Week 3 - language and Culture

All arranged by VSO as part of ICT (in country training). I was really lucky as my Wollof teacher was a fab Gambian guy called Babukka. He and I both arrived early or on time each day so had at least 20 mins each morning to chat. The other volunteers have found it easier to get into Gambian timekeeping than I have (i.e. they were late every day!). The Mandinka group had a teacher called Niceatoo who, after a few stressful lessons, they renamed ‘Nastytoo’.
My Wollof is still terrible but I intend to keep having some more lessons. They cost 60 dalasi for an hour and half which is really cheap (about £1.60) but I have to remember that I have to live on £4.50 per day…

The culture lessons/sessions have also been really useful. At risk of simply being sensationalist I’ll fill you in on some of the more interesting ‘issues’:
  • HIV/AIDS - Official stats show that compared with many African countries, the incident of HIV 1 and 2 are low. About 6% of the population are tested positive. However there are some concerns that the real figures are higher and they are definitely increasing. But most worrying is that the President of the Gambian has claimed that he has developed an herbal cure for AIDS! Therefore getting the message to many Gambians about preventing the spread and then treating the disease is incredibly difficult. The President also tends to get rid of anyone that refutes his claims and so there is almost nobody prepared to go against what he is saying.
  • FGM and Female Circumcision – Is very widely practiced in the Gambia. Up to 85% of girls are circumcised. Depending who you talk to, the seriousness of the procedure varies from a 'tiny nick' to complete female genitalia mutilation (causing serious medical problems/complications). However you look at it, I find it hard to accept that this is carried out on young girls and even babies, but it is part traditional practice for almost all the tribes.
  • Traditional Beliefs – I simply couldn’t list them all but suffice to say that there are many! In particular, people in the rural areas tend to strongly practice and defend the beliefs. Often western medicine is rejected in favour of herbal remedies and/or prayer. In addition there are a huge number of practices that I have tried to memorise so that I don’t offend people (e.g. Don’t take picture of anyone pregnant or even mention the fact they are pregnant, don’t ever show your legs from the knees up - no problem flashing breasts though!, don’t offer to shake a mans hand until he offers his, never forget to greet people numerous times even when just passing in the street…..)

    Family – Is really,really important in The Gambian. I have already been given so much sympathy that I am still baron (no children) at 35! It is difficult to get to grips with who is who in the Gambian extended family set up. Your Mums sisters are all called your Mum and your Dads brother are all called your Dad. I can’t remember the exact formula but a similar thing exists with cousins and they are referred to as sisters and brothers. In addition your other Aunts/Uncles play a huge role in your life and can even overrule your parents over certain issues (who you should marry for example? - Over to you Auntie Hills?) In many ways I think this is a great part of the Gambian culture. It means that even really poor people are looked after, and families really do count on each other.
    Recently the Gambian government spent a huge amount of money on a brand new, modern old people’s home. It was a total waste of money as only a few non Gambians used it. No Gambians would let thier family go into a home, it simply doesn’t happen and they are looked after in the family compound/home.


VSO arranged a welcome party on the beach for us new volunteers. The music and people were fun but I didn't fancy a massage in the local salon! The first photo shows Vic, Marney and Mohammed (who flew home to Canada to sort out a Visa issue and has not been seen or heard from since....)

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Week 2 - Moving Home

My new home

It’s in Kanifing in the Kombos. By Gambian standards it is really good. I have plenty of room, running water (cold only of course, but that is fine), electricity (which has only gone off twice so far, this will change in the rainy season) and completely tiled floors (which I have spent about 10 hours cleaning. It seems the Gambian builders don’t worry about removing cement or grout!)
It’s also in a safe family compound which is locked at night. And finally, it has a flat roof which gives lovely views of the……ahemmm, unofficial rubbish tip (which is right on my doorstep!)

For the first few days I had 3 volunteers staying with me, Jodie, Marney and Julie. Julie, the Australian volunteer, will be based up country so will use my place whenever she is in the Kombos as her city pad. Other than them, I have a few cockroaches and spiders for company! (I’m trying to tape up any obvious holes in the walls but I suspect they will still find their way in.)

My Compound family havegiven me a Gambian name (it is the norm for that to happen), it is Bintu Sangyang. I have no idea yet what Bintu means but will keep you posted! It is quite odd being called Bintu rather than Jackie but I’m getting used to it. When I walk home lots of the local children shout 'Auntie Bintu' at me. I can’t really talk to them too much yet as my local language is still shockingly bad but I do chase and tickle them and give them biscuits. That generally keeps them happy! They do then tend to try and get into my house and climb up the windows so I need to try and manage that or my home might become the unofficial local playschool!

Week 1 - getting used to the Gambia

Other than general homesickness and ‘my god what have I done?’ thoughts, the most difficult things to cope with are:

  • The weather (v hot all the time and getting hotter by the day). Especially difficult when you can’t wear shorts or usual holiday clothes as the culture doesn' allow them
  • The blinking Mosquitoes (surely the natural food chain can do without them? I’m covered in bites)
  • The bumsters (who just hassle anyone white, especially if you are female). Generally they are okay and easy to deal with but a few can be a bit aggressive and it’s hard to shake them off. I’ve had about 5 marriage proposals so far and countless declarations of love!
  • The Gambian slowly slowly attitude
  • Living on about £4.50 per day (everything excluding rent)……ought to be okay when compared to the little many locals have but it’s not!

I spent the first week in a small hotel called Safari Gardens. It's very simple but did have a pool (which was great). It’s run by a lovely British couple, Jerry and Morris, who have lived in the Gambia for 11 years and are great friends and supporters of VSO volunteers.

ICT (in country training) with VSO started and I was able to get to know the other new volunteers (3 Brits, 1 Australian, 4 Philippinos, 1 Pole, and 1 Bangladeshi/Canadian). A good bunch of people who really will become my new best friends.

We also went to a concert at the local sports stadium. I add this as it did give us a few lessons in the Gambian way…..

The concert was Youssou N'dour, a well know Senegalese singer (he has appeared on some Western Albums...Adam help me out here!??) Anyway the concert started at 8pm so I arrived just before hand. Having tickets really showed the clear distinction between the haves and have nots. I immediately wished I hadn’t got a ticket as there were hundreds of people hanging around outside that could never have afforded to go (tickets were about £6).
Once inside we were given a display of the younger, western and wealthy Gambian generation… I have never seen so many well dressed girls in my life! (And I mean dressed up to the nines, blinging in every corner of the stadium), you certainly would not have known we were in a fairly strictly Islamic country.
We managed to get to our seats for about 20.30, but no problem as the show hadn’t started by then...…In fact it didn’t really start until 01.00 in the morning! Gambian timekeeping (or not!) is legendary. We had a few warm up acts at 22.30 ish (even the Gambians thought they were terrible) and then 3 prize draws (I kid you not?!) and finally, he arrived. It was, in the end, a great show and the dancers were fantastic but it was a real test of patience. Had I not been with some longer serving volunteers that I was trying to make friends with, I would have left!