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Travel Story by Angela Spielsinger

  The Smiling Coast
The Gambia

Guest of Honour at opening of Gabia's first Deaf club


Gambian Sign Language (GSL) is a new language for Deaf people in Gambia; it was founded in 2001. Before 2001, they used their own language to communicate with each other. Most countries in West Africa, e.g. Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, etc, use American Sign Language (ASL). Gambia believes that it is important for them use their own native sign language and they don’t want ASL to take over from GSL. Today, the GADHOH (Gambian Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) has several Deaf Sign Language teachers and they organise regular meetings and invent new signs for different words. They explain to the artist what these new signs look like and he draws them in the books on GSL. At the moment they have books 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Gambian Sign Language.

Almost no sign language is used outside Kombos. It is often assumed by families of Deaf people, who have had no access to education, that they have learning difficulties and not language difficulties so their problems go unrecognised. Some families have developed their own familial signs, but generally Deaf people are only communicated with on a very cursory basis.

I was honoured to open their very first Deaf club and it is now running successfully. It is very popular and everyone wants to join. Some parents do not know of a Deaf club and they think it’s a place where boys and girls mix. Some disapprove of the idea of their daughters mixing with members of the opposite sex. So, many young females would lie to their parents saying they were going to a meeting in GADHOH instead of the Deaf Club. It is really difficult for the parents, as they do not know anything about Deaf culture.

GADHOH (Gambian Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing)

This is a small association in the Gambia, which provides services and sign language classes for Deaf/Hard of Hearing people. It was founded in 1992 by a small group of Deaf people in one of their homes. GADHOH now has over 400 members from all over the Gambia and it is becoming a stronger and more robust Association. As part of their service, they have set up a Female Wing aimed at Deaf women and also a Deaf nursery school. Now GADHOH has 3 new local branches in the country.

There is only one Deaf School in the country – St Johns School for Deaf Children. This school has over 150 day-pupils.


Gambia is a very small country but has a lot of history about the slave trade. Although slavery had existed in Africa for many centuries, the Portuguese developed the trade on a larger scale from 1530 onwards. By the 16th century other European powers such as Britain and France had become active in the slave trade.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, up to 20 million Africans were captured as slaves. Between a quarter and half of this number died soon after capture, mostly during transportation on ships. Accounts from that time describe hundreds of slaves packed so tightly between decks that they were forced to lie down. Around 50% out of approximately 10 million slaves who actually reached the Americas died within a few years.

I visited James Island and its slave trade museum then met a middle-aged lady who is the 7th generation of Kunta Kinte, who was captured in the Gambia and taken as a slave to America. It is worth watching the film ‘Roots’ and reading the book by Alex Haley under the same title. After taking some pictures of the island I had them developed and noticed that they came out as black and white - the island must be spooky.

Gambia is a religious country where 90% of the population are Muslims and the other 10% are Christians. I noticed when any problems arose during meetings the Gambians always brought up religious issues and the name of God to solve these problems. They always talked about God and said that God is watching you whenever you are doing wrong.

Some interesting facts about Gambia

· 45% of the population are children under 14 years old
· Men hold each other’s hands, they are more affectionate than the women!
· When I walked along the street people would call out “toubab” meaning a white person.
· The thighs of a Gambian woman are to Gambian male what the breast is to American/British males and are not to be exposed!


I be naading (Hello in Mandinka)
No ngoolu dadd (Hello in Fula)
Na nga def (Hello in Wolof)

English is the main language spoken in the Gambia, but there are lots of tribal groups with their own language.

Mandinka – the national language of Senegal is also the language of the Mandinka people found largely in central and northern Gambia, and in parts of southern Senegal.

Fula - the Fula people are found across West Africa, from northern Senegal to as Far East as Sudan and as far South as Ghana and Nigeria.

Wolof – the Wolof language can be found in Senegal and the western regions of the Gambia.

Lots of Deaf people are from different tribes such as Mandinka, Fula and Wolof. Each tribal group has their own music and dance rituals.


The people in Gambia believe in lots of superstitions. They tried to persuade me and I just told them that I respected their beliefs and equally they should respect me for not being superstitious but they just laughed!

Examples of superstitions

· Never expose your belly button
· Never walk across a trickle of water
· If you have the ‘devil’ in your body you must wear red clothes on Friday to drive the evil spirits out
· Wood should not be touched before washing the hands after a meal – this causes a sore throat. If this is done then one touches one’s neck to prevent sore throat.
· Gambians will not say that a child is pretty to avoid having the child grow up to be the opposite. You should therefore say your child is ugly!
· You should not ask how many children someone has, you may ask, “How many sticks of wood do you have?”
· Gambian believe that talking about the pregnancy could endanger the life of the baby.


If you want to see real Gambian culture, don’t stay in the tourist hotspots; these are full of hotels and restaurants. Try and stay in a guesthouse some distance away. The ‘Safari Gardens hotel’ (home of VSO) is highly recommended. It is owned by a British couple but job opportunities are given to Gambians and they earn their own salary. It is situated in the central of a quiet African village.

Be warned that there are two different types of taxi. A green taxi is a tourist taxi (it is a rip off) so try and use yellow taxis (public taxi) where you will be sharing with other people. If you want to stop, just bang on the window and the driver will stop for you!

If you want to use public transport, a minibus (bush taxi) for example, you might have to wait until it is full of people before it can leave!

Gambian people use lots of gestures to communicate. Many of them cannot read or write, so there’s no point in showing them the name of place you want to go.

You will have to pay £5 tax towards helping the environment when you arrive in Gambia.

Please bring any unwanted clothes with you to Gambia - they will appreciate it. If you wish to visit any schools during your trip ensure that you bring some pencils, notebooks, paper, etc.

Deaf people in Gambia will welcome you and they will make your trip memorable.

Click on photo to enlarge

A street market scene  Gathering by the sea  Friendly Gambian children

Date Submitted: 24 Jan 2007

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