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Through the eyes of Mam Jarra 2/12

My Magazine 2022/08
7 min
Author: Elsemiek Franken
Through the eyes of Mam Jarra tells you about living and working in The Gambia as a 23-years old Dutch girl. What do I experience? What living in The Gambia is like? The culture difference, funny inside facts and more.

When you smile, and the world smiles back at you

I hope you enjoyed reading my first blog last October entitled ‘Alone you are nothing’ about the difference between the individual focus in The Netherlands and the community focus in The Gambia. In my first blog, I challenged you to say hello to a total stranger and ask him: ‘How are you today?’ Did you do that? How did this person react? But even more important, how did you feel afterwards? It may not be a challenge for just one time. I believe that you must do this for 21 days in a row. After 21 days, it will become a habit. This new habit will enlighten you and many people on the planet. Want to promise me to try it for 21 days? You will create many smiles and happy feelings during this corona time of uncertainty.

I have lived and worked in The Gambia for over two years now. I opened the restaurant Three Little Birds in Cape Point at the beginning of 2020. I have worked in hospitality since a young age. My parents always told me: ‘If you want to buy something, something not related to school, go and work for it’. I remember wanting to buy my first pair of UGGS boots (at that time, they were a real fashion). I learned a lot during my years in hospitality, from how to walk with a tray full of drinks, how to deal with booking systems, how to treat guests and how to lead a team. I experienced working for a lot of bosses: some bosses who did not care about their employees and bosses who treated me like family. My dream was to combine all experiences and good memories and turn all bad experiences and memories into learning points. I believe all these experiences have contributed to my strength as a business owner in The Gambia. I brought my experiences along and really want to bring them to my own Three Little Birds team.  

‘The Three Little Birds team must feel like family: where you share, care and empower each other.’

Before I started, I talked with a couple of business owners in The Gambia. Most of them told me that my vision could not work in The Gambia; they warned me and told me I was too young. They said things like Gambians work only for money, they are always too late and as an infamous saying: Rather lazy than tired. I did not want to give in to what they said; I believed that I could do it in my own way because I did not want people to work for me only for money. I do not want to get angry with them for coming late and telling them that they are not committed. I believe in freedom and empowerment. The Three Little Birds team must feel like family: where you share, care and empower each other.

That is what happened; our team spent hours on team building, meetings and a lot of talking and laughing. It took me hours to explain my vision of working together. It brought a lot of confusion and fun. Oh Yeah: Before I got my Three Little Birds family, I had to talk, explain, repeat and sometimes also fire people. But more importantly, I spent hours empowering and motivating my team and myself. After a couple of weeks, I felt that our team made a lot of steps: They came up with new and innovative ideas, they helped each other to become better and even more importantly, they weren’t afraid to get fired when they asked me for advice or help.

‘Everybody who ever visited The Gambia knows that there is no way of leaving the Gambia without having an extra family member or two.’

The time and effort we put into creating a Three Little Birds family positively influenced our guests. Guests wanted to buy our Three Little Birds T-Shirts, and our team enjoyed all conversations and hugs we shared with our guests. Three Little Birds is the place to Come Together. I believe in making time for each other, coming together, spending time with your loved ones and meeting new people who will become your family. Everybody who ever visited The Gambia knows that there is no way of leaving the Gambia without having an extra family member or two.

I was living my dream…

‘From the best sales day since the opening to an empty restaurant in one week.’

In the middle of March, while the restaurant was full of guests, we got the message that all tourists must immediately return to their home county. The coronavirus was shaking up our whole world. People got sick, contaminated others and people died. The season stopped abruptly, and the ‘Come Together’ slogan changed at top speed to ‘Stay Safe now to Come Together again later’! From the best sales day since the opening to an empty restaurant in one week. That was the reality for our Three Little Birds team (and, of course, for many other businesses around the world). The Three Little Birds family packed up, and with my eyes full of tears, I closed the gate of the restaurant. The days after, I was in a haze. My hubby told me a couple of times: Every little thing is gonna be all right, like the song the restaurant is named after; Three Little Birds of Bob Marley! 

A couple of days later, one of my Three Little Birds sisters came by my house to spend some time together. She was smiling and talking about her plans and dreams. I asked her: ‘How can you smile right now?’ She looked at me in surprise: ‘Why are you asking me this?’ I could not understand why she was in such a happy vibe. She had just lost her job and had to feed a couple of younger ones at home, not knowing when the restaurant would open again. She replied: ‘Mam Jarra, smiling is the medicine to all daily problems. When you smile, your body fills with positivity, and life feels much better.’

I will never forget this conversation. From that day, my life has changed. I had a lot to arrange, dealing with the uncertainty, finding a new purpose and a new income until the restaurant could open up again. The restaurant is still closed. But still, I am smiling and enjoying every moment while waiting for the world to get better.

With a smile on our faces, our team went on the road to give out many food packets to many families at the beginning of the corona outbreak. The idea of combining a foundation with the restaurant was there from the start. I did a lot of small projects together with my father. This epidemic gave me the time to really think about what The Gambia needs and to talk with a lot of people. The name of this foundation, which was already existing in our minds for longer, is Santo Gambia Foundation. Santo means Up! We are brainstorming about our next small but measurable projects. Are you excited to know about our next project? Follow our next projects on Facebook at Santo Gambia Foundation

‘Stop thinking for a while and just smile. Fill your heart with true gratitude for the beautiful moments in your life and breath.’

While spending time finding new ways of sharing positive vibes and having a new look at the future, I learned so much. When life knocks you down, you feel like there is no way out; you feel like giving up. Stop thinking for a while and just smile. Fill your heart with true gratitude for the beautiful moments in your life and breath. After a minute or two, you will already feel a little bit better. I do agree with my sister:  Smiling is a medicine for a lot of daily problems. Do you know what another beautiful thing is about smiling? When you smile, and the world smiles back at you!


Elsemiek Franken
Owner of Three Little Birds Bar and Restaurant and Co-founder of Santo Gambia Foundation
I am Elsemiek Franken, also known as Mam Jarra, a 23-year-old girl building her dream life in The Gambia. You could call me a happy girl! You can wake me up for Benechin chicken, improving lives, learning new things and adventures. My friends call me spontaneous, loyal, brave, a goal-getter and a little too much of a talker. I always need to be busy, maybe you can call it restless. I used to think that The Gambia and its 40 degrees would slow me a bit down. Not yet, hopefully, I will learn to do nothing (at least sometimes;) and enjoy it. Do you have a tip? As a child, they always called me messy; I call it creative. The Gambia brings out the best of me, for example, my creative mind. I cannot describe how this happens. Come to The Gambia, stay a bit longer and experience it yourself! I enjoy making food for everybody who walks in. You’re welcome to join! Do you want to know something or ask me a question? Please contact me on

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