Culture shocks in the Gambia #2 – Is honesty important?

Originally posted 23-07-07

For a while now I´ve been reading Michaela Wrongs book “Do not disturb” in which “Michaela Wrong tears away this veil of respectability to expose the unsettling truth at the heart of the nation´s (Rwanda´s) recent past”. (Spectator)

She opens the book by stating that Rwandans kept telling her that “deceiving others, being economical with the truth, was something their community reveled in, positively prided itself upon”. And continues with elaborating on the history which led to these traits being celebrated.

bookreview_donotdisturb Michaela Wrong
This book is very well written and researched. But its also very heavy reading so it seems to take forever for me to finish it.

Encountering different cultures has made me realize how differently our societies have been built and formed and how our history makes us value different traits in people. I have not traveled enough on the African continent to know, but somehow I think of many of the African countries as being both very old and very young at the same time. Old, because tradition and history is interwoven in to the everyday life in a way that is so natural that you as an outsider might not even understand it. Young, because of the disruption and disturbance of colonialism and western thoughts, which is the cause of todays ongoing struggles to build and form new societies and national self-images.

In Michaela Wrongs book dignity goes before spontaneity and oversharing is a thing of the west. And it might be. Many of the countries in fex Europe have been free or independent for a long time and there has been no need for watching your tongue.

Speaking the truth in the Gambia

Here in the Gambia I experience that the concepts of “speaking the truth” or “being truthful” are on a sliding scale and are subject to change at all times. The change can occur within one day or even within a single discussion. My experience is that many Gambians avoid to say things that they think might hurt or upset or disappoint another person. So answers can be evasive and contain white lies. Sometimes Gambians I encounter even try to help me being more polite and respectful – when they turn my hard “no” to a “maybe next time?” to help me come out of the situation without being impolite.

There are different personalities in the societies. Here we see a collection of Gambian Aunties.

This might be because of the community centered culture of the Gambia (that I wrote about here) where relationships to your fellow man and the community are the most important and are cherished at all costs. Or maybe it´s a thing that has its origin in Islam. According to Mohammed Al-Hilli on lying is prohibited in Islam with the exception of 2 cases:

“The instances where lying is permissible are the following. Number 1; lying for reconciliation. This is known as “islah zatul bayn”. Basically you bring 2 people whose relationship has broken down back together . You say to A, for example, that B said that they respect you and love you. In reality, this was not said, but it is allowed in Islam. So social harmony is created and broken relationships are restored.

Number 2; lying in extreme hardship and difficulty where there is no other way. This happens for example, when people are confronted by unjust or oppressive individuals or by those forcefully trying to take the rights of others away. “

In the first example social harmony and relationships triumph the truth.
This is the opposite of what I myself have been taught. For me born in the North truthfulness is a virtue engraved into my spine. To be caught lying (no matter what the reason is) would be a seriously shameful thing in the Swedish society. Finland is in my opinion even more fixated on the importance of truthfulness. Where a swede reluctantly can come up with a white lie to avoid hurting someones feelings (“yes your new sweater looks nice”) – the finish people often do not (“no I don´t like it”).

So is the truth important?

Being here in a society which norms are so different of course makes me wonder who is right? What is more important, the truth or keeping peace in a community?
IS there even a universal answer, a universal “right” in this case?
I must admit that I don´t know.
Societies are built on different premises, focusing on different virtues. And the virtues in focus must have come about for some reason (Like the Rwandans being economical with the truth because it was dangerous to let people know your business).

travelblog evening at the beach
Me pondering life

Maybe it is not even a good idea to find what´s ”right”? Maybe it is not a good idea to have universal virtues and moral codes? Maybe different societies need different things and the histories of our countries become like different glues that glues the societies together?

Maybe the important question really is – how can we understand each other even though we are so different?

xoxo/Salla V
Originally posted 23-07-07