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Through the eyes of Mam Jarra 7/12

My Magazine 2023/01
7 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.’

While looking for a wedding dress for the fiancé of my dad in The Netherlands, I was thinking about what I wanted to write about this month. I left The Gambia a week ago for a family visit in The Netherlands. After six months without seeing my family, I am so happy to be back in The Netherlands. Travelling is still not how it used to be. That makes that my family does not travel to me in The Gambia. While looking through all the wedding dresses, the one more beautiful than the other, I tried to reflect on the last couple of weeks in The Gambia.

For our own foundation Santo Gambia Foundation, I travelled to the north bank of The Gambia. This trip was just a week before I left for The Netherlands. The destination was a small village called Kaur, nearby Farrefenni, a journey of 4,5 hours by car from the tourist coast. Luckily, I have a strong car and drove by myself to the village. On the road, there is always something to see, be amazed about or laugh about. My father had already advised me to bring a wholesale packet of Ataya tea with me.

That worked really well at the police stops. It was a couple of days before the start of Ramadan, and after seeing the Ataya tea, the policemen started smiling and talking to me immediately. Without any problems and many different conversations, I reached my destination deep inside the north bank. On the way back home after my visit, the policemen all recognized me and smiled while they let me drive away without checking.

It wasn't my first visit to the village of Kaur. My father fell in love with the village a couple of years ago. He decided he wanted to help the village and, more importantly, the people who lived in the village of Kaur. This is how Santo Gambia Foundation came to life. The mission of the Santo Gambia Foundation is to empower people: to give them a rod and let them catch their own fish. A sizable garden to grow their own vegetables and fruits is one of Santo's first projects. A couple of times, I came with my dad to look for the right plot of land, to talk to the Alkalo and enjoy the seemingly easy life in the village. Together with the local people, we helped them dig a traditional water well. When the ladies started the garden, the animals ate all the vegetables as we didn't fence the garden. That was our first project a year or two ago. 

 

They fenced the garden with a typical brick wall (they make the bricks themselves from cement); now. Now the animals couldn't eat the vegetables anymore, but the vegetables didn't grow really well. Not enough water was the problem. Water is almost always a problem in The Gambia (too little, too much, too expensive, too…). The water well was dry, and there was no water anywhere close to the garden. We decided that it was time for a modern borehole on solar. I can tell you that drilling a borehole was like Chinese to me in the beginning. After reading a lot about the system, I understood it. But finding the right constructor took me a little longer. I have been building and renovating a lot in the last few years in The Gambia. I can really find my way on the famous Jimpex road (a street with only building shops), and the sellers recognize me (or like to recognize me), and they scream: ‘Ms. Constructor, what are you fixing today?’. Drilling a borehole was something new for me. Luckily, I met different people who advised me and helped me and luckily, I found a contractor who won my trust.

I remember, as a young girl, that our school raised money for a water project in India. I couldn't believe that people in some parts of the world didn't have access to water as I had. After travelling to different parts of the world and living in The Gambia for the last three years, I have seen, sadly enough, a lot of different living conditions without direct access to water. Now sometimes, while taking a shower with soap in my hair, the water just stops coming. No more water to take the soap out of my hair. You get used to it; you just always make sure that different buckets full of water are in the bathroom. While sitting under a tree in the village of Kaur, I realized that soap in my hair without water is still a silly luxury problem. I watched the younger girls carrying the jerry cans full of water to their moms, who were washing by hand or who were cooking on wood. 

Life in the village is totally different from my life in Kombo (a tourist area around the ocean). I am so grateful that I can help these people with access to water, banana boxes with clothes (with help from the sponsors of ‘Geef om Gambia’) and to learn the young ones a couple of English words. Most grateful I am for what they taught me during my last stay in the village.

After a day in the village, going from one side of the village to visit people to the other side to check on the garden and the borehole drilling, I was tired. The sun just went down, and I was drinking a coffee while listening to people talking and laughing in Mandinka. I speak a bit of Wolof, but Mandinka is still a mystery. Further in the village, I heard all of a sudden people screaming and singing. Slowly, someone was playing the drum; not much longer, the drumming and singing got more extreme. Before I could ask someone where the noise was coming from, I saw people from the compound gathering. Not more than a couple of minutes before everybody was busy with their daily chores. Now everybody looked really excited.

One of the younger girls told me to come with them. With the whole compound, we walked towards the sounds of drumming and singing. Not far from the compound, the whole village had gathered to dance to the sounds of the drums. The younger girl explained to me that the whole village had put money together to have this evening's entertainment. The street was transformed into their local dance club, and all the people of the village were dancing around the drummers. I was still a bit surprised. I thought about what would happen in my city in The Netherlands if drummers started playing in the middle of the street on a normal weekday evening. I think more people would call the police than really enjoy the moment. I tried to explain this to the younger girl next to me. The girls reacted: ‘Don't talk, just dance and enjoy!’ First, I didn't want to dance; I was shy. A moment later, I saw the grandmom of the family I stayed with dancing to the sounds of the drums, and I couldn't resist anymore. We danced for an hour or more together. In that moment, we didn't really watch the time and just enjoyed life.

It was a miracle moment to see the joy of the women when they saw that the water came out of the solar-powered water tap with a lot of pressure. Nevertheless, I think for me the random dancing in the middle of the street was one of the most miraculous moments in my life I have ever experienced. I was taught by this experience that you don't need to wait for a big event to happen, but that you just (when you need it or randomly) have to put on the music and dance like nobody is watching. This miracle moment clicked in my mind again while looking through all the wedding dresses. It is a really big thing for me that my dad finally found someone he wants to spend the rest of his life with. That he wants to say yes, and that they want to do that surrounded by all the people they love. Their wedding will be a remarkable event. Oh yes, we will enjoy and dance. My present to them will be the lesson the little girl has taught me in the village: Just dance and enjoy! To my dad, his soon-to-be wife and all of you who want to read my blogs: When you feel stressed, when you feel irritated or (not) happy, just put on your favourite music and dance like nobody is watching.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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