Culture shocks in the Gambia #1 – Why is everyone talking to me?

Originally posted 2023-06-22

I sometimes see comments on the internet by tourists who have had a bad experience while visiting the Gambia. They express that everyone they´ve met tried to get money from them or tried to make them buy something. They feel stressed and disturbed by all the people approaching them and trying to talk to them.
At the same time we have a large community of tourists and expats who keep returning to the country time and time again. They often talk about how wonderful Gambian people are since they are so open and friendly.
So how can these experiences differ so much?

My guess is that people are different and some are less used to different cultures and behaviors. People also travel with different expectations. And I think that at least some of the frustration can be explained by looking at the cultural differences.

Mural in the Gambia depicting parts of the Gambian culture by an artist called Babau

Gambian culture is very very relationship & community-centered

When you come here as a tourist you soon realize that everyone is talking to you. From the time you set your foot outside the hotel at the tourist area, everyone will be talking to you. From the policeman you pass by on the street, to the fruit-vendor, to the man who is walking in the opposite direction. Some people just want to greet you, some people want to sell you something and then again some people want to guide you (to earn money) or just hang out and “be your friend” (often to earn money).

For me, coming from the cold north where we often even try to avoid talking to our neighbors (I had a neighbor for 10 years who didn´t reply to my “hello” even once!) it sure was a shock to be the center of so much attention. I used to become really stressed because I felt that everyone was expecting something of me all the time.

But there came a point when I just kind of gave up and accepted that this is Gambia and Gambia is not going to change. The “walking to the ATM to take out money” which in Swedish time would take 15 minutes IS GOING TO take AT LEAST 30-40 minutes. And not because there is a queue to the ATM, no – because every 5 meters someone wants to talk to you. All fruitsellers and breadsellers and people who sell shawarma or bodylotion or napkins on the roadside is going to at least greet you if not also approach you. Random people in the street will try to start a conversation and ask you where you are from or where you are going and people ARE going to hope to get some money from you.

So now when I go out I talk (or at least acknowledge and respond) to all the people greeting and approaching me. I may not stop and talk every time but I try to greet everyone and respond to what they are saying. This doesn´t mean buying everything people are selling or letting people guide me if I don´t want that. I just listen to their requests and respond. “Thank you, but no thank you, maybe next time I´ll buy cashew”, “Thank you but sorry no I cant help you”. If I have time, and people want to talk, I try to talk to them.

More of the mural in the Gambia depicting parts of the Gambian culture by an artist called Babau

Not only tourists

After I´d been traveling here for some time I understood that this actually does NOT only apply to tourists! The Gambians also greet each other all the time, try to sell each other things and make requests for help. The culture here is very very relationship and community oriented. There are no strangers here. An unknown person can at any time walk up to any Gambian and ask them for money to buy lunch. And if the responder happens to have money – he often gives the money to the hungry stranger.

The community is built up on helping each-other. If a family compound has a tap – the neighbors will come to the tap to fetch water – and this is nothing that has to be discussed – it is just understood – if you have – you share. If you need – someone else will help you.
This is also why sometimes you suddenly get invited to share meals with people you´ve never seen and just happen to pass by on your way to somewhere. Or you come home and there is a bag of bananas from the neighbors outside your door because they happened to have a lot of bananas.

This community-oriented “WE” mindset differs a lot from the scandinavian “I” mindset where everyone is very individualistic and most peoples goals center around self-realization. In the Gambia there is no ”I”. If you ask someone for directions on the street and they don´t know the location it´s not rare that they engage the next person who happen to walk by. So sometimes you find your self in a group of 3 – 4 people who are discussing which way is the best one for you to take.

It has taken me 4.5 years to even understand Buba remotely. We still don´t understand each other half of the time

Stay smart

So this community centered mindset is the reason why EVERYONE is talking to you. It is a part of the culture and is not only directed at tourists. This of course doesn´t mean that some people will NOT try to hustle you, they will, many times, every day, but if you just stay kind and respectful everything becomes more easy and the culture shocks can be softened 🙂

Hope to see you in the Gambia!

xoxo/ Salla V

Originally posted 2023-06-22