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Through the eyes of Mam Jarra 9/12

My Magazine 2023/04
4 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.’

After a couple of years living in The Gambia, I still don’t speak enough of one of their tribe languages. I can manage to go to the market and buy my vegetables without speaking English. I can greet people on the street or tell someone to get away from me if needed. I believe it isn’t enough if you really want to live with and between the Gambian people. I have been desperately looking for a teacher since the pandemic started. Due to the restrictions of the pandemic, I had more time than usual. It took a couple of mismatches to find a teacher that could explain to me, but also someone who could deal with my straightforwardness and way of learning. I don’t really have a language talent. Lucky for me, my teacher takes all the time and has a lot of the needed patience to get me ahead.

While living in another country, you will end up in a lot of situations where your frame of reference starts yelling at you like a fire just started inside your body, and it is mostly already too late to call an emergency line to extinguish the fire. In the last couple of years, I have gained many abroad experiences that have grown my frame of reference far beyond (for which I am grateful!). I grew up in a small village. Our village had more cows than registered inhabitants. It was a peaceful place to grow up, with lots of space to play outside and always neighbour children to play with. You would think that if you were raised there, you would stay living there and hand over this peaceful place to your children to grow up in.

Very soon in my life though, I knew that this place wasn’t (life) for me. Everybody behaves the same, dresses the same and speaks the same as others do and mostly about others. If you walk out of line, people will gossip about you, look strange at you or will not even talk to you anymore. I walked out of line, I am different. Our family wasn’t the same as other families in town. Our household looked a bit like the famous painting by Dutch painter Jan Steen. Everything was possible in our house. My mom was a single mom, she worked five days a week, and she didn’t dress and behave the same as other moms. My mom did everything she thought was right in her unique way. She didn’t care what the neighbours thought was good or right. She raised us to work hard, be independent and not give a damn about what others think of us. She was everything except standard.

My teacher at primary school called me a ‘Child of the world’. People who were role models to me, like, for example, my primary school teacher, always advised me to go out and explore the world. It wasn’t strange that I left the small village as soon as I could. My dad introduced me to Amsterdam. At the age of 17, I left the small village to live in Amsterdam. Yes yes… You can imagine what the neighbours were saying in the village: ‘What will happen to this young girl if she goes to the city of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? Amsterdam, by then, was certainly a culture shock to me. I was 17, and I thought I was ready to run the world. During the first weeks of living in Amsterdam, my frame of reference started yelling at me and giving me red flags. But soon, I really enjoyed living in Amsterdam… You can’t compare the little village and Amsterdam. And I assure you, you definitely can’t compare Amsterdam to The Gambia. After living in Amsterdam for five years, I left to go and live in The Gambia.

My transition from Amsterdam to The Gambia is now three years ago. The last three years have felt like a rollercoaster. I experienced all the peaks and valleys. I brought my biggest passion with me to The Gambia: Reading, studying and more reading. I love to read self-development books, biographies of people and business books. I am that person who reads a hundred of pages of research documents just to gain more knowledge. I guess I do enjoy reading all of these books and resources because it helps me to understand life (a little better…). It helps me to put my life and things that happen to me or others into perspective. It helps me to understand others, to open myself up to others and to question people instead of judging them. I think one of my favourite phrases I have ever read and ever written will be: ‘We live in the world our questions create – David Cooperrider’.

I don’t do things the same as anybody in this world. I don’t think the same, I do not pray or meditate the same. I don’t even walk the same as one of my parents. We human beings are all different. That makes us so beautiful! Living here in The Gambia made me realize that even more. I have a lot of questions about people and their behaviour because I do want to understand why and how people live the way they do. Research has shown that our frame of reference makes us the way we are. Partly what our parents teach us, which location we live in, which religion we follow etc. The most important thing I have learned from living in another country is to learn to ask questions. Don’t judge; just ask. Of course, you can’t just ask everybody every question. It is the art of learning when and to whom to ask the question. Don’t think you know the answer. Ask the question with full attention and really wait patiently for the answer. We shape our buildings we live in, and then they shape us: we live in our own frame of reference. The questions you ask open the doors and allow you to look outside the building you have created for yourself and learn from others. This also means learning to question yourself. Why do you do what you do?

Also, my first Wollof class brought up a lot of question marks. Especially with learning something new, you should ask a lot of questions. Learning a foreign language comes with cultural objectives as well. Because a lot of cultures are braided in the daily language people speak, to whom they speak and how they speak it. During my first lesson with my new Wollof teacher, he taught me how to say ‘first wife’ and ‘second wife’ in Wollof. That wasn’t the first vocabulary I was thinking of when I decided to start learning Wollof. In the frame of reference of my new teacher, these words are important roles and titles. It made me giggle a bit. The only right thing I could do in this situation is to ask the right question to the right person if I want to understand why this is one of the first words he taught me in the Wollof language. When I came home, I explained it to my man. He laughed and said: ‘Two of you, I don’t think I can handle that’. Let me take that as a compliment.

If you ever feel that you are in a situation or conversation that fires up your frame of reference. Ask questions to understand and patiently wait for the answer. Because the answer will learn you more than just judging the situation or conversation.

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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