Most Gambians are crazy about America. To them it is the land of plenty, where everyone is wealthy and no one works. These impressions no doubt stem from tourists; the white foreigners that Gambians typically see. Tourists come to relax and spend money on vacation. However, Gambians assume that tourists behave the same way when they are back in America.
Their belief that all tourists come from America stems from a skewed sense of geography. Most tourists in The Gambia come from Holland, France, Spain, England, and Taiwan. However, several Gambians that I have talked to were convinced that the UK, Europe, and Canada were all just parts of America. When I show them a world map and try to explain the differences, they mostly just gape at how small The Gambia looks or express surprise upon seeing that Jamaica is an island. To a Gambian, all white people come from a magical place called “Toubabidou” or “the land of the white people,” which encompasses all of the Americas, Europe, and any other places that tourists usually come from..
Besides tourists, the most abundant reference to western culture that Gambians encounter is media; especially music, movies, and BBC radio. Therefore, it’s no small wonder that many Gambians think of America as a place full of wealthy people, romantic lovers, armies fighting off aliens, and talking animals. Admittedly, that perception is not that far from the truth. On the same note, many Americans think that Africa is full of lions, massai warriors, mangos, and crazy diseases.
From my observations, western culture is reflected in Gambian behaviour, dress, media, and property. For one thing, some Gambians are Rastas. While Rastafarianism is not entirely a western phenomenon, Gambians at least treat it as such. The Rastas often heckle the visiting tourists and do all they can to get hired as guides or companions. Visages of Bob Marley are everywhere; on shirts, car stickers, painted on walls, and on jewellery. Some Rastas have also taken on the Ghetto gangster look as portrayed by rappers like Tupac, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Akon. Shirts and stickers depicting these rappers are popular, though fellow volunteers have found that most Gambians are not as familiar with the music performed by these rappers as you might think. Bob Marley is the one exception. I often hear children walking along the village paths singing “buffalo soldier” and “no woman no cry.”
Some Gambian adolescents wear low slung, baggy jeans with large, untied shoes. They don the Yankees hats and point the bills off to the side. I’m sure most of them have never even heard of baseball before. They even wear the big, plastic diamond studded necklaces shaped like dollar signs or guns. However, this type of dress is much more common in the urban centers than it is in the rural villages. Young Gambian girls also tend to exhibit Western fashions; tight jeans, lots of make-up, fake hair, and tight shirts. Though it is a Muslim culture, a lot of young women wear fairly revealing clothing. Older women, however, dress more traditionally and conservatively. There are also many Gambian men and women who dress professionally; leather shows, striped suits and skirts, ties, scarves, and high heels. One common source of western clothing for Gambians is “fukagi.” These are vendors that sell donated clothes in big piles on the side of the road. Old jeans, faded shirts, and ridiculous ties are all sold for very cheap prices.
Ultimately, it is the movies, music, and cell phones that take the cake as far as the effects of Western culture go. Many street vendors sell cheap, compilation DVDs packaged in cardboard. These include Bruce Willis collections, full seasons of TV shows on one disc, Nigerian films, and wrestling films. Music cassette tapes are sold by travelling vendors in car parks. Local musicians, such as Jallibah, are the most popular. There is a lot of reggae music too; including adaptations of Christmas carols and many other cover songs in Mandinka, Fula, and Wollof.
The most prosperous industry in The Gambia lies in mobile phones. When I first arrived, there were two cell phone companies; Africell and Gamcell. Over the three years that I have lived here, two more companies have exploded onto the scene; Comium and Qcell. These companies use special services, events funding, and holidays to compete with each other. They market phones and have even started providing wireless internet services. You can buy cell phone credit in almost any shop, even in the more remote villages. Credit is sold in the form of little scratch cards with a code that you text in and then your chip is funded. My host-father, an illiterate farmer in a rural village, owned two cell phones.
Before the arrival of cell phones, most villages had a single land line that ran to a “telecenter.” Volunteers would have to visit these telecenters and arrange call times to speak with friends and family. The telecenters have since gone out of business, but they have been replaced with cell phone charging centers. Though cell phones can now be used all over the country, electricity has yet to reach most of the up-country villages. Shop owners use generators and solar setups to charge cell phones for 5 Dalasi (20 cents) a pop.
Food has also been influenced by western culture, especially in the urban areas. This is no doubt due to tourism. Kombo, on the coast, is full of beach bars, Lebanese fast food stands, and restaurants. Chinese food, Indian food, and Italian food are all available near the tourist strips. The Lebanese butcheries sell pizzas, cheese burgers, chwarmas, and French fries. None of it tastes quite like the real thing, but after a few months most volunteers learn to lower their standards.
The “Fukaji” clothes are not the only Western products that are recycled or donated to The Gambia. Old movie banners, like the huge ones they hang on the sides of buildings in New York city, are used as truck covers. I have walked by freight trucks that had a “Finding Nemo,” “iPhone,” or “Spiderman 2” banner tied down over their load. In the rainy season, my old host family wrapped their firewood in a banner for the movie “Closer.” One time, my school hosted a DJ to play music for a sports day event. This DJ stationed his speakers in the middle of the field and rigged up a tent over them. While helping tie it down, I looked up to find Ben Affleck staring down at me through a red leather mask; the tent was made out of a movie banner for “Daredevil.” I also visited a school where the computer lab curtains were made out of cloth sheets meant to make Raggedy Anne dolls.
Western architecture can also be seen in the urban areas of The Gambia. While Banjul does not have any sky scrapers, there are several multi-story office buildings with glass paned fronts and fancy lobbies. In the villages on the outskirts of Kombo, you can sometimes see Spanish or Italian style villas standing up amongst the corrugated and thatch roofed huts. These were most likely built by Gambians who were able to get a relative overseas to work and earn money.
As you can see, western culture has had a significant impact on Gambian society and life. However, many traditional Gambian beliefs and behaviours are also very much alive and present.