Reflections on The Gambia/Viewpoints

06/06/2012 16:03

Monday, May 28, 2012

Students from the Educational Studies Department at St. Mary's College in Maryland, US, recently returned from The Gambia where they lived within the community and worked in the teaching sector. Away from their teaching duties, the interns also traveled within the Greater Banjul Area and kept journals of observations on life and people. Their reflections:

Managing Stress: Lot Easier in The Gambia

Posted on May 15, 2012 by shshipley

I have been back in the States for a week and I am amazed by the deep amount of stress I was plunged into. In Gambia there is a sense of calmness, that regardless of what happens, everything that needs to get done will get done, you simply should not have any real expectations on when things will be accomplished by. In America there is a huge amount of stress put on deadlines and deadlines are currently what is pulling me under. I miss the freedom of movement of The Gambia. I miss the sunshine, the ability to walk everywhere you want to go, and the freshness of food. I have traveled a lot outside of America and each time I return, the one thing that bugged me the most while I was gone, is the one thing I miss the most—the lack of deadlines.

I read somewhere once that the rate of heart attacks due to stress is highest in western countries. That really shocked me because really what do we have to worry about here? We have clean water readily available. I can easily get untainted food to eat. Kids are provided with a free public education. And I know, as a woman, I have the ability to control my life and make decisions for myself. Nonetheless, we still stress the most. We push ourselves into this sinking hole of unrealistic expectations. We pride ourselves on being stretched thin. And we continuously forget about the most important people in our lives, our friends and family.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of people in America who are deprived of clean water, nutritious food, etc., but we should be grateful for what we have. I hear all too much in the education system people complaining about the lack of resources, and the lack of funding. And now I just want to tell all those people to stop focusing on themselves and to open their eyes to what the rest of the world deals with to educate their children. We need to learn how to be more resourceful, and we need to build our communities up again. I can count the amount of teachers I met and had a conversation with in the high school I taught at in America on two hands. I met and had discussions with every person who worked at the school I taught at in Gambia. We need to tear down our walls and open ourselves up.

There is a phrase that says it takes a whole village to raise a child. I can now say that I have seen that practice in motion and I think we can also extend it to education. It takes a whole school, a whole community, to teach a child. We as teachers need to make an effort to band together and collaborate to ensure our students learn. We need to be willing to work with our administrators, students’ parents, and professional development instructors to create an environment that fosters learning inside and outside of the school. And we need to accept that even teachers aren’t perfect. We always need to learn more, and to challenge ourselves. But most importantly, we need to make sure we do not overburden ourselves. We need to make sure that we set reasonable deadlines and work on eliminating the stress. Because it is only in a collaborative and stress-free environment that we can best serve our students.

A Sense of Community

Posted on May 8, 2012 by jagarner

My journey in The Gambia has changed me in so many ways that I don’t think I could ever genuinely explain my feelings. I have gained valuable experiences that I probably could not have attained on my own without this program. When I teach an English language learner, I will be able to identify with their struggles. It can be a terrifying experience, especially when something goes wrong and language is necessary. I quickly learned hand signals only go so far. I also learned the importance of speaking slowly and clearly. In The Gambia, everything moves slowly except for the language. Languages are spoken so fast. In Wolof there is a language rule that allows words to be smashed together. I knew on paper the experiences of ELLs but now I have experienced them first hand and I think that will forever be ingrained into my teaching.

I have talked in my other blog posts about The Gambia being a developing country and how I didn’t really know what that meant until I arrived. I still think I struggle with this. In terms of economics and physical structures, The Gambia is very much still developing. It is also still developing in the sense of civil service work. The government is questionable as well as the police force. Police do not really respond to emergencies, instead they are stationed at random checkpoints throughout the country as symbol of stability and power. However, their power is corrupt. One evening on our way home from dinner we had 6 people in our taxi instead of 5. We stopped at a checkpoint and we had to pull over to the side of the road, even though we had just gone through that same checkpoint 45 minutes before without any problem. Overcrowding in vehicles is not typically a cause for concern in The Gambia. We ended up having to bribe a police officer to let us continue on our way. Obviously there is something corrupt occurring but what can really be done about it? This is what I mean when I say it is still difficult to wrap my head around the ideology of a ‘developing country’.

While The Gambia is still developing, there are some ways in which it is more advanced than America. Throughout our stay through The Gambia we never saw a homeless person or a starving child. In The Gambia everyone takes care of their family. If the immediate family cannot care for someone then the extended family will. Everyone is extremely hard working in that respect. This concept makes it even more difficult to come back to America where we actually have the means to help people but we don’t. I think about the exorbitant amount of money that people pay for things and it is very upsetting. At our final goodbye party I gave my host mother 300 dalasi for her three children, one of whom was my namesake. When she looked at the money her face lit up and then she told me “Binta, this is too much you silly girl”. For Mami, my host mother, it was a lot of money but for me it was 10 American dollars. Think about the things that you have spent 10 dollars on and whether or not those things were actually worth those 10 dollars.

The Gambia can also be classified as more developed than America in another sense as well, humanity. There is a sense of community within The Gambia that does not exist in America. Everyone speaks to everyone in The Gambia but in America people look at the ground to avoid eye contact with a stranger. On our flight the rudeness that some Americans exhibit became very clear. To live in America is to be privileged and sometimes ungrateful. To live in The Gambia is to be unprivileged and yet respectful of everyone and helpful towards strangers. I have witnessed many acts of kindness in The Gambia. I have been the receiver of so much kindness and I only wish there was a way I could give back. Before Ms. Stoeckle and I left The Gambia, we gave our language/culture teacher Baboucarr 100 American dollars—that’s 3,000 dalasi. For a moment he was speechless and it was clear that he was overwhelmed. When he found his words, all he could say was, what this is so much money, I don’t know what to say. Tears formed in his eyes and I had to walk away. Baboucarr is probably the nicest person I have ever met in my life and he always went out of his way to help us. He like most Gambians is a genuinely good person. The Gambia has taught me so much. I will always hold a piece of it in my heart and try to live the Gambian way, with charity, warmth and kindness towards others.

Comparing the Educational Differences

Posted on May 5, 2012 by ajskiest

Heading to school every morning on my 45-minute walk, I have gained a new view on this developing country. You see, The Gambia is very different from the United States in many aspects especially when it comes to schooling. For example, The Gambia does not provide any public early childhood schooling. This already puts some children at a disadvantage because only the children who can afford to go to a private school can attend. A private school costs roughly $75.00- $100.00 (2,250- 3,000 Dalasi) that covers school fees, uniforms, supplies, and teacher pay. The earlier children attend school the sooner English instruction begins.

Now I want to tell you about something that I have had a hard time fathoming. Most teachers employed at Agi Awa Bah Nursery School have not received official course work to become a teacher. I am not saying these teachers are not qualified to do so, but I am blown away that we hold such high standards in America based on the education one receives. Currently at Agi Awa Bah Nursery School one teacher is a student at UTG (University of The Gambia) teaching during the day and attending chemistry/physics classes at the university in the afternoon. I have been amazed watching him teach. He has this ease about him as he strolls through the classroom. He crafts lessons that strike relevance with the students. And most importantly, he has created a trusting relationship with the children.

One aspect of Agi Awa Bah Nursery School that was very similar to the educational system in the United States is the curriculum enforced. On the very first day of teaching I was handed a small, paperback book.  This book was the early childhood education framework. Its main goal is to provide early childhood students with the appropriate methodology and materials that will support them as they transition to primary school. This framework presents content to be taught and learned through play, which is very similar to the United States. However, I have not seen this emphasized in Agi Awa Bah Nursery School. Mot of the time the children remain in their seats copying from the board, echoing what the teacher says, and silently completing class work at his or her desk.

I guess wherever you go, you cannot expect everything to be the same. If you do, there would not be a chance to gain a new understanding of a culture so different from the one you have known.

Sad to Be Back

Posted on May 7, 2012 by kmstoeckle

I had originally titled this blog “I am Home”, but then I realized that I don’t feel at home here. I feel like I have just left my home. I have so many more connections to The Gambia now that I ever could have felt with Lexington Park, Maryland. The trip back was by far the easiest plane trip I have ever taken. Both flights were not only one time, but were early leaving and early arriving. I even slept on the flight and in the airport, which is something very difficult for me to do. All four of us cleared customs and received ALL of our luggage in 15 minutes and were out of the airport. It was such an easy trip, which was good because it helped eased my sadness of leaving The Gambia.

When I travel, I always experience my biggest wave of culture shock when I arrive back home, and this trip is no different. At first the little things hit you, like all of the green grass or the use of fabric softener. Then you notice slightly bigger things, like the lack of trash everywhere and the police that you can’t bribe. Finally, you start to consider the big things, like why am I so privileged when other people do not even have the same opportunities to succeed as me? America is such a wonderful country and I am so blessed to have been born here, but sometimes traveling makes me resent this country and my privileged life here. The fact that I am a very poor graduate student here, but amongst the richest in The Gambia really makes me wonder why the world has to be so unfair.

Overall, I am very sad to be back and I do not think I will ever stop missing The Gambia or the people there. But, my goal for the trip was accomplished in that short period of time. I wanted to be changed for the better; and although I cannot say if I am changed for the better, I know that I am changed forever. I cannot explain in words how I feel changed, but I know that I am different. The way I think about the world is different and I feel more understanding of different cultures and ways of life. Seeing how much worse off I could be in the world, has not only made me more grateful, but more positive about life as well. Now I know that no matter what kinds of rough times I might be going through in life that things could be much, much worse. I feel less self-centered and ready to take on the world as a partner, not all by myself. I am so grateful for the privileges I have been given in my life and will never take them for granted again. I would not give up this experience for anything. The Gambia is forever in my heart.

On Friendships

Posted on May 8, 2012 by jagarner

Everyone in The Gambia is friendly. Some friendships are lovely but others are unwanted. Whenever we walk down the street, especially near Senegambia (the tourist section of The Gambia), people call to us “Hello, beautiful ladies” “You want a taxi”! It seems friendly but it is actually creepy. These ‘bumpsters’ want to get some money from us or become our husbands. My second favorite phrase in Wolof is ‘am na jekar’. It means ‘I have a husband’. While I do not actually have a husband the phrase works well as a deterrent. These unwarranted friendships occur daily and can be frustrating but my real friendships in The Gambia make everything better.

Malayn, one of the people who work at Happy Camp, has become one of our best friends in The Gambia. He is around our age and goes to a French college, so we have a lot in common. A few weeks ago he invited us all to have lunch at his compound. He lives with his aunt since his mother and father passed away. His aunt and cousins made Chicken Yasa for us and we ate it in the traditional Gambian style. Yasa has become my new favorite dish; I’m hoping that I can make it at home but I don’t know if we will have all of the ingredients. Malayn is more than a friend, he is like a brother and we will miss him so much.

One of my best girl friends here is Makujay, but we call her Max for short. She is the secretary at Aji Sukai, the school I work at. Max is also my age and she is one of the sweetest people I have ever met. Max always made us feel welcome and showed us the ins and outs of the school. During school, Max made sure we were always fed with a second breakfast. In The Gambia, they do not eat breakfast until 10 or 11 which is why they have lunch at 2 or 3. So instead of buying lunch, the students buy breakfast. Max got us steam fish, which is mashed up fish and pasta on bread known as tapalapa. Last night we had our goodbye party and Max, along with Mr. Jarju, gave Ms. Shipley and me the loveliest presents. We received beautiful tie-dye Gambian outfits and art made by our students. On the first day I met Max, she said to me, “Binta, I love your bag, give it to me?” Last night, in return for her friendship and kindness I gave her my bag; she loved it! I hope distance will not deter our friendship.

In addition to the Gambian friends I have made here, I have also made friends with the other students who are studying here. We have all truly bonded over our experiences here. The students currently staying at Happy Camp have been our guides through this adventure in Africa. While all of the staff have helped us acclimate to a new country and culture, it is really the students already here that helped us navigate the day to day interactions with people. We have shared so many good memories and I hope once we all arrive back in the states, we can reconnect.

I also made another set of friends that came about from my host family. During our naming ceremony we were assigned a family, in order to help us learn more about the culture. Last night every person from all of our families came to celebrate with us and it was remarkable. I gave my mother a gift even though she insisted that it was too much. Mami, my mother, welcomed me into her home and cooked for me. Ms. Stoeckle’s mom braided or ‘plated’ my hair for me and everyone else’s family showed me so much love. I’m so sad to be leaving The Gambia and all of the wonderful friends I have made.

Learning Wollof

Posted on May 3, 2012 by kmstoeckle

Before coming to The Gambia, I was under the impression that everyone would be able to speak fluent English, or at least know enough for me to communicate with them….wrong. Although most people do know some English, it is very basic English and I would not have been able to survive here without my language course in Wolof. I started my Wolof lessons optimistically and ready to learn to communicate with everyone in The Gambia….wrong again. Once I was confident enough to test my Wolof skills out in the real world, I was finding that people still did not understand me. It was only then that I learned that Wolof is only one of several tribal languages spoken here in The Gambia.

Many Gambians are able to speak several languages, some of them up to five different languages fluently, but many people only speak their own tribal language. And here I am the silly American who can’t even speak one of the tribal languages properly. Often, the language you speak depends on which town or neighborhood you are located. For example, in Kanifing Estates, where Happy Camp is located, most people speak Wolof, but in Bakau, where our schools and families are located, most people speak Mandinka. The differences in the languages was very confusing at first, but now I feel like I am finally starting to understand it all….of course it is just in time for me to be leaving.

Our Wolof lessons were more useful and interesting than I ever could have imagined. Foreign languages were always difficult for me, and I even surprised myself how well I picked up some of the Wolof. Our language teacher, Babaucarr, was wonderful and very patient. Since we were only here for a short period of time, he had us focus on survival language. Each new lesson came with a new theme with new vocabulary, and new grammatical structures. Some of our themes included, greetings, taxi, market, tailor, and family languages. Although I am obviously not fluent in this language by any means, I definitely feel capable of surviving here and have even learned a few scattered phrases in Mandika.

The hardest, and I think most interesting, part of Wolof is that there are no verb conjugations. This shocked me the first time I heard it, and it took me a few lesson to really grasp the concept. Rather than conjugating verbs, Wolof has an extensive collection of pronouns which serve as the conjugation. There are probably over 30 different sets of pronouns, the full collection I will never learn, and I am truly fascinated by them and was always excited to learn a new set. Something else very different about Wolof, and more so The Gambian culture in general, is the importance of greetings. In America greetings are often short or non-existent, but in The Gambia, greetings can consist of about 10 questions and responses. Every morning Happy Camp’s cleaning women quiz us on our Wolof (I think they get a lot of laughs making us suffer with hard questions). We are greeting every morning with two sets of seven or so questions just to say hello and ask if we slept well. I usually don’t like to talk in the mornings so this was a big adjustment for me. I have become pretty successful with my Wolof and I hope that this new knowledge doesn’t escape me. Hopefully I will be back in The Gambian sometime in the future and hopefully I can remember all of the language I have learned.




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