Guest Blog: “Becoming a Gambian”

I’m thrilled to bring you a guest blog post by Allison Reeves this week.  Allison is a PhD student in health communication and was one of four NSGA interns that worked in The Gambia on our Gender Equity and Youth Leadership through Health and Human Rights Education project in July and August of this year.  She was stationed in Bansang, a community that Kebba and I ran through on Day 5 of our Love4Gambia run.

The following is a letter to home that she wrote from The Gambia.  It’s a beautiful read that captures the essence of what it is to work and live in The Gambia.


August, 2011

Hi everyone!!!

Sorry it’s taken me so long to write but I have very limited access to the Internet and phone and I’ve been very busy becoming a Gambian. It’s been soooo nice to be unplugged from everything and so I’ve been avoiding technology.

It will be virtually impossible to describe my last 24 days here—it feels like I’ve lived a lifetime in such a short time span, and in the mean time my reality has been turned on its head.  Coming back to “real life” in Toronto will definitely be a shock and I’m a bit
anxious about it.

I’ve been so happy here in Bansang, a small-ish community deep in The Gambia. Our hotel is right on the Gambian river and I swim regularly in it, despite its often sketchy brown-ish look. Our hotel is run by a family and is adjacent to the extended family compound. Many families here are polygamous but ours isn’t; the hotel is owned by a husband and lone wife (Ibrahima & Bintou), and in the compound lives an uncle and aunt (Mamoud & Sainey) and their five children (Ibrahima, Mbinkindy, Pabi, Backaray & Dodo), a few stray cousins (Lamin, Lamin, Seikou & Sana) and a grandmother (Dodo).

The couple who runs the hotel spent 35 years living in Paris (another interesting story for another day) and the husband has been visiting their grown children and grandchildren in Paris for most of my stay here. I’ve become very close with his wife, Bintou, in his absence, and have been speaking French every day with her. The family speaks Mandinka, the tribal language of Bansang and area, and I’ve been picking up bits and pieces here and there. The children in our compound study English in school so they love practicing English with me.

I thank the Creator/God/Allah/Universe for my French every day as it has resulted in me becoming quite close with Bintou and she has able to act as a cultural translator for me, which has made my experience so much more rich than other volunteers who only speak English. Since I started traveling abroad during high school, I have used my French in virtually every single place I have traveled (including Peru, Europe, India and twice in Africa).  I’m so grateful my parents insisted on us being in the French immersion programme.

Here are some examples of my Mandinka:

Sumo lei? Ibi-jay! (How are you? I’m fine.)

Courtonatay? Tana tay! (Family is good? Yes; they’re fine.)

Etodung? Alli-Sana Fatty (my Gambian name—Ali is funny to them since it’s a man’s name here; Sana is the name of one of my “sisters” in the compound who insisted I take her name—ironically it is the same name given to me by a friend I met in Morocco—and Fatty is the family surname, which is how everyone is acknowledged in the community.)

A canadian on a donkey taxi in The Gambia, Africa

Taking a taxi with the family

It’s been such a pleasure living with the family- every day after work I’m greeted by a soccer team’s worth of kids at the house, who all want to jump on me, shake hands, play, teach me Mandinka words and practice English. I’ve also joined in family eating out of a communal bowl, I’ve pounded millet, learned to clean fish, washed my laundry by hand in the river, taken my turn carrying their infant girl Dodo on my back, and other practices of daily living.

Everything is family-centered and the concept of being alone is virtually non-existent. I’ve taken to sleeping outside under a bug net because the bedroom is too hot and although we have fans, the power in the city shuts down around 2am. After the first few nights waking up soaking in sweat I decided I needed a new plan. Over time my outside mattress has become a new hang out place for the kids and myself and I’ll often have one or more of them sleeping in my bed in a given night.

Most families here are Muslim and I’ve seen such a beautiful representation of this faith among the people here. They are so peaceful, loving and kind and they love their faith and are very gentle in their practice of it. I’ve also joined in prayers once and found it relaxing and enjoyable. It’s reminded me I have to get back to my meditation practice. It’s currently Ramadan and everyone is fasting but they don’t mind if the “Toubabs” (white folks) eat before sunset.

a canadian health volunteer and a Gambian student in Africa

Allison and a Peer Health Educator

Work is also going well. I’m teaching sexual health to youth aged 13-18 (ish) in a summer school programme through the Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA), an NGO funded by CIDA (Cdn International Developmental Agency). Each school in the Gambia has a team of “peer health educators”, of which 5 from each school in this area (25 schools) were selected. There are 5 classes of students who rotate through my room, which is an open-concept classroom with bars over windows rather than panes, no lights and definitely no air

Topics include reproductive anatomy & function, fertilization & reproduction, STIs, HIV/AIDS, UTIs, infertility, abortion, menstruation, gender, equality, decision making, healthy relationships, female circumcision and others. The female circumcision and polygamy topics have been a bit daunting and I’ve asked a Gambian instructor to join the class for these discussions since I’m so painfully biased…and it has necessitated me leaving the class to use the “washroom” on occasion where I will lay on a sole couch in the staff room with a book over my face and tune out the horrifying stories of female circumcision related by the Gambian instructor to the students. Generally all are aware of the negative health outcomes associated but the deeply held tradition acts as a serious barrier to change. But the practice is slowly getting fazed out, quicker among some tribes than among others.

Overall, teaching is fun and I’m greeted in the morning with lots of “Good Morning, Miss Alli!!!”’s, hand shakes, hand slaps and various other tricks we’ve created over the weeks. The students are, for the most part, eager to learn and are literally a million times better behaved than Canadian students. When they do speak out of turn I’ll give them a stern look followed by a wink & smile and that seems to do the trick. They have some difficulty with my Canadian English and so writing things on the board tends to help. Also I can always hook a Gambian teacher or one of the senior students and bring them into the class to translate into “Gambian English” if required.

I’ve learned so much about teaching, learning and cross-cultural relations—I can’t even go into it all here, as it would be like a thesis onto itself. Every Friday we have “open day” at the school where students come together in the assembly hall and we have games, fun quizzes, singing, dancing, drama and debating. They get soooo engaged in this day and everyone loves to participate. They absolutely love when a Toubab becomes “Gambian”, in speech, behaviour, etc., so I’ve had some fun on open day getting on stage and playing around with them a bit. When I started dancing the Gambian dances I’ve learned at home their jaws dropped and then they went absolutely nuts over it. It was so funny! There’s one other Canadian here too but it’s typically me who is the one making an ass of myself.

At our school site, we work only with male teachers and male NSGA staff. It has been so remarkable to work with these amazing men, who are fighting against gender inequalities, female circumcision and violence against women. Yet another reminder that one need not have group membership to care about injustices facing that group, a topic I’ve discussed at length in my PhD dissertation.

This week, my Gambian co-teacher, Mamadi, has shared personal stories with the students about his marriage: that he had a love marriage (rather than arranged), that he adores his wife, that they never fight, that he helps her cook and clean and that he sings and dances for her to make her happy. It is so touching to see smiles curling up the students faces and giggles among the girls upon hearing this disclosure of love (a very rare thing!). Many of these relational behaviours between husbands and wives are alien in this culture, yet another reason why the work of this organization is so important.

a canadian in The Gambia with her new Gambian family

Allison and her sibings: Mbinkindey, Sana & Backaray

Despite my bias against some of these types of cultural phenomenon, the are many very special features in Gambian culture as well. For instance, it is known as the “Smiling Coast of Africa”, a statement that is absolutely true. I have never met such friendly, happy people in my life. Everyone on the street wants to say hello, ask our names, welcome us to the country, offer us food and drinks, etc. All the children follow us yelling, Toubab! Toubab! And when they catch up to us they sort of just stand there and stare with a sheepish smile on their faces. The most courageous of the bunch extends a tiny hand and then giggles with glee after we shake it. Our students also want to touch our Toubab skin, play with our Toubab hair and our Toubab clothes.

Aside from friendliness, there are other incredible aspects of Gambian culture. For instance, they also say it is better to be poor in the Gambia than in the West, due to the phenomenon of “social immunity”, as described by one of my co-workers. He says that even a poor man is guaranteed three meals a day because people here can literally knock on any door in town and be welcomed in for a meal. There is no such thing as refusing a request for food or shelter. The community cares for itself and few are left on the margins (I’ve only seen one person in the community who appears to be in abject poverty, and this was likely due to his having mental health issues—he wore a big winter coat and hat in the dead of the heat and wandered around mumbling to himself). Another example is that children of extended family members can be raised by any family member who is able to support them. For instance, access to education might be improved by moving in with an aunt, as is the case in our compound. I mentioned that there are a few cousins living in our compound who visit their birth parents on holidays or  weekends but ultimately enjoy a more positive life living and working at the hotel for the summer and attending school in Bansang during the school year.

With respect to my way of life here, it has also been such a blessing to be living closer to the earth, using my hands to make things (rather than solely for typing), living within a cycle wherein virtually no waste is created, playing outside and making our own fun, away from AC, TV, video games and the Internet, as well as learning local songs, games and customs.

I’ve also enjoyed discussing important issues that affect Gambians with my co-workers, who are deep in the fight against HIV/AIDS, gender discrimination (including mainstream domestic violence), forced child marriage among girls (12 yrs-15 yrs) and other issues. There is an amazing shift in the country as we speak and I’m in an incredible position to bear witness to this change. Among the students we teach I can already see many bright lights appearing as strong, intelligent, mature and sensitive girls and boys who will grow through programmes like this summer school and bring about a new Gambia.

Looking forward to sharing more when I return.

Love, Alli-baba

You can learn more about the Nova Scotia-Gambia Association and the project that Allison worked on here

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