MY EXPERIENCE IN THE GAMBIA (BANJUL) AS A FOREIGN STUDENT
While in Ghana, taking some public health courses relating to medicine, I still insisted on my dream of becoming a medical doctor; therefore, I applied to two medical schools in the Gambia and Uganda. As my courses were ending in two months, one evening, while on my phone watching the news on Aljazeera, a Yahoo mail notification popped up on my screen. I quickly paused the news; when I opened my mail, I saw the acceptance letter from the American International University West Africa. I was over warmed with joy, and with no hesitation, I forwarded the email to Ma Cyndie. In no delay, she replied with great excitement and said hurry and move to the Gambia and achieve your dream!
Upon completing my public health courses, I traveled to Liberia for two weeks and then to the Gambia to embark on my career path. The Gambia is located on the coast of West Africa; in this piece of writing, I will take you through some basic requirements for international students in the Gambia; Gambians (government and citizens) beliefs and reactions to the Covid-19 situation; the daily activities of the people of the Gambia (culture); why is it considered one of the peaceful places to live in West Africa; the types of local foods seen and eaten; climate and weather; and its ethnic diversity.
As an international student studying medicine in the Gambia, you need help interacting with people because of the popular local language, Wolof; it is pretty challenging to navigate freely, especially in the markets and local shops, even though English is the official language. This is simply because many Gambians speak Wolof fluently compared to the official language. As a result, even in school and at the hospital, where I practiced medicine, typical Gambians never stop speaking Wolof. Speaking Wolof is a considerable advantage, especially as a medical student practicing at the Edward Francis Teaching Hospital in Banjul. About 90%, if not more, of the clients (patients) speak Wolof; therefore, to click (history taking) a client, you will need a translator.
Unlike many countries I have traveled to in West and East Africa, the resident permit issue in the Gambia is entirely different; all residential permits are renewed in January irrespective of when it was obtained, for instance, if it was received in November or December 2021, by January 2022 you are required to renew it again. Therefore, a permit is obtained yearly (yearly calendar), not when received. Thus, getting the residential permit as early as possible is advisable to avoid double payment and renewal.
To ensure foreigners obtain residential permits, immigration patrol the streets of Banjul, arresting foreigners with outdated or without a permit; even if you have an updated permit but forgot to carry it along while you were exiting your home, you will also be arrested and taken to any of the headquarters for detention until friends or family members carried the forgotten permit at the headquarter before you are released. And if you don’t have it or it is outdated, you will pay some cash before you are released with a warning that if caught next and their record shows you have had a similar encounter, you may pay double. Hence, as an international student, you must ensure it is in your bag before leaving the hostel, even if you are getting something nearby.
Getting a bank account is another ups-and-down process, from one office to another. As many tuitions are paid in United States Dollars in West Africa, I had to open a bank account to easily acquire foreign currency to avoid increased rates, from Dalasi to USD, during tuition payment. To obtain a bank account in the Gambia, you must have an updated passport, permit, TIN, and a passport-size photo.
COVID-19 AND THE PEOPLE OF GAMBIA
As usual, while watching the news on my YouTube channels, I came across the Covid-19 news in China, Wuhan. Before I would finish watching the news, my classmate, Tochi from Nigeria, came running to me to tell me about the same outbreak. The following day, the school informed all the students about preventive measures, especially always wearing masks in class and public places. At first, it was mask-wearing strange, and many people didn’t want to wear any with the notion that the virus would not reach the Gambia. But as borders were still open to the international world and flights were coming and leaving, as we hit February, two cases were reported; they were foreigners (whites).
The two cases reported posed a severe challenge to the government to close all borders and see the economy string down or to keep it open and enforce preventive measures (no public gatherings including markets, schools, mosques, and churches). The Gambia is a Muslim-majority country, and believing that the virus doesn’t exist and doesn’t kill blacks, the government came up with guidelines for prevention and was flexible in the enforcement. As a result, mosques were open and were not following preventive measures like wearing a mask. I noticed that churches were closed by the pastors and not the government, as most of my colleagues stopped attending church.
However, as cases were on the rise, the government was left with no option but to shut down all schools and borders, but markets and banks were open; this, in no delay, sparked prices, especially food, detergents, and antiseptics. The government didn’t shoot down mosques and churches as they tried to avoid any conflict with belief; I heard them calling for prayers and saw them heading for prayer with very few wearing masks, especially Fridays.
The economy of Gambia depends on agriculture, groundnut (peanut), fishing, tourism, low import duties and minimal administrative producers, and a fluctuating exchange rate. These are much more stable than many West African countries. Therefore, when borders were shut down in preventive measures, unemployment went sky high, and you could hear government and private employees talking about a massive cutdown of employees. Two of my friends became victims of it.
Among all the sources of income or revenues, the tourism industry is the most vital source that directly helps local Gambians. When tourists come in, hotels, guest houses, restaurants, entertainment-including live performances, and beaches benefit. As well as individual Gambians who visit these places too; many tourists coming to the Gambia are not just about having fun on this side of the world but also about handpicking their partners. On the beaches, you see tourists all huge-up with Gambian men and women; many Gambians say their friends, family, or relatives have left the country and are now established and living a good life through tourists. Many see it as an opportunity and can do anything to maintain it when it comes their way; older tourists are often seen with younger ones dating.
Article 25 of the Gambia constitution protects the rights of citizens to practice any religion of their choice, but about 90% of the population practice Islam, precisely Sunni Islam. The remaining 10% is distributed among Christians and traditional beliefs. Many mosques surround my hostel; therefore, early morning prayers, and probably others, keep me awake for classes or disturb me when I am reading or preparing for exams.
Although Islam is monotheistic, many ethnic tribes in the Gambia practice animism and wear Jujus around the waist, a common feature among ethnic groups. They believe that these juju charms have magical or supernatural powers. Many wear them as protection or good luck charms against any evil. This is commonly seen with wrestlers, soccer players, artists, children, and even in commercial vehicles. The Juju waistbands are made of enclosed leather pouches. During major Muslim Holidays, all commercial life in the Gambia comes to a standstill, such as Eid al-Adha Eid ul-Fitr. During Ramadan, the entire city can be flooded with sheep, and farmers from all over the country bring their sheep for sale. Buyers and sellers are seen negotiating prices back and forth.
The Christian population makes up about 4% of the total population. Many reside in the western and southern parts of the country. Of the 4%, many of them identify themselves as Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, smaller denominations exist, including Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baptists.
It is still being determined to what extent traditional beliefs, such as the Serer religion, are practiced. This religion encompasses cosmology and a belief in a supreme deity called Roog. Annually, they visit Senega for religious festivals such as Xooy, Mbosseh, and Randou Rande.
Unlike other countries I have traveled to in West Africa, the Gambia lacks many other West African dishes except their local ones. One of Gambia's popular foods is Benachin; it is on top of many restaurants’ menus; in fact, a restaurant opposite my hostel is owned by a vast and tall Gambian woman popularly known as Kpaku Jollof. Benachin is a bowl of rice cooked with meat or fish mixed with fresh vegetables, including tomatoes, carrots, onions, and so on.
Another popular local food is Domoda, one of many tourists’ favorite dishes in many restaurants in Senegambia. Senegambia is the heart of Banjul, the capital city of Gambia, almost all tourists that come to the Gambia want to stay there. The place has many activities, including live-musical beans, nightclubs, lovely beaches, and hotels. Domoda is prepared with meat, fish, and peanuts and served with rice, mostly with green lying on top of the rice and raw-green chili on the stew. The last two popular local foods known so far by foreigners, among others, are the Superkanja-okra mixed with fish or meat cooked with palm oil, onion, and pepper, and Chicken Yassa-chicken prepared with fresh lime, onion, and ground black chili or pepper.
As many Gambians are not fortunate to afford reasonably healthy food, and even if they do, they still go for Tapalapa, one of the most famous street foods you can see everywhere. In the early morning and evening hours, a small group gathers around in a circular form or straight line to be served with Tapalapa in a newspaper, magazine, or plain sheet to go to their offices or daily activities. Others become impatient or have no time in their favor, starting to eat on the street as they go about their everyday life. Tapalapa is a lengthy bread prepared with egg (fried or boiled), mayonnaise or butter, onion, etc.
In addition, many Gambian families keep the family united in many ways. Still, one thing that caught my observation is eating together in the same bowl, seen at shops, markets, homes, and mosques.
As a small West African country, Gambia has about two (2) million-plus people with eight (8) ethnic groups: the Aku, Fula, Mandinka, Jola, Serahule, Serer, Tukulor, and Wolof, accounting for its diversities. Even though diversity exists, many are still involved in a practice that can still be seen in many African countries; about 50% of the population indulges in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and young girls before 18 face the consequences. The World Health Organization has recognized it as a violation of the human rights of young girls and women. In 2015, former President Jammeh banned FGM, ordering that anyone caught performing would be sentenced to jail; however, no law states it has been officially denied.
According to Bassi, a police officer from the northern part of the country told me that their music is routed from Senegal, their closest neighbor, which encloses its inland frontiers completely. It blends popular Jamaican music and dance with sabar, the Wolof, and Serer people's traditional drumming and dance music. Many commercial drivers listen to them on a radio station as they safely take you to your destination.
The official language in the Gambia is English; others include Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Serer, Krio, Jola, and other vernaculars. Amazingly, Mandinka is the largest ethnic group in the Gambia, but Wolof is the second spoken language; many transactions are carried out in Wolof, even though English is the official language.
Like other West African countries, the Gambia has a tropical climate. At first, a hot and rainy season usually lasted from June until November, then cooler temperatures until May. But due to global warming, everything has changed. Even though usually, the dry season lasts longer than the rainy season, the gap has further increased. One can count the number of days of rainfall. And the increased temperature is also noted; the extreme sweat on faces quickly identifies foreigners. According to science, this is because animals or living organisms can adapt to their environment; therefore, Gambians are adapted and do not sweat excessively like foreigners. From personal observation, the temperature in the Gambia is increasing gradually; my bathing time has grown from two to three or even four at times.
From personal observation, about four (4) out of ten (10) Gambian males smoke. You can see them on every corner and front view smoking, boiling Chinese green tea, playing jay music, and keeping their hair like Jamaican or Rastafari. Many smokers see and refer to the Gambia as Jamaica in Africa. With that said, there is probably no law or no law enforcement, if there is any, on public smoking; cigarette has been lit in my face several times in the Serekunda market, the biggest market so far in the Gambia, with no apology. In addition to my observation that four out of ten male smokes, a colleague from Nigeria called Tochi had a business deal with a single mother selling orange by the roadside, fifty meters from my hostel. He asked her if he wanted to invest in her business or if she should come out with a business plan; she told him that cigarette was the best way forward, and immediately, he handed her some money to start. She was paying him about $50 from the profit every month, getting her share, and while the principal was untouched.
The Gambia is considered one of the peaceful countries on the west coast of Africa, which is why my school (the American International University West Africa) chose to have a branch there. In addition, cars are parked alongside roads with little or no security watch and no riot. I have forgotten my phone several times in a shop, and it was returned to me; honestly, this is quite impossible in my home country, Liberia. Nevertheless, there is still a need to be careful when taking a bus or moving around the city. Perhaps, this is one of the many reasons why tourists visit the Gambia often and find spouses.
Finally, schooling in this part of Africa, far from home, is fascinating as I understood the general culture of the people of Gambia. Therefore, you are encouraged to come and explore like me or even more.