The Big Deal About Little Gambia


Virtually every tribe in Gambia can be described as unreached.

Gambia, a small country in West Africa with a population of 1.4 million people, had its early contacts with the gospel as far back as two hundred years ago when the Anglicans and Methodists arrived on “the smiling coast.” It was one of the first countries in the sub-region where Western missionaries planted churches. In spite of centuries and decades of the gospel’s presence in Gambia, not much can be celebrated since there remain dominant forces long entrenched in the land, unchallenged by the might of the Church.

Virtually every tribe in Gambia can be described as unreached since none of them possess sufficient manpower and resources to effectively evangelise their own people without external assistance. Early pioneers to Gambia seemed to concentrate their evangelistic work almost entirely among the Aku. This made many of the other people groups believe that Christianity was not meant for them. This perception has been passed down from one generation to another to the extent that a Wolof or Mandinka person considers it unthinkable to be called a Christian. These tribes, numbering hundreds of thousands, barely have a handful of indigenous believers among them. For example, among the 100,000 Soninke in Gambia, there are less than thirty known Soninke Christians. The story is no better among the Fulas who regard themselves as the original custodians of Islam in West Africa. Even communities among the Traditional Religion such as the Jola and Manjako are being taken over by the steady growth of Islam in Gambia due to financial aid from Arab countries.

Among the 100,000 Soninke in Gambia, there are less than thirty known Soninke Christians.

What can the Church do to reverse this trend? Tor Uja, director of Mission House International, believes that “Gambia needs a fresh, massive and sustained missionary drive to bring the impact of the gospel to these people. The existing churches are in dire need of discipleship. There is need for intensive youth work that can rise men for Gambia. For despite the political changes, there has remained an open door for the gospel, although it takes them long to believe.”

Demi-gods and Red Flags
The Marabouts have a strong grip on many people in Gambia. Their influence cuts across society like a knife. From politics to economics, from the social structure to the educational system, these men run the country with such great power that some of them are considered gods by their followers. The encasement of Gambia within Senegal on all borders makes it easy for Marabouts who are trained and receive powers from Senegal to penetrate every fabric of societal life in Gambia. For many, loyalty to a personal Marabout comes before the state. Only the praying might of the Church can liberate the vast number of people whose lives are governed by these forces of darkness. Who will stand in the gap to pray?

The majority of Jolas, although not an Islamic tribe, are bound by the powers of Jalang, a traditional deity which controls and counsels many people in their day-to-day lives. Sam Bello, a missionary reaching Jolas, says it is not uncommon to drive through a Jola settlement and see a red piece of cloth on the doorposts of half of the houses in the community as a mark of identity to signify that Jalang can be consulted there. Such is the situation that characterises the lives of many in Gambia who have no knowledge of Christ. 

The Need for Senders
We have been involved in trying to create awareness about missions and mission support in Gambia for the last two years. One of the greatest challenges to mobilizing for mission involvement in Gambia is that committed Christians are few—and the ones who are committed are already over-stretched both time-wise and financially.

There are many pastors working in the Greater Banjul area, a coastal and more developed part of Gambia. However, not many of the ministers feel called to go into the hinterlands where there is not much development or many amenities and where few have heard of Jesus. When sharing about Jesus in one village, one man was asked by people there if he was the Jesus he was talking about.

There are a few missionaries who have a heart to work among these people; however, they do not have the support required to engage these strongholds. The Church needs to work together with missionaries in order to penetrate the land. The needs are many. Our desire is to have people to make a one-year commitment to support missionary efforts in Gambia.

The Mandinkas are one of the largest unreached tribes in Gambia. There are very few Mandinka Christians. In 1998, a church decided to target a Mandinka village where the gospel had never been preached. They chose Bantanunku, which is about three hours away from Banjul.

There are many pastors working in the Greater Banjul area, a coastal and more developed part of Gambia. However, few feel called to go into the hinterlands.

The mission was a success and they had up to fifty people coming to the meetings. In Gambia, this is a very large number. Eventually, the supporting church felt they could not continue and pulled out of the village. One missionary who was part of the evangelistic outreaches was willing to continue; however, he needed to have a motorcycle so that he could go there two or three times a week. The new converts were disappointed. No one was available to disciple them. The open door had slammed in their faces. The people who had taken the step toward Christ were left abandoned. Since then, this missionary has had the desire to go and restart the work. However, he has not had the support.

Caught in a Vicious Cycle
In Gambia there are many unmarried mothers. This has led to the formation of a society with broken-down moral values. Many children grow up without knowing their fathers. When questioned why she had to have children out of wedlock, one woman replied, “What am I to do in the circumstance that no young man was coming to ask for my hand in marriage?” Some families pressure their daughters to have a child for any man, but avoid making a commitment. This practice is widely acceptable. A young man was recently asked why single Christian men show no interest toward young Christian girls in marriage. His reply was, “We find it hard to forgive the girls for having children out of wedlock.” As a result, some of these girls end up marrying eligible and ever-willing Muslims and so the cycle continues. The Church must work consciously to correct this problem.

Sitting Beside Open Doors
Despite the predominant Islamic presence, Gambia is still open to the gospel. The Church must act quickly while the doors remain open. Now is the time to pray, give and maximise our outreach and impact.

There are many ways that Christians can reach the people with love and touch them where they need help. People with a vision to reach the youth can arrange to come as teachers and be sponsored by others at home. Christian organizations can collaborate with missionaries working here to organise workshops and short-term medical outreaches.

Medical outreach provides a viable platform to sow seeds of the gospel in the hearts of young Gambians. Who can tell what fruit may follow in years to come if we sow the right seeds today? If everyone gives a little, then a lot can be accomplished in this land. The opportunities to affect the destinies of many communities and nations abound here. The Church has sat beside an open door for too long. It is time to walk in and set captives free from the shackles of sin, idolatry and deception.

Ministries engaged in taking the gospel to those who have never heard need the financial support of the Church. For “how shall they preach unless they are sent?” A church or fellowship group can adopt Gambia for prayer.

The call is yet to cease. The doors are still open. It is yet daytime in Gambia. Once the cry goes unheeded, the door closes and the night comes, no person can work no matter how much he or she desires. To wait much longer before responding to the cry of those in Gambia would be like a person picking up his or her working implements and heading for the farm when the sun has set.

Mark Kolo serves as director of media and mobilization with Missions Supporters League (MSL), a movement focused on mobilizing prayer and material support for cross-cultural missions. He is working toward pioneering MSL's vision to reach the ten countries of Southern Africa. He lives in Jos, Nigeria.

Dr. Hannah Ibanga serves as a consultant pediatrician. She formerly worked at the Medical Research Council in Gambia where she pioneered the work of MSL. Although she is originally from Nigeria, she currently lives in the United Kingdom.