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Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Since July of 2008 I have been living and working in The Gambia. I have learned a lot about Gambian culture. Over my next few blog entries I aim to explore my knowledge by answering a few questions. However, I want to stress that I am not an expert in any of these topics. I also have no desire to offend anyone or belittle their beliefs or culture. These are simply my crazy thoughts and opinions.

Despite the influences of Islam and western culture, there are many Gambian traditions that are still practiced. Some examples can be seen in the way Gambians use jujus, the way they speak to each other, and the way they eat their meals.

Gambians maintain their traditional belief in jujus; ordinary or special objects that have magical powers. A typical juju is prepared by a village marabout, who writes certain verses from the Koran on slips of paper and sows them into a leather pouch. These leather jujus can be worn on strings around your neck, arms, wrist, waist, ankles, etc... Jujus can grant a person almost anything; good health, invincibility, good fortune, attraction, and even impenetrability. Gambians are firm believers that some jujus can make you impenetrable to bullets and knives. Jujus can also be used for bad intentions; such as bringing a hex or bad luck upon a person. There are even special jujus that counteract the bad jujus.

Jujus are commonly worn by new-born babies and pregnant women, though most men and women also wear them. It is impossible to tell what a juju is for simply be looking at it, and most people will not tell you. Other jujus are confined in silver rings, which men and women wear. Young babies are often given small, silver bracelets that are supposed to bring the child wealth and good health. Jujus are also hung over the entrances of houses and compounds to ward off evil. However, it is their incorporation into modern culture that I find most entertaining. Many taxis and geles have a variety of decorations that I have been told are actually jujus. Taxis will often hang a severed cow tail off the back of their cab to prevent them from hitting valuable animals. They will also hang a single, small child’s sandal off the back or front of their vehicle to prevent them from hitting children. Many geles are decorated with Koranic verses and images, which are supposed to bring good luck. I have even noticed that some drivers have leather jujus added to their shift sticks or steering wheels, no doubt to prevent accidents or technical problems; such as a “no flat tires” juju.

Traditional practices can also be seen in the way that Gambians speak to each other. Greeting is a very important aspect of Gambian culture. Local village elders will sometimes take five or ten minutes just to greet each other, asking rapid questions and answers. They always answer in the affirmative or say that everything is fine, even if things are clearly not fine. Only once the requisite greetings have been done will they admit that they are sick or mourning. A person that does not take the time to greet another person, even a stranger, is considered rude. Most of the tribal languages are designed around greetings. For example, the Fula phrase “Jam tan,” meaning “peace only,” is used to respond to every greeting question. Mandinka and Wollof have more elaborate questions and responses, but two people meeting will always exchange them. Gambians even do this when speaking English, using “fine” or “they are fine” or “it is fine” to answer questions like “how are you?” “how is your family?” “how is the morning?” “how is the work?” “how are the children?” and so on. These questions are almost direct translations of the greetings they exchange in their local languages.

Greeting has become fully immersed in Gambian cell phone culture. In many instances, Gambians will call up friends and relatives just to exchange the typical greetings and then hang up. They most often do this when they only have a small amount of phone credit left that they want to use up. They will just begin calling people, even people they have not spoken to in ages, greet them and then hang up. This is considered a polite and respectful thing to do. Though text messaging has yet to catch on with most Gambians, they will also send out texts saying things like; “I am extending many greetings to you and your family.”

Many Gambians continue to use traditional proverbs in their day to day conversations. Some of them barely make sense to me; such as “the donkey will fear it’s own shadow.” Others are clearer, such as; “no matter how long a log sits in a river, it will never become a crocodile.” This proverb is often applied in Peace Corps to make it clear that a volunteer’s integration can only go so far. My personal favourites relate to celebrations and events. At a wedding, you may hear someone say to the newly weds; “may your bed always be dirty.” This is a way of wishing a couple a long and happy marriage with many children, who will play on their bed and always make it dirty.

No matter how much more prevalent western culture becomes in The Gambia, its rigid individualism will never conquer the traditionally social aspects of Gambian culture. Even in the urban center of Kombo, you will still see complete strangers greeting each other politely and making jokes about each others family name or tribe. At any time you may be invited over to join in a meal, even if you are a complete stranger to the people who are inviting you to eat. Inviting someone to join you at the food bowl is polite and expected. Most people politely refuse, saying they are full (even when they’re not), but every once in a while a person might join in for a few mouthfuls. No one complains or says anything. Last time I checked, I didn’t see any people at restaurants or bars in America asking me to come and have some food off their plate. While in village a volunteer can walk into almost any compound, even if they’ve never been there before, and join in for lunch or dinner as if he or she were part of the family.

The traditional Gambian way of eating food has also persevered. Most Gambian children grow up eating with their right hand out of a communal food bowl that is placed on the ground. This habit stays with them for their entire lives. I have seen business men in downtown Banjul stop at street side vendors on their way to work, where they order up rice or coos porridge, put the bowl on the ground, throw their tie over their shoulder and dig in, stopping only to invite other people to join them. The Gambian staff at the Peace Corps office are the same way. Sheriff, our General Services Officer, will take his lunch bowl outside every day, plop it down on the ground by the guard’s gazebo and eat with all the guards.

Even while I am travelling around the overly developed parts of Banjul or the tourist strip of Senegambia, it is these wonderful, little traditions and customs that remind me that I am in The Gambia.

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