Get Ready to Get Counted!

The Gambia is due to have a population and housing census this year, and should re-think the data to be collected.

Katim S. Touray, Ph. D.
7 min readMar 29


Workers collecting data during the 2022 South African census. Source Wikimedia Commons; CC License

Ten years ago, during the 2013 Population and Housing Census (PHC), I had a very interesting experience. The Enumerator assigned to cover my neighborhood failed, a few times, to find me home. On her lucky day, she found me home, I suggested to her that she should leave the census questionnaire with me to complete it. She looked at me in the eye and said “You think you can complete it, Mr. Touray?” I replied, “I’ll try,” to her and she left the questionnaire with me.

A few days later, she came back to pick up the completed questionnaire. She quickly reviewed it, and promptly said to me “It’s very good, Mr. Touray! I never thought you would be able to complete the questionnaire.” And I replied, “I tried” She thanked me sincerely, and left.

The Enumerator was surprised I could complete the questionnaire because she did know that I obtained my Ph. D. many years earlier, so I should have been able to complete a census questionnaire. In addition, I had my first encounter with a census questionnaire 40 years earlier, when I was an Enumerator in the 1973 census. I was one of the many teenagers recruited from Armitage High School, George Town (now Janjangbureh), and I enumerated Kurau Kemo, Kurau Arafang, and Sareh Gubu Muntaga in the Sandu District of Upper River Region.

The Gambia has a long history of conducting national censuses dating as far back as 1881, and a 1931 census reported a total population of 185,150, with Mandinkas, Jolof (Wollof) and Fula being the three major ethnic groups. The first nationwide population census was conducted in 1963, and since then, The Gambia has successfully conducted 5 censuses (one every 10 years). The next national census is due to be held this year, and as such, the Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBoS) has been calling on Gambians to cooperate with the 2023 PHC. And just as well, because a census is a very important national exercise.

Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the first census in human history, it is safe to say that censuses have been conducted for almost as long as human beings have been organized into groups. The first recorded census in the world was taken during the Han Dynasty of China in A.D. 2 when a population of 57.7 million was recorded. The second recorded census in history also occurred in China in 140 A. D. when the country had a population of 48 million, signifying a drop of 9.7 million in population compared to the A.D. 2 population, mainly because of migration.

In the Middle Ages, King William I of England undertook a census in 1086 to levy taxes on lands he conquered, while the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem conducted a census in 1183 to collect taxes to help defend it against an invasion by, Yusuf ibn Ayyub ibn Shadhi, commonly known as Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria.

A PHC has since evolved into one of the biggest and most complex exercises a nation can conduct during peacetime. A census involves the complete enumeration of the population in a country, and is recommended by the UNFPA, the United Nations’ population agency, to be held once every 10 years.

A national census generates a lot of data such as the number of people, their distribution across the country, their proportion of males and females, their age distribution, as well as their socio-economic characteristics and living conditions. Data generated by census is critical to good governance, formulating policies, development planning, social welfare programs, and market analysis, to name a few uses.

GBoS has been reviewing the questionnaires to be used to conduct the next national census, the 2023 PHC. This is a very important exercise because you cannot get the right answers if you don’t ask the right questions. The questions asked are grouped into questions dealing with, for example, individual, household, and building characteristics, as was the case for The Gambia Population and Housing Census (PHC) 2013.

Although I received an invitation to attend a meeting of the Census Technical Advisory Committee to review the tools to be used for the 2023 PHC, I was unable to attend it. However, I informed GBoS that I’d share my suggestions in an article, in the hope that it would get more people to think about the importance of having a census, especially one that’s fit for purpose, and provides us data that will help our development efforts.

My suggestions relate to demographic issues such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, and marital status. Although the 2013 Census questionnaire about the household characteristics asks for more details about nationality than the 2003, and the 1993 censuses, we can do better. Both the 1993 and 2003 PHC household forms have only two options for nationality: is the respondent Gambian or not; if not, what is his or her nationality?

The 2013 PHC goes further, and respondents can choose from 22 categories of nationality, including Gambian, nine other West African countries, as well as “Other West Africans,” Other Africans,” and “Non-Africans.” However, we can go even further by including all ECOWAS countries and their Regions or States in the list of nationalities in the household form. This would be very valuable information because it would provide more detail about which Region or State of each ECOWAS country provides the greatest number of migrants to The Gambia.

The household questionnaires for all three censuses (1993–2013) provide 10 ethnic groups for respondents to choose from. Furthermore, the questionnaire lumps the Mandinkas and Jahankas as one group, as it does the Jolas and Karonikas. The questionnaires also leaves out many of the other ethnic groups such as Mansoanka, Mankanya, Manjak, and Yoruba. I suggest that the ethnic groups of all languages listed in the Ethnologue catalog of Gambian languages should be included in the questionnaire, to ensure that we keep proper track of the growth (or in some cases, decline) of these ethnic groups.

The 2023 PHC should also ask people about their language skills and comprehension. In 2003, I conducted a nationwide audience survey for our national broadcaster, Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS). The survey questionnaire included questions about the demography of GRTS’ radio and TV audience, including their ethnicity, and the languages they spoke fluently. The survey showed that although an average of 33.7% of GRTS audience were Mandinkas, 25.9% were Fula, and 10.2% were Wollof, people who were fluent in Mandinka and Wollof accounted for 73.8% and 63.6% of the GRTS audience, respectively, while Fula speakers accounted for 49.3% of the audience.

This information was useful because it informed my recommendations to GRTS about how it should share its weekly total airtime between the various languages it broadcasted in. Thus, I recommended that the airtime dedicated to Mandinka radio programs should be increased from 14.7% to 28.5% of the total weekly airtime. Similarly, the Wollof TV programs were recommended to be increased from 6.5% to 21.6% of weekly airtime. On the other hand, the airtime dedicated to English TV programs was recommended to be reduced from 41.2% to 12.8% because only English was the third most spoken language among the GRTS radio and TV audience.

Another important demographic that the 2023 PHC should look at in greater detail is religion. Specifically, the census questionnaire should ask respondents their religious denomination or which Muslim Brotherhood they belong to. This would provide important insight into the relationship between the Gambian population and Muslim Brotherhoods of Senegal such as the Mourides. The questionnaire can even ask respondents how often they attend the religious festivals (Magal, in Wollof) of their Brotherhoods, and how much money they spend when they go to each festival to provide insight into the impact of these festivals on Senegal’s foreign exchange earnings from The Gambia.

Although one might think that increasing the number of questions would impose a heavy burden on the 2023 PHC census, this burden will not be unbearable because the 2023 PHC will be a digital census in which Enumerators use tablets, instead of paper questionnaires. Furthermore, the extra time it would take to administer these questions would be worth it because of the useful additional data they would provide.

I also suggest that GBoS should, like the US Census Bureau, publish the complete 2023 PHC dataset, with all personally identified information removed to protect the privacy of respondents. This would enable researchers conduct further analyses on the data, and provide more useful information to support sound policy and program development. For example, data on the relationship of respondents to their household head can be combined with data on ethnicity, religion, nationality, and locality to generate information on polygamy, marriages across ethnic groups and nationalities, which ethnic groups have the greatest rates of polygamy, and so on.

At the end of the day, what’s important is that GBoS should look at how it can use this once every 10 years opportunity to produce quality data that can inform policy, and help us track important changes in the demographics, religious practices, marriage patterns, and other issues that are important to our national development efforts. You, too, have an important role to play in this effort, so please stand up and be counted.