Fishing on Bijilo Beach, Gambia, West AfricaDespite

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

the favorite.

The author with her daughter, Amijah.Daily

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.