Through the eyes of Mam Jarra: GMT – Gambian Maybe Time

‘Through the eyes of Mam Jarra’ tells you more about living and working in The Gambia as a 23-years old Dutch girl. What do I experience, what is living in The Gambia like, The culture difference, funny inside facts and more.’

It is January 2021, the sun is shining and the birds are singing. I enjoy a baobab juice while waiting for my appointment. Since I am back, I concentrate more on other projects as my Three Little Birds restaurant is still closed. The first weeks back in The Gambia I really needed to adapt to the weather. I could only walk a couple of meters and I was already sweating heavily. I learned to take a siesta every day and was still tired when the sun went down. It took me a couple of weeks to really adjust to the weather again. I tried to be more patience and relaxed. A couple of detox weeks from the rush life in The Netherlands.

As a young girl born and raised in The Netherlands, I have been taught from a really young age to show up on time and to deliver (also on time!). If we had to be somewhere at 5 a’ clock my mom made sure that we were all ready and waiting at the door at least fifteen minutes before 5 a’ clock. When the school bell rang, you made sure you were already in the classroom or run to the classroom to be earlier than the teacher. If you are 5 minutes too late for your doctor’s appointment, someone will already have taken your spot. But you will still have to pay for the doctor’s time. When you meet up with a friend at a restaurant, you make sure you come on time. The secret rule is that when you are more than 5 minutes too late, you should call.

The Gambia taught me that there are also different clocks. Yes, we all know there are different time frames in the world. If it is early afternoon in Washington, it is early evening in Gambia. But Gambia has also developed their own clock. It is called: Gambia Maybe Time (GMT).  People will show up when they are ready. If you make an appointment, it is absolutely normal that the person shows up a couple of hours later or doesn’t show up at all. If you call them to ask, mostly they will tell you:

‘I am coming’

‘I am on my way’

‘Soon’

‘Sister believe me!!!! Really SOON!!!’

After living here for a longer time now, I started to understand the difference. If I ran out of my house in The Netherlands, mostly I jumped into my car or waited for the bus that always arrives perfectly on time. There are not many people who have (or take) the time for a talk with you. Most of them are on their phones or checking the last paperwork for their next appointment. The bus, tram, train and plane always arrive on time and everybody walks in without any troubles or delay. In The Gambia, mostly before I can leave my house I have a couple of smiling faces on my compound asking me in ten different ways how my morning is. Then while I walk out, I talk a bit with my neighbour and make my way to the highway. The sun is hot, I don’t want to sweat so I walk easy. While waiting for a local taxi, only taxies stop who want to give me a town trip. Town trip is a private taxi who brings you actually from A to B. I prefer to go by local taxi. A local taxi (looks like a regular taxi) stops only at fixed stops and the rest you walk. On the local taxi you meet new people and catch up a little of the language. It all takes much longer in comparison to my life in The Netherlands. I always run against time in The Gambia, because I still want to come on time. Even though I know that my appointment will most likely be too late.

While waiting for my appointment, I can get frustrated. I was taught as a young child that when you don’t come on time, you don’t respect the people and their time. It is important to be on time if you want to sustain the relationship with the person you are meeting.

I tried to explain this a couple of times to different of my closest Gambian contacts. Mostly I can feel that they don’t really understand my frustrations. I started observing people around me more. I will just share a couple of experiences from the last week with you. 

  1. I took taxi. Yes, a towntrip which is thus only for me to bring me to my appointment because I want to get there on time… The taxi driver realized that his brother from another mother is standing on the other side of the road. Without saying a word, he turns his car and starts a full conversation with his brother. They asked each other how the whole family, all their sisters and brothers, are doing. After 5 minutes they say a couple of times how much they missed each other and say goodbye. I didn’t say a word, just let it happen. I really was in a hurry!

  2. I walk into a local shop to buy my breakfast. A couple of older guys are sitting together chatting and drinking ataya. They watch me walking in, but no one stands up. They are enjoying their chat and ataya. I stand and watch them. After a couple of minutes, one of the guys looks to me and say: ‘Sister, come and have ataya’. I tell him politely that I am okay and that I would like to buy breakfast. He chats a bit with his friends and moves slowly to the counter to help me.

  3. I went to my favourite vegetable lady. She always has the best vegetables. She already smiles when she sees me from far. If she doesn’t have the vegetables I need, she will walk around the market to check if one of her sisters has it for me. While looking for my vegetable, she will chat with all the people she met on her way. Mostly it takes her more than 20 minutes to come back and she then tells me that no one has the vegetables I am asking for. But she will tell me about all the people she talked to on the way finding my vegetable.

Everything takes much more time here in The Gambia. On the road, in the shop or on the market you should really take the time. For appointments to set up new companies, house viewings or going to the hairdresser it isn’t any different. Yes, I can get frustrated. But when I get frustrated now, I know it has to do with me. I may not be in the good mood, I am in a hurry or I plan too much in a day. You know the song: English man in New York…? Yeah. I am a Dutch girl in The Gambia. When you learn to adapt and learn to be more patient (and adapt), you get so much more back! Because here people always take the time to help you, to listen to you, to talk to you or to make fun about something. And yes, if you want them to have this time for you, then learn to give such time to another person. Also, when you are in a hurry or have too many things to do, just slow down and learn to enjoy!

About Author

Elsemiek Franken

the 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 dreamlife 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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