its little size on the map, Gambia is a country full of big things. With
English as their colonial language, Gambia’s official language is Wolof
and if you ever venture to the country, you better learn it! Culture is
the foremost thing that binds everyone together. It’s something that everyone
adheres to–you see it in their homes, in their clothing, in their mannerisms,
its complete and it is the fabric of life. Gambians place long flowing
drapes in and around their homes, I suppose to guard against mosquitoes.
Most people have a very special place for their ancestors, the pictures
of mothers, fathers, grandfathers and prophets grace their walls. It was
probably one of the most consistent themes I witnessed at each house we
visited. Why were we visiting? My husband, Alex, had not been home in
over 12 years. It was a homecoming for him–he had to visit, see family,
give money and meet with his relatives. What was so striking was the tight
community in which everyone seemed to keep among each other. There were
no strangers, unless you were a tourist. But everyone knew who everyone
was, from the littlest of children to the greatest of grandmothers.
Homes in the Gambia, are called compounds. Compounds represent either
a complex of several one-tier apartments or just one single house. Each
compound is surrounded by a six-foot concrete structure that ensures security
to the compound. Some fancier houses had elaborate gates, and others were
simple entrances, but all exhibited the structure surrounding the land
or home. Gambia by far is not a rich nation economically. Depending on
status, people may or may not have electricity in their homes. But Gambians
seem to have moved on to the modern world regardless if the country has
not been able to keep up. People have plenty of cell phones and watch
lots of TV–CNN, European and American movies, music videos, African music
videos and local music showcasing all types of African talent. There were
special Muslim shows that aired regularly and many types of commentary
shows. Sports is also a favorite of Gambians, with football (soccer) being
life for many Gambians revolves simply around business whether it is simply
selling mirrors, combs and brushes on the ground; selling a barrel of
oranges on the street; or selling cold water, ice treats, peppers and
spices, fish and peanuts, clothing, fabric, shoes, belts, books, art and
even money! Yes money! Money changers are everywhere holding a calculator
for the tourist to change over their foreign currency for the Dalasi.
People are glued to making a living and supporting their lives, and a
lot of interaction stems from Serrekunda to Banjul (the capital), back
to Senegambia. For many, transportation is a major obstacle and most people
have to rely on the bush taxi, vans that are makeshift buses that carry
7-8 passengers to the main cities. They make rounds all day, with a buddy
system that is both conventional and genius. For the driver, it’s much
easier to have an assistant that lures in the passengers, yelling out
the side of the window, "Serrekunda" or "Banjul" and
all day they solicit people to fill seats, collecting money from the passengers
and loading anything on the van that may need a ride also. You’ll find
in the bush taxi anything goes–chickens, sheep, furniture, whatever you
have. If it can fit, get on board! The driver is usually content with
a full van while listening to blasting sounds of Senegalese superstar,
Youssour N’door or heavy pulsing riddims of reggae. The constant rhythm
of loading and unloading passengers made for an interesting ride for the
novice like myself. I was very impressed with the amount of patience and
manner in which people behaved on the buses.
For people who have their own cars, they’ll find no policemen handing
out tickets. However, checkpoints were prevalent in some areas. Since
the police make minimal salaries, they often look to have drivers pay
them to get off for any offense. Bribery is a common tool and is seen
as part of the culture. It’s just the way things are, as is sad and true,
that funnels down from the top of the government. Driving in the Gambia
seems to be an at-your-own-risk policy. There are no street signs, stop
and yield signs, and I believe we came across only one stop light, which
most people paid very little attention to. Just drive at your own risk,
and maybe you’ll get where you’re going. The streets in Gambia are also
some of the most complex arrangements I have ever seen. There are no street
signs, and no numbered houses or addresses that we are so used to having.
You know where you are based on the landmark. Most side streets were not
paved and were just sand, dirt, and pot holes making for a bumpy ride.
It was really amazing to see people didn’t have as many accidents, because
the driving is so chaotic, yet so organized.
Upon arriving in Gambia, you’ll here the prayers of an Imam omnisciently
sounding from a loud speaker in a Mosque. Islam is the official religion
of Gambia, with an overwhelming 90% of the country practicing and devout
Muslims. However, there are distinct variations of Islam in all parts
of the world, and those variations are played out in the cultural manifestations
of each particular country. Islam came to the country in the early tenth
century. The religion which dominated out of the Middle East spread across
Africa has a firm place in Gambia. Unlike places where we perceive Islam
to be a fundamentally oppressive religion that has no tolerance, it is
completely not true in Gambia. With modernity, communication and global
representation of ideas, Islam has its own interpretation in Gambia. It
meshes deeply with natural African customs, cultural motifs and traditions.
Many carry the idea that Islam carried
the African out of the "darkness" and Islam represents that
spiritual guidance that enlightened them and gave them a viable prophet
and God to praise. For many the idea that Islam is the light and what
the ancestors of old were doing was "dark" and wrong. Making
idols out of masks and various other types of worship and configuration
were customary for centuries the beginnings of many cultures in Africa.
Like Christianity was used to conform the masses, so has Islam been used.
While there are many positive and negative aspects to this reality, I
found that Islam is there to stay, and for the most part provides the
social mores and values of the people.
In Gambia, the religion seems to guide the people rather than dictating
to them, and for all the sufferation, deprivation of colonization, slavery
and rape the country has and continues to endure, the pure benevolence,
submission and respect that people have for each other and for Islam is
fundamental to its daily survival. No matter what we go through, we still
have a God with which to give thanks and practice humility. It’s a true
testimony of the spirit of a people, to pray 5 times a day without remorse.
Every Friday for 30 minutes everyone prays together at the same time.
It was really one of the most wholistic experiences I have ever had. Confirming
my own relationship with God was something that really had an impact on
me, and for that I truly respect the Islamic religion.
While the majority practices Islam, there are other religions that exist
in the Gambia: Christianity and Catholicism have many members and other
non-traditional groups that seem to make up this hybrid of spiritual energy.
Last but not least, there has been a growing phenomenon of Rastafarians
making themselves known in the tiny nation. Rasta is naturally African–it
is the one true way of life that embraces all things African–masks, dance,
drum, colors and all. Rastafari has come from the shores of Jamaica and
has landed its way back to Africa and has been reaching the masses for
many years. The music, culture, and lingo of Rastafari is very much alive
and well in Gambia. As I walked around, I was greeted heartily by dread
and non-dread that truly embraced Rastafari. Calling the name of Haile
Selassie and Rasta were common and the natural basic tendencies of Rasta
life were also present: drumming, smoking, reasoning and lots of reggae!
This culture–the newest to have any social impact on Gambian youth–is
gaining momentum, and with heavy rotation of reggae music, Rastafari too
is here to stay in Gambia. If you ever get the chance to visit, check
the Rasta Garden, an outdoor dancehall/club that pulses heavy riddims
all night long.
With all of these great cataclysms living side by side in Gambia, it’s
no wonder Gambia’s nickname is "The Smiling Coast." If you ever
plan to venture to Africa, make Gambia one of your places to visit.
For the past 10 years, Adjua Dubb has been an advocate, promoter and writer
for Reggae music. She is an archivist and collector of the music, information
and all things related. Currently, she has her own production company, Dubbtonical
Productions out of Washington D.C.