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Navigating Identities in The Gambia

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers with disabilities to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. The accommodations that can make life more manageable for those with disabilities in the United States are typically absent in The Gambia, so certain aspects of everyday life can be difficult. Nevertheless, Gambians are accepting of people with disabilities and staff are committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support reasonable accommodations for Volunteer success.

Gender role considerations

It will be important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in The Gambia. During pre-service training, Volunteers will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country and will take time to examine their own thinking about gender roles and their impact. Volunteers will also learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in your host community and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what women and men may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.

Gender roles in The Gambia are strongly defined. Women generally have traditional responsibilities that center the home. These include caring for the family, cleaning the home, and working long hours to prepare food from scratch. As a result, women from the United States may not be able to exercise the freedoms to which they are accustomed. In addition, sometimes Volunteers may experience unwanted attention based on one or more elements of their identities. Volunteers develop a variety of creative strategies to handle these situations.

Women and Volunteers presenting as women may find that they are asked regularly about their marital status and whether they have children because women of a certain age are expected to be married and bearing children. Volunteers are likely to find conservative attitudes regarding gender equality in The Gambia.

LGBTQI+ considerations

Peace Corps The Gambia welcomes LGBTQI+ Volunteers. It is important to note, however, that consensual same-sex sexual relations are illegal in the country. Antidiscrimination laws do not protect LGBTQI+ individuals and there is strong societal discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals. That said, many LGBTQI+ Volunteers have successfully served in The Gambia. It is important for Volunteers to understand that they will need to “mask” and not disclose this side of their identity within their communities to maintain their safety.

Generally speaking, Volunteers have shared that they feel they can be open with other Volunteers and some staff, and that they are able to identify support mechanisms and networks outside of their host community. The Peer Support Network (PSN) is designed to support Volunteers through their adjustments adapting to life in The Gambia, including adapting to a culture that is not accepting of being LGBTQI+. While being openly LGBTQI+ is not accepted in The Gambia, some Volunteers who do not present in traditional gendered ways find the country to be refreshing as men have a greater diversity of dress and expression than is typically found in the United States. Some men wear headwraps and long tunics. Men often wear shimmery robes with a lot of color. Gender expression, in some ways, is more fluid.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Because of limited exposure, some Gambians may expect all U.S. citizens to be White and are unaware of the rich racial and ethnic diversity of the United States. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a community member to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. It’s important to remember that these responses are often out of a lack of exposure, rather than overt discrimination.

  • Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers: American Volunteers of Asian descent may not be viewed as American in The Gambia. There is a small Chinese population in The Gambia, so this is due to a lack of understanding and exposure. It is common for all people of East Asian descent to be referred to as “Chinese” and called both “toubab” (White person/foreigner).
  • Black/African American Volunteers: Some Black Volunteers find they blend in and may be presumed to be Gambian, while others do not and may be presumed to be from other countries in Africa or from the United States. Those who may be mistaken as Gambian may receive less unwanted attention as compared to other Volunteers, but unwanted attention as a whole generally affects all Volunteers and their service. Black Volunteers may face higher expectations around cultural integration as they are often expected to already understand the Gambian norms and be able to learn local languages more easily. Often Black Americans, especially those with lighter skin, are also referred to as “toubab” (White person/foreigner).
  • Latino/Hispanic Volunteers: Gambians do not have a lot of exposure to Latin America or the wide array of cultures within the Inter-American Region. Some Volunteers who are Latino/Hispanic spend time explaining and/or simplifying the story of their identity.
  • Arab American Volunteers: Arab American Volunteers are often affiliated more with their ancestral origins rather than being American. Arab Americans are often presumed to be devout Muslims. Many Gambians may not differentiate between Arabs and White Americans. They are often considered to be toubabs.
  • White Volunteers: White Volunteers typically experience privilege in many ways. Navigating this and being an ally to Volunteers and locals who may not have the same experience will be important as a Volunteer. One such privilege may be not having your U.S. citizenship questioned and automatically being assumed to be American, while many of your fellow Volunteers of color may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention because of this aspect of their identity.

Age considerations

Peace Corps The Gambia warmly welcomes Volunteers of all eligible ages who meet the medical requirements to join us here.

Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. Despite this, pre-service training may be stressful for older Trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. Other challenges may include being the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially not feeling part of the group, or needing more time to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job. Older Volunteers may be expected to hold responsibilities in their family compound that other Volunteers do not have – financial expectations, decision-making. Most Volunteers work to set boundaries and expectations early on with the support of Peace Corps staff. Older Volunteers may be regularly asked about their marital status and whether or not they have children.

Younger Volunteers, or those who look younger, may need to take some additional time to integrate and establish their credibility in the community.

Host families are likely to view a Volunteer as their child and to support your well-being in the community like a parent would. This comes from a caring place, and depending on your age, can be a challenge to adapt to.

Religious considerations

The Gambia is predominantly Muslim, with a small Christian minority. Although most Gambians have little knowledge of other religions, there is a high degree of religious tolerance in the country. Gambians often demonstrate an appreciation and curiosity about other religions and traditions. Gambians respect people who practice a religion.

Gambians understand and tolerate Christianity as a religion. That said, the way that Christianity is practiced in The Gambia is different from many Christian practices in the United States, so there may initially be some confusion. There are churches throughout the country to worship in.

Jewish Volunteers often find that there is not much understanding of Jewish traditions or religion. At the same time, when Jewish Volunteers share their traditions or religion, they usually find interest and respect from communities. There is no Jewish/Muslim animosity from what the Peace Corps community has seen.

Host families often expect their Volunteers to be present in their communities for major Muslim holidays. Participation does not include visiting the mosque, but may include other traditions like visiting neighbors or feasting. While most Volunteers won’t fast for the month of Ramadan, some will be invited to fast and break the fast with their family. Due to religious traditions, alcohol and pork are rarely found or consumed in The Gambia.

Gambians celebrate hosting Muslim Volunteers. That said, different communities may have different Muslim practices, which may not align between the Volunteer and the community. If a Volunteer is culturally Muslim, they may face pressure to “strengthen” their faith while serving in The Gambia.

Volunteers, regardless of their religion, do find there is pressure to convert to Islam. Peace Corps staff can support conversations about this topic.

If a Volunteer does not practice a religion, they may be deemed “free thinking” and could be looked down upon.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Couples within Peace Corps The Gambia often find success being in their communities. While there can be some unique challenges, they can also find the companionship helpful as they integrate in their village.

Couples are likely to face pressure from Gambians to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Community members may find American relationship dynamics and gender roles to be a significant cultural difference that may be challenging for them to bridge. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. It will be important to consider how one’s partner or opposite sex is being affected by traditional or different cultural norms. Discuss what, if any, aspects of the relationship can be adjusted to help reduce stress for everyone.

If a couple is unmarried, it is recommended they refer to themselves as married to support Gambians to understand and accept them living together in the country. In The Gambia is not uncommon for a husband to have more than one wife. Men and Volunteers presenting as men in a couple may be asked questions about taking another wife. Couples without children may be repeatedly questioned about why they do not have children, etc. Couples should prepare to respond to this question from the community before coming to The Gambia.

At this time, The Gambia would not be a good fit for LGBTQI+ couples due to intolerance for same sex relationships.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

The Peace Corps emphasizes professional behavior and cross-cultural sensitivity among Volunteers and within their communities to help integration and achieve successful service. As a Volunteer and representative of the United States, you are responsible both for sharing the diversity of U.S. culture (yours and other Americans’) with your host country national counterparts, and also for learning from your host country’s diversity.

During pre-service training, a session will be held to discuss diversity and inclusion and how you can transcend differences, find common ground, and serve as an ally for your peers. Also during pre-service training, staff will provide training on how to adapt personal choices and behavior to be respectful of the host country culture and will be available for ongoing support.

Once Volunteers arrive at their sites, diversity and inclusion principles remain the same but take on a different shape, in which your host community may share a common culture and you—the Volunteer—are the outsider. You may be in the minority, if not the sole American like you, at your site. You will begin to notice diversity in perspectives, ethnicity, age, depth of conversation, and degree of support you may receive—and may need to make adjustments.

Peace Corps The Gambia has established a Peer Support Network (PSN) designed to support Volunteers throughout their service with whatever challenges they may be facing. These Volunteers are available to support other Volunteers around topics around adjustment, identity, integration, amongst many others. This group is a fabulous resource for Volunteers as they navigate various aspects of their identities.

Volunteers in country, and around the world, have set up informal affinity groups on WhatsApp that provide an outlet for learning, connection, and support around identity. Other Volunteers in country can easily connect each other.

To ease the transition to life in your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual, and will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these limitations.