I can’t believe I am heading into my last week in The Gambia. After being very homesick for the first few weeks, the past couple of weeks have gone by incredibly fast. The students’ arrival has made the full 8 weeks worth it, as if the other experiences weren’t enough. Teaching ages 5-16 has definitely been a challenge thus far. The students really do have an incredibly wide range- some students have never even touched a computer before, and had to be helped to turn it on, while other students were ready to show me their animations on Microsoft PowerPoint and their skills with shapes, colors and fonts. When asked to write a short story last week as a wrap-up typing exercise, I had some children writing imaginary stories, others struggling to type a full sentence in the 30 minutes provided, and one 11-year-old boy who wrote me a shortened, African version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Following this, a nine-year-old girl proceeded to ask me my “stance” on the “upcoming election of the United States of America” and whether I thought the “new Republican candidate” would “overtake Barack Obama.” How many nine-year-old American kids could have talked to you like that? Hell, how many 16-year-olds have asked you that lately? 20-year-olds? Working with these kids is going to make it very, very hard to leave.
Although Gambia’s national language is English, many of those who live here spend the majority of their time speaking their first languages, Wolof and Mandinka, primarily Wolof in the area I have been staying. As I mentioned before, all of the signs and menus are in English, making my life very easy, but it is always funny to me how many things get lost in translation. For example, I have yet to see a “salon,” and instead, everyone goes to “saloons” to get their hair cut. Many American phrases and concepts are lost here, and I spent about 45 minutes the other night explaining to a friend what a “drive-thru” was. In a more potentially dangerous moment, at a nature reserve this past weekend, we found ourselves at the end of a walk at an animal orphanage, where there was a large enclosure of hyenas and a smaller one full of a family of very hairy baboons. When asked if they ever entered the hyena enclosure, they told us it was unsafe, and that only one specific man could enter the fenced area. As a sidenote, I have always thought that hyenas were like dogs. I feel like along the line someone neglected to inform me that they are large like bears and have very strange paws. I blame the Lion King for my misconceptions. I was also expecting them to be very loud and laugh at me. They did not. However, about four minutes of photography after we were told the enclosure was unsafe, they asked us if we would like to enter. It is unclear to me whether this was a moment of failed English or simply a dare, but we said yes, and they took us into the corner.
This is one of the multiple slightly idiotic things I have done since my arrival in The Gambia. Others include not checking if the running water was working before going on a run in the middle of a 90-degree day, the many times I have said “I don’t think it’s far, let’s just walk!” and telling the man at the cafe down the street that I like spicy food. However, I am writing this to you now, so clearly the hyena experience did not end badly. As for the run, it was quite a sticky situation (sweat + humidity = fun times for all), and my neighbors can probably tell you how pleasant that one was. It wasn’t a one-time-thing either, so I send out a public apology here.
This being my last full week, I went with two of my female coworkers to the market this past weekend to pick up fabric for a traditional Gambian dress. On Friday, since everyone wears their traditional clothing, I thought it would be fun to finally do the same, and have a beautiful garment to take home with me. We picked out 6 meters of fabric, which cost me around $5, and then went to the tailor, where he had us look through books and magazines and find a pattern we liked. With the help of Oumie and Anet, one was chosen, and he asked me how soon I wanted it. When I said any time before Friday he laughed and said most requests he gets are within a few hours. Because of my “kindness” in needing it in almost a week’s time, the tailoring job only cost me $5 more. There will definitely be photos to come of me in my orange and blue dress (“You have to get orange, it matches your hair!”) this Friday.
With the 800 photos I have already taken, mom and dad, you are in for a long evening on my first night back. You bring the snacks.
Another thing I will miss about The Gambia is the natural aspect. I knew going in to my trip that The Gambia was famous, especially among Europeans, for its beautiful beaches and its birdwatching. Many European tourists flock here for beach season, much as Americans do to Hawaii or Mexico. The water is so warm, the beaches are huge, and the waves are not at all menacing. If you know me well, you know that my fear of birds (deemed by many as irrational, but have you seen The Birds?) was going to mean that I probably wouldn’t go on too many bird watching expeditions here. I haven’t had to though. From the beach, to the forests, to the river, to the almost desert-like feel of the area I am staying in, I have seen more types of birds than I can count. And from quite a pleasant distance. The Gambia provides beach scenery, open fields, hikes that make you feel like you are in a deep tropical rainforest, and this is all in a fairly urban area, or within an hour around it, without even traveling up country or into the much more rural areas. The colors of the flowers, plants and trees in this rainy season are all levels of green with splatterings of flowers and the red dust beneath everything. It makes being an amateur photographer easy, and a nature enthusiast even easier.
I can’t wait to be home, but as each day ends, I realize how much I will miss the people here and the lifestyle I have grown to truly appreciate and admire.
P.S. If you want to see stars….go to Africa.