Ndanka, ndanka: orientation and settling in

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
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Trip End Dec 16, 2007


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Flag of Gambia  ,
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

So, where to start? I've been in the Gambia for a week now. I by no means feel like I understand the culture, people, or daily life of Gambia, but the baby steps are being taken. Or as we've been saying often here in many different situations: ndanka, ndanka (slowly, slowly) The difference this week of orientation has made is huge; my perspective of this place is so much clearer and deeper than it was a week ago when I looked at it from the windows of a bus a week ago. For a basic description of what's changed I can say that I now know basic Wolof and some Mandinka greetings (that I stumble over as I greet half the people on the streets), I've made some Gambian friends (which is not hard to do at all with how friendly people are here...in fact it's too easy) I'm learning my way around the area and have even maneuvered it myself and with friends in the past few days (rather than always following our amazing guides around like confused ducklings through crowded streets, muddy roads and traffic jams), and I've learned a little about the political and cultural history that's underneath the everyday life I see. Some of my most interesting moments so far have been going to the Serekunda market, a lecture on Gambian culture and oral history, a dinner at "Omar's Kitchen," taking part in a Mandinka naming ceremony, and pretty much all of our last day of orientation, which was really a great summation to all our activities for the week.

The Serekunda Market was...well, it was many things. We went on a rainy day when the market was comparatively deserted according to our amazing guide/Wolof teacher Baboucarr, yet we could still barely fit through some of the winding alleys packed with products, fly covered fish and meat, and people shouting at us and grabbing our arms. All the while we were walking on muddy ground where we're fairly sure the sewage had flooded during the rain. But there was also so much that was beautiful there - especially the colorful fabrics -- and almost all of us found something we loved, even though the calm browsing style we were used to when shopping was completely impossible (the second you show indecision people tend to jump on you - either the shopkeeper themselves, or, even worse, bumsters who try to act as intermediaries and bump up the prices). Personally, I was quite proud of myself for bartering a vendor from 375 dalasi to 150 dalasi for a very pretty floor length skirt. One of the Peace Corps volunteers we met here called the Serekunda Market a perfect manifestation of West Africa, and I think that's exactly why we're all so excited to go back, even though it was a bit overwhelming. We're all just dying to get rid of that feeling we had watching this culture from a bus, to actually be in this place that is so crazy and colorful and intimidating and interesting.

Bakary Sidibeh came with a Griot friend of his, BaKoyo Suso, who he identified as one of the last Gambian griots with a wide knowledge of oral history and the art of storytelling. Suso did not speak English, but rather sat, upright and dignified in his Long, blue Gambian dress as Sidibeh spoke. When Sidibeh asked him to speak, he would then break into quick, expressive Wolof, motioning often with his hands. At that moment I wanted so badly to hear what he was saying in its original form. Sidibeh gave us background information about the importance of stories, music, and oral history in Gambian culture, and then detailed his own work and the life of Suso. We were all leaning in close, seated around the living room couches, captivated by what this soft-spoken man said, because it was so real and significant and beautiful. Sidibeh had worked to record the stories and songs of the griots, with the knowledge that children from griot families were going off to become lawyers and doctors instead of continuing the griot tradition, and the knowledge the griots had was generally being forgotten in a world of more urgent, flashy concerns. He traveled through villages in the provinces, painstakingly interviewing and searching. His path intersected with Suso when he was trying to interview Suso's father, to record some of his stories and songs. But just before they were supposed to meet, Suso's father suffered a stroke and died, with much of his knowledge dying forever with him. You could see the pain on both the mens' faces as Sidibeh said this, and their desperate awareness of time passing by a tradition and identity that was of the utmost importance to them...of something sacred and eternal that had suddenly been made palpably impermanent. And Sidibeh was telling us about this issue not so that we could fill out a definition on a test, but because he needed outside support and help with recording the knowledge of griots. I for one had learned about griots before, but always in a context that made them a term out of a textbook or at least a concept that exists only within the walls of the school. I knew very well that they were real, yet I couldn't quite imagine them as such. I've never thought so much about how things are learned as I have begun to here. I've always done just fine reading textbooks, taking notes and passing tests...I've become quite accustomed to it and through this style I've actually developed a passion for a quite a few subjects. But while this style has its merits and practicalities, I can hardly lump it into the same definition of learning that comes when you can see something yourself, when you can see it living, breathing, and moving and sense the emotion and importance and urgency that a topic has to a person when it is their reality. I know I'm expressing this concept in very ambiguous, maybe unintelligible terms, but it is the impression I've had when encountering many things here, whether it is Griots, politics, religion, or art. In short, I guess I'm just reveling in a little bit more direct experience than I've had in the industrial model of school. If this experience is something you're quite accustomed to, sorry for the rambling, but I am young and much is new to me, so let me have my passion and enthusiasm ?.

Moving on from that rant to something a bit more lighthearted... Omar's Kitchen. It would be impossible not to love this place, or Omar himself for that matter. The "restaurant" is made up completely of 2 plastic tables on the dirt by the side of the road where guests sit while Omar, and only Omar, runs back and forth cooking in the small room that is literally his kitchen, sometimes grabbing stuff from the supermarket next door to cook an huge plate of food from scratch for less than the price of a McDonalds meal. Needless to say we tipped him well.

The Mandinka Naming Ceremony was one of the most vibrant things I've seen here. We were taken to the land of a Mandinka family, dressed in traditional African dress (feel free to look at the pictures, they are amazing...and pretty funny), and then sat down in front of at least 30 enthusiastic family members and neighbors. The patriarch of the family and a griot then led the ceremony during which we sang, dance, ate kola nuts and generally had an amazing time (they did not sacrifice a goat, thank god, or shave our heads as is customary with babies, however). I got to jump around and spin with some adorable little girls while wearing a long robe that was PERFECT for twirling, so I was happy.

The Naming Ceremony took place during the morning of the last day of our orientation, and from there we got back into our sweaty normal clothes and walked to a local beach where there was not the slightest trace of strip malls or resorts (giving it it's own kind of pristine feel to me), but only huts and docks. Though an intense cultural experience like the naming ceremony is great, it was also nice to follow it with a slightly more relaxed time; fishing, swimming, and playing football with some local boys, and generally taking in the beach Gambian style. It seemed much more like a place you spend a lazy afternoon than a tourist beach, and I loved it. From here we went to Senegambia, which is very clearly a tourist spot. It has a nicely paved road, sidewalks, and neon lights that distinguish it from the places we've been used to the past week. The street is full of bars and restaurants, and though it's not the tourist season yet, we saw 10 times as many tubabs here in one night than we did all the rest of our time in Serekunda/Kanifing area. While Senegambia does have a few more luxuries than we're used to, the entire feel of this place was different in a way I didn't care for. The prices were more expensive, there were bumsters everywhere (for people who aren't familiar with bumsters, these are mostly young men who don't work for one reason or another, but spend their time latching onto tubabs with an unnerving friendliness aimed at getting the tubabs to buy some random service, whether it be jewelry, drugs, or sex), all the prices were more expensive, and as a whole the interactions between Gambians and the tourists just seemed to be on a different level than what we were used to, one that seems more wholly made up of exploitation. The tubabs use Gambia as a tourist spot with beaches, alcohol, and a good exchange rate, or even the strangely common sight of old American/European women using young, mostly bumster Rasta Gambians for, well, a good time. On the Gambian side, people surround the tourists, conning and overcharging them. There is no sense of learning about the society and taking time to try to give back (unless by giving coins to make a beggar go away), or of creating friendships. As a whole, it's everything that I've found most frustrating about my time in the Gambia. I'm glad I saw it, because it reinforced the exact approach I do not want to take. Also, it provided for a moment of pride and independence for me when, later that night, Shane, Rich, Bryan and I separated off from everyone one else to go to the Green Mamba. (a local restaurant/bar that came specially recommended by past students) We were then able to make it all the way back home (one of the longer distances we'll typically have to maneuver on weekends) by ourselves without getting lost or ripped off. I for one was quite happy to say that I hailed my first taxi late at night on a crowded West African street.

So all in all, we are still tubabs in the highest sense of the word and often wear that confused, blank expression of foreign exchange students. But we've seen many different parts of Gambian culture, almost all of us are incredibly stimulated by it, and it doesn't seem quite so impossible to imagine us actually living in it. You should probably plan on hearing about our many faux pas, crises, and frustrations, but I'm finishing up this entry on a very positive, excited optimistic note after this past week.

One last comment, I'd like to make it clear that we would NOT have survived this week if it hadn't been for some of the people here. Baboucarr, who I already mentioned, is our Wolof teacher who usually guides us on our random expeditions, dealing with our slow-moving, loud, annoying group stumbling through Gambia with a patience, kindness, and humor that I can't begin to imagine. He's even taken us into his home and offered us his clothes, and at the end of the (very long) day he's more than willing to do more to answer our questions, offer us help, or just have fun with us. As Maya says, "he is the biggest honey," and I'm fairly sure at least one of us would be dead if it weren't for him. Then there is Hatabu, the ever-happy, singing, joking man who helps us out at the house, brings our food, and takes us on a million random errands. His attitude and friendliness alone would be enough to make us feel happy and at home here, and his help with any of our needs only helps further. Mohammad, the watchman of the compound, might not make his presence quite so obvious as Hatabu, but he's always somewhere making some improvement around the house. he seems to know how to do everything or know someone who can do it. I feel much safer knowing he's there.

I wanted to mention these people partly just to make it clear that my smooth transition here has not been because of my own fortitude, but partly because of the people and set-up of this program, and mostly because of the ability of Gambians to be so welcoming, friendly, and caring in a way that amazes me in some way at least everyday.
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