The shock of Gambia through American eyes


Our plane took off From Oklahoma, Washington, Belgium, and finally Dakar, Senegal where we disembarked at the Leopold Sedar Senghor Airport after eighteen hours of cross-Atlantic flight. En route, I could literally smell the difference of the countries in the air. 

From Dakar, my fellow students from Langston University and I boarded a bus that did not seem to have an air-conditioner from Dakar for a 13-hour road trip to Banjul, the island capital of The Gambia. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the culture shock that was to come my way. 

As we journeyed into the night, we passed busses carrying men and women with some hanging from the outside. When any of the students needed to answer to the call of nature, we stopped where available. I think my first significant culture shock on the road trip was when we arrived at Banjul and I went to the bathroom. As we alighted the bus, we lined up outside a door marked ‘Toilets’. We were expecting some ceramic seat and instead there was a hole in the ground about the size of an average orange! It was a shock, but it was mild compared to what was to follow. 


You know, Africa is explained to Americans in many ways. When we think of Africa, we think of poverty-stricken countries yet the fact is, many African countries are rich in resources. The Average young American’s interpretation of Africa is very perplexing. We see the commercials and ads that showcase Africa as a poor continent, where children are malnourished and are in need of help.  Coming from a well-traveled and educated family, I was told that continent of Africa was not at all poor and that in fact there are countries within the continent that are much more advanced that many states in America. On my current study abroad education, I’ve come to see that even in a third world country like The Gambia, the people are very rich. Gambia is rich in culture. 

Relatively speaking, culture shocks can be looked at as surprisingly good, bad, or neutral.  The Gambia has given a positive culture shock to me; it has given me a lexicon of appreciations. For beginners, I never understood what a developing country might look like. When I arrived at Dunes Hotel in Kololi village, the staff gave us concierge service. The workers of the hotel weren’t dressed like your average five-star bell hop but they sure treated us that way. The employees of Dunes expeditiously gathered our belongings and brought them to our assigned rooms. They informed us that our breakfast was ready ten minutes after arriving. Post-eating we charged into the country. After traveling such long hours, timing and days were continuously abashed. As we passed the Gambian people on our journey, we were greeted with wide smiles and a firm hand shakes. Some Gambians greeted us with ‘Welcome home!’  The Gambians are much different than Americans; one of the biggest shocks was that the poverty they faced never caused them to hang their heads low. We travelled to the local “markets” where we expected groceries and other household needs, and although you might find fresh fruit, and things alike, it wasn’t your average American market. The moment we alighted, the industrious market salesmen charged towards the vehicle; tapping our bus window, luring us to purchase, handcrafted jewelry, clothing items, peanuts and other paraphernalia. The Gambians knew we were tourists. Our instructor Dr Mary, who has accompanied students on the study abroad adventure for the past seventeen consecutive years, was with us and was not surprised. Many times I knew she was taking us places that we would be give us complete shock – you could see it just from the expressions on her face! She would always give us a ‘brace yourself’ smirk. Excessive concern of cleanliness of the market was a small concern, but we took in what the country had to offer for Americans. As we made our way into the cluttered market, we found over 250 stalls with owners hustling for business. Every stall or shop we passed in Banjul’s Albert Market, a shop-owner or his assistant standing in front of his business would politely ask: “Please come in, have a look.” One of the most surprising things we laid our eyes on was seeing infant children lying on the floor of the shops. Their mothers were there working hard, selling their crafted goods. I asked one woman making dresses, ‘How old is your baby?’ She replied, ‘Two months’. I asked her about daycares here and she replied, “This is Africa”. Anything a potential customer doesn’t see in these markets, they certainly make. The workers of the shops truly needed business. Although many workers see Americans and immediately up price their products, these were custom handcrafted goods. As you pass the shops in Albert Market, you see young boys – some about eight years – sitting in a sweatshop-like workplace using sewing machines. A small shock for me was that the parents are required to pay school fees of their children from grade one through high school. Americans often take advantage of our public tuition for high school and lower. We visited the Albion Lower Basic School and noticed something quite surprising. Students in these classrooms were learning on a much more complex scale than the public school educated. The students of the basic schools are well-mannered. The mistress of the school explained that children in The Gambia are taught under the British school board system. It is no wonder that these children go on to universities and excel. 

After living abroad nearly two weeks, I have grown accustomed to African culture. Over 90 percent of Gambians are Muslim. I was born and raised in a state that is in the ‘Bible belt’. The majority of Oklahomans are Christian. I have never been in an environment with so many black Muslims. The Muslims did not differ much from anyone else, often times it was hard to remember they were, if not for the garment. For a long while, Americans were intimidated by men who wore the Muslim garment because of the tragic 9/11 events. The Muslims of the Gambian are not intimidating. In The Gambia even toddlers hold their right hands out, to be shaken. 

One male colleague’s mother was involved in a car accident in the United States and it terribly saddened him. This gave us a Gambian culture lesson: men of The Gambia are taught to be superior, so when fellow Gambians saw this American male frantically crying, their faces show confusion. Gambian men take a massive amount of pride in being a male. From the male-child is taught to be strong and tough, able to endure more heartache than women. The men and women repeatedly consoled him by stating “You are a man, do not cry, it is okay”. I was very surprised at how stern yet uplifting they were. Many women carry their new born babies on their backs here in The Gambia. I often wanted to go and support the baby’s head which was hanging so loosely from the wrapper of the mother. An enormous shock for me was, women breastfeed their infant children in public. I felt that seeing women exposed was contradictory to the Muslim culture. This country makes me appreciate life itself. From the underdevelopment to the sacrifices and struggles of the women, it has taught me to be grateful. I am grateful for my country the USA, and I am beyond grateful to be able to travel the world and learn other cultures. One thing I will always take from The Gambia is that no matter how little, you have to give, give it anyway. I will also remember that no matter how many reasons you have to hold your head low, hold it high because you are African and you are beautiful. A big thank you to the remarkable other land for welcoming me home.


By Jasmine Redo