Cultural Integration and Ramadan Defined my Peace Corps Service in The Gambia
Cultural humility, openness, and a positive attitude are typically helpful traits when ingratiating yourself to a new group of people with a different Worldview (culture, value, belief, etc.).
However, I knew that those traits would be necessary but not sufficient when I traveled halfway around the world to live for two years in a small Gambian village. Sare Kintee is rural and home to no more 200 people who rely primarily on farming for income and food. I came to work at the Lower Basic School, but quickly realized that any work I’d do would require cultural understanding and blending in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.
During the preparation phase to depart for The Gambia to take this noble assignment, I was already guilty of my fair share of faux pas, and that was in my own culture. This epitomized that coming to Gambia would prove to be a new challenge. When my cohort arrived in the Gambia in June 2022, we started our cultural integration through two months mandatory language, cultural and technical training by the Peace Corps Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs) and sector (Education) staff respectively.
I was hosted in rural village about 160 kilometers away from the Capital city Banjul, where the Peace Corps head office is located. This is aimed to complement our routine daily Language and Cultural learning by LCFs. Also, the host family setting mirrored the real life I would come to live in over the next two years. I learned and practiced my language skills as well as developed the cultural values and broke the barriers through my host family’s support. Additionally, I used the local language and intercultural skills at a level of proficiency that enables meaningful and successful engagement with host country national in a range of communicative communities and context. But even with the great training events by my LCF, I was still at times in over my head once finishing my mandatory language, cultural and technical training and having moved to my permanent village (Sare Kintee).
However, I can say now, seventeen months into my service, that I feel very comfortable living in my village and spending time with the villagers. It was a slow process with perhaps the most consequential turning point being Ramadan the Muslim holy month.
Ramadan is culturally significant for many reasons, but most famously because those practicing can't eat any food or drink any water from sunrise to sunset. I made the decision to try the fasting unsure of how long I'd be able to last. Quickly, I realized that there were a few people who suspected I was cheating by going in my room and drinking water or snacking on gerte while no one was looking. To defend myself against such frivolous accusations I committed myself to going into my room as little as possible. I'd only go inside to bathe right before breaking fast at sundown. But during Ramadan I realized my life was more enjoyable when I spent time out of the house. You can never know what little precious moments are missed when you're away. I realized that after the end of my service, I won't be wishing I had spent more time alone inside, but I will very likely yearn for just one more moment in the company of my family and the villagers.
Ramadan was also an inflection point because it was an opportunity to demonstrate an openness and respect for something important to the people of my village. Many didn't expect me to fast. Someone even offered to bet me 500 dalasi if I could keep fast for 5 days. I heard stories of British or Spanish visitors who tried to fast but couldn't last for three hours. The facts may have been questionable, but the belief is informative. By keeping fast and showing respect for the tradition I separated myself from other foreigners who people had known or heard about. Additionally, struggling and enduring through fasting is communal. Everyone does it together: and that's the point. It's one other way of showing people that my first and foremost commitment is learning about the way of life, and lived experience is the best way of doing so. The most fascinating, culturally and highly celebrated event happened on April 21st, 2023, when my village and larger Muslim community in the Gambia celebrated Koriteh that marked the end of the fasting month in 1444 of the Islamic calendar.
The other major difference about Ramadan that helped my integration efforts was the ease of movement around the village. People are very welcoming if you want to spend some time in their compound. Sometimes too welcoming. If anybody there is eating, they will insist on sharing with the visitor. This limits the time I can spend going around the village, because as much as I appreciate the gesture, there's only so much rice someone can eat in a day. If a compound could be serving lunch, I'd have to steer clear. Of course, I learned some tricks around the dilemma, like saying I'll only have one handful, then eating three handfuls all the while saying how great the food is. "I only wanted one handful, but now look at me. I just had three it was that good!" Getting up after three handfuls would be otherwise inconceivable, but it still is met with some pushback. This whole concern is eliminated during Ramadan. I can pass by any compound and not worry about being offered food. And, if a kid were to offer me food, I get to remind everyone that I'm fasting. Win-win!
I will suggest that all this contributed to my personal development such as self-awareness of one’s own social identities and perspectives. Also, I navigated opportunities and fostered equity and inclusion using a culturally effective and appropriate approach and awareness of one’s own cultural programming. In addition, I demonstrated cultural humility by seeking and understanding the values, beliefs, attitudes, and worldviews of others as well as navigated intercultural situations in my community and beyond.
Above all, I deployed community-based language learning strategies, proficiency in investigative and interactive modes of intercultural communication, proficiency in interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational modes of language that helped and facilitated community meetings, mobilized large constituency of the village, and secured a Water project through SPA funding.
Ramadan is a meaningful tradition around the world for countless reasons. I will always remember Ramadan as strengthening, empowering, and being a big jump for me during my Peace Corps journey. Much of Ramadan’s spiritual value comes from being pushed out of standard routines and habits. Americans – perhaps more than anyone – are programmed to follow routines. The entire Peace Corps journey has revealed and altered that tendency within me, but Ramadan serves as the most emblematic microcosm.