Nungi fi...but not exactly jama rek

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
1
4
13
Trip End Dec 16, 2007


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Flag of Gambia  ,
Sunday, September 16, 2007

It has been a long week, to say the least. It started on a high note, with a Gambian national football game on Sunday, and my birthday on Monday. During those two days, the germs that have now infested the house must have just been silently creeping their way in. It has been typical for one or two people to be sick, but this week, eleven of the thirteen of us were at some point curled up underneath our mosquito netting, moaning, hacking, sniffling, and/or feverish. Apparently it's completely normal for groups to get sick around this time, after they've started getting out more, but before their bodies have adjusted. But it's hard to think anything is normal when you get over your own high fever just in time to nurse the next person. For me (my illness was some strange eye infection that rendered me more or less unable to see for a few days), this illness came at a horrible time. We'd been through classes, knew our way around, had made some of the bigger mistakes and (hopefully) learned some key lessons, and I was ready to actually make friendships beyond learning a person's name, to find a project or activity or program or anything to make me feel a little more rooted in Gambian society...I almost felt like that past couple weeks had been another version of the van trip from Senegal, like we were still just speeding by everything without really letting our feet sink into the ground anywhere outside. Only the glass and metal of our tour bus had only been replaced by the cement of our compound, and the impediment wasn't the speed with which we drove by, but the confusion about how we could/should interact with Gambians, a bit of hesitancy given past mistakes, and general indecision.

But the germs had taken over, and I was stuck behind the cement walls a little longer, this time unable to even read or write or watch T.V. But starting today, I'm feeling much better, and though people in the compound are still getting fresh sicknesses, my current good health has made me willing to be a bit more patient, even if I do get sick again. Also, now taking the time to look back on this week reminds me that even if I literally cannot see, it is impossible for this place to not be interesting.

Take the football game, for example. Gambia was playing Nigeria, and it was a qualifying game for the Africa cup. Hope for Gambia was more or less low; Gambia had to win by three goals and still depend on other teams losing their matches to qualify, but we were still sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the cement seats of the cramped stadium, a few hundred feet from the sideline in our two dollar seats. It satisfied my ideal of a rawer version of sports than the very rich, elite, glam and scandal filled world of sports I tend to see when I look at American sports. Here, you could get good seats at a big game for the price of a few Fantas, and so it really did seem like the masses could and did show up, scream, and cheer the game on without the disruption of a flashy half time show. My ideal would suffer a bit later when, after Gambia had scored two comeback goals to take the lead (but not by three) in the last couple minutes of the game, the military, in full riot gear, sauntered onto the field. After a Nigerian player faked a foul, sprung up and lashed out at a medic, the whole field broke out into chaos and other fights erupted, to the extent that we didn't know what to look at. Another Nigerian player attacked a military official. People rushed onto the field and joined in on the fighting, until the game I had wanted to see as raw and impressive degenerated into a senseless, artless scrap. Maybe this shift in my opinion of the game also came from a small boy in front of me (I'd say he was seven or eight) who had been so excited to see the game he perched precariously on the edge of the high wall to get a good view. After the fight broke out he had laughed in a slightly creepy way, and, among curses, that "these ******** came onto our field and thought they could beat us; I'm gonna kill them, I'm going to beat the **** out of them." Outside of the stadium people were screaming, riding around in cars and blasting music. One of the Gambians we were with said that this wasn't bad; he usually didn't go to games because you risked looting and riots if they lost. Let's just say it was much different than the orderly exchange of handshakes I'd been taught to end a soccer game with. I guess you must accept cultural relativity, but I really couldn't help but think this undertone of violence showed a lack of respect for the sport as a whole, and spoiled much of what had been great about the game. Either way, though, it was an amazing, fun experience to sit there and cheer in the stands, clearly a tubab and yet in the midst of something so Gambian, and the rest was an undeniably interesting experience.

Cultural relativity has had to be a little bit of a mantra for me here, though it can sometimes lose the battle to my righteousness. Part of the issue is specific to girls here,. Sometimes it is the subtle way people address guys in the group and not girls, sometimes it is more obvious, like the way I have only 2 Gambian girls in all of my classes. Either way, we are very clearly faced with a different expectation for girls here, even from people we would expect to be more progressive. One of the most frustrating aspects is that almost all the people hanging out on the streets that you'll meet are young guys, girls seem to be working, more withdrawn, or simply not there. And because of a sort of tradition here of rich, European women coming here and 'seeing,' sometimes even marrying young Gambian men (and therefore paying for them and providing them with an access to the kind of money that is otherwise hard to come by), the attention from these men is something we try very hard to avoid (one of the girls even has a sort of stalker now). It is hard for all of us to accept any limits on who we can be friends with or what we can do, and I personally hate the feeling of having to be withdrawn or closed off. Sometimes the different treatment we receive - not being able to shake some men's hands, being expected to get men water or bring in the dishes, or to take a passionate interest in cooking is just a source of jokes for us, but it gets to a point where that line of accepting cultural relativity and not being offended is hard to toe. Like many things, I've told myself it's just something I'll have to get used to, and I shouldn't let it have too much of an effect on doing what I feel is important here, or my opinion of The Gambia. At the same time when, for example, a student in one of my classes - probably one of the most educated of the Gambian youth - asks why male circumcision is easily accepted, but female circumcision, an important tradition in Gambian society, is criticized by international organizations, I can't help but choke on a little bit of righteous indignation. Even beyond the issue of women which I feel on a more personal level, I've been exposed to so many new challenges to even my most basic assumptions of what is right- on religion and politics and human rights and so many issues...even animal rights, for that matter. I would hardly call myself an activist on all these issues, but I think a lack of challenge to my views has created a very deep-rooted sense of what is right or even normal. During one class I got into what was a little more passionate of a discussion with my Human Rights professor on the issue of the rights of a minority groups in a culture, especially religious minorities, than I would have liked. As much as I do want to stand up for what I believe in, I do not want to do so simply for that little boost of pride that comes with righteousness, and most importantly, I do not want to just disregard the different perspectives I'm hearing...I want to understand them, and that takes more open-mindedness than I currently have.

Luckily, for my sense of moral stability, there was one issue we confronted, outside of the classroom, that did not require any relativity. On my birthday we went to a night club we'd been to once or twice before. We weren't supposed to pay a cover on Mondays, but when the first group arrived and we were told we had to pay the equivalent of about a dollar, it wasn't a big deal. Strangely, when the second group came, they didn't have to pay the cover. But later, when two of the men who work at the compound stopped by to wish me a happy birthday, they did have to pay. When talking about this we realized that the first person to enter of the first group happened to be black...the second group had been all white, and the two men, black. The night club, like many businesses in the area, is owned by what is a sort of Lebanese refugee elite in the Gambia. From a couple vague comments we've heard, it seems they stand out in the society to a certain extent, which is renowned for its friendliness and acceptance (celebrating Christmas with the same excitement and solidarity that people observe Ramadan. We've learned this week that even Christians and agnostics refrain from eating, smoking, or drinking in the streets during Ramadan.) Though I do not mean to draw generalizations, it seems that in this case that sense of a different background, religion, lifestyle, socio-economic status, and maybe even skin color, had made this man unashamedly racist. After being questioned about the method of charging, the man said 'don't think that I'm racist, you are the racist one; we're the ones that have to sleep with these people." The scene calmed down from here, and ended with the owner offering free drinks and no cover charge for any of us -whatever our race - even on the weekends. It is impossible not to think often of race (beyond just the clear reminder that comes from little voices screaming 'tubab'), being a very conspicuous white minority for the first time in my life, and sometimes receiving different treatment based on the assumption that we are rich because we are white. If anything needed could serve as a warning not to let this sense of difference have too much of an effect on my interactions with other Gambians, it would be the attitude of that man.
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Comments

mstaber
mstaber on

The outward chamleon
You're asking yourself the right questions.
How does one encounter difference without closing one's door (not trying new foods, not going to a Gambian football game) but also while retaining what's important to one (not cheerfully standing in the background as a woman)?
The 13 of you are party to a cultural conversation, and those you're meeting are learning from you, too. So conform outwardly (don't eat in the street during Ramadan, for example), but don't go losing your own self.
(And I don't think there's much chance of this happening--even if you WEREN'T a Missourian.)
Accepting off-putting comments and destructive practices as challenges to be taken up gracefully (gracefully, for you are a guest, after all)is important so that you when you return from your months there, you don't look back on your time there as months of playing multi-faceted dress-up. You want to be able to retain the sense that 'I, Allison--and not just some pretender--really went and lived there.'
This is easier as you get to know people better, so that your comments aren't dismissed as the ravings of 'that tubab woman.'
Michael

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