Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Hundreds of things I would like to say to the young Western European man on the ferry flashed through my head like a holodeck of exasperation. "Put a shirt on, for chrissakes! Are you blind? Can you not see that everyone around you is completely covered? Do you really think be sweaty and half-naked is acceptable in public anywhere, let alone a muslim country? How do you not know this is Ramadan, the month of pious fasting and self-denial? What the hell do you think your conduct says about not only you, but Westerners in general?"

That last question really sums up the way I feel about the behavior of most of the tourists I see in The Gambia. It is hard for me to fathom the idea of someone spending all of the time and money to come to Africa, and yet to be so willfully ignorant of the culture. I think most people in America feel that being shirtless, as a man in a public place, is somewhat provocative, but in The Gambia it is downright inappropriate. I try to maintain a certain level of good conduct in this country, both to be respectful to Gambians and to be a good representative of the United States. My ideas about conduct abroad seem to be drastically opposed to those of many international tourists, however. I have come into contact with many people whose opinion seems to be that "If I am on vacation, then I can do whatever I want, because it's MY time."

Trying to avoid this type of thinking was one of my top priorities for my parents' trip to Senegal and The Gambia. Obviously comfort and entertainment were also important, but I was determined in planning the trip to never sacrifice being respectful and appropriate. Of course, my parents, being seasoned travellers, were not likely to be crass and disrespectful in the first place. Still, as with any cross-cultural experience, it can be easy to say and do things that are wrong or offensive without knowing any better. Shaking with your left hand, for instance, or asking loudly for a "PHOTO," which, in Mandinka, translates to a certain part of the male anatomy. With my loving guidance, and their own common sense, my parents managed to avoid this pitfalls, for the most part.

One of the highlights of the trip were the cultural programs that my village organized to welcome and honor my folks, the most dramatic of which was the daytime Kankurang program. It started with just an ordinary dance by the women, during which individual dancers will jump out and stomp their feet with a fierce intensity while flapping their arms in the air. This went on for about an hour with my parents and I awkwardly participating at intervals, to the cheers and delight of those gathered. Finally, a cry goes up and children scatter as the kankurang makes his appearance. There are many types of masked kangkurang dancers in the Senegambia region, but the most common for daytime performances in my village is the jambo kangkurang--the leaf forest spirit. His costume is made up of the red bark of the camel foot or "farra" tree and green leaves from another type of tree--often neem. His dance is characterized by a somewhat calm, slow entrance into the dancing arena, after which he throws himself into a frenzy of ducking, charging, stomping, and leaf shaking. In many villages the kangkurang is unpredictable, potentially violent force that is best avoided, especially be women. He is summoned for occasions during which malevolent forces such as witches and demons are prone to attack, especially circumcision ceremonies. In my village, however, the deep and mysterious powers inherent in the dance have faded in favor of its pageantry. Women dance and sing next to the kangkurang and children are afraid in the same quasi-humorous way that children are afraid of halloween monsters.

Besides dances and pageantry, the other primary component of village programs is speech-making. On the occasion of my parents' visit, the speeches were even more numerous and verbose. Old men came out of the woodwork to praise my parents for raising me, for letting me come, for giving some money and books to the school library, for giving some seeds to the women's group. They were declared honorary alkalos (mayors, basically) of the village. To make sure that everyone heard their glowing words, the village people appointed Lamin Danjo, the shopkeeper, as the town crier, and he would bellow the mumblings of toothless village elders. I did my best to translate the proceedings for my folks, but occasionally would miss a detail or try to gloss over a thinly veiled request for money or to help young people go to America or Europe. Karamo, the VDC chairman would quickly fill my parents in on these details.

After four short days in and around my site, we headed to the River Gambia National Park in the Central River Region of the Gambia, where the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Projects is located. One of my shortfalls as a host was that I am used to a fairly low standard of travel comfort after living in Africa for nearly two years. As a result my parents were subjected to a long wait in the car park, a less than pleasant bush two hour bush taxi ride, and a two mile walk with heavy packs over a pretty rough road before we were picked up by the CRP staff and taken to the camp. Upon arrival, however, all of my dad's doubts about this part of the trip were put to rest, as the lodge and facilities were beautiful, and the tilapia and fried rice lunch waiting for us was delicious. Our host, and intern named Karen, made sure we were comfortable and told us that the boat tour would start around four. While living in the Gambia I have come to know that you should never expect to see wildlife, as animals, except for birds, are elusive, few in number, and easily frightened. As such, I was thrilled at how many large mammals we saw in the two hour boat ride, including eight or more hippos, several communities of Chimpanzees, Baboons, and other monkeys. In addition to this we saw countless waterbirds nesting around the island.

The next day, after a pleasant but less eventful boat ride, we caught a car with some other Peace Corps volunteers on their way to Kombo and arrived in the late mid-afternoon. We had done a little bit of research looking at hotels during our previous stay in Kombo before going to my village, but my friend Mike highly recommended the Coco Ocean hotel, so we decided to check it out before making a final decision. It was much more than we expected--well-appointed suites, numerous swimming pools, excellent service, beautiful grounds, and a great beach. My parents decided that, for the money, this was their best option. For my part, I agreed that is was beautiful and that they deserved a little luxury after being tossed about by West Africa for a couple of weeks. I was glad, however, that this hotel was not their introduction to The Gambia. This is, after all, the world of the shirtless man on the ferry. It is the walled-in world where rich foreigners get massages, spend a Gambian's month salary on a bottle of wine, and learn little to nothing about the diversity, the culture, the poverty, the frustration, the beauty and, above all, the people, that are just outside the walls.

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