Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in The Gambia

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Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in The Gambia
As a Peace Corps Volunteers, you will have to adapt to conditions that may be dramatically different than you have ever experienced and modify lifestyle practices that you now take for granted. Even the most basic practices— talking, eating, using the bathroom, and sleeping — may take significantly different forms in the context of the host country. If you successfully adapt and integrate, you will in return be rewarded with a deep understanding of a new culture, the establishment of new and potentially lifelong relationships, and a profound sense of humanity.
See also:

Living Conditions and Volunteer Lifestyles by Country Pre-Departure Checklist
Staging Timeline

For information see Welcomebooks

Flag of The Gambia.svg


Contents

[edit] Communications

The main Peace Corps office is in the Fajara area of Banjul. Plans are underway for one transit house to be opened in Soma, a major transportation hub. A transit house for Volunteers is already available in Basse at the eastern end of the country.

[edit] Mail

Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service considered normal in the United States. If you expect U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for some frustration. Mail from the United States takes a minimum of two weeks to arrive in The Gambia. Advise your family and friends to number their letters for tracking reasons and to include “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes.

Despite the delays, we encourage you to write to your family regularly and to number your letters. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so it is a good idea to advise them that mail service is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. If a serious problem were to occur, Peace Corps/The Gambia would notify the Office of Special Services at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., which would then contact your family.

Your address for your entire stay in The Gambia will be:

“Your Name,” PCV
U.S. Peace Corps
PO Box 582
Banjul, The Gambia
West Africa

Mail is distributed to Volunteers at their sites or to regional towns on a regular basis monthly.

[edit] Telephones

International phone service to and from The Gambia is fairly good, but it can be expensive. The public telephone company, Gamtel, provides service in larger towns and villages throughout the country. There are also public phone booths in smaller villages that you can use to reach an AT&T or MCI operator for international calls. There are also many private "telecenters" around the country, which may charge a bit more than Gamtel. Some Volunteers may have phones where they live, but these can generally be used only for receiving international calls, not for making them.

Volunteers are not permitted to use the telephones at the Peace Corps office in Banjul to call family or friends unless the call pertains to an emergency and is approved in advance by the country director.

[edit] Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access

Volunteers have access to e-mail and the Internet at the main Peace Corps office. However, access at the main office is limited during regular office hours because there are only four computers for Volunteer use. The computers are available for use 24 / 7, so it often makes sense to schedule internet-time during off-hours. Volunteers generally are able to check their e-mail at the Peace Corps offices about once every three months. Some Volunteers may have e-mail at the schools where they teach. (The e-mail address for Volunteers at the main office is pcv@qanet.gm, with your name in the subject line.) Many Volunteers also have Hotmail or Yahoo accounts that they access at private Internet cafes.

[edit] Housing and Site Location

Once you become a Volunteer, you will be provided with safe and adequate housing by the Gambian agency or organization you work with in accordance with the Peace Corps’ site selection criteria (see the Health Care and Safety chapter for further information). The Peace Corps will provide you with items such as an all-terrain bicycle, a helmet, a mosquito net, medical kit and a water filter for use during your service.

Most Volunteers live in family compounds with one or two private rooms at their disposal. You will need to be very flexible in your housing expectations, as you probably will not have running water or electricity and may have to collect water from a well or borehole and spend your evenings reading by candlelight or lantern. Most Volunteers will have latrines.

Peace Corps staff will visit your site periodically to provide personal, medical, and technical support.

[edit] Living Allowance and Money Management

Upon being sworn in, you will receive a settling-in allowance to purchase household necessities such as dishes, a lantern, candles, and furniture. Once you are at your site, you will receive a monthly living allowance, deposited in local currency into a local bank account, to pay for daily necessities. You should be able to live adequately, albeit simply, on this allowance, which is based on an annual survey of Volunteer living costs and varies from site to site. In addition, a vacation allowance of $24 per month of service will be deposited into your account in local currency at the beginning of every month. You will also receive per diem allowances to cover your food, lodging, and transportation when visiting Banjul on official business.

If you bring your own money with you, U.S. dollars and traveler’s checks are recommended because credit cards are not widely accepted (though they are useful for travel outside the country and cash advances). Personal checks can be cashed, and if you think you will be doing any banking with U.S. banks, you might want to bring your checkbook. You can also have money wired from home by international bank transfer.

[edit] Food and Diet

Some Volunteers do all or some of their own cooking, but you will probably find it less expensive and more convenient to have meals with your host family. Gambians eat three meals a day, with lunch as the main meal.

Breakfast might include a porridge made of rice, sugar, and sour milk (and sometimes pounded peanuts, a favorite among Volunteers); little balls of millet boiled in a clear, sweet, viscous liquid, which tastes better than it looks; and steamed millet meal eaten with sweetened sour milk (coos), which may remind you of wheat germ with plain yogurt. Lunch might consist of rice topped with a tangy green sauce made of sorrel leaves, red peppers, dried fish, and onions or rice mixed with peppers, onions, and dried fish. Typical dinner dishes are rice with a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions, oil, and fish, chicken, or beef; a spicy soup made of tomatoes, tomato paste, beef, potatoes, and okra and eaten over rice or coos; and a one-pot dish of rice, tomato paste, oil, meat, and vegetables called benachin. Although most Volunteers enjoy the local food, you can get pizza, cheeseburgers, and the like when visiting Banjul.

Some foods are characteristic of certain ethnic groups or regions. If you live in a Fula community, for example, there may be a greater variety of dairy products, as their traditional occupation is cattle herding. If you live in a Wolof community, you are likely to eat more coos. And if you live near the coast, you may find a lot of fresh fish and a wider selection of fruits and vegetables.

[edit] Transportation

The Peace Corps issues bicycles and helmets to all trainees and Volunteers for use in their work assignments. Volunteers must have a medical clearance for bicycle use signed by the Peace Corps medical officer. For longer trips, Volunteers often use the widely available taxi service, whose fares depend on the distance and duration of the ride.

[edit] Geography and Climate

The Gambia is located in West Africa and borders the North Atlantic Ocean and Senegal. It consists of two narrow strips of land on the north and south banks of the Gambia River that extend more than 200 miles into the African continent. At its widest point, The Gambia is less than 25 miles wide.

The land is almost entirely composed of the flood plain of the Gambia River, the country’s most outstanding physical feature.

In the west, the river’s banks are thickly lined with mangrove swamps, behind which are river flats that are submerged for most of the rainy season (July to October). Sandy hills and rolling plateaus lie farther back from the river. In the east, the swamps give way to gradually ascending riverbanks backed by rolling plains, and low hills punctuate the far eastern quarter of the country. Gambia’s highest point is about 170 feet above sea level. The soil quality is generally poor and subject to the damaging effects of erosion, overcultivation, and large-scale burning.

The predominant vegetation is Sudan savanna woodland with grass and scrub understory. There are forested areas in the west, where rainfall is the greatest. Vegetative cover has been severely affected by deforestation, fire, and cultivation, exacerbated by high population densities on arable land and traditional farming practices. While increasingly subject to exploitation, the mangrove swamps along the western half of the Gambia River have been less affected by the people’s intrusion on the natural ecology.

The Gambia is a tropical country with two distinct seasons. The summer (June to September) is generally warm and humid, with an average temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The winter is dominated by dry harmattan winds from the Sahara, which give The Gambia uniquely pleasant weather, with daily sunshine and no rain. From October to May, the temperature varies between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity between 30 and 60 percent. In the early and mid-1970s, The Gambia was affected by the rainfall shortages that brought the Sahel area international headlines. While total rainfall has approached previous levels in recent years, its distribution has been erratic, causing continuing problems for the nation’s rain-fed agriculture.

[edit] Social Activities

Although some Volunteers beg to differ, there will be more to do for entertainment in your village than watching your candles melt in the afternoon heat. A major part of the Peace Corps experience is socializing with the people in your community, which might include chatting while drinking tea under the shade of a large tree, attending an all-night party, or helping the children in your host family’s compound with homework. Some families may have a TV set or a radio. You will also have plenty of time to bike, run, walk, plant a garden, or learn to play a musical instrument.

Many Volunteers take advantage of their spare time to read or write. There is a library at the Peace Corps office in Banjul with limited but interesting collections of books donated by past and present Volunteers. People who like to write find time to keep up with correspondence, write in their journals, or write short stories or poetry. Be sure to bring your favorite music tapes, CDs, or MP3s, which you can swap back and forth with other Volunteers. The Gambia is also well-suited for those who enjoy bird-watching and stargazing (with no light pollution from large cities, it is easy to spot constellations and falling stars).

[edit] Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior

Gambians attach great importance to neatness and proper dress, and Volunteers must show respect for Gambian attitudes by dressing suitably both on and off the job. When conducting official business in government or Peace Corps offices, trainees and Volunteers are expected to wear a collared shirt or an African-style shirt, dresses, skirts, or long pants, and professional-looking shoes (i.e., no flip-flops). T-shirts are acceptable only for fieldwork.

[edit] Personal Safety

More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in The Gambi. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.

[edit] Rewards and Frustrations

Peace Corps service is not for everyone. Requiring greater dedication and commitment than most jobs, it is for confident, self-starting, and concerned individuals who are interested in assisting other countries and increasing human understanding across cultural barriers.

The key to satisfying work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is the ability to establish successful human relations at all levels, which requires patience, sensitivity, and a positive professional attitude. It is essential that you work with Gambian counterparts to ensure that tasks begun during your service will continue after your departure. It is also important to realize that while you may have a lot of energy and motivation, you will be in The Gambia for only two years. Your colleagues will probably continue to work in the same job after you leave—for little money—and may not possess quite the same level of motivation. Often you will find yourself in situations that require the ability to motivate both yourself and your colleagues and to take action with little guidance from supervisors. You may work for months without seeing any visible impact from, and without receiving feedback on, your work. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results. Nevertheless, you will have a sense of accomplishment when small projects are made effective because of your efforts. Acceptance into a foreign culture and the acquisition of a second or even a third language are also significant rewards.

Even with the many economic, social, and environmental problems confronting The Gambia today, there is an atmosphere of excitement and hope about the positive changes occurring in the country. Joining the Gambian people in their efforts at this pivotal time in their history will be both fascinating and satisfying to Volunteers who are willing to work hard, be tolerant of ambiguity, and give generously of their time. Your willingness to serve in smaller towns and villages and to give up U.S. standards of space and privacy in your living accommodations will be greatly appreciated by Gambians. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave The Gambia feeling that they have gained much more than they gave during their service.

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