Through the eyes of Mam Jarra: One year of writing

‘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.’
A year ago, I started my first blog with the following sentence: ‘As a child I could only dream that you are reading this right now’. The last year I have enjoyed living in the continent I dreamt about as a child. I am grateful for all the experience that this and my earlier years living in The Gambia has brought and taught me. If you have followed my blogs, you will know that I like to share with you: who I am, where I come from, what I experience and more important the life lessons living in The Gambia can teach you.

The following life lessons I have written about the last year:

  1. Alone you are nothing: The gap between the individualism focus culture from The Netherlands and community focus culture in The Gambia. Living in The Gambia has taught me to take the time to say hello to a stranger on the street and to spend real time with people close to me. Because, alone, you’re nothing!

  2. When you smile, the world smiles back at you: While the season ended abruptly and I had to close my restaurant. I felt devastated. My sister came by my house to cheer me up. She was smiling and laughing all the time. I couldn’t understand why she was so happy and I was so sad and worried. She told me: ‘Mam Jarra, Smiling is my medicine to all daily problems. When you smile, your body fills with positivity and life feels much better.’ 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 out. Do you know another beautiful thing about smiling? When you smile, the world smiles back at you!

  3. The Gambian Manager; Master sharing! If you are looking for a manager, go to The Gambia. You will find plenty of managers, they are all managing. Corona has shown me that they really have mastered a way of managing life, it can also be called the mastering of sharing. Today I help you, tomorrow you help me. Sharing is caring! The way they help each other feels rare to me. Rare in the most beautiful way! Become a Gambian Manager!

  4. Gambia Maybe Time; slow down and take your time: In this blog, I wrote about my frustrations with people not showing up on time. Because I am taught it is important to be on time, otherwise you don’t respect the person you are meeting. While I tried to adapt a little and learn to be more patient, I got so much back! Because people in The Gambia always take the time to help you, listen to you and talk to you. If you want them to have this time for you, then learn to give such time to another as well. Just slow down and enjoy!

  5. The famous Banjul belly: This wasn’t a written blog! Banjul belly is what is called if you have eaten something wrong. Poor belly! Lesson: Take your time to recover. You only have one body!

  6. Write your own movie script: This isn’t particularly a life lesson I have learned from a Gambian, but I have learned it while living here. Before getting upset, disappointed or angry because someone did something ‘bad’ to you: take a break. Don’t stay angry, don’t confront them, don’t scream or get angry at them, forgive them! Don’t take it personally, people mostly don’t have the intention to hurt you, they are just too busy playing their own main character in the movie script (life). Learn a lesson out of it and move on! 

        7. The soccer game on the other side of the stadium; you will learn, laugh, feel happy and make friends. Even do it hasn’t always been easy for me to live in The Gambia. Especially because of the difference in culture, lifestyle and general way of thinking and working. I would recommend everyone who ever taught of living abroad to do it. It will positively change your life. 

         8. Dance to the rhythm; how a village road turned into a dance club: While staying in the village for a project, I enjoyed the peaceful quiet evening. Suddenly, I heard drums and people singing. Before I knew it, all the people from the compound were on their way to the sound. A younger girl told me to come with her. When we arrived, I see a couple of drummers and people have gathered around them. They are singing and dancing. The little girl explains to me that the whole village has put money together to have this evening entertainment. While I want to explain that this is strange to me. She tells me: ‘Don’t talk, just dance and enjoy!’ It has taught me 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.

          9. Shine a light on The Gambia: That particularly last night when I welcomed you into my restaurant. We never realized 1,5 years ago that that night would be the last evening that we could enjoy the way we did. The corona pandemic has shown how important tourism is for a country like The Gambia. People are without jobs and every day is getting more hopeless. Lack of salary isn’t the only problem. The feeling that every day is getting worse and that there is no sparkle of light to see at the end of the tunnel. Every day is a battle for them, a battle they win because of their positivity, caring for each other and lifestyle. In this blog, I ask you for help. We should put our hands together to shine a light on The Gambia. It starts with your little message. Write that message, talk to your co-worker about The Gambia and book your ticket as soon as you feel secure enough to do so!

      10. Your questions guide you: We human beings are all different. That makes us so beautiful! We shape our buildings we live in and then they shape us: We live in our own frame of reference: partly what our parents have taught 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. The questions you ask to open the doors and allow you to look outside the building you have created for yourself and learn from others. This also means to learn to questions yourself. Why do you do what you do? Because every answer to a question will learn you more than just to judge the person, conversation or situation.

        11. Naw nala; your own weakness is mostly what you admire in another: The producer I run a studio with is one of the few people who can calm me down with his comments like: ‘Ah, just wait a bit, I will fix it!’. There are two lessons in this one comment. Lesson one: Life in The Gambia has taught me the language of understanding. Instead of getting angry while waiting, they have taught me to understand. Second lesson: Gambians are inventive. They will reuse things for different purposes, make them again instead of buying new or they will give them to a brother or sister who will make them into something else useful. They will reuse what people in the western world easily throw away without thinking if it can be useful in another way.

        12. A dutch quote that says: Verbeter de wereld, begin bij jezelf! While living in The Gambia with people who have totally different backgrounds, upbringing, cultures, religions and future I believe that our core beliefs are mostly identical or strongly comparable. The contrast is large between me and my Gambian best friend. But in the end, we both want to be respected, appreciated, to be free, to love and to be heard. Without a doubt, I am sure you want the same. In a short: We want to live in peace and rest in peace! We have to speak up together and help each other. Because the creation of a peaceful respectful world starts with us! All of us! I have promised myself that I will keep speaking up with all I have in me to remind the world that all of us are human beings that what to be respected, appreciated, to be free, to love and to be loved!

Writing these blogs has taught me a lot about life and about myself. Looking back and reading all the blogs I have written in the last year makes me realize that I really do right now what I was dreaming about while growing up. I can do what I called for to do: Inspire others, empower others and to give them hope with the faith I have been carrying with me. I can’t wait to write about another year of experience living in The Smiling Coast of Africa. Now the boarders are opening again and entry restrictions are losing up. I really hope to see you and welcome you back to The Gambia. Soon you can scream: Gambia I am home! I hope you will enjoy the sun on your skin, the hugs of your well-missed friends and the smell of Benechin. And when you get appetite?  Come and visit my restaurant Three Little Birds in CapePoint! Because I can’t wait to meet you (again)! 

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 24 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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