Becoming Gambian

One of the best and worst things about living abroad is that you don’t have choice about experiencing the actual culture. If you are taking a class trip or just sight seeing through a country, you don’t experience how people actually live there. But when you live in one place and interact with locals, you can’t escape the cultural experience. And Gambian culture is definitely something that I have learned to love. 

Two weekends ago, I was blessed to have the opportunity to live with one of my student’s family for a day. Her name was Awa Ceesay Sr, and she is in the 11th grade. Two Saturday’s ago, Rene (a mentor) and I took a taxi to meet her by her house. She greeted me with a huge hug, which immediately put me at ease. Whatever we did that day, I knew she would be there to help me through it. After meeting her mom, sister and baby cousin, we first went to the market to buy all the ingredients to make dinner with. We bought all fresh chicken, vegetables, and spices to make our Fufu with. Fufu is literally just fried chicken and chips. Not very Gambian, but at least it was an easy meal for me to make. Since all of us were fasting, we were making the meal to break the fast with later that evening. I learned how to cut raw chicken, make homemade fries and peel a bunch of different vegetables. I did more cooking in one day than I’ve probably ever done in my life (sorry mom). Once the food was ready, we swept the front porch and cleaned the dishes. I was exhausted, but Awa’s day was only halfway over. It was 3 pm, and we all headed back to Starfish for the typical Saturday classes. I was surprised by how much Awa does in a day, and then still comes to Starfish with all the energy and enthusiasm to learn. I loved the whole experience, and now kind of feel like I have a sister from another country.

This past Friday was another major cultural event. Almost all of the volunteers had now arrived, so we had a total of 13 at the time. One more was arriving Friday night, so she would join us later in the night. Friday was our naming ceremony!!!!!! Aunty Yassin and the mentors picked out our first names. My name is Amie. One of the Starfish girls, Amie S, is very good at soccer, and I’m very close with one of my students named Amie Nata, so they figured Amie was a good name for me. My last name I got to pick, and I picked Ceesay in honor of my time spent with Awa Ceesay. So Friday night we all dressed in traditional outfits made by the tailor, and drove over to Lamin Lodge for the ceremony. Many of the students walked over to see the ceremony or sing in it, and it was great to have the whole Starfish community there. After climbing onto a boat in our tight skirts and getting some of our hair cut off with a razor, our naming ceremony was completed when the Griat (holy man running the ceremony) announced our names to the crowd. It was awesome to hear the students and everyone chanting your new name, and really embracing you as a (kind of) Gambian. Normally this ceremony is done for babies when they are named.

As of yesterday, I had another experience that really helped me understand life in The Gambia. All the volunteers here did “Day in the Life of a Mentor”. So now we were paired with a mentor and assigned to do everything they were supposed to do in a day. My mentor was Awa, who came to work here after she graduated high school. After cleaning the breakfast dishes and the conference room where we eat, we went on a trip to Banjul, the capital. We took a van from there to Awa’s house in a village nearby. We went to the well in a nearby compound to get 5 containers of water, one which I unsuccessfully carried on my head. Awa easily carried it without using her hands, but I couldn’t balance it at all. From her house we walked back 45 minutes in the heat to Starfish, a walk she does every morning. As tired as we were, the day was only half over. I then taught my normal class, attended a meeting, wrote the daily report for everything that had happened for everyone there, and attended another mentor’s meeting after dinner about upcoming events. By 11 pm, we finally stopped our work and were able to go back to the dorms. Awa does this and probably more everyday, and it really taught me how much dedication to your work is extremely important in life. The mentors work so hard and sacrifice so much for the students, and it’s inspiring to see how much they really do care.

After all these experiences, I feel like I have had the privilege of being a part of a second culture so vastly different than my own. With only 4 days left here, I plan on trying to learn as much more about the culture and make more memories with the people I have come to know and love. 


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