Welcome to my online bulletin board for all things West Africa! I will be in The Gambia from August 23-December 16, 2011. In an effort to keep everyone updated, I will try to post here often, sharing pre-departure information, my experiences in The Gambia, and my reflections when I return.
Lately, multiple friends have approached me, telling me about so-and-so in their class who has been talking poorly about something that I love dearly – The PEACE Program. What follows is my response to that trend…
For those of you who don’t know, The PEACE Program in The Gambia is an international education opportunity based at St. Mary’s. PEACE is an acronym that stands for Promoting Educational and Cultural Exchange. Each semester (and generally every other summer), a handful of students is sent to live in West Africa…to experience the culture, make new friends, undergo personal challenges, and learn about themselves. Having gone through the process myself, I can tell you all that it is a transformative experience.
Many St. Mary’s students (and I’d be willing to bet a few faculty and staff members) are uncomfortable with the college’s relationship with Gambia. Yes – the political situation in Gambia may be different from what we’re used to and challenge your personal ideals. Yes – some Gambians may observe different marriage customs than we do. Yes – the roles of women in Gambian society are different from those of American women. Why are all of these qualities bad things? Why do we want to avoid programs that are different from our own nation and cling solely to study abroad programs based in countries that are essentially Western societies? Why must students who have never been to Gambia spread ridiculous rumors about the country and its people, with no concern for the meaning of their words? Why are St. Mary’s students who may have considered studying abroad in Gambia fed stories about how horrible the country is?
I can’t begin to explain how hurtful and upsetting it is when it gets back to me that students are speaking poorly about a country and a people that I love. I think that this college’s relationship with Gambia is one of the most valuable things we have to offer and I shudder to think of a day when the PEACE Program is no longer active.
I am constantly grateful for the time that I spent in West Africa. I built relationships with Gambian students and the American students whom I lived with that will last for years to come. And I know that there are other students at this college who could go to Gambia and have an equally transformative experience.
So…here is the bottom line. St. Mary’s: if you hear someone speaking badly about Gambia, ask yourself a few questions. Have they ever been to Gambia? Do they know any Gambians? Is the answer to either of those questions “No”? If so, run away. Go talk to a PEACE Program alum. We now have a facebook group – go check it out. Check out the nearly 20 years of history that the program has. Check out memories that are shared and stories that are told. Perhaps this process will invigorate your curiosity and you will be moved to pursue the program during your time at SMCM…perhaps not. In either case, the important thing is that you researched it for yourself!
As I conclude this little essay, I want to share a picture. The photo below is of my Gambian family – my compound people (minus Sait Matty!). Each one of them brought some measure of joy to my life and I am beyond grateful for the time that I spent with them, however short. I wish that all of you reading this will travel to Gambia yourself one day – maybe I will return one day…in the meantime, all I can say is Jerejef, jerejef, jerejef…
As I type this, I’m sitting in a hotel in Thies, Senegal. We actually left Gambia last Wednesday and are weaving our way through Senegal, heading north to Dakar.
The trip has been interesting so far…to say the least.
On Wednesday, it was very sad leaving Happy Camp but the trip to our first stop, Kaolack, was fairly consuming. We were on the road for 9 hours but eventually arrived at a gorgeous hotel. We went out for Lebanese food for dinner and then went to bed early.
The next morning, things started to go downhill. One by one, the Happy Camp crew was struck down by a mysterious illness. Four people went to the hospital in Kaolack while the rest of us spent time at a religious leader’s home. We went on a walking tour of the city, saw the mosque and a local school. Also, we visited with an old man who has been living in the same small room for over 30 years, sitting in the exact same spot, because he’s convinced that a former religious leader of the city did not die in 1975, as history teaches.
After our short tour, we met with the current religious leader and then left to go pick everyone up from the hospital. However, due to the poor physical state they were in, we postponed leaving Kaolack and were graciously welcomed into the religious leader’s home to spend the night. Overnight, 2 more people got sick.
We waited to leave Kaolack until later in the afternoon when everyone was stronger. Then we drove to our current location, Thies. Last night, I began to feel sick myself and this morning, one of my roommates became ill so I stayed behind in the hotel with her while everyone else went on a tour of the city. It’s been nice having a day to relax!
Tomorrow, we’re leaving Thies early to go to Mbour for a safari. Then, we’re heading to Dakar tomorrow night! While staying in Dakar, we’ll go to Goree Island which should be an interesting experience. Hopefully I’ll have internet access in the hotel in Dakar so that I can continue to update everyone!
1. tan lines
2. dwindling anti-malaria pills
3. empty toiletry containers
4. dust on my suitcase
5. dirt on my feet
6. the fading color of my Keens
7. holes in my clothing
8. the increasingly large pile of Gambian fabric in my room
9. my diminishing fear of bugs
10. a growing love of rice
11. a growing hatred of bread
12. multiplying nicknames within Happy Camp
13. the amount of jingles I’ve memorized from the commercials on TV…that are all in Arabic
14. my dwindling concern with germs
15. my increasing use of the word “nice”
16. my growing ability to sleep through the noise of West Africa
17. my lessening fear of Gambian tap water
18. my severely altered perception of temperature
19. my bookmark steadily moving through my anthology of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories
20. my constantly growing love for this place and appreciation for my life back home.
Last weekend, we traveled to the amazing tourist camp, Tendaba.
We arrived to the camp last Friday night, but the story starts a few hours before that.
In typical Gambian fashion, we left Happy Camp a bit late, around 4 in the afternoon. We set off on our adventure for the weekend, knowing that it would be a long drive to Tendaba and it was the furthest upriver we’ve ever been. We had to keep stopping because our van was overheating. At one point we stopped, our driver opened a console right behind the front seats, and smoke started pouring into the van so we all rushed out. It was a pretty dramatic scene, but luckily, we were stranded in a nice village for a bit. The people were very welcoming and we played with the kids while we waited for the van to cool down.
After about an hour and a half longer of paved roads, we hit the “dancing roads.” Dancing roads are essentially dirt roads. But they’re so covered with pot holes and random dips that cars, especially our big vans, have to travel quite slow over them. With every bump or drop the whole vehicle jumps violently. You can imagine the scene as we’re all shaken around, sometimes flying a foot in the air, hence the term dancing road. It’s pretty comical and I have some great videos of us experiencing these conditions. Though it gets a bit tedious when you’re dealing with these roads for hours on end.
The moon rose and it was an absolutely gorgeous night as we pulled into Tendaba camp…about 4 and a half hours after we left Happy Camp. We started down the path heading towards the restaurant for dinner and all of the sudden, we saw a ton of white people! I can’t begin to describe the feeling of seeing so many white people after living in West Africa for three months. It sounds odd since I am, in fact, a white person myself (shocking, I know), but it’s pretty jarring.
Turns out, Tendaba is a major destination for bird watchers around the world. Most of them were older and not too happy with a group of young students crashing their idyllic scene. But somehow, we learned to coexist with the birders and all survive the weekend.
On Saturday morning, we set off on a safari! This wasn’t a typical lions, antelope, and giraffes safari though. We went through beautiful West African forests in our open air vehicle (frequently getting hit in the face by errant tree branches - I have the scratch on my neck to prove it) and stopped to walk through various parts of Gambia’s largest nature park. It was such a fun morning and we got to see countless birds, and a few monkeys along the way. Not to mention the baobab trees! I love them so much.
Once we got back to camp, we visited the local village and spent time with their Imam. We usually meet with the elder, or alkalo, of every village we visit, but the alkalo of Tendaba was away at the time.
After we finished up our visit, we came back to camp for lunch and some relaxation time. Then, we went on a boat ride in the afternoon and saw many many birds and the beautiful mangroves! There were a few moments where I thought we were about to have an African Queen adventure (A few Nutters out there will appreciate the reference) but luckily, we made it through the marsh unscathed.
The rest of the day was spent taking in beautiful Tendaba, eating dinner, listening to some drumming and doing a little dancing, and then having a nighttime pool party! Happy Camp completely took over Tendaba’s pool and we had a great time. Though I decided it was my cue to leave when we got so bored the boys started launching people, literally feet in the air, across the pool. You can’t trust a group of bored 20-somethings!
The next morning, I got up and walked around the camp taking photos. I ended up having a nice conversation with one birder from Manchester, UK. I couldn’t resist turning the conversation to my favorite British TV show, Doctor Who, but he really appreciated the reference. Then we had breakfast, packed up, and hit the road. All in all, it was a great morning, and the perfect way to end an amazing weekend away!
Last weekend, we had the opportunity to experience another Gambian holiday, Tobaski! It is a Muslim holiday celebrated 30 days after the end of Ramadan, and known by most around the world as the Feast Day. The main event of the day? Slaughtering a ram! Yay.
I got to my Gambian family’s compound around 9 in the morning on Sunday. Waiting for me was not 1, but 3 rams! They were all tied up to various trees around my compound. In an ill-advised move, I quickly identified “the cute one.”
First, I sat with my namesake in her house as she tidied up. Soon after I arrived, her husband, the old man of the compound, came into the room. He’s such a sweetheart. He immediately came up to me and thanked me for coming and said “I am so happy you are here with us for the day. I am so happy I will kiss you!” And then he grabbed my face and kissed me on each cheek. It was an adorable moment.
(Briefly, it’s worth pointing out that “old man of the compound” is an actual title here, so that’s how I’ll always refer to him. His nickname is Pa Bura)
Next, the old man and the children of the compound drove to the mosque nearby for prayers. Eventually, all the women sat outside, waiting for them to get back to the compound so the day’s festivities could begin.
The old man came back with the kids (who are technically my grandchildren according to the Gambian system of fictive kin) and several young men I had never met before. No young men live in my compound because all the husbands and sons in my immediate family are in England.
I quickly realized that the young men were there to help the old man with the slaughter as they took of their shirts and started sharpening knives. Soon enough, the white girl was ushered off to the side of the compound, behind a wall, so I couldn’t see the killing. I observed from the side as my 3 year old granddaughter, Maimuna, watched the rams get their throats slit, one by one, completely un-phased. I am so impressed by Gambian children!
Eventually they let me come out of my seclusion and I came back to the center of the compound just in time to watch all the rams be skinned, gutted, and butchered! Awesome.
Initially, it was a pretty disgusting sight. But the more I relaxed, the whole process became really interesting. I’ve never seen an animal killed and butchered before and I’m very happy I got to have this experience. Though, I immediately regretted identifying the cute ram out of the bunch because it made it a bit more difficult to see his horns get hacked off his disembodied head with a machete.
Of course, I also had to eat the cute one, but somehow that was more enjoyable! The ram was delicious. Over the course of the several meals we had that day, I learned that the old man of my compound is president of The Gambia Butcher’s Association. Once I got the chance to discuss the slaughter with my fellow Happy Camp Crew members, it became clear that my experience was much more scientific and precise than others witnessed. I am very grateful for the old man’s prowess!
I ate so. so. so. much ram that day. Probably more than an American should eat in one day, but I had a great Tobaski. I am so happy that we get to have these experiences despite our relatively short time in West Africa!
This past weekend, the group journeyed out to Bakau (a town about 10 minutes away) to get pizza. Not just any pizza, but legitimate Italian pizza at The Italian Connection. This restaurant is owned and operated by an extremely expressive and entertaining Italian immigrant named Danilo. Oftentimes, I find myself thinking that we get more than we bargained for when we go there. It’s not just dinner - it’s dinner and a show!
Sitting in The Italian Connection last Friday, it struck me how funny it was that I was sitting in a bona fide Italian restaurant…in West Africa. But honestly, culture clashes like that are common in The Gambia.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve come across or spoken to people from over 10 countries around the world. And not just African people! When I asked my fellow Happy Camp Crew members to brainstorm all the nationalities of people we’ve met, we were able to list: GAMBIAN! (Of course) Swedish, Guinean, Sierra Leonean, British, Ghanaian, German, Canadian, Spanish, Nigerian, Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Senegalese, and Beninese.
This just goes to show you that you never really know how diverse your study abroad experience will be. Don’t assume that just because you’re going to Africa, you’ll only be exposed to African people. Don’t let the small size of Gambia make you think there aren’t opportunities here. The breadth and scope of my peers’ service learning projects shows how much you can do in this nation…or any nation for that matter.
I realize that I’ve only been living abroad for 63 days and I’m hardly an expert on the whole process. However, I will say that I’ve identified one of the biggest potential issues with studying abroad. Never EVER underestimate or try to pigeonhole the place that you’re going to. Your destination will constantly surprise you and exceed or completely defy your expectations! Don’t even bother developing deep-seeded expectations because that process consumes a huge amount of time. Actually…there is one expectation you should have before living in another country: expect to be surprised. Every. single. day. Just when you think you’ve completely adjusted, studying abroad smacks you upside the back of your head with a whiffle bat.
If you are lucky enough to study abroad yourself, wake up every single morning and take joy in the fact that you will never spend an ENTIRE day without a little excitement…and that is another reason why everyone should study abroad.
Here are all of the days of the week in Wolof! For those of you who have studied French (or Spanish!) you can see the influence of borrowed language…
Sunday - Dimaas
Whenever you travel to another country, you’re confronted with that nation’s practices and customs. They may be extremely different from your own, or very reminiscent of home. Either way, these new practices cause you to see your own nation in a new way.
Studying abroad forces you to examine and analyze your life back home through the lens of your new location. This process allows you to realize what you take for granted in your day to day life and also, you begin to question policies or practices that, before, were simply part of your reality.
I love America. I love being American and I love my home. However, this experience has been extremely revelatory for me. It’s made me realize how inhospitable Americans actually are. Also, though the thought crossed my mind before, being in Gambia has proven to me how much space we waste. I wish everyone could see the look on a Gambian’s face when you tell them “Well…in the States, a lot of people set aside a whole room for their baby.” One night, I had a conversation with one of our language teachers about the structure and layout of our houses and he just sat there, shaking his head, repeating over and over again: “You waste so much space…”
Of course, since I was enculturated (yay fancy anthropology term) in American society, I can’t change how individualistic or spatially aware I am in four months. However, I don’t want to change those things about me either. Just like Gambians have their culture which operates wonderfully in Gambia, I can operate wonderfully in the United States. More than anything, this experience forces me to be more aware of my day to day actions and, where I can, make a change for the better that doesn’t force me outside of my own cultural norms.
I’ve never been so grateful in my life. I am beyond grateful for this program and this opportunity. I am so grateful that I attend a college whose president values studying abroad enough to travel to West Africa. More than all of these things combined though, I am so so grateful for my life back home, and my friends, family, and boyfriend who are supporting me while I’m here. The differences between Gambia and home are never ending…but as I adjust here, I become more aware of the things I really love about home, and American practices that don’t really align with the rest of the world.
This process of becoming more culturally aware of your own home, as well as the world around you, is another reason why everyone should study abroad.