Now that I am “settled in” to life in Fatoto, I have finally had the opportunity to analyze my feelings a little regarding the people of The Gambia and my role here as a Peace Corps volunteer. It is a strange position to be in, because the Peace Corps does an excellent job of integrating us into the culture and communities that we will be a part of for two years of our lives. However, no matter how well I learn language, no matter how familiar I become with local customs, traditions and religious beliefs and practices, no matter how close I become to members of my family and of my community… I never have been and never will be a true “Gambian.” And while that fact may seem to be an obvious statement, its impact on my life here is tremendous. I often sit and watch my sister, Amin, when she is with her good friends. I find myself envious of those friendships because it is just a friendship between two Gambians. Neither friend is viewed as more privileged than the other, and therefore there are no expectations other than friendship between them. The color of my skin is a symbol of privilege and wealth. I have found myself in more than one friendship here in which, eventually, I realize that part of the intention of my friend is to be on the receiving end of whatever I can provide for them… and not just friendship. Some want money, some want me to take them to the United States, some want me to marry them (most likely so that I can take them to the United States)… others ask for whatever they can think of… pens, pencils, papers, money to buy clothes for school, etc. And the thing is, almost everything they ask for is a worthy request, but I find myself explaining again and again, that I am here to work… I am not here to give away things or to bring people to America. It is frustrating for me in multiple ways, and I deal with it as well as I can. I am happy with the relationships that I have formed, and it is in my nature to grow attached to people quickly, but I have to hold back at least a little. Even with those that have never asked me for anything but what I am here to do… even with those kind people in my life, I keep my truest feelings guarded. This is one of the many reasons why I am ever grateful for the other Peace Corps volunteers. I can let those guards down and just be myself for a while...
It is certainly frustrating when I am constantly being approached and asked for things... from strangers and from people I know. Perhaps the hardest part of all about all of this is that I understand why most Gambians feel this way, so even when I want to get angry about a situation, its difficult for me to do. These people have practically nothing. The Gambia’s primary export is peanuts, and peanuts just don’t generate much income for the typical Gambian. If a Gambian wants to make money, he/she finds a way to leave the country and work… then he can send money back to his family (the dollar goes a long way here… the Euro goes even farther). What brings in more money than anything else to The Gambia is tourism, and who are your typical tourists? They come mostly from Europe (as well as other countries, like America), they are almost always white, and they usually have money… or at least enough money to travel on and vacation with. These are the “toubabs” that Gambians know from experience. (If anyone comes to visit, you will become well-acquainted with the word toubab, because you will hear it shouted at you often... they don't mean harm, but it gets old after a while). Their other image of Americans and Europeans comes from the media: news reports and television (if they have television), movies, and what is talked about in music (favorite American musicians include Akon, 50 Cent, and Snoop Dog… what kind of image of Americans do these musicians send?) The other group of Toubabs that Gambians see here are people working for NGO’s and volunteer organizations like the Peace Corps and VSO (based out of the UK). There is so much aid coming into this country in varied forms… Some of us are here to work, but others come in, give away something or provide funding for something, and then leave. I remember visiting the primary school in Jiroff (where I did my training). Some of the buildings at the school were built by a Swedish NGO, the water pump was provided to the school by the world bank, the food that the children ate for lunch (or what was left of it after much of it "disappeared") was provided by the world food program, and the garden was planted by the Peace Corps. Organizations around the world donate things like books for libraries, computers, money for building schools, solar systems for schools and health centers, medications, vaccines… the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, a lot of these donated items mysteriously disappear, and many others fall into disrepair and disuse because there is no one there to train them how to take care of these items.
With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder the Gambians see my white skin and wonder what I can give them. With all of this aid coming in, many of them have forgotten that it is possible to achieve some of these things themselves… if someone doesn’t bring it to them, or take them out of the country to get it themselves, then they will just have to be without it. Some of the more cynical Peace Corps volunteers that I have met have suggested that perhaps the best thing we could do for the Gambia is to pull all our aid out of this country. They reason that as long as aid keeps coming, the people here have no need to work toward sustainability… if something breaks down, they can hope that replacements will come. While I disagree with this mentality, I understand the frustration and experiences that have led them to this point of view. After all, they didn’t arrive here feeling this way, or they would never have come at all. It is their experiences that have shaped that opinion. Last week, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps in the Gambia, which is impressive in many ways. But in some ways it can be discouraging. After all, we are still working towards the same goals that the first Peace Corps volunteers began here 40 years ago. This is when I remind myself that development takes time… America spent more than 40 years to get to the point that it’s at now. And there have been vast improvements here in the quality of life because of organizations like the Peace Corps.
Regardless of all of these thoughts, I do truly enjoy the people and the culture. Yesterday, some of my students went out into the community to look for donations towards a training camp that they want to have at school for a new organization called Ambassadors for Peace. On foot, they covered the entire village of Fatoto and the surrounding villages. They returned with over 400 dalasi in donations from different people. I read their record book, and I saw that most people paid anywhere from 5 to 25 dalasi… which isn’t much, but for many, it’s more than what they have. It is a reflection of how generous the Gambian people can be with the little that they have. I can’t tell you how often students or just random villagers have brought me small gifts of food or hand made trinkets. My brother, Abdoulie, has spent his free time (which isn’t much) every afternoon in the past few weeks collecting wood from the bush to construct a fence for me around the plot of land that I will be using for my garden. Without a fence, there is no point in planting anything. The animals are roaming freely now, and will demolish my poor garden before it even has a chance to start growing. It is tough work, cutting down wood and hauling it to the compound, but he does it without complaint and refuses to let me help. A number of people, including students, friends, and even one of the care-takers at school have offered to wash my clothes for me. While this is tempting, I’ve actually begun to enjoy my clothes-washing sessions. It’s nice to do some hands-on work… and there's something gratifying in knowing that I can do it myself.
Gambians are devoutly religious, and I have had many fascinating conversations with them. I enjoy the call for prayers every day… soulful Arabic melodies called over speakers throughout the village. I also appreciate the peaceful look on their faces when they discuss their beliefs. And even though we disagree on many points, they still accept me for who I am, and no one has judged me yet for those differences. It makes me think that if all Muslims were as generous and accepting as the Gambians, then our world would be a different place right now… but then again, we could say the same for other religions as well.
So here you have it… my deep thoughts of the week… the good and the bad. I wish that I could honestly report nothing but positive feelings, but in reality, my feelings constantly fluctuate. I knew when I joined the Peace Corps that this would be a challenge, and it is true. This is by far the most difficult thing I have ever done, but the rewards are unbelievable, and I am learning more about myself than ever before in my life.