Changes in The Gambia

Katherine Bolander -Health 2013 The Gambia

I just finished my third year of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia, a small West African country almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, except for a small strip of Atlantic coastline. Despite being the smallest country in mainland Africa (pop. 1.8 million), it is ethnically diverse: many different tribes with their own languages and customs call The Gambia home.

Life is difficult here. Outside of the urban areas, farming provides the main source of income, but there is not enough machinery or fertile land to allow for sufficient food and income production. Although most people have at least one relative in an urban area or abroad sending funds to help their family in rural areas, it is still estimated that close to 50% of the population lives at or below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. And The Gambia currently ranks 165 out of 186 countries on the UN Human Development Index, which measures a nation’s development by combining indicators of life expectancy, educational attainment, and income.

My home during my first two years was a medium sized village (estimated pop. 6,000) called Kwinella, where I lived with a host family who became my second family. The village has neither running water nor electricity, and I walked to the local hand pump every day to fetch my water for bathing and drinking. I ate rice for three meals a day with my host family (the same meal was reheated three times)—and we are not badly off compared to others. In Gambian culture, everyone shares one large bowl of food at meals, often eating with their hands. Kwinella is not too far from the river so we regularly ate fish, but we only enjoyed meat or chicken on six special occasions when we slaughtered one of our animals for Muslim religious celebrations such as Koriteh, Tobaski, and village Koranic readings.

When I extended my service for one year, I moved to the urban area to work at the National Malaria Control Program which is part of the Gambian Ministry of Health. My experience has been very different than my first two years. I live in a small apartment with both running water and electricity, and every day I report to work like a typical office job. I have mostly helped them with data verification, grant writing, and implementing campaigns that have to do with malaria prevention. These types of opportunities are available to third year volunteers in The Gambia who are able to create their own work opportunities at the discretion of their PM and CD.

While in The Gambia, I learned Mandinka, a language that I did not even know existed (those of my parents’ generation might remember it as the native language of Kunta Kinteh in the 1970s television mini-series Roots). To swear in we had to reach an Intermediate High Level. I was able to reach the Superior level at my COS conference, which I feel is attributed to the social nature of Gambian culture and the fact that the average Gambian outside of the urban area cannot easily communicate in English.

In The Gambia, one of the most impactful parts of my service has been being a woman. It affects me every day in a way I never experienced before coming here. To cross The Gambia River, I have been forced to sit in the bottom of a boat where it is not possible to see out and water shoots through holes; the men get to sit on top. On a daily basis, men will greet other men within a group of people but not greet any of the women. It makes you feel invisible. I have been exposed to female genital mutilation (it is estimated that more than 98% of Mandinka women here are circumcised). I have seen wives being beaten by their husbands. I have seen the jealousy that occurs when a woman’s husband decides to take a second wife, or third, or fourth. I am living in a typical patriarchal society, and that has changed my awareness of what it means to be a woman in this world.

I have never before felt hindered by my status as a woman and have rarely even thought about how being a woman might affect my path in life. In school, I learned the importance of hard work and was taught to be independent, to speak with confidence, to stand up for myself, and to express my opinions. I was taught to follow my dreams and that—with hard work—anything is possible. I learned to strive to be the best I could be, whether I was in the classroom or in the pool or on the track; being a girl was not an impediment. Of course we learned about the struggles of earlier generations of American women and the plight of women worldwide. But this never affected me personally. I am incredibly fortunate that I rarely had to think about being a second class citizen—something that is the harsh reality for so many women in this world.

It pains me to see women perpetuate cultural norms that hurt them instead of standing up for their rights. When I see this happening, I try to stand up for myself to show other women that they can do it too. For example, while helping at a track meet, I wanted to discipline two boys who blatantly disobeyed rules by sneaking onto the vehicle that transported us to the competition. I suggested washing dishes as a punishment for their actions, but a female teacher would not hear of it. “This is Gambian culture,” she said. “Even if a boy is doing nothing or being punished, he should not wash a dish.” She instead went to wake up resting female athletes. I challenged her and was so happy to have female students thank me for standing up for them and speaking the truth.

But all I can do is set an example and try to educate people. This is not my culture to change. There is a Mandinka proverb that translates to, “For as long as a tree stays in the river, it will never become a crocodile.” I take this to mean that for however long I spend in the Gambia, I will never become a Mandinka. I will always be a New Yorker. I try to educate people and show them my way of viewing the world, just as they are showing me theirs. I will always stand up for myself and what I believe in, with the hope that girls will see me doing that and learn that they too, can do the same. However, they need to decide for themselves whether they want to try to change cultural norms.

After spending three years here, I have learned to try to focus on the beautiful parts of Gambian culture instead of the aspects I view as negative. Change is happening, and I have faith that things will continue to change. It is not my place to force Western values onto people. I have made relationships that will last a lifetime and experienced things that will change me forever. I have learned to accept people’s generosity with a “Thank you” instead of a “No, I couldn’t possibly.” In a country that has so little compared to mine, I have experienced a generosity that does not exist in the United States or any other country I have been to. Everyone, from the toddlers to the elderly, shares everything. People truly care about one another and support each other however they can. When my host sisters baby passed away, I saw how quickly word traveled and how people came together. Generosity and love is part of the culture in The Gambia, and this makes it rich in ways that cannot be measured.


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