, Lamin, Sukuta, Basse Santa Su, Gunjur, Soma, Sabi.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

All 10 of the largest cities have no LDS congregations.  25% of the national population resides in the 10 largest cities. 

LDS History

In 1998, the Gambia became part of the Africa West Area.  Gambia has never been assigned to a mission and remains without any known LDS Church presence. 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: less than 20 (2009)

Few if any Latter-day Saints reside in the Gambia.  Membership consists of Gambians baptized abroad who returned to their home country or foreigners temporarily staying in the country.  Gambian converts are primarily found in Europe.  In August 2010, the Belgium/Netherlands Mission baptized a Gambian convert in Antwerpen, Belgium.  

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 0

In 2010, the Church reported no organized congregations. 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: English

No indigenous languages have LDS scriptures.  Church materials translated into Wolof, Fulani, and Mandinka include Gospel Principles and The Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimony

Humanitarian and Development Work

As of 2010, there has been no known humanitarian or development work carried out by the Church in the Gambia.


Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

Few Muslim-majority nations entitle 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 Muslims may face ostracism and ridicule from their families and the community.

Cultural Issues

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 LDS Church compared to 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.  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. 

National Outreach

The entire population remains unreached by the Church.  The lack of mission outreach centers in Senegal and nearby nations has likely contributed to the lack of an official Church presence.  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 350,000 reside in the metropolitan area (20% of the national population), there is a well-established Christian community, and other large cities are more difficult to access and have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants.  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 assess 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. 

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 LDS congregations. 

Language Issues

Church materials are available in indigenous languages spoken by 69% of the population.  Those who speak English as a second language can also benefit from English-language materials.  Illiteracy is a major issue as most 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.

Missionary Service and Leadership

Few if any Gambians have served full-time missions.  As of 2010, no missionary activity had occurred in the Gambia.  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. 

Comparative Growth

The Gambia is one of many West African nations which remain without an official LDS Church presence.  Other nations in West Africa which have no reported congregations and few, if any, members include Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Niger, and Burkina Faso.  The only Muslim-majority nation in West Africa with an official LDS Church presence is Sierra Leone, which has experienced rapid church growth over the past two decades.  

Most missionary minded denominations have a presence in the Gambia and experienced slow to modest growth.  Seventh Day Adventist have achieved steady growth, as Adventists have doubled in Gambia over the past decade.  Jehovah's Witnesses experience slow growth.

Future Prospects

The Gambia is one of the most tolerant Muslim-majority nations in West Africa and offers significant opportunity for LDS Church growth due to freedom of religion despite slow to modest growth of most Christian denominations over the past decade.  However, other nearby nations with larger populations without an official Church presence  may take precedence over the Gambia due to the lack of any increase in the worldwide missionary force over the past decade and the cautious manner in which the Church has expanded its presence in Africa.  Humanitarian and development needs are excellent opportunities for the Church to serve and establish a presence.  Delaying an official Church establishment may result in missed opportunities if the population becomes more receptivity to Christianity one day and join missionary-oriented Christian faiths which 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.   

[1]  "Background Note: The Gambia," Bureau of African Affairs, 17 August 2010.

[2]  "Gambia," Countries and Their Cultures, retrieved 14 September 2010.

[3]  "2009 Investment Climate Statement - The Gambia," 2009 Investment Climate Statement, February 2009.

[4]  "Gambia, The," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.

[5]  "Gambia, The," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.