For nearly half a year, I have built my life in West Africa. I have jobs, I have a house, I have friends (Gambian and non). I know how to speak their languages, drive in their bush taxis, shop in their markets. I know their villages, their roads, their customs.
I worked in The Gambiaâ€™s capital city, Banjul, which is a hectic and dirty place. Suddenly, I was sharing the roads with businessmen and sheep, goats, and chickens. I taught approximately thirty women about computers every morning, and in the afternoons, I built the countryâ€™s main hospitalâ€™s website http://rvth.dosh.gm.
Iâ€™m used to waking up to the sounds of roosters and falling asleep to the sounds of drumming. I can drink their water and not get sick, and my body says itâ€™s cold at temperatures under 24 degrees C.
Tie dye has become beautiful, people carrying things on their heads, normal, being dirty all the time, natural.
Iâ€™ve lived through the Rainy Season, where it pours day-and-night, the Dry Season when it doesnâ€™t rain at all. In the Rainy Season, the air is thick, in the Dry, your skin can dry and crack. Iâ€™ve felt the Harmattan, strong and hot.
Iâ€™ve become use to being stared at in the streets, and being called toubab, boss lady, nice ladyâ€¦ the list goes on.
I eat oranges sold out of a wheelbarrow on the street. I drink yogurt out of a bag. I eat bread that was handed to me wrapped in half a sheet of a foreign newspaper. I eat eggs that have never seen the inside of a refrigerator. I eat salt straight from the ocean that comes in clumps and is gray.
And if I want to, I can walk five minutes out my front door and see the ocean.
I live near baobab trees in flat rice fields. Iâ€™m surrounded by THE friendliest people Iâ€™ve ever met. Iâ€™ve become a master of small chat.
The pace is slow, the English is basic, but The Gambia is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to.
Mosques instead of churches; slow instead of fast; black instead of white; palm instead of pine; hot instead of cold; Mandinka and Wolof instead of French and English; right instead of wrong and also wrong instead of right.
When I signed up to VSO, I wanted an experience that would make me uncomfortable. I see too many people spending their lives in the same job, the same house, eating the same foods, watching the same television, with the same peopleâ€¦ and I couldnâ€™t think of a more boring way to exist. [Note- this lifestyle may make some people happy- I respect that- but itâ€™s not the way that I would like to live.]
And so, when I was given my options of countries to go to (there were four in total), I decided on The Gambia because I thought itâ€™d be the most difficult, the most challenging, and the most different.
It has proved to the different- so different, in fact, that when arriving, I hardly had any culture shock (the roads paved with shells, the lack of toilet paper and public bathrooms, they perhaps, effected me some).
The problem with leaving isâ€¦ in all the places Iâ€™ve lived, Iâ€™ve always had to restart my life, and itâ€™s usually been a challenge, BUT, picking up and moving to West Africa is on an entirely different level. Every single day was a challenge. Iâ€™ve worked SO hard to create my life here. Iâ€™ve learned how to teach, the language, the roads, about the religion, transportation, food, weather, people, customs, etiquette… and no one will ever know what it was like. I can write in this journal, I can post pictures online, but NOTHING really shows what my day-to-day life was like here. My friends, they know, but in a couple of days, Iâ€™ll be thousands of miles from them, and Iâ€™ll have no one around me who can comprehend one of the biggest experiences of my entire life.
Iâ€™ve felt sad about leaving places before, but this is totally different. Itâ€™s never been such a struggle just to exist before. Iâ€™ve had to adapt my mind and body to so many different things, I think Iâ€™ve only been able to identify a fraction of themâ€¦ some Iâ€™ll notice when Iâ€™m thrust back into the place that we here deem â€œThe Real World,â€ and some things Iâ€™ll probably never recognize.
Itâ€™s a weird feeling to be in such a strong limbo between wanting to go and wanting to stay. Iâ€™ve got baobab trees vs hot showers; heat vs cheese, mushrooms and tofu; ocean vs travel; these people vs my people.
I have been an outsider for five months. Someone who couldnâ€™t be more obviously from somewhere outside of The Gambia. I look different, I talk different, I do different things with my spare time, I eat different foods. But Iâ€™ve also been Alimatou Bah. Iâ€™ve been told by many people, â€œYou are a Gambian now.â€ I co-exist.
There are days when I do speak their languages, do the same things they do, eat their foods, walk their streets, live like a Gambian. And although Iâ€™ll never been on of them, Iâ€™ll do my best to embrace all that they are.
This was My Gambia.
2 Replies to “I’ve Laughed, I’ve Cried”
Having lived and worked in The Gambia for 9 years and regularly visiting it for a total of 21 years .. may I send my congratulations to you Gillian, on your well-written and accurate observations of a Toubab’s typical life in The Gambia.
Now in 2011 â€¦ some 7 years after your experiences, apart from many new building developments and some road improvements, basic life and the localsâ€™ attitudes have changed very little. A totally different lifestyle to the ones we both grew up in, itâ€™s the sort of place which visitors either love or hate. If you love it as I do, despite all its faults and irritations which you so accurately describe â€¦ it is very hard to leave once you have been there for a while and the experiences one has often give a completely new perspective on oneâ€™s future life. I wonder if you have returned â€¦ as many people do ?
As one who fully understands everything you have written and know well the difficulties involved in trying to convey those special feelings for the people and the environment to those who have never fully experienced life in The Gambia, I wish you well in whichever direction your life has taken you since those days.
What a fascinating website. You are obviously an exceptional lady.
I first visited The Gambia in 1976 and vowed never to return. Now after over a dozen visits since I find myself on the verge of turning my back on England and taking the plunge. A truly mesmerising place.