In the search for some food excitement to appease my insatiable appetite my friends and I made our way down to Kairaba Avenue, the main shopping strip in the Gambia. After a quick ride to the traffic light we walked past the American Embassy, with its green grass which probably cost more to maintain than the entire building, as well as one of the larger mosques in the area with the call to prayer ringing out. We lazily walked out of the heat in a The Lebanese Restaurant with a buffet. Let me repeat… A Buffet. After haggling the price down, we proceeded to stuff our faces with Middle Eastern goodness. An abundance of pita appeared. Plates of baba ganoush, kebabs, falafel, and the all important hummus competed for space on the table. As the feeling of “real” fullness made it increasingly difficult to breath, I looked outside to at the heated sand to see the familiar row of roadside stands with women sitting underneath hawking bananas, cashews, and oranges. Each stand, one after another on every stretch of road, has women huddled under a tree or umbrella (often with an abundance of children) selling what they can to feed their families. The stark contrast between the two scenes did not escape me, but this was not the first time I had noticed such vast opposites existing simultaneously in this small nation of about 1.5 million.
It only takes a walk down my own street in Jeshwang to witness the great variety that coexists here in the Gambia. Walled compounds with glass shards gracing the top to prevent intrusion live on the same street as those without running water and electricity. In the market down the street one can see: women in black burqas peering through their veils, women wearing traditional West African clothing with their bright patterns creating a blur of color and even some younger women wearing clothing acceptable while clubbing over top pants and long sleeves with head scarves shielding their neck and hair from view.
-In the Gambia it is often more important what ethnic group you are from than what religion you are, but even so the Mandinka, Woloff, Fullah, Jullah, and other smaller groups all live together melded and intermarried in the more urban areas and sometimes separated in the more rural areas according to which direction you travel. A conversation can at any time switch between any of the local languages with some English and Arabic thrown in for flavor.
-In every village there are cell phones, but more often than not that same village does not have electricity or running water so they must travel to a store to have their phones charged with a car battery commandeered for a new purpose. Living in an electric age without electricity has its issues.
- Food prices fluctuate day to day in this semi-agrarian economy. Some days, after a long week of especially high heat for example, food will simply be too expensive for people to buy. While others, like myself, eat at unlimited buffets
- Some of the nicest Mercedes I have ever seen drive on the same sand/dirt roads that motocross bikes would use for competition. The Mercedes’ comrades on the roads are what I would call mutts. They consist of parts from every other car but the original. For example it is not uncommon for a Ford motor to be in Hyundai and vice versa. It is also a community duty to help the random man stranded on the road with a half mile push until he can start his car. Also, Donkeys are still a very common way of moving products as well as carrying things on your head. I have seen a man riding a bike with a queen sized mattress on his head down the highway.
-Prayers at most events are in two parts- one for Christians and one for Muslims- despite the population being an overwhelming 90% or more Muslim. Although no other religions are even a consideration, the mentality here is that each religion believes in one God, so they focus on the commonality.
-In the Gully-Gullies men in suits sit next to mechanics, Rastas sit aside grandmothers holding live chickens and children jump on and sit on complete stranger’s laps on their way to school. All social and economic borders seemed to be crossed in an effort to travel efficiently. It almost is a sense of duty here, that when vehicles, including private ones, are empty they will pick up everyone from army cadets to elementary students. The backs of trucks are often filled with a great mix of people.
Every nation has its extremes, but never before have I seen demonstrated before me the coexistence of so many things that seem so contradictory to what I previously believed could live together in one space. Perhaps a brief and simplified explanation is that The Gambia sees the “west” as if it really had streets paved with gold. Things like the widespread computer and internet usage, cell phones, western clothing, movies and music all represent our culture to the world at large. But before the west had all these things, the Gambia had its own culture, traditions, and ways of doing things. Now in a Western age of Influence and globalization, these two worlds are being pushed together like never before. Perhaps the Gambia has done an amazing job of allowing these two worlds to blend together, accepting what they want and neglecting the rest; in contrast to nations who have taken less peaceful paths.
All I know for sure is that I have walked into a person’s compound in rural Gambia and while men chatted on cell phones, children ran up saying “Hellllooo toubob” while others ran from my scary white skin. The home I was invited into did not have running water or electricity, but they kindly greeted me and politely asked how my family and President Obama were(because obviously we are best friends). I said they were both doing very well and asked how their family was. The father of one of the girls nicely told me that his daughter wanted to go to New York City and if she could come with me. I skillfully (hopefully) danced around the question and had to leave shortly after… but as I drove home I thought about my almost daughter and how one day I hope I get to tell President Obama my story and a lesson on Coexistence in the Gambia