Culture and traditions of Gambia

Holidays to Gambia are all about taking things easy, soaking up the sunshine on the sandy beaches and taking a closer look at the countryside and incredible wildlife. You’ll also, no doubt, find it interesting learning how Gambians live their lives.

Gambians are friendly and many speak perfect English as well as at least one local tribal language. In resort areas such as Kotu Beach and Cape Point you’ll find things are quite familiar to you.

Gambians do have their own culture and social norms though. So we’ve put together a few facts on Gambian life and customs that you may find useful, especially if you’re travelling to more remote areas.

Gambia Cultural Holidays

Traditional Gambian gestures

These are typical Gambian behaviours you’ll observe, or should avoid.

– Thumbs up is a very rude gesture in Gambia, so avoid this completely

– Always use your right hand to shake and accept gifts, the left is considered to be for bathroom activities only

– Hissing or ‘psssst’ is usual and not considered rude to get someone’s attention, even a waiter

– Burping after a meal is considered a compliment and a sign that the food was really good.

Dress code for women

Gambian women should never show any skin between their belly button and their knees. To do so is considered very rude, so, if you’re travelling to rural areas it’s courtesy not to wear shorts or cut off tops.

The concept of time

Gambians are very relaxed about time so it doesn’t run the same way as it does at home and you shouldn’t be surprised if timings don’t match the published schedule. In fact, one joke in Gambia is that GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) actually means Gambia Maybe Time.

Greetings and eye contact

Traditionally, it’s the right of the eldest person to greet first. Conversations in Gambia traditionally start with an enquiry of how you are, how your family is and how your day is going. Even if you just want to ask a short question, it’s considered polite to start with this.

Men and women should not make direct eye contact, so don’t be offended if a Gambian avoids your gaze. Although men and women mustn’t touch, it’s not unusual to see men holding hands as this is a sign of friendship.

Gambian traditions and etiquette

In every country there are certain ways of behaving that are regarded as good or bad manners and Gambia is no exception.

Generally Gambians will understand that you may not know the local customs but they’re not difficult to learn and they’ll help you understand Gambian behaviour. It’s also always appreciated if you make the effort to observe the basics.

A cultural history of tribes

Traditionally Gambia is a tribal country with each tribe having its own language and culture, however over time, with inter-marrying and Western influences, the tribal lines have blurred.

It’s still usual for children to take the tribal identity of their fathers though. These ancient tribal roots remain strong and can be seen in ways of dressing and in the rituals of important ceremonies such as weddings.

One concept that exists across all tribes is the idea of the extended family. This notion of caring for one another and demonstrating respect, particularly to elders, remains an important concept in Gambian culture.

Relaxed attitudes to religious beliefs

While Gambia is around 90% Muslim there is traditionally a tolerance of all religious beliefs – Islam only arrived in the country in the 1800s so there are also hundreds of localised religions.

These are generally based on the idea that the land and rocks are alive and that ancestors are always close by, so you’ll often see small shrines with offerings of incense or flowers in rural areas.