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Through the eyes of Mam Jarra 6/12

My Magazine 2022/12
10 min
Author: Elsemiek Franken
‘Through the eyes of Mam Jarra’ tells you more about living and working in The Gambia as a 24-years old Dutch girl. What do I experience, what is living in The Gambia like, the culture difference, funny inside facts and more.’

Have you ever been to a soccer match? I have been to a couple as a young girl. Together with my family, we went to the stadium to watch soccer matches. I enjoyed watching the game, but more so, I enjoyed the atmosphere in the stadium. Everybody was wearing their team's T-shirt, loudly singing their team's song. We all know, soccer fans or not, that while true competitors are playing against each other, the audience in the stadium is on fire.

Imagine that you are in the stadium looking for your seat number. You were the lucky one to get a ticket for the most important game of the national league. You are a real soccer fan. Your team plays against its biggest competitor. When you finally find your seat, you really hope that the management of the stadium made a mistake. Due to a mistake in the system, you are sitting on the other side of the stadium: between your competitors' fans. Of course, you tried to change your ticket. The management told you that there is no chance for you to sit on your team's fan side of the stadium. As a real fan, you want to see the match with your own eyes. (and being Dutch: You have paid for your ticket, that means that you must use it!) How will you behave when your team or when their team scores a goal? What will you scream? Maybe more important: When will you scream? Of course, the people who you sit next to know that you aren't one of them. You look different, talk with an accent, act differently and show different preferences. If you are lucky, they understand your situation and let you be. If not, they will make funny jokes or tease you. More importantly, how will you feel? You are alone, without the people whom you normally resonate with. We humans (most of us) prefer to be around people we feel similar to: who speak the same language or accent, have the same culture, preferences or hobbies. And for the soccer match: WHO SUPPORT THE SAME TEAM! 

Living in The Gambia can sometimes make me feel as being on the other fan side in the stadium during an important match. Gambians are naturally warm people; they will welcome you into their lives and houses. I enjoy living in The Gambia and am so happy that they make me feel welcome here. But sometimes, I really feel that I am really different. It isn't the skin colour and language that differentiate us but more the difference in culture, lifestyle and general way of thinking and working. It's not that they generally make me feel that I am not one of them. Of course, children call me toubab (“Toubab” is a Central and West African name for a person of European descent (“whites”) ), fruit sellers will see me as a tourist and the chance that people ask for money or overcharge me while buying something will be bigger. Don't get me wrong; I am so blessed to have the chance as a young girl to live here in The Gambia. If you ever have that chance, take it! It will positively change your life forever. Yet, after roughly three years of living in The Gambia, I still need to adapt, adjust, understand, forgive and move on every day. I get (for me) strange questions, end up in (for me) unpleasant situations and get confronted with different ways of living and thinking. It can be challenging some days, but it brings me a lot of life lessons and happiness.

  • While calling the biggest telco network company in The Gambia, the call centre isn't the way I am (or was…) used to. You may think that the biggest companies will train their staff to be polite on the phone and help their customers towards their satisfaction. The lady that picked up my call talks to a couple of her co-workers while talking to me and is making a lot of background noise. It sounds like she is attending one of the biggest soccer games. I tried to explain to her that my connection isn't working (again). She doesn't bother to walk to a quiet area for us to have a proper talk. While I try to spell my name, she starts eating. I can hear that she is enjoying a sandwich. Oh no… Just before she might be able to help me, the connection cuts again… Pffff I will try again tomorrow. The lady on the other side of the line will not call me back.
  • My parents always told me: ‘Make sure you can take care of yourself’. They always wanted me to be independent and follow my dreams. I am so used to working hard to achieve my dreams and to taking care of my own expenses. This didn’t change since I live here. In The Netherlands, I never faced the difference between man and woman in the office or during meetings. While trying to establish a solid company here, I can run into unpleasant situations as an independent woman. For example: Some businessmen will look down on you because I am a woman. They will not shake my hand, or they will not pay attention to my proposal. I already learned that I need to bring a man with me to the office for an important business meeting. This has caused a lot of resistance (within me) in the beginning, but now I try to enjoy the company. I ask him to drive me, and after the meeting, we drink a cup of coffee together.
  • The 50/50 culture of The Netherlands: Husband and wife take care of the house chores together. Yes, of course, I cook, clean the house and make sure the wash is done weekly. That doesn't mean that my husband can't do anything. He doesn't have a problem with my 50/50 culture. He stays a man (the ladies know what I mean ). But he will do his part of the house chores. When people come to visit us, especially the elderly Gambian men, they are so surprised and sometimes a bit offended that I don't cook lunch every day and that they see my man doing the dishes. I don't think that they are judging me or my husband for doing what we are doing. It’s just that they aren’t used to our way of living together. They will ask me: Where is the lunch? You are the lady of the compound here. I reply: Not today, I am working! Let me tell you a secret: on Sunday everybody is welcome for food because I do love cooking!
  • In the culture I was raised, nobody will ask you questions about pregnancy. Yes, maybe your best friends or parents will ask out of curiosity. Here people will tell you: You are already together for many years: where are the babies or is it not time for you to get pregnant. Some ladies here who know me a little more personally will ask me concerned if I am healthy enough to be able to have children. Couples who came together later than me and my husband are already pregnant with their second child. I know that in The Gambia, it is normal to get married at a young age and soon after that, children will come. The questions about pregnancy really put pressure on me. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Because when will I be ready to be a mom? And do you need to be ready? I have never thought much about being a mom. I remember in high school that a couple of my friends really wanted to become a mom. They could talk about it for hours. That wasn’t the case for me. Of course, eventually, I would love to be a mom. I would love to create a happy family and raise our children into independent dream chasers and make a lot of memories together. But I do want to believe that things and time have to be right. That chasing my own dreams will not hurt our children, and I will really have time for them.
  • In The Gambia, there is always noise. There are always people around you. Always someone to talk to or to laugh with. One of the reasons why I really love to live here is because of this community style of living. But sometimes, this can become overwhelming for me. I want to scream: ‘shut your mouth I am trying to concentrate’. But I know I can’t say that. I try to go to another side of the room to work in peace, but there will always be something that makes noise or needs my attention. My friend invited me to a hotel to stay with her for a couple of days. The hotel had nice facilities. It was nice to be able to take a hot shower without first boiling water on the stove to later use a bucket to pour it over your body. But the thing I enjoyed the most was the dark and quiet hotel room. I could work or write for hours without someone walking in, making noise or coming to have a talk with me. I worked for hours that felt like minutes. Wow, I never knew before living in The Gambia that I could appreciate being totally alone in quiet and peaceful places so much. But hell, yes, I really need that more.
  • The waiting, waiting and waiting. Because things and people here take their time. Breathe in and out…

The soccer game continues with you sitting on the other side of the stadium. You always need to get back to yourself and think: ‘What they are saying or doing, is that what I want or should do?’ You will make friends, you will learn, laugh and feel happiness. Some will become your family and best friends. And yes, some will mistreat you and make fun of you. I always try to have an open mindset. I believe that you can learn from every human being on this planet. You learn if someone mistreats, underestimates or judges you. You learn from people who want to teach you, people who give you their advice and share with you their life stories and life lessons. You learn from the bad and the good people and situations.
Yes, I do face (for me) difficult situations and questions while living here in The Gambia. But this isn’t all of the time and another important thing is that I have decided to focus on what is good and who brings happiness into my life. As my grandmom says: ‘Life is too short to focus on things that make you sad; just smile and be happy’. It all comes back to you to choose what you want to focus on, what you believe is good or bad and what you want to believe is the truth for you. Obviously, you should always pay respect to cultural and personal differences while interacting with others, especially while living in a foreign country.

Have you ever had the dream to come and live in The Gambia or any other foreign country? Please go for it!! It will change you, make you stronger and give you many many beautiful memories! I wish to thank all the beautiful warm, happy people in The Gambia for making me feel so welcome in their beautiful country!


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 24-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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