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.

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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.)

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.

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
conditioning!

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.

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

This week, I’m sharing with you a letter that I wrote to my friend Mike’s sister, Michelle, who is working in an African country for the first time.  Mike was worried about Michelle after reading about her experience with culture shock on her blog.  I am honored that he thought that I might be able to help with a few encouraging words.

As I composed my letter to Michelle, I thought that she might actually be coping with life in a developing country and enjoying Tanzania more than her blogs indicate.  I know what it’s like to sit at a keyboard in a faraway country.  Sometimes the most pronounced difficult experiences are the ones that come out first when you are thinking about home.  The daily joy of being in an African country comes out second but there’s not always time for “second” if an internet cafe’s clock is ticking.

I’ve been in touch with Michelle a few more times and she easily agreed that I could post what I wrote to her.  You should definitely check out Michelle’s excellent blog  by clicking .  She’s teaching English at a small not-for-profit school and is meeting some extraordinary young students.  And please leave her a message if venture onto her blog.  She might not have enough internet time to respond to you but trust me, she’ll appreciate it so much.

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Dear Michelle,

I’m Erin, a friend of your brother Mike’s.  Mike and I spend many hours running together.  He asked me to write you a quick note after he read your blogs. I’ve spent 3 summers in countries in Africa and can relate so much to what you are going through.  I meant to keep this short because I know that it’s like to log onto a shaky internet network with precious little time but I love to write, especially about Africa, and now that I’m ready to hit send, I can see that I got a little carried away.  So skim this only if you want and don’t use your precious time to reply.

School kids in The Gambia

Nothing truly prepares you for most of what Africa offers when you arrive.  Nothing prepares you for the dust.  For what it feels like to stand in front of your bed (whatever that may look like) with the dirtiest feet you’ve ever had, no water to wash your feet, and an internal war over whether or not you want to relieve your full bladder inside, outside or at all.  Nothing prepares you for the beauty of standing in front of gorgeous, incredibly well behaved young pupils who have the most ferocious appetite for learning you’ve ever seen.  Or for knowing that these are the lucky kids.  They have peers who are just as bright and love learning just as much but their families don’t have money for school fees.

You learn things quickly in Africa, the only place where you can learn these lessons.  You learn that nothing is truly clean or smells good for more than 5 minutes.  Your students look fresh every morning because they’ve had 14 years more practice than you at appearing fresh despite the dust and the heat. You learn to celebrate your few hours of electricity and to bid it calmly goodbye when it goes, just like your African friends do (maybe you allow yourself to think ironically about the shit-storm of calls that NS Power receives if the power goes out for 10 minutes in Dartmouth). You learn to look more at the beauty of life in an Africa village, not at the complexity and hardship.  I can read from your blogs that you are doing this already.

Before your left, I’m sure many people in your life told you that they were so “jealous.” That they “want to go to Africa.”  That they are proud of you because you’re going to “save kids’ lives.”  And maybe “see a lion” while you’re at it.  Most of them will never go to Africa.  When you get home, too many will be more interested in the lions than your students’ amazing survival through a complex life. Their jealously would deflate on their third night with no electricity.  But you, you are the kind and generous one in Africa, making a difference.  You chose to go there when you could stay home and teach kids who want the new iPhone, want a car when they turn 16 and want less homework so that they can drive said car on smooth, paved, non-chaotic roads. You’ll get through this experience because you have a generous soul.

I loved when you wrote “Life is hard but beautiful” in your blog.  Many African villages are poor in resources but so rich in things that we don’t have in Canada.  In family, in community, in love for each other, in love and care for strangers because that’s what community is.  I think that Africa holds the most beautiful example humanity left on this planet. What you will get to witness over the next 3.5 months, in very hard conditions, will be so incredible if you can let it.

I’ve been where you’ve are.  I remember lying in my bed at 2pm in Bwiam, The Gambia just 7 weeks ago.  I had run 25km a day for the past 14 days.  I was so tired and would have traded anything to be unconscious, asleep. It was 47 degrees indoors.  There was a fan in front of me but I couldn’t turn it on because there was no electricity.  I was unreasonably mad at all of my friends and family in Canada who had gone to work that morning and never even considered what a luxury it was to walk out the door and leave the fridge, the washing machine, the tv plugged into functioning outlets.  I think anger is ok in small measures.  I always got over it by paying attention to my African friends and to the youth I worked with.  I would watch them rise gloriously above conditions that would break people in my Canadian life.  I would let some of their strength become mine.

Rural Gambia

The last things that I say, you’ve probably figured out already. It’s easier to use cold water for washing (body and clothes). If you have long hair, it’s easiest to put your whole head in the wash bucket first so that all of your hair gets wet at once. Hire someone to do your laundry- they will value the income. Life is better when you have African friends to learn from, to love with. Make some African friends. There is beauty everywhere that you are lucky to witness.  You get to balance the amount of time that you spend seeing the richness and humanity with the time you spend seeing the lack of resources and harshness of the conditions.

Love Erin

Reintegration: Life after Love4Gambia

I’ve been home from Africa for almost 3 weeks now. Anyone with the good fortune to have spent time in Africa will agree with me when I write that it’s harder to come home than it is to go to Africa.

I struggled with whether or not I should continue blogging, unsure if there are people out there who still care about what I have to say now that my team successfully ran across an African nation. I thought about continuing to write in the context of the number of people who come in and out of my life (work, personal, sport) and ask me “how was your trip” and want a 3-word answer. How could I possibly answer in 3 words? But I know that this is what they want so I respond “It was amazing” and they reply “Great!” and go about their day. Then there are the people who only want to know if I saw any spiders or monkeys, if the food was weird and if the toilets were gross.

I also thought about writing in context of my great love for my team, for running, for the NSGA and for The Gambia. At the end of the day, the words are still coming out of me so I’ll continue to write.

Now back to returning home and reintegrating into my life in Nova Scotia. It’s accepted that some travelers will experience culture shock when traveling for extended periods of time in countries that differ greatly from their own. This was my 3rd summer spent on the continent of Africa and I don’t personally experience what you would label “culture shock” in West Africa. Gambian culture is one that I know and love. This summer, while running and spending 24/7 with 3 Gambians, I had the incredible fortune to get know and love their culture even more intimately.

On August 3, I arrived home in Nova Scotia after pretty much a transcendent experience with Gambians who I call family. The reintegration is complicated.

I’m back at work and have been making comments that I know are inappropriate . No need to make them again here- I need to keep my job. But I’m having a hard time feeling bad about them. And I did preface one with “permission to speak freely”…

Young kids in Jakhaly

The thing is, I’ve just spent my summer raising money to help prevent HIV and malaria in West Africa. In 2010, malaria killed more than 1000 kids under age 5 in The Gambia. The 2010 under-5 mortality rate for Gambian children is 106. The under-5 mortality rate is the probability of dying by age 5 per 1000 live births. This means that for every 1000 kids, 106 will die before their 5th birthday. In Canada, the under-5 mortality rate is 6. In The Gambia, 16% of kids under 5 suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition. Only 61% of kids in The Gambia are enrolled in grade one because their parents have to pay school fees. All stats are from  and .

Ashley and a newborn in Jakhaly

I returned to Canada to a work place concerned with and focused on how 1 in 3 Nova Scotian youth age 2 to 17 are overweight or obese. Sure obesity is a public health problem. Our Minister of Health and Wellness’s most recent stated that poor diet and inactivity are putting many young people at risk for a lifetime of chronic disease and other health issues. I don’t disagree.

But when you think about where and how I’ve spent my summer, maybe you can understand why I’m having a hard time reconciling… what is a problem. I have to live and work in Nova Scotia. I have to work on this. I expect progress to be slow.

Last time I got home from Africa, I quit my job. I’ve promised my manager that I won’t do that this time.

I’m not really into running right now. I know that running would help burn off professional angst but I just can’t do it. My desire not to run is about several things.

The primary force making me sit on my patio instead of running is that it doesn’t feel special. My heart is just not in it. My last training cycle, all 7 months of it, was focused on preparing to run across The Gambia, which would be the crowning achievement of my running career. It was. But now that we’ve run into the Atlantic Ocean in Banjul, running doesn’t feel special because it’s not for The Gambia anymore.

Second, the thought of running makes me feel tired and this is fair. I’ve just spent 7 months of my life training for The Gambia and one month running in The Gambia. For these 8 months, my life pretty much revolved around 5 or 6 running days per week. I have been so committed to running in The Gambia that I don’t want to be committed anymore. And because a new race commitment won’t be as special, it makes me feel more tired.

Finally, I miss Pa Modou, Kebba and Spider so much with each running step that I almost don’t want to take any steps because then I’ll miss them more. There’s nothing I can do about missing them. It just is. I can’t make it better because I know that we realistically won’t see each other in the next one or two years. But I can stop running and miss them less.

My coach Cliff wants me to take a page out of the Kenyan and Ethiopian training manuals and take a full month off. I always listen to Cliff so you’ll find me on my patio this month.

While I’m sitting on my patio, I’ll be thinking about our Love4Gambia run. People keep asking me if my accomplishment has sunk in. Or if I’ve processed the entire experience: what I’ve been through, what I’ve achieved. I don’t really have an answer for these people. I don’t know how I am supposed to feel right now or what it will feel like when I’ve “processed” the fact that I’ve run across an entire country, that I’ve gained 3 brothers and a sister, that I’ve raised $34,000. Nothing in my life has prepared me with how to process this.

Erin & Pa Modou. Still connected

All I know is how I feel now. How I felt when I saw the Arch to the city of Banjul with my team. Thank God, I can still close my eyes and feel what I felt when Spider yelled, “I am seeing the Arch!” and it appeared before me and my team and we knew that we had made it together. I don’t ever want that feeling to disappear. I also don’t want to lose the way I feel when I look at the Atlantic Ocean. The way that Pa Modou told me to feel; like the Ocean connects us as much as it separates us.

I’ll run again when I feel ready. My fatigue and loneliness will lessen. In The Gambia, I thought a lot about my Canadian support network. They were running 25 minutes a day to support me. They were running in spirit with me. On certain days on the long road to Banjul, I felt like I could just turn around and see them behind me.

I know that when I am ready to run again, Spider, Kebba and Pa Modou will be right behind me.