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How to fit into the Gambian culture

My Magazine 2022/08
4 min
When arriving at a new travel destination, what can happen is often a cultural shock. And many times, certain things might seem unlogical, strange, or even rude if you don't know the place's tradition, culture, and behaviours. It also goes the other way around, as every nation has its own customs. A responsible tourist should respect the local way of life, customs, traditions and religion. You are a guest in the country, which will, however, welcome you with open arms. But in some places, tradition is still strong, so it is never wrong to observe society's values and moral principles and get to know the culture better. One of the most precious things when travelling is getting an insight into the unknown culture. Here are some things that will make you understand the Gambian way of life better.

Religion

Almost 85% of the population is of the Muslim religion, most of which are Sunni. About 10% are Christian, and 5% are other religions. However, The Gambia is very tolerable of other religions, and people live in perfect harmony, respecting each other's beliefs and holidays; even celebrating together.

Greeting

We highly recommend that you learn some basic phrases in the Wolof language (greetings, how to say thank you, etc.). It is customary to greet people before starting a conversation and to greet groups when passing. The most common greeting is a phrase used in the Muslim religion, “As Salamu Aleikum”, meaning “peace be with you”. Gambians attach great importance to traditional greetings. Avoid direct questions and take some time to greet and question: “How are you?”, “How is your day?”, “How is the family?”. Gambians are incredibly courteous, so don't be afraid to accept their hospitality.

Respect for the elders

Shaking hands with the opposite sex, especially elders, is not very common. But don't be surprised if you will be offered to shake hands – mostly they do it with visitors and strangers. Although looking straight into the eyes in many cultures is a sign of openness and honesty, in The Gambia, you may meet people who will show you respect and gratitude by pointing their looks to the ground. When having a conversation, try not to use bad words and speak softly; this is another sign of respect to the elders.

Dress Code

Wearing a swimsuit, bikini, or top outside beaches and hotel areas is considered inappropriate. Because of the hot climate and mosquitos, the best choice is light cotton clothing. Long, lightweight clothes will protect you from sunburn and mosquito bites as well as follow the Gambian dress code. When talking about how much clothing should cover, consider wearing T-shirts and shorts or skirts covering the knees.

Food Sharing

When visiting local families, they may offer you food to share with family members. A genuine way of eating and sharing food on a shared plate is a reflection of the common way of life in The Gambia. Even if you're not hungry, it's polite to accept the little food they offer you. Before eating, try to wash your hands respectfully. Try not to forget to eat with your right hand, as the left hand is considered unclean in the Muslim religion. When eating from one plate, each should take food from their side of the plate and never return it to the plate once held with the hand. The host will make sure the tastiest parts are evenly distributed. You can always ask the host for a spoon. It's nice to explain that you're not used to eating rice with your hands. It is customary to leave the last pieces to the children.

Alcohol

Alcohol is available in tourist-developed areas and also in some parts up the country. The Gambia is a Muslim country. While a beer or two is acceptable, drunkenness is not. When visiting a local family or staying with them, it is considered unpolite to ask for alcohol or bring it into their homes. It is also not polite to offer alcohol to Muslims.

Smoking

Smoking is prohibited in public places and indoors. If you are a smoker, in some places, people will stare at you a little. Try to limit smoking to bars, restaurants or accommodation complexes.

Photography

It is good to always ask permission before taking a photo, especially in public places such as a market, even though they might turn you down or ask you to pay for it. Try to avoid photographing children, security controls, mosque interiors or people praying. It is prohibited to take photos of governmental services (military facilities, airports, embassies, bridges, etc.). If you are caught, your camera may be confiscated or taken to a nearby police station without explanation. 

LGBT +

Although the new government in The Gambia has promised not to prosecute same-sex couples, legislation that treats same-sex orientation as a crime has not yet been repealed. Also, intolerance towards the LGBT + community can be felt in The Gambia due to religious beliefs.

Taboo topics

There are still some topics that locals prefer not to discuss. These include female genital mutilation, politics, tribal politics, homosexuality, criticism of their religion, and some cultural practices such as polygamy. Although you may not share the same beliefs, please respect them and try not to judge. It is also good to avoid various racist jokes and jokes about sex.

Showing affection in public

Holding hands with a loved one is still acceptable, but kissing in public is not.

Personal Space

Personal space varies from culture to culture and is much smaller in Africa than in the western world. This is most noticeable on public transport, in shops and offices. Sometimes you cannot expect people to wait in line and wait patiently for their turn.

Care for environment

Although environmental rules are mostly not being followed in The Gambia, try to act diligently and stay away from throwing rubbish on the ground. Store it in a backpack or bag and put them in the trash when you return to your accommodation, as it is very likely that you will not find a trash can beforehand.

Photo Credits: Milan Njenjić

 

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