Education in Gambia


Education in Gambia:

“In Search of Participation in a Country Without Obligatory Education”

Gambia has approximately 1.7 million inhabitants, of whom half are under the age of fifteen.Most people by far live in the coastal area. The biggest cities in this region are Banjul, Serekunda and Brikama. In the educational, governmental and judicial system, English is the official language. Approximately half the population have a reasonable to good command of the language. There are a lot of different tribes in Gambia, and all have their own tribal language. Mandinka is the most important one of these languages, and most people are acquainted with it. Apart from Mandinka, Wolof is also a tribal language one will regularly hear. Contrary to what one may think, the tribal languages are all very different. When people greet each other to say ‘good morning’ in Mandinka, they say: E saama, but in Wolof, the same greeting is: Naka subasi. Whether you try to greet people in Mandinka or Wolof, it is very much appreciated when you make an effort to speak their language. Because Gambia is an Islamic country, there are also many places where Arabic is taught. Lessons in Arabic are usually given after the regular school day by a local grocer who knows Arabic. For a small fee, he teaches the children how to read.

A little over half of all children, 55%, attend primary school. There is no compulsory educational system in Gambia, and although the government contributes financially, parents have to pay for books, notebooks, pens and a uniform. Many parents cannot afford these. Apart from that, most children have to help out their parents during crop season. Because of this, many children do not go to school during certain periods. Because many children only went to primary school on and off, because the quality of their education was lacking, or the parents cannot afford schooling, many youngsters do not attend secondary school. The schools we visited were of very different quality. We went to a missionary school which was completely dependent on donations. The students did not have tables and sat on benches or plastic chairs. At the beginning of the school day, they all stood to sing the national anthem and rattle of the alphabet. The facilities were very much lacking in this school. The biggest pride of the school was the new out house with an actual lavatory bowl.

Semi-private school

We also visited a semi-private school. Parents pay approximately 1,000 euro’s per year, which is a huge amount of money, considering that the average income is 350 euro’s annually. The children in this school were seated in ‘old fashioned’ school desks. The regime is strict and when a student does not pay attention, he/she immediately is given a clip around the ear. It was remarkable to see the analyses that were made of the results. These were featured on the wall of the head mistress’ office. Compared to the missionary school, many more students attended secondary school here. Private education is only accessible to the moneyed class. It was painful to see the schism and huge contrast with everyday reality. As easy as it was to visit schools in general, it was almost impossible to visit a private school. Most of these schools are attended by children of expats or parents with a very good job. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures here.

Extra lessons after school

Also very special to see were the ‘private’ schools after the regular lessons. Teachers give extra lessons to children in small groups. These classes are attended by children from the same neighbourhood, who are taught English, Arabic and other subjects. Some people teach because they believe that education forms the basis of the development of each individual and thus the country, and they do not ask for a fee, or just a small one. In the coastal area tourism and fishing are the most important sources of income. A tourist guide earns good money during the high season (from October until the end of April). It is, however, not easy to become an official guide in Gambia. To become one, you have to go to university, which is too expensive for most people.

Driving school

We visited a driving school where the lessons of a young man were paid for by an organization. The reason for this was that the West had donated an ambulance to the village, but there was no-one who was able to drive it. In Gambia, by the way, not everyone driving a car actually has a licence. Gambia is a corrupt country, and some people are willing to take the gamble and pay to be allowed to drive on if they are halted. Getting a drivers’ licence is expensive and not obtainable for many Gambians. If you can afford it, you have to take both a theory as well as a practice exam, just as in The Netherlands. When you take a daily lesson, you can obtain your licence within a month. This amounts to thirty lessons for a total of around 250 euro’s (compared to an average annual income of 350 euro’s).


Gambia is a country of extremes; the landscape is magnificent and the people are exceedingly friendly. It is also called the smiling coast of West-Africa. It is a country where you can make an educational difference. For a hundred euro’s annually, a child can go to a good school, for ten euro’s you can get a child a uniform.

Our most meaningful experience was the day we spent with an African family. We helped with the cooking, attended an Arabic lesson with them, and of course we ate together, on the floor, with our hands, from a big bowl. A tremendous experience. The Gambian kitchen is very savoury, especially when one considers that the food is usually prepared in one single pan on a coal fire. When you invite the children to a day of fun at the beach to thank them, you realize that the ‘small things’ are by far not as self-evident as we take them to be.