Gambia, a narrow wedge of a country surrounded on three sides by Senegal, is the only West African nation to combine unruffled independence with genuine, multiparty democratic government.
Little know outside Africa, Gambia leaped briefly into the consciousness of America several years ago as the land to which Alex Haley traced his African forbears, an event recorded in his best selling book "Roots."
A poor country, Gambia has unsuccessfully tried to capitalize on the "Roots" phenomeon by attracting U.S. tourists. But an increasing number of vactioning Europeans remain the mainstay of the tourist industry in this sun-filled and tranquil country of pleasant Atlantic Ocean beaches.
Four-fifths the size of Connecticut, Gambia's postindependence 15-year history of domestic peace is attributed to its self-effacing presient, Dawda Kairaba Jawara. Jawara, 55, a Scottish-trained veterinarian, comes from the majortiy Mandingo people, who alon e make up 40 percent of the country's 525,000 population spread among six ethnic groups.
He is described as a humble but astute politican whose dominant Progessive People's Party "makes sure everyone has a share of the pie," according to a Western source.
With only meager resources and one major export crop, peanuts, this former British colony was given little chance of survival at independence. But with outside financial help, particularly during the Sahel drought of the mid-1970s, and close trading contacts with its larger neighbor, Senegal Gambia has frustrated that prediction, according to its secretary for external affairs, Ebou Taal.
"I think we proved that we have not been the most successful but we haven't been the lest successful" country in Africa, Taal said. "We are very aware of our [ecnomic] constraints and we haven't engaged in expensive prestige projects" that have hurt other African countries, he added.
Gambia was once part of the ancient Islamic-influenced African kingdoms of Ghana, Songhay and Mali, from which its 90 percent Moslem population are direct descendants.
Scholars are still trying to unravel the mystery of one of its tourist attractions, circles of carved stones that dot the northern bank of the region's ancient avenue of commerce, the Gambia River.
In Africa's precolonial history, the English and French fought for control of the Gambia River Valley with the British eventually wrestling control of a trading enclave 200 miles into French-conquered Senegal.
"At independence, we talked about association" with Senegal, said foreign affairs official Taal, "but any political integration would take a long time." a
"A lot of the smaller states in West Africa need to disappear in the future," he continued, "and Gambia is too small." Any absorption of Gambia into Senegal, however, would "come as part of a regional West African movement that doesn't exist now," Taal added.
Gabmia's seaport capital Banjul, a town of 40,000 people, is a bright mosiac of colors. Crowds of hurrying, chattering blue and white-uniformed school children mix at the noon lunch hour among long-legged striding men in traditional, colorful Moslem gown. The equally tall women wear flowing brightly-colored depe gowns, some shimmering in the sun with sequins, with matching headdresses. Street vendors carry yards on cloth on their shoulders and piled on top of their heads.
Occasional groups of toursits, with cameras, shorts and bathing suits, break this flowing pattern.
Gabmia's tourist influx, up from annula figures of several hundred in the 1960s to 60,000 this season, is a mixed blessing, said Dr. Lenrie Peters, one of the country's three surgeons.
Although the tourists make a small contribution to Gambia's gross domestic product of $300 million, they have also led local merchants to inflate retail prices and resulted in some social disruption, Peters said.
"The prices remain inflated after they leave," noted Peters, a serious side effect in a country with an annual per capita income of $210.
Gambia is burdened with 90 percent iliteracy. "The school children don't attend classes and follow the tourists around," added Peters. "These problems didn't exist before." But government reaction to the negative side effects of tourism will be slow in coming, said a journalist, N'gaing Thomas.
"Gambians are gradualists and treasure their peace and social harmony," Thomas added. "Everything will be fine between you and him until you move too fast. Then he'll be suspicious."