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Lana: Travel as a Volunteer Experience

My Magazine 2022/07
10 min
Author: Lana Skorohod
One year ago, I finished my exams at the university and took one year off from my studies. I got a job at the museum in Ljubljana and was trying hard to pass all the training sessions I had to undergo. I was very happy to get the job since I studied cultural studies, and I finally managed to embark on my journey toward a professional career in culture. One day I wish to have my own place where diverse cultural production can take place. All this time and even long before, I was planning to travel to Africa – the continent of my longings. This plan was there since I knew my name, and I was always telling dubious people it was not just a wish – it was a plan, and I would make it come true when the time was right.

So finally, the time was right. With the job at the museum, I knew I could spare enough money to plan the trip. But the problem was I could not decide which tour provider to trust. There are so many options, but at the same time, so few. I made numerous phone calls and video chats just to realise a lot of businesses went down because of the corona epidemic, and others just did not feel right. I was unsure whether I should just pay more and go on a tour with a travel agency or go for a longer time and work as a volunteer.

You know when deciding on something, the first option is usually the best, but you still spend so much more time searching because you think you can find something better and more suitable? This happens to me a lot, especially with buying clothes. And it also happened this time. From the very beginning of planning, I knew about Travel as a Volunteer Project (by Volunteer Trails). Everybody knows about it. I asked a lot of people for advice about travelling to Africa, and a large majority will say they know about this one volunteer organisation. So, I finally said, let's just take this option. It was the most comfortable one since you can communicate your arrival in the Slovenian language and get scholarship funds under certain circumstances.


I communicated those circumstances with my university, applied, and my request got approved – but since I was a little late with it, I will get the funds as a refund. Connecting the trip to my studies was an amazing idea. Travel as a Volunteer (Volunteer Trails) staff made a great effort to arrange a study visit most suitable for my field. My internship was organised by The Institute of Travel and Tourism of The Gambia (ITTOG). It was planned for the National Center for Arts and Culture (NCAC) in Banjul, part of which is also a National museum of The Gambia. The work I did there usually took place at the office and at numerous sites and monuments that are part of the NCAC. I was so happy being able to travel to my favourite destination, work in my favourite field and have a meaningful working and personal experience.

I don't want to use many superlatives to describe this journey because this is not a promotional article. For me, to best transfer the feelings about this journey, it is important to keep it natural and realistic. It was about the people and the feelings. I don't want to talk about the pros and cons of The Gambia, the attractions and the products. A lot of people here are already working hard to do so, and please, don't hesitate to read about it. My Gambia team is working to bring as much information about the destination to its readers as possible, and the articles in this magazine can be of great use to any traveller. I am not even close to all the access and information they have in this country, so please turn to other articles to learn about any topic of your interest. Let me just conclude this statement by pointing out that The Gambia is also a great opportunity for business, especially for a sustainable and culturally embracing one.

With tourism being the main source of income for the Gambians, many are looking for their way into it. More and more Gambians are starting to realise that utopian Europe is nothing but a myth anymore, and The Gambia is the future. This is why I will not tell you to feel sorry about the living situation in a poor African country – we should feel sorry for ourselves, being robbed of our humanity. You can make a living in The Gambia, and hopefully, soon, this living will be elevated in quality and sustainability for everybody. Because we still have to be real – surviving on forty euros per month or less is a reality for most of the Gambians. That is why many search for help, and many want to help; volunteering and travelling are about helping to develop the country through developing the businesses, which then can offer workplaces and investments. The inequalities in the world are happening on the level of a system, and you can not change the system if you do not start smart. Educate yourself, start from yourself, knowing yourself and knowing the world. I came into The Gambia for myself; I came for the experience. I came to work, learn and have a good time. And I can tell you what I did, what I learned and how much fun I had - and how you can have it too. 

The thing is, you have to be open-minded. I am not a very extroverted person; I always found it hard to introduce myself to strangers and to be at the centre of attention. Spoiler: you will always be at the centre of attention here. You may as well even be pushed into the middle of a circle to dance in front of complete strangers drumming aggressively on an empty water container. People will stop you on the streets; people will want to talk to you. Anywhere there is a camera, this camera will be pointed at you. You will be pushed out of your comfort zone and get your limits tested, your character tested. Because it is all about the character – Gambians appreciate nothing more than a good character. Everybody appreciates a good character: it is the most you can offer in any situation, on any job interview, in any relationship. There are no inferior characters; there are just different ones. Good character differentiates from bad one only in the sense that it is genuine. And people will know when you are not being genuine. I had the amazing opportunity to participate in numerous workshops and staff training during my work at NCAC. One time the word was about the qualities of a good tour guide, and everybody agreed that character is the most important asset the guide can offer. You have to take time to talk to people, to ask them about their mood, their day, and their family. There is nothing in this world that is more important than the family. And if you get introduced to the family, food will always be offered to you.

Anywhere you go, if somebody is eating, they will offer it. Food is always shared because you never know when you will not be able to afford it. Appreciate it. Sit down, and try local food when you have the opportunity. But be careful – always mind your hygiene. Sometimes eating accessories will not be provided; sometimes, you will have to use somebody else's spoon, cup, or plate. If you can, bring yours. While it is a good experience, it can also be dangerous as you can get an infection. When moving around, trust the public transport, even though it will be weird to randomly enter cars at the beginning, as it is everything we were always taught not to do. But it is much cheaper, and you have the opportunity to go almost anywhere.

On the other hand, be cautious of the traffic. Car accidents are not rare, so always mind your way. Staying in Kerr Serign and working in Banjul, I used the transport quite a lot, and it always got me to my destination. But my expectations were never big – not in a negative sense. But you have to relax. It may take time to get somewhere – but it's okay. Anything can wait. People say to me: “Free your mind, it's okay.” And I did; I sipped local ginger juice on the beach, dived into the wild Atlantic ocean, danced to reggae music around a fire, and I took time, time to talk and feel.

Time to get to know my coworkers in Banjul at least a little, and I was never sorry – every time, they inspired me with their skills and kindness! I played with the kids and talked to them, and my heart grew a little bigger every time. I received unlimited love and gifts in the form of prayers, positive words and hospitality from random people I met on the market, at events, at work or on the street. Please, read the article about the so-called bumpsters before coming to The Gambia. I will not go into explaining who bumpsters are; I will just say, please, give respect. Every person deserves respect, and they always appreciate it. When people call you out because they want something from you – talk to them. Tell them how you feel; always set your boundaries. But don't be rude. At the end of the day, you are the visitor, and all of the Gambians are the hosts; you came to them. Don't diminish them. Of course, there are better and worse ways to go about tourists, and you will get all kinds of treatments, but with education and development, attitudes will eventually change. Try to be part of the change, not part of the problem. 

Working with the NCAC allowed me to have access to many attractions and even to be guided through some of them, such as Fort Bullen, where the Unesco world heritage sites tour guide training took place. I am so lucky I could meet all of the guides from different locations and communities and hear their perspectives on the cultural heritage sites they are the guardians of. We also went to Kunta Kinteh island with a World Bank consultant, who was incredibly informative with her advice about the place. And of course, I had a very in-depth multiple-day tour of the National Museum by the museum's wonderful and committed guide with the kindest eyes that caught my attention from the first day. It was also a pleasure participating in an anthropology workshop with friendly professors from Canary island. All this teamwork and commitment gave me a lot of hope for Gambia's culture management. All of the staff were always friendly and chatty, but special thanks go to my dear coworkers who kindly shared their office with me. One of them was appointed to be my mentor, and he was there for me from the first day. I could call him any time, any day, and he would go out of his way to make me feel comfortable. Always. His work is primarily in conservation, and that is exactly the area that desperately needs fresh approaches. With him being as competent as he is, I am confident changes are coming, and artefacts will be protected as they should. The same goes for the Research and Documentation office – progress is made with the digitalisation of the archive, and the team will soon be embarking on the field for further research. 

With all that being said, I am very optimistic about this beautiful country's future and forever grateful for big lessons about fighting anxiety and loneliness with genuine relationships, honesty, humbleness and generosity. I remember the times stepping out of my room was a source of anxiety, but in The Gambia, I was grateful for every step, every second. And especially for people who made me feel welcome and accepted. I am already looking forward to meeting them again. 

Photo Credits: Lana's Personal Archive

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Lana Skorohod
Student of Cultural Studies
I am a cultural studies student. My interests are creating and curating art, cultural management and exploring cultural diversity. While travelling to The Gambia, I learned about these topics at The National Centre for Arts and Culture in Banjul and many other locations.

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