Meet My Counterparts-Foday Drammeh

This is Foday Drammeh. He also volunteers to work with TAD while also taking care of his elderly father and practically running his compound. Even with all of those responsibilities Foday still finds the time to let me drag him to Peace Corps trainings. Right now he’s has experimental upland rice plots and is working a cashew and mango orchard.

That’s Foday on the left and his cousin Tatai on the right

He is also president of the youth group in his Home village, Perai Tenda, as well as local soccer player and judge/recorder person (I don’t know soccer so someone help!!)

Mango Seedlings On the right and left. The tiny ones are Lucena (a nitrogen-fixing tree)


Bean field.Improved 55 day variety. 
Dwarf Papaya



To Most Gambians America Only Means White People

I can’t say for sure about the rest of the world (although I’m probably right) but in the Gambia America means white people,  unless they are Niki Minaj, Chris Brown, or Rhianna. (People here have a serious obsession with Chris Brown …its rather frightening).

Education is on the rise here but it is still seriously lacking. There are many Gambians who think Europe and America are on the same continent and occasionally the same country.  Most people have never seen a map of anywhere including their own country  and the ones who have can barely read one.

There is a  staggering lack of awareness of diversity about American in the Gambia. Most people here get their information about the U.S. from our movies and media (that definitely says something about the diversity in our media). They know people who aren’t white live in the U.S. but it never occurs to most they were born there and didn’t immigrate.

I cant tell you how many times people have questioned the fact I am American and its only my accent that even lets them half believe me. Once they do then they proceed to ask me “which one of your parents/grants parents is a white?” because you have to be “white” somewhere to be American.

I complain but its not everyone and most people eventually accept that a near relative does not have to be white for you to be an American.  The volunteers of Asian descent have a tend to have a much more difficult time in country than I do. I don’t even try to explain the fact that Korea and China are two different places anymore.


Why Change is so Hard Here.

Tradition- 1. the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends,                           customs, information, etc., from generation to generation,               especially by word of mouth or by practice

           2. a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting

Change- to make the form, nature, content, future course,etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone.

       (Definitions courtesy of

For those of you who don’t know, Peace Corps has been in The Gambia for more than 50 years now. You might wonder why were re still here if our focus is development.

I haven’t been in the Gambia very long but there are a few things here that I have noticed. Change in hard here. Seriously!!! I was standing next to a man and we were watching jam being made and he didn’t believe it was possible.

We take for granted and may not even notice that in the West, the U.S.A. especially, change is  not that hard. Yeah, people talk about the days of auld lang syne but when we think about its mostly its just feelings of nostalgia and not an actual longing for the days before hand sanitizer and Google.  As a people we are able to take a new idea and make it a part of our lives as if it was always there before.

Here in The Gambia tradition is part of their tradition. People feel that because they have been doing things the same way that is the way things should be. They farm the way their parents did, eat the way their grand parents did, and for the most part live the way their great grandparents lived. Most of the new ideas circulating in The Gambia were brought from outside and the people here who want change fought tooth and nail to make those ideas stick.

Tradition is by no means and evil unto itself. Traditions is often that glue that binds generations together and allows children to know the great grand parents they’ve never met. It molds our culture and influences our future generations to be more than they’re predecessors or it can keep In them in the same place as their forebearers.

In The Gambia tradition is obeying your elders, not asking too many questions, doing what your mother did, what your father did… and for the most part… never asking why.

In America rebellion, change,  and the  ability to adapt to change is build into the founding of our nation. You can even say that change is part of our tradition and that makes all the difference.

Change happens when people dare to ask why and the desire for the “why” in life and how we can make things better. In the Gambia, people do ask why, but then those why’s are often silenced by a tradition of  doing what your mother did, what your father did. So the cycle of stifled “whys”, poverty, and a lack of tangible development.

Some food for thought

– I’m not saying that The Gambia is doomed by tradition because things are changing (sloooooowly).  I am just saying the next time you wonder why a third world country is still… well… third world think about that country’s history. Did it begin as 13 rebellious colonies with a hunger for freedom and independence? Or, was it forced into the 21st century by well-meaning do-gooders who apparently forgot about the horrors colonialism and the partitioning of the African Continent at the whim of nations concerned only with lining their coffers.

Do you come from a culture where the atypical thinker is usually praised (especially when their idea makes them a ton money) for being original and thinking outside of the box? Or, do you come from culture where stepping out of the box can leave you ridiculed? Where stepping out of the box means disobeying your elders and shaming your family in a tight knit community?

Just think about it.


Naming Ceremony

Whenever a new baby is born there is a naming ceremony 7 days afterward. It is a big celebration for families and everyone is invited to bring gifts and just share the joy of a new addition to the family. Since we are considered new additions to the family a Naming Ceremony was held for the Peace Corps trainees.

In The Gambia everyone is named after some…literally. Your name-sake is called your Tooma and anyone with your name is also called your Tooma

During the ceremony the baby’s head is shaved because the hair from before birth is considered “unclean” and its also supposed to mark a new beginning. Needless to say our heads were symbolically shaved.

Here is the speech given by Sekuba (a Peace Corps Language & Cultural Facilitator) after we all received our names

**NOTE** Our families loaned those outfits to us for the day.  I’ve not seen that dress since.


Casey, one of the volunteers in my training village with me had a very special honor. His host father, Mussa, chose to name his newborn daughter after him. This may not seem like much but Casey’s host dad stepped way out of the box of tradition and took a big social risk naming his daughter after someone of the opposite sex and giving her a non-traditional name. Here is a video of a naming ceremony for baby Casey.


Cross Cultural Challenges

I can’t emphasize enough how different our cultures are even thoug human nature is fundamentally the same. There are good people, bad people, rude ones, kind, generous, and the list goes one. What separates us is usually language and culture. Culture shapes the expression of these fundamental human characteristics.

Many of you may or may not know the  (directional) left has an interesting history. In fact, there is an actual name for people who are left-handed, sinister. This comes from the belief that the devil is working in people who are left handed. Thus, anyone who was left handed was encouraged or beaten into using their right hand. It’s a historical fact and definitely Google is if you re more curious.

So here in the Gambia there are very few left-handed people because of what the left hand is used for here.

I’ll give you a hint. There s no toilet paper here excepting the metro area….

You got it. People use their left hand to wipe themselves. Don’t get all grossed out because people here are, for the most part, very clean.

So you can imagine the thought of someobe giving you something or eating (people rarely use sponsor forks)with their left hand. Yuck!!!

Why is this difficult for me? Well I’m not left handed but I’m pretty ambidextrous so sometimes I eat with my left and drink with my right. Or I pass things with my left hand, something that can be seen as rude or disrespectful. It was really hard the first few weeks to “forget” about my left hand and I still make mistakes.

I am by no means germophobic but The Gambia has even pushed me to my limits.
I have a special post coming up on this topic at a later date.

Being Bored
When I get back to the States I don’t think I’ll complain as much about being bored. At least I had my car to go for a drive, my x-box, Wii, Playstation, etc. Here the only thing to do, as an American, is read or visit other Americans.
In the States when you are bored there are options to do something  by yourself or with others. I’m The Gambia when someone is bored the seek other people. There are very few options to relieve boredom by yourself.

Pets… or a lack thereof
There’s no pet culture here and animals are seen as tools. In other words there s no concept of animal abuse. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen children chase, hit, terrify an animal as a game. It’s terrible but no one really knows any different. Animals have no value beyond their function and are never seen as companions. There are exceptions to every rule but I have yet to see it.

Vehicles and Pedestrians
Yeah, this is totally cultural. There are very few stop lights in the Gambia. It’s cynical,but in America, if people don’t value others they certainly value their vehicle and a life out of prison… There are traffic laws but they aren’t enforced so you’re on your own when you cross the road. Oh, and watch out for that donkey cart

Trainging Village- My daily life in Kaiaf

-6:45 wake up and get ready for language school

A (slow) morning in Kaiaf video link.

Me and Backari Camara. He’s a native Gambian and has been a Language and Cultural Facilitator for the Peace Corps for over 10 years. He’s a great teacher & and even better person. He’s in charge of helping my quartet learn Mandinka

– 8am to 11 language school with a break a half hour brain break 9:30
– 11am go home and spend time with my host family or nap. I usually nap…
– 1pm lunch time or kontong wattoo in Mandinka
– 2pm lunch is over and we can go hang out or if there are any culture or language questions we ask our LCF Bakari
– 2 to whenever is personal and study time. Sometimes I study or go to another volunteer s compound and study or just relax but I’m usually home by 5 to sit and practice language at my compound.

And introduction to culture and family in The Gambia

Before i describe my daily life I have to give a cultural introduction to The Gambia.

The Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country (approx 95%) withe the remaining 5% being mainly Catholic Christian’s, and less than 1% of the traditional animist religions and others. That being said The Gambia is a very tolerant country and there are no divisions in the practice of Islam here, i.e. no Sunnis  or Shi’ites. Seriously, life is peaceful here. During Christmas  you would think the whole country was Christian and during Ramadan you’d think everyone was Muslim because of the respect people give each other s beliefs.
In Islam it is permissible for a man to have up to four wives but only if – he can provide for them and the children that will come and he can treat them fairly and some other guidelines that o can’t remember right now-  whether or not men keep that in mind when they marry is something  to be asked but those are the guidelines under the religion.

I don’t know about anywhere else but the Gambia families live in compounds with each wife (if their are multiple) lives in a room with her children and the husband has his own room. These compunds aren’t limited to immediate family members either. In my family my dad Yaya Sanneh and his only wife Nyako Manjing live in a room but his brothers and their wives live in the compound as well.

Don’t freak out because my host parents are old so their seven children are grown and have moved away to the Kombo Metro area. Most of them are teachers from what I hear. My uncles Dimbaa (4wives) and Sainey (3 wives) have around 13 children each and most of them are adults as well. That leaves only around 10 children in the compund.

To sum this up because my family is waaaay larger than because of extended relations (I’m someone’s mom btw because of the way family systems work here and I’ll explain below), this I’ll say that there are around 20 people currently living in my compund

*How family is  structured*

-Mother’s sisters are your mothers as well
This makes their children your siblings
-Your mother’s brothers are your uncles.
This makes their children your cousins
-Your father’s brothers are your fathers too.
Their children are your siblings
-Your father’s sisters are your aunts.
Their children are your cousins.

And to add to the confusion
-your mom/dad s age-mates are your parents as well
-the same goes for your grandparents.

There s so much that I probably forgot so feel free to ask questions

Training village and Masembe

This post will be brief because I’m typing this on my phone and I plan on expanding this post at a later date.

After leaving the metro district call Kimbo we were sent to our training villages to learn language and culture. The main languages are Mandinka, Wolof, Pullar, and Sarahule. I was sent to a Mandinka village.

After 7 days in village we had a traditional naming ceremony ( I’ll elaborate on that in another post) forz the 11 volunteers in my village.

I was given the name Mbassi Sanneh. Sanneh is the surname of my host family in training village and Mbassi is the name of my oldest host sister (age 30).
Since then I’ve been slowly acquiring the language with the help of my Language &Cultural Facilitator (LCF) Bakari Camara.

We also have frequent trips to a Peace Corps training site called  Massembeh where we conduct trainings such as

-intro to Agro-Forestry
-intro to bee keeping
-intro to soil conservation
Since I’m an agriculture volunteer all of trainings are agriculture based while the Health volunteers have trainings for the sector.

That’s all for now and I’ll hopefully be able to add pics in the coming weeks


Pics of Massembeh

My first week in the Gambia (pics to be uploaded at a later date)

I am currently at an internet cafe in Soma and I only have 25 min to type this and maybe another post so here I go

The first week we stayed in Kombo (not a city but a metro district kind of like the boroughs of NYC ) There were 36 of us , two have left for personal reasons, divided into 19 health volunteers and 16 agriculture volunteers.   Agro volunteers stayed at the transit house in Kombo near the beach. We stayed there for a week while we were oriented and reoriented about Gambian languages and culture.

On 10/10 we left for our training villages where I met my new host family who will help train me to learn Mandinka (that’s Kunta Kinte’s language). I have a large family which I will elaborate on later. Lests jut say that kids are kids (annoying but sweet dirt magnets), big sisters are still bossy, and little brothers will always find a way to drive you crazy.

I go to my permanent site after Dec 9 and I’ll talk more about that later.

Fo Nyaato (until later in mandinka)