Bienvenue au Sénégal!

Before pursuing my journey on the east coast of the continent, I decided to spend a few days in Senegal. I thought it would be nice to pay a visit to the big country surrounding the little Gambia. Although there is a lot that links the two countries, Senegal is a rich country with its very own culture, and I loved everything about it! The hospitality of the people, the diversity of the sceneries (from beaches to deserts to mangroves), the café Touba (coffee spiced with pepper), the non-stop nightlife, and of course, their national language! Enfin je peux parler français! 🙂

My first pit stop was Ginack Island, located at the border of The Gambia and Senegal. The island is actually a national park divided between the two countries. There is no electricity, no running water, no cars, and (almost) no tourist! It was just me, the ocean and the beach. What a great way to start my first solo backpacking trip! The next day I took a ‘sept-place’ (small vehicle that squeezes seven passengers) to the beach town of Saly-Portudal. I spent two days wandering around, relaxing on the beach, reading, sipping cold Flag (their national beer), la vie dure quoi! 🙂 And one morning, while I was running (it’s my favorite way of discovering a new place!), Gallo, the marathoner of the village, came up to me and asked me if I wanted to join him the next morning for a long sunrise beach run. Euh, of course!! We had an excellent workout while exchanging on our culture and love for running. It was great! This is one thing I’m enjoying a lot about traveling solo, the encounters and opportunities that spontaneously show up! And I’m not the one to refuse a cool invitation!

My highlight of Senegal was definitely my trip to the Desert de Lompoul! It was the first time I was seeing a desert. Oh. My. God. Perfect sand dunes, perfect blue sky, perfect sunset, perfect quietness, and let’s not forget the perfect sky full of stars at night. I enjoyed every moment of this escapade! I even had my own Mauritanian tent with a real toilet and running water! What a luxury! Then, on my way to Dakar, I made a day-trip to Lac Rose. Yup, I confirm, the lake is really pink! The color of the water is caused by the high level of salt (10x higher than the ocean) which, of course, makes you float like a boat! I tried to swim a few laps…Impossible!!

Finally, I finished my trip in Dakar, the national capital. Dakar is a large city (1 million) full of attractions, markets, restaurants, nightlife, but big city also means lots of traffic, lots of people, lots of noise, and it’s VERY hot! Thank you to my two Senegalese friends, Guillaume & Ouss, who were my private tour guides, driving me all around. We made sure not to miss l’Île de Gorée, an island used by Europeans for trade slave during the 18th and 19th century. Although Gorée has a difficult history, it is now a very peaceful (no roads or cars!), colorful and really artsy village!

It was a very short trip, but I think I made the most of my time in Senegal. I really hope to be back one day to explore more about this beautiful country. Merci et à bientôt peut-être! 🙂

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En route vers le Kenya!

Gambian holidays and final goodbyes…

It was the first time, in 28 years, that I was spending my Christmas holidays without my family, in a foreign country. I must say I really enjoyed the experience! Everyone should, at least once in their life, celebrate Christmas abroad, in another culture. Even if The Gambia is mostly Muslim, Christmas is still a public holiday. It is an opportunity for families and friends to gather and spend time together, exactly what I did. After a nice homemade déjeuner aux crêpes, my girlfriends and I went to the beach where we spent a lazy afternoon, swimming in the ocean and drinking sangria under the sun! I did not have a white Christmas this year but it was a very sunny and warm one! I surely did not complain! At night, we went to the Open Mic festival at the national football stadium. It’s an annual event held every Christmas night where dozen of Gambian, Senegalese and Liberian artists come to perform all night. We walked back home at 6am, admiring the first rays of sunshine. A moment I will never forget.

 

My big sister Renée then came to visit me for a week. I really enjoyed my role as a tour guide, showing her around (on bikes!), teaching her about the Gambian culture, presenting her to my friends. We even spent one night in Bwiam, where we visited Ndey’s family and village. We were warmly welcomed as always. For New Year Day, we went to Banjul for the festivities. The streets were filled with parades, musicians and street performers. It was a very colorful and musical day! And of course, Renée and I took the time to enjoy the beach, the nightlife and the Gambian gastronomy! It was a quick but very busy week where we really got the chance to experience the Gambian lifestyle! Merci pour cette merveilleuse visite! 🙂


My last week in The Gambia was filled with lots of love and yes (of course!), tears. I made sure to say goodbye to everyone that had an impact in my time here, friends, roommates, coworkers, training buddies etc. My last day at the NSGA was one to remember. They organized a small farewell ceremony for me. I received beautiful goodbye words from everyone, but also a very nice African blouse and even some cake! Gambians really know how to make you wanna stay!!

 

Reflecting on my time in The Gambia, I just can’t help myself but to smile! (I totally understand why they call it The Smiling Coast of Africa now!) I’ve only been here for three months, but those months have been beyond my expectations. I ran with all my heart across the country, I made many wonderful new friends, I’ve learned to live in a different culture, and I’ve just been simply happy! I’ve learned that happiness is a choice. It is found within ourselves and the people that surround us. The rest is just extra. Thank you to everyone that was part of my Gambian happy journey. It was a memorable one! Abaraca! Jerrejef!

 

The Gambia was my first country on my itinerary and it did set the bar pretty high! I’m so exited to continue my travels on this beautiful continent and to learn about other cultures and meet new people! Now let’s wipe those tears, an ending only means a new beginning. En route pour le Sénégal! 🙂

Farewell dear Gambia!

 

The Gambia at a glance

Here’s a little overview of my second favorite country in the world! 😉

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Location: The Gambia is located in West Africa. The country is bordered by Senegal on all sides except for its short Atlantic coastline.

Size: 11 300km2 (The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa!)

Population: 1.9 million

Capital: Banjul (population: 32 000)

Official Language: English

Local Languages: Wolof, Mandinka, Jola and Fula (which are also African tribes)

Religion: 90% Muslim, 10% Christian

Currency: Dalasis (1$ Canadian = 30 Dalasis)

Climate: Tropical with two seasons: Dry (November to May) and Rainy (June to October)

National Motto: Progress, Peace and Prosperity

Local dish: Benachin (one pot dish made with spicy risotto, meat/fish and vegetables, usually shared within a group), Domoda (stew made with peanut sauce), Superkanja (spicy fish soup) and Tapalapa for breakfast (fresh baguette served with black-eyed beans paste, eggs or chocolate spread).

Local drink: Baobab (my all-time favorite!), Wanjo (made with hibiscus flowers) and Ginger juice. Everyday you can also see locals (mostly men) sitting and chatting while preparing a green tea called attaya, which is full of caffeine and sugar (the brewing process takes about an hour).

Interesting facts

-The Gambia’s economy is dominated by farming, fishing, and especially tourism (it’s a beautiful traveling destination my friends!).

-Almost 600 bird species have been recorded in The Gambia. It is a very popular destination for bird-watching.

-The River Gambia, the nation’s namesake, flows across the country, separating the country in two; the South Bank (where I ran the Love4Gambia run) and the North Bank (which is not very populated).

– Babies are named on the 7th day following their birth. The parents organise a ‘Naming Ceremony’ where every family members and friends are invited for a day-long celebration. The name of the baby is revealed during the day.

-A few days ago, the President Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power for 19 years now (!), has banned female genital mutilation (FGM) in The Gambia, saying it is not required in Islam. According to Unicef, 3/4 of women in the mostly Muslim countries have had the procedure. One more step towards gender quality for The Gambia!

-Friday is most important day of the week in the Muslim religion (similar to our Sunday). Everyone dresses with their finest and most colorful clothes. It is beautiful to watch! At 2pm, the whole city becomes quiet. All shops, restaurants and public services are closed for the Friday Prayer Service. Most of the men and some women will go to the Mosque, but wherever they are, every Muslim is praying at that specific time. All you can hear is the Islamic prayers sang by the Muezzin from the loudspeakers of the Mosque…

-The last Saturday of every month (from 9am to 1pm) is a public programme called Operation Clean the Nation designed to keep streets and public areas free of litter and organic waste. All public services are closed for the morning and citizens are invited to clean their private compound and/or neighbourhood… but unfortunately for some it is simply a pretext to take a morning off work or to sleep in!

-Even with the major Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, The Gambia has no confirmed case of the virus. Thanks to all the prevention programs across the country (including the NSGA)! #EbolaFreeGambia

-The Muslim men are allowed to have up to four wives…

 

Learn and Teach Others

For 25 years now, the Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA) has been working to create a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for the Gambian youths. NSGA’s projects emphasize the concept of learning through active involvement. They train, educate and empower youth in order to build healthy communities across The Gambia. Their motto “Learn and Teach Others” perfectly reflects the organization’s mission.

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The NSGA is like a little family. The camaraderie between every workmate is incredible. Everyday the office is full of laughs, hugs, energy and positivism. It’s impossible not coming to work in a good mood! Even me, who is not a morning person, it doesn’t take long before I’m smiling at my desk! 🙂

For the last month I’ve been mainly working with the 15 drama troupers. The NSGA is formed of three troupes of 5 young adults who go into schools and communities to promote health awareness. In schools, they will perform a short play on a health issue (they are presently focusing on water sanitization) during the morning school’s assembly. The performance is followed by a short discussion and a period of questions with the students. Then, the troupe will meet with the school’s peer health club and educate the students on various subjects (Ebola, HIV-AIDS, teen pregnancy, life skills). The purpose of the peer health clubs is to train a group of students who will then teach their friends, classmates and family about it. The NSGA peer health program has been going on for over 15 years now. Today, there are almost 200 peer health clubs in schools all over the country!

Afterwards, troupers will go into communities to do health awareness on Ebola, Malaria or water sanitization. Some days they will improvise a skit in the middle of the market (let me tell you it does attract a lot of attention!). After the performance, they will go around the market to talk about the subject and answer the public’s questions. Other times, the drama troupes will go directly into households to educate families about health. I am surprise, each and every time I go with a troupe, how welcoming and responding are the people and the students. Everyone loves and appreciates the work of the NSGA and I surely know why now! 🙂

As for me, well I’ve been doing my best to use my drama skills and teaching experience to help them improve what they are doing. I must say they are all very talented but having an outsider observing and giving them feedback on a daily basis can be valuable. I’ve also given them a hand with different other projects like filming an educational movie on Ebola and putting on short plays about HIV/AIDS discrimination for Worlds AIDS Day on December 1st. They performed at the 22nd Arch in Banjul in front of a massive crowd and they just simply looked stunning! I was really proud!

I’m enjoying a lot my time at the NSGA! As much as I’m doing my best to help them, I’m learning a lot myself! I think what they are doing is pretty amazing and very powerful. They are using nothing else but their drama skills to educate the society and therefore, save lives. Successful people think outside the box and I believe the NSGA pulled it off!

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Living on the Smiling Coast

Sorry about the wait! I finally decided it was time to start this blogging thing to give you guys an update of my new Gambian life but also to keep you posted throughout my journey on the African continent!

It’s been almost a month since I finished my 424km fundraising run across The Gambia (you can follow my adventure on love4gambia.com). I am now temporarily living and volunteering in the country until January. When I first decided to take a sabbatical leave from work, my plan was to come to Africa to travel and volunteer. In June, I attended the 25th anniversary dinner of the Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA) to meet everyone from the organization I was going to run for to raise money. During the evening, they presented a video about their drama troupes: devoted, talented, young adults doing drama to raise awareness on health issues in schools and communities… What an amazing idea! As a qualified drama teacher, I knew instantly that I wanted to work with the NSGA. I was very impressed by their work already. I will write more about the organization and my volunteering in my next blog.

So, after the run, I enjoyed a few days of well-deserved rest and recovery. All I did was lay on the beach, eat anything but rice and sleep like a baby. It was awesome. Soon after this little vacation, I was ready to roll again. Most of you know I can’t stand doing nothing for too long!

After starting my 8 weeks contract with the NSGA, I moved into a nice house in the neighborhood of Old Jeshwang, in the region of Kombo (50% of the national population lives in this region). I am living with ‘Papa Mo’ (our landlord), Danielle and Aisha (two other Canadian working for the NSGA) and Ismael (a Gambian working in the area). We also have the daily company of Ndey and Mariama, two young women working for Papa Mo. They take really good care of the house, but they also are excellent tour guides, cooking teachers and clubbing partners!

My week days mostly consist of working (which means following the drama troupes around the region), running (yes, I’m already back on the road), going to the gym (22$/month for a personal trainer is not too bad of a deal!) and doing my shopping around the numerous markets. Fruits, vegetables, meat, bread, condiments, toiletries, clothing, everything is found at a different place. As much as I don’t like Walmart, I must say it has its advantages…

During my weekends, my Gambian husband (aka my bike) and I cycle around the area to do all the touristic things (monkey park, crocodile pool, botanical gardens, beaches) and at night I do the social stuff (drink Julbrew -the local beer, go clubbing, have tea and shisha, hang around with the housemates). One thing I know, I won’t get bored while I’m here! There is so much to see and to do. Everyone is also very welcoming and want to make sure I’m making the most of my time in The Gambia. So far so good!

My key to happiness (and to prevent homesickness) is to keep myself active and busy by doing what I love and be surrounded by people who make me happy. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from this magnificent culture. I would say that I’m adapting pretty well to this Gambian lifestyle and I am enjoying very much my time on the Smiling Coast! 🙂