The “first times” in The Gambia were always quite eventful. For example, my first time crossing the highway while walking to the beach, my first time riding a taxi and a bus, my first time bargaining on the craft market, my first time leading a workshop in school, etc. Everything was different than at home, and at the beginning, I found many of those things a little bit chaotic, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it if you just embrace it. Also, a huge credit for the smooth transition from our way of living to the Gambian one goes to an amazing team at Volunteer Trails. If I went on a trip like that alone, I would have to face all of the things listed above on my own, but choosing their organization for volunteer work didn’t only offer me a place of work but also a very much welcomed help with those things and the support that you need while travelling to a foreign country (or in my case a whole different continent) for the first time.
Before I went to The Gambia, many people asked me why I am volunteering so far away from home, thinking that because of work, I won’t have the time to explore the country I’m in anyway.
Firstly, the thing is, a lot of “exploring” can be done in school, because exploring the country isn’t always just walking around, visiting famous sites or museums etc. For me, a big part is also getting to know the society you live in, which I could do by observing the kids, talking to them, talking to the local teachers and, of course, all the other nice people I met along the way. Secondly, because working hours are until a little after noon from Monday to Friday, you have almost all afternoon and the weekends to do whatever your heart desires. And, of course, I took every opportunity to explore the country, which I did with the help of the My Gambia organization.
They offer many different trips you can go to, workshops you can take part in and other activities you can try. That’s how I got to see a lot of different places, villages, and famous sites in different parts of The Gambia (and even Senegal), tried a lot of different foods, saw animals that until then I only saw in the pictures or maybe in the zoo, met a lot of different people that were without exception always so open and incredibly nice, learned a lot about the Gambian culture, tried doing some things that made me feel like a local and so on. You get the idea, right? In three weeks, there were far too many adventures to describe them all, but every single one of them was memorable, and not even one did disappoint. How many people can say that they’ve pet a crocodile, went kayaking on river Gambia or even swam in it, learned to drum the basic Gambian beats on djembe with the locals, had African hairdressers braid their hair into proper African braids, went to safari and saw a group of old and young giraffes and zebras, fed the monkeys that climb all over you, watched the sunset with their feet dipped in the Atlantic ocean etc.?
But even though I loved all the adventures I just mentioned, the main reason I went to The Gambia was to do something good, to help the kids there, to maybe make their lives just a little bit better. Not only by getting them the donations I raised that were meant to finance free meals during summer camp but also by giving them a little piece of myself, the love and attention every kid deserves. Never in a million years have I imagined that I would get back a lot more than I could ever give them. Not only from the kids but from other Gambian people as well because every single person you meet shows you that The Gambia is known as the Smiling Coast of Africa for a reason.
The whole volunteering experience taught me a lot, including the fact that people around the world often have the wrong perception of people in Africa. In a materialistic sense, African people may not have a lot of wealth, but as much as I could see in The Gambia, they are enriched in a different way, the one that is, in my opinion at least, way more important – with positive thinking, warm relationship and a very easy-going way of living. In The Gambia, it’s not hard to fit in, to feel like this is exactly where you belong, and I think that is why it started to feel like a second home to me so quickly. After only three weeks, I’ve gotten so used to life there, to the kids I was working with, to other people that I was surrounded by that it was incredibly hard to say goodbye. And I promised myself that it wasn’t a goodbye because I would, without a doubt, come back one day.
Gambia definitely has a special place in my heart; it left a big imprint on me, and I will forever cherish the memories I made there. And even though the African braids that I was wearing are gone, and I will probably eventually fall back into the everyday routine I was used to before my trip, I hope that at least some of the Gambian values will stay with me forever because the fact that the saying “lama lama” (“it’s nice to be nice”) is one of the expressions you hear in the Gambia practically every day, is saying a lot about them.