Hey everyone! Sorry for the delay on blogging, but it’s taken me a few weeks to get back into a regular routine and to readjust to life in America. Two Fridays ago I said my tearful goodbyes to Musu, Mari and the many others that have touched my life and boarded a plane to Brussels, connecting to JFK and finally to Charleston. After recovering from jet lag and taking time to reconnect with my loved ones, I have had some time to reflect on my experiences in The Gambia, and I know that I have come away with much more than a research project.
While there were times when I was frustrated with some of the attention I was getting, exhausted from the inescapable heat and exasperated with the research process, I know that what I saw and what I lived have made me look at life through new eyes. The basic struggles of life in America seem so miniscule compared to some of the daily struggles that I witnessed Gambians going through on a daily basis. Though citizens are not allowed to talk about the hardships that The Gambia is going through (or they will be brought to court to defend their statements), it is not hard to tell that the country is facing severe economic, political and social problems. Economically, salaries remain low, yet prices for commodities are constantly on the rise. There were a considerable amount of beggars in Serrekunda whom were happy to meet with a few dalasis (mere pennies) each day. Sadly, the economic situation only seems to be deteriorating. The country’s main source of income is through the tourist industry, and as tourists don’t generally come during the rainy season (June-October), the country struggles financially without the crutch of tourists to hold up the economy year-round.
Politically, this is a country that may appear to be stable, but is suffering from the leadership. I was not able to speak previously about the politics in my blog because I did not deem it wise while I was in a country where free speech is not right of the people. The president, who calls himself “His Excellency President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Jammeh” is neither a professor, nor a doctor. He seems to be well-liked by the uneducated, tolerated by the general masses and despised amongst the educated professionals. While claiming to be a president of a republic, one can easily see through the facade of Jammeh that shows a dictatorship tightening its hold on power. Government sponsored posters of Jammeh are EVERYWHERE with slogans that read “We Are Ready to Die For You President,” “You Cannot Afford to Continue Hating Yourself By Not Voting For Jammeh,” and “Master Peace Maker and Champion Nation Builder, From Darkness to Light.” There were several “disappearances” of members of the opposition while I was there as well. Needless to say, the political climate there was tense and many seemed worried about the future of The Gambia with Jammeh as president.
The social problems were some of the most difficult issues for me to deal with, namely the treatment of women. Culturally, women busied themselves in the roles of housewife and mother. Everywhere one looked, women were constantly cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and chasing around their children. While I did see many women professionals in the work place, it seems that the topic of education for women is only now receiving the attention it needs. Though polygamy is a widespread practice amongst Muslims in the area, not all women appear to be happy with this arrangement. I spoke to several women who felt betrayed by their husbands who took on other wives, but they had no choice but to stay in the marriage because they would have nothing if they left. In several ethnic groups, girls were married off as young as 14 years of age, sometimes even before they began menstruating. Domestic violence is another common problem these women deal with. As a strong-willed, independent woman, I really struggled to keep my thoughts to myself and I felt very angry for a lot of my stay due to these issues. I really just wanted to hit every single man that approached me with their proposals and cat calls; I wanted to call up the husbands of women in polygamous marriages and give them a piece of my mind; I wanted to defend the women who seemed so helpless in their marriages…not being able to stick up for other women, let alone myself, was a struggle and I do not miss feeling that way.
Though I saw and experienced poverty and strife, I also experienced great happiness and friendship. The friendship networks that Gambians create are extensive and meaningful. At the weddings I attended, the hundreds of people seemed to know everybody. Music is constantly playing and brings joy to the kids playing soccer in the streets and the women grinding spices on their porches. Laughter is everywhere, as well as constant greetings and conversation. The people here are extremely strong and showed me how to truly make the best of any situation. They treated me with respect and so graciously welcomed me into their culture. Though I am not sure when or if I’ll be able to return, I will never forget the people I met. They gave me perspective, wisdom and humility, and they will probably remain as some of the most remarkable people I will ever meet.