What a surprise, an invitation to The Republic of The Gambia, West Africa! It was extended from President Yahya Abdulaziz Jemus Junkung Jemmah, himself. I was the only female among our USA group from FSJ and Associates.
We were asked to assist President Yahya in the production of their February Independence Day celebrations, develop an international recording studio, and create an entertainment educational course for the university students in Banjul. Additionally, Vice President Isatul Njie-Saide requested us to aid in the Gambian Women’s Empowerment program.
Being a motivational speaker and dedicated charity advocate, I was elated! After intense preparation and numerous shots, I was off on my long journey. A day and a half later, I was exhausted when I arrived in Banjul, still gagging from the stench of the sheepherders and the pesticide fumigation in Dakar, Senegal.
Gambia is located on the West Coast of Africa near the Equator. It surrounds a delta on the desert’s edge. I was greeted by roaming goats and Ebu, my chauffeur/bodyguard. I was not allowed in public without him. I quickly understood why.
Besides being election year and threats by the Opposition Party, the natives would grab my blonde hair and fair-skinned arms, and then want to shake my hand. Their yellowish eyes told their stories of poverty and sickness. I kept telling myself, “Use lots of sanitizer!” Disease runs rampant there – Aids, Hepatitis, Malaria, Meningitis, West Nile, Bird Flu, etc.
At ten dollars (US) for bottled water, I rationed it throughout the day, saving drops for brushing my teeth before bed. That was okay, because restrooms were virtually non-existent. If I found one, there would be no toilet paper and had rancid sewage on the floor. Besides water, my diet consisted of grapefruit, pineapple, pastries, meatless pizza, and moldy cheese.
Gambians view Americans as wealthy, because the average laborer makes only one dollar (US) per day, works six days a week, and is paid once a month. Even though women were given the right to vote two years ago, most are not allowed to work outside their family commune. Therefore, the poverty stricken women and children swarm the tourists begging feverishly.
Muslims account for 95% of the population. A Muslim man may marry four wives, each having five children on average. With twenty-five hungry mouths to feed, most of their money is spent on rice and beans. Due to malnutrition, it is common to see children with bloated bellies and bony arms and legs.
By law when a woman marries, she is required to convert to her husband’s religion; therefore, Muslim men will purposely seek out Christian women. Additionally, Muslim schools offer free education verses public schools with expensive fees. This creates a religious stronghold on the children from youth.
Another method of ultimate control is through the Witch Doctor’s voodoo. Wives are threatened with a death hex if they are disobedient or leave their husbands. In reality, it is not the hex that will cause their demise; it is malnutrition, disease, the lack of education and no income.
Even though the Gambian women live in a male dominated society, their spirits search for truth and dignity. During Christian church services, the Muslim women often spy over the back walls outside while listening to the sermon on the loud speakers. They are camouflaged in multiple layers of cloth to conceal their identity.
I was honored to be a guest at the presidential dinner celebrations and excited to mingle with other world leaders, but my highlight was inspiring the Banjul students to live fulfilling lives and to keep hope. The young ladies were so appreciative; they gave me a set of scarves.
African life is difficult! Their everyday challenges are to find the basics – food, clothing and shelter. The key to empowerment is to become less in order to become more. Empowerment comes in the least expected moment, causing one to courageously rise above the circumstances that surround them.
I will always remember the kinder spirits of the Gambian people; they are the most gracious I have ever known. I am not sure if I would willingly volunteer for another tour of duty in Africa; but if asked, I probably would go again.