The Gambia

The Gambia flag

Living Conditions

Communications

Mail

Letters from the U.S. could arrive in The Gambia as quickly as two weeks, but often will take three or four weeks. Packages may take longer, depending upon the size of the package. One-to-two months is typical, but often a package will be delayed for multiple reasons, and unfortunately some packages get lost in transit. When mailing letters or packages, the sender should take into consideration that receiving mail reliably and quickly is not guaranteed. Packages cannot be insured by USPS and there is no tracking system once the mail has left the U.S. It is recommended that senders number their letters and include Airmail on the envelopes. Also, communicating by email or other electronic means is helpful for the Volunteer.

Peace Corps staff will place letters in your mailbox in the Volunteer lounge, located at the Peace Corps Office in Serekunda. If Peace Corps staff is unable to pick up a package, you will be notified of the issue and given a slip is placed and that slip will need to be taken to the post office for retrieval. Peace Corps ID and Gambian postage is required to pick up packages at the post office.

Four times a year, mail and packages will be delivered to each Volunteer's permanent site. It could take as few as two weeks (if you visit the office often) or up to three months to receive mail and packages.

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

Your Name, PCV

Peace Corps
PO Box 527
Serekunda
The Gambia, West Africa

Telephones

Volunteers are expected to bring a compatible device or purchase a local cell phone. If you choose to bring a mobile phone, be sure it is an unlocked quad-band GSM cell phone that takes a SIM card or eSim. You can work with your local carrier in the United States before you depart to ensure that your phone is unlocked. Otherwise, you will be able to purchase a cell phone locally. For both options, you will buy phone credit to make local and international calls, but telephone service is expensive and not always reliable. All Volunteers will be enrolled in a closed user group (CUG), which allows you to call Volunteers and staff at no cost. Some Volunteers may not have coverage for the network for the CUG in their site and will instead receive a supplementary allowance to cover their cross-network communication costs.

It is normal for some Volunteers to have irregular cell service that may be weaker during a heavy rainstorm or works better in a certain part of their community than another. Every site where a Volunteer is placed, however, will have some kind of cell service.

Internet

Because the electrical grid of The Gambia does not reach rural areas where most Volunteers live, internet access is very limited.. The Volunteer lounges at the main office in Serekunda and Basse have computers and internet for Volunteers to use. Volunteers can also purchase mobile internet data through the mobile phone company and use that to hotspot personal devices like computers or tablets, although this is expensive. Volunteers in sites where there is stronger connection, such as larger towns/cities or villages along the main road, may choose to purchase a separate mobile router through which they can purchase internet service. You are strongly encouraged to insure any electronics that you bring to The Gambia, as Peace Corps is unable to reimburse for lost, stolen, or broken items.

Computers

You will have access to computers at the main office and the Basse Regional Office in the Volunteer computer lounge with a printer which will allow you to print. As part of the settling-in allowance, all Volunteers will be provided with an allowance to buy a tablet that is available on the local market. Peace Corps will assist with identifying appropriate models and local vendors. Repair and troubleshooting of these tablets or other personal computers/tablets is the Volunteer’s personal responsibility.

We would recommend bringing a personal laptop or tablet if you have one, as most Volunteers find them to be very helpful in both work and recreation, although it is not required. While you may not have internet connectivity at your site, devices can be used to watch downloaded movies and work on Volunteer reporting regardless of internet access.

Housing and site location

Once you become a Volunteer, you will be provided with safe and adequate housing in accordance with the Peace Corps‘ site selection criteria.

The majority of 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 will likely not have running water and may have to collect water from a covered hand pump well or borehole. Pumps, boreholes, or taps will be present within your community, but you may need to exit your family compound in order to fetch water. A trip to one of these water sources can be anywhere from a few steps to half a mile.

While your family compound may not have electricity available, Peace Corps The Gambia provides an allowance for Volunteers to purchase a solar system to charge electronic materials such as laptops, phones, tablets, etc. Usually, this solar electricity can also power a standing fan for much of the day/night. For those connected to the grid, the electric current is 220 volts, but availability is intermittent outside of Banjul.

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

Volunteer homes are usually free-standing as a separate house in a family compound. Most have between 1-2 rooms with a private outdoor bathroom area in the back. All Volunteers will have a private entrance to their home. Most Volunteers have a squat toilet in their outdoor area and use the space to bathe with a bucket. About half of Volunteer homes have a thatched roof and the other half have tin roofs. Because tin roofs tend to be hotter, Peace Corps The Gambia now ensures houses with tin roofs have drop ceilings to help manage the heat.

Every home will be equipped with a gas stove, a mosquito net, and a water filter. The settling in allowance supports Volunteers in securing other items needed for their home.

Living allowance and money management

Volunteers receive a monthly allowance in local currency that is sufficient to live at the level of the local people. The allowance covers food, housing, household supplies, clothing, transportation to and from work, utilities, recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses. Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to live at a level that is comparable with that of their host country counterparts. The Peace Corps discourages Volunteers from supplementing their living allowance with funds from home. However, Volunteers often wish to bring additional money for vacation travel within The Gambia or to other countries. For this, credit cards are preferable to cash. If you choose to bring extra money, bring the amount that will suit your own travel plans and needs. The Gambia is still largely a cash-based society.

Food and diet

Some Volunteers do all of their own cooking, but most have at least one meal a day with their 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. Lunch might consist of rice or pounded millet topped with an oil-based stew such as plassas (tangy green sauce made of sorrel leaves, hot peppers, dried fish, and onions) domoda (a peanut-based sauce); or a fried rice dish with a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions, oil, and fish, chicken, or beef called benachin. Typical dinner dishes are smaller than lunches and might simply be heated-up and mixed-up leftovers or something different, such as pounded millet with a peanut sauces called cherreh (steamed millet balls) Many Volunteers rely on weekly markets, called lumos, that are present throughout the country to purchase vegetables or fruit to address their unique nutritional needs. Additionally, many take occasional trips to metropolitan areas such as Serekunda or Farafenni to stock up pantry staples and spices. In addition, most villages will have women selling vegetables they have grown in the local gardens, although you might have to go out of your way to find them.

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 (millet), while in a site near the coast; you may find a lot of fresh fish and a wider selection of fruits and vegetables. Although most Volunteers enjoy the local food, there is access to American, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and other cuisines when visiting Serekunda.

Rice is a common food and is something that all Volunteers should prepare to embrace!

Transportation

The Peace Corps provides a bicycle allowance to all Volunteers as part of the settling in allowance to purchase a bicycle for use for local transport around their site and work location. For longer trips, Volunteers rely on either formal or informal public transportation, with fares depending on the length of the ride. The formal public transportation network consists of government buses that make regular trips between main towns throughout the country. The informal public transportation network consists of larger passenger vans (locally referred to as a gele gele), seven-passenger vans, and taxis; the informal network has more comprehensive coverage than the formal network and can be used to get to bus stations in major areas. Additionally, Volunteers are able to cross the River Gambia on the Banjul-Barra and Lamin-Koto-Janjanbureh ferries. For many Volunteers living off the road, the first or final leg of their journey is taken on a donkey cart or by foot, as these are sometimes the only modes of transportation that are leaving/heading to the village.

Social Activities

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 festival, or helping the children in your host family‘s compound with homework. Some families may even have a TV set or a radio. You will also have plenty of time to bike, run, walk, or plant a garden. Many Volunteers take advantage of their spare time to read, write, draw, or play a musical instrument. There are libraries at the Peace Corps offices in Serekunda and Basse, with limited but interesting collections of books donated by past and present Volunteers. E-readers are also a great option for Volunteers who don’t want to be limited by the selection at the Peace Corps offices—such devices are small enough to be charged through solar power and trips to Serekunda/Basse are opportunities to download new books. People who like to write find time to keep up with correspondence, write in their journals, or write short stories or poetry. A battery-powered shortwave radio will be useful if you want to stay current on world events.

The Gambia is also well suited for those who enjoy birdwatching and stargazing (with no light pollution from large cities, it is easy to spot constellations and shooting stars). The country has some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets and, with its various waterways (river, ocean), there are a lot of great water activities that can be pursued during free weekends and vacations. Kayaking and fishing trips are available in some places. The Gambia also contains unique wildlife such as monkeys, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, and chimpanzees in different parts of the country.

Professionalism, dress, and behavior

Gambians attach great importance to neatness and proper dress particularly in a work setting, and Volunteers must show respect for Gambian attitudes by dressing suitably both on and off the job. When conducting official business in government or the Peace Corps offices, Trainees, and Volunteers are expected to wear a collared shirt or an African-style shirt, dresses, long skirts, or long pants, and professional-looking shoes or sandals. Gambians are incredibly expressive and formal with their clothing when they dress for work in the capital or at special events. The clothing made here is both modest and beautiful with long tunics on men and long and flowing gowns on women. Volunteers often end up wearing more traditional Gambian dress for formal events.

Additionally, Volunteers may consider bringing at least one more formal outfit for certain official functions at the U.S. Embassy or other professional development opportunities. If Volunteers bring formal attire in lieu of purchasing something locally, you may consider a lightweight blazer, button down shirt, and trousers, or lightweight yet modest business casual clothing for women. Please note that business casual clothing will not be necessary for day-to-day life as a Volunteer. The texture of the suit should be suitable enough to match the hot weather conditions and variability with the seasons.

Volunteers’ day-to-day dress will depend heavily on their sector. Education and Health Volunteers will need to look more professional, as they are working in governmental settings, while Agriculture Volunteers will need clothes that are comfortable to wear in the fields. Local dresses are commonly worn by Gambian teachers and in health clinics, most clinic staff will wear scrubs or more formal clothes. More formal leather sandals are commonly worn in professional settings in The Gambia. Across all sectors and for all genders, covering your legs with pants and/or long skirts and covering your shoulders is expected.

Clothes should be lightweight fabrics like linen or quick dry fabric are nice in the hot weather. At the same time, the clothes must be durable: clothes are washed vigorously by hand and take quite a beating in the process.

While this advice can help when packing, note that countless thrift stores and tailors operate across the country. Clothing that matches your needs is readily available, particularly after pre-service training. Many Volunteers end up wearing more traditional Gambian clothing. Tailoring is a fun and affordable option!