Travelling Between Two Worlds

Just riding the train between Heildburg and Paris. I am taking the time to visit a few European based friends on the way home. I felt like it would be good to write and share a few thoughts on transisitioning between two (or three or more) cultures.

Let's start with some basics :)

The train is quite different to Gambian transport, clean, quiet, comfortable, reliable and apologetic (thy just apologized for a 7 min delay). 

However, perhaps the most glaring difference was the price. (Over 100 euros - yikes, I was not expecting that!) it was a mistake not making my booking so far enough in advance. Left with no practical choice and bartering (my initial instinct) was out of the question so I simply handed over credit card and pay. (The train was leaving in 10mins) 

The fact that everything is 10 to 100 times expensive is just a small piece of the puzzle. 

Another key difference here is the amount of choice. Food, clothes, services, kitchen supplies, building materials, pretty much everything you can name there is so much choice it can be overwhelming. When you get a coffee their are 10-20 different kinds and 3 sizes. This can be overwhelming after coming from a place with only two breads (see earlier post) and one brand of instant coffee. 

Complexity would be the next difference - buying my train ticket was an technological marvel. Very different from getting in a car at Barra or Serekunda to ride up country. The systems that support getting people to places on time and keep these people 'in-line' are complex - no one person understands all there is to know. 

In Gambia there is typically one top person who is setting the conditions and price. If you have friends, family or if you are kind enough pretty much anything can go. 

In the west, the rules and prices are systems that are compiled across huge networks; researched, scrutinized based of cost analysts and user data - information is made available and shared through the web and interactive machines that can translate displays in 3-12 languages. In addition maps, symbols and graphics help further guide the user even then help is often required to understand all that is going on. (As my case today) 

It is also important to note the rules more often than not don't bend. (I just saw an elderly man get a severe fine for not processing his ticket which he purchased  ) 

Distance between people is another striking reality - people are apart and love separation. Neighbours often don't know each other - and it doesn't bother them it is normal or perhaps even polite.  

In many cases people put as much distance between themselves as possible. People are always engaged in something focused on being productive working (much like I am doing right now)., sleeping (a productive act) or entertaining themselves with an activity.  I have not greeted or talked to anyone aside for the person who stamped my ticket - the man beside me reads a book, the women in front is writing emails, the men in front are fast asleep and the woman and child are playing video games. (Interestingly enough the women and child are from a different culture and have the volume up - people are visibly annoyed including myself as I can hear it above my headphones and there is only so much repetitive steel drum calypso I can take - apparently my is somewhere around 40mins) 

However, the adjustment I find that has the most significant impact on me is advertising and marketing. The subtle yet powerful appeal to fulfill your inner most desires through products, services or other means. Momentary or lasting comfort, happiness, sexual gratification and belonging (and perhaps other) are promises (often true but empty) are fluanted. 

I know this also exists in the Gambia (I can see its effects on the people there - fancy headdresses, skin bleaches, flashy cheaply made electronics, miracle 'weight gain' pills (yes you read that right, weight gain) and the migrant criss - (smugglers sell an incredibly desirable service ) but in Gambian the limited level of sophistication and cultural target dilute its effects on me. 

Here the prevalence, intelligence and relevant targeting make it a powerful predator of your thoughts and emotions, particularly after being away from it for a few months.

It is not just billboards, radios and TVs. Everything is made to look appealing store displays, buildings, musical, wrappers, clothes, social media and community landscapes. Someone has thought and acted on just about everything. Town centres and malls are a spectacle of desire. Not that all of these are evils but hooks and snares abound and it is hard to know friend and foe (sometimes they are one and the same)

Deep inside my emotions oscillate wildly anywhere between a welcome full embrace (nice to be back in the land of efficient service, functional design and predictable quality/experience) to falling into the trap of lustful self seeking desires to an outright violent rejection (disgust, sorrow and shame) often resulting in a physical knot in my stomach or pain in my chest. 

All said, getting between the two worlds is  an intensive boot camp mentally, emotionally and physically. With out doubt all cultural worlds are places of both beautiful God given humanity and devilish inhumane brokenness - each display these realities in unique patterns.

Where all this thinking brings me too in the acknowledgment that I often wrestle to find the presence of the gospel in the experience of transisitioning between two culture. 

How does it apply in worlds - each seem to have their own priorities? 
Can it be completely compatible and continuous in both worlds? 
Are there different truths and gospel messages for different people? 
Which type of civilization does it ultimately draw us too? 

It does not take long to interpret the Bible in a way that marginalizes and dehumanizes cultures. (Or to justify the same type of acts). In each place we teach and understand the gospel through the lense of the culture. Is God and his character or way so fickle? 

With these lenses stumble down the path of life. Is there a way to remove the lenses? 

I don't feel like I have good answers to this experience of colliding worlds even after so many journeys. I am equipped only with a few nuggets of wisdom, a gift of faith and a handful of coping strategies that fills in the holes. 

In the end I choose to believe the recorded events and life of Jesus Christ or Nazareth (and the supporting cannon). What I have read and come to understand is the only thing that I believe can possibly bridge the gaps between all worlds and cultures. I don't fully understand how and often I wrestle and fight to hold to this believe but what else can I turn to? It is the only place I see hope that can sustain myself and has room for everyone else - in is a hope for all people in all situations. 

Lord have mercy teach and lead me in your way - my heart, mind and soul need your rest. Fill me with faith hope and love for the journies ahead. 

Aside for posting the link to my best of photo collection, this will most likely be my last post for a while. Thanks for reading along. I hope you found it interesting, amusing and encouraging. If you want to chat about any of the posts or anything else related to the trip (or life in general) drop me a line I would glad to hear from you and discuss further. 
Peace and joy. 

Weddings and Culture

Marriage is (or should be) an important event for a couple, their families and community. When things are important people develop many expectations. So wedding are a celebration full of expectations. This makes weddings an wonderful window into the mindset and inner workings of a culture. 

Last weekend I attended an urban wedding which was hosted at my compound. I've put together a few observations to help understand some differences. 

Let's begin with planning... 

In western society weddings are typically planned over 6 months to 2 years. 6 months being rushed needing flexibility for venue, photographers and typically void of elaborate extras two years for the dream wedding with handcrafted designer everything. Last week's wedding the date of the wedding was announced a month before and the planning atarted the week of. 

Wedding invitations:
Typical Western:
A strategic list is compiled - balancing numbers scrutinizing relationships of friends and family. In many cases invites are sent to unlikely attendees first then after their regrets are received new people are added to the list.

Last week's:
Public announcement was made two week's ahead - phone calls made to all friends and family. Even if you don't know the bride or groom you are welcome. 

The dress:
Typical Western -with bridal magazines in hand brides brides maids and moms parade the wedding district searching for he perfect dress (the right price is part of the perfection). The dress is then fitted and refitted to check. 

Last week:
The dress was still being made 30mins before the wedding was due to start. 

Typical Western:
Bride and groom taste the menu selection month ahead. Buffet or plated meals. Cost $40 and up per head. 

Last week's:
The women or the community get together and cook serve 3-4 meals for the day. Total cost ~ $2 a head.

Typical western: 
1 to 2 hired venues plus picture sites. Reserved a year or so in advance. 

Last week:
In your front yard. 

Marriage ceremony sermon or advise
Typical Western:
5-20 minute personalized encouragement to the bride and groom and the community.

Last week's:
1 hour plus discertation on marriage. 

Processional Music:
Typical western: 
Hired professionals, competent friends and family (sometimes family is allowed to be incompetent)  or a cousin with an iPod will play music pre-selected music for the bride. 

Last week's:
A group of musicians wondering around town saw there was a wedding about to start and showed up and started to play as the bride "walked down the aisle" (no aisle so she just circled the chairs)

Finally, the reception:
Western typical:
A programmed affair with speaches, coordinated food and assigned seating. Only invited people can typically attend. 

Last week's 
People sitting around and eating for the rest of the day. Many people come even after missing the ceremony. 

All in summary, both cultures have ridiculous expectations and practices. (That what is many way make them special occasions as we aim to make them important throught cultural significance) 

The western wedding typically strives to achieve this through organization and thoughtfulness. Meanwhile The Gambian wedding achieves this with the priority on inclusiveness. 

Work To Get Her

Africa is culture build on sharing and relationship. Even if you just met someone 5 minutes ago you share bowls, spoons, cups, bikes, chairs, shovels, phones, buckets, brooms, flashlights, hammers, pens, scissors, toilets, beds, water sources, shoes, money,.... I think you are getting the picture. 

This phenomenon is primarly driven by scarcity - you share a large bowl when you eat because you cannot afford for everyone to have their own plate. You share chairs because few can (or choose to) afford to have more than a couple chairs of their own. 

In the west we are capable of having our own and are even frowned upon when we don't - millions of garages and closets across the west are filled with tools, toys, clothes and sports equipment that are barely used once a year (or once). You wouldn't dare share the same cup with all your co-workers or all the people in line at Starbucks - of course not!  This is what cups, cans and bottles you use once and throw away are for. 
Finally, if you decided to gather enough courage to knock on your neighbour's door (at random) to talk to them, you definitely wouldn't ask them to borrow you a bucket everytime you need to flush your toilet because you do want to pay to fix its flushing mechanism. 

However, there is one thing I have noted in my African experience that is not easily shared. It is work

Realizing it has surprised me as I only was able to make the connection recently. This is probably because the thing most often shared in the west is work. I have grown up in home not unlike many others where work was shared. People cooperated to see the benefit of the whole entity. Leadership pulls people together to get people to share in a vision and work towards it. (You may disagree but I see the progress of our culture has been entirely dependent on it) 

It is possible that it is related back to the lack of affluence. However, I would have thought it would drive people to group together to help overcome. Instead, there seems to be more of a mistrust or worry about who will get the best of who. Perhaps the stakes always seem high even with small value - you can live a week off of $3 here. In addition there are very few controls and reports in a cash society. For these reasons I can see it hard to trust people. 

In many cases you can ask the question if the affluence is cause or the symptom of not being able to work together.

A few examples:

The power bill... People would prefer paying for a $60 meter so they can differentiate who is consuming exactly what and avoid paying a flat rate (a the full power bill for the average family is $3 or less - the differences would be a dime or two) 

Farmers here do not have a co-op to help sell their crops at a fair price. Each farmer would rather each negotiate their own price. (I guess for either believing they can do better, lack of trust or or not having to pay a communal due or membership fee) They later complain when the get a bad deal from the savy businessmen who waits until they are starving before offering to buy it at an under valued price. .

Husbands and wives often refuse to share in each other's responsibilities (this is particularly true of men) - even if there are coinciding responsibilities, a sickness or a birth. If something isn't right or working (dinner is late, daily market money not being enough). When such an event occurs there is little collaboration on how things should be resolved or improved upon. 

Women and men will seldom collaborate on business ideas or ventures. This is true even when it could make the difference between starving and eating or there is no or little downside the offer. 

Each person wants their own business and to be accountable to themselves alone. I have seen this in cases where someone (me or others) have even offered an amazing deal. Like offering paying all startup cost or buying communal tools to be shared) 

What triggered today's thought is I am currently trying to get a group to collaborate in synergistic businesses to provide pull through revenue opportunities. ie. Sew a young women a custom made dress - why not sell them the custom made bracelet, necklace and earing that go with it? It just seems like a slam dunk but everyone is more worried about being compensated for their exact work and costs. Argh! 

All said, if I see progress in working together before coming home I will be quite pleased. :)

Breads of The Gambia a Consumer Review

In the west there has been an increasing trend to offer consumers more choice when it comes to the breads they eat. Gone are the days of a simple white or whole wheat selection. The market is flooded with breads containing complex mixtures of sesame, flax, pumpkin, rye, quinoa and potato. There are whole grains, ancient grains, up to 12 grains (I can't even name 12 grains). They even sell bread without the main bread ingredient, glutten. 

Much like the west The Gambia now offers its resdidents a wide selection of bread at local stores across the nation. Namely two kinds, Tapalapa and Sensfuru - long gone are the days of the tapalapa's monopoly in the rural areas. Consumers now have a choice to make.

I went to my local store bought and then ate both breads this morning order to provide you the reader a comprehensive review. 

Malwbe's store sells both breads 7days a week day and night conviently right across the street from my compound. Both breads are priced at 7D ($0.20) so the choice is left to the consumer's preference in taste, texture and social associations.

Sensfuru, the Incumbent, pictured towards the top and the long reigning tapalapa pictured on the bottom. 

The Tapalapa tradition runs deep into the stomachs of the of local people. The loaf carries more weight then Senfuru despite its smaller size. Tapalapa is the pride of the Qu'ranic school tradition. Made by hand the bread if first tapa'd (rolled) and then lapa'd (beaten), thus the name. It is then baked in wood fire ovens across the country. It is the symbol of the working man. No maisoner or welder dare show up at the job site with anything else.

As you pick up a Tapalapa you realize this was made with one purpose, to satisfy your hunger. It is a robust bread capable of holding shape after a 30 min ride on the back of a motorcycle - store owners will often demonstrate the bread's integrity as they smack them together to remove inwanted sand or dirt before they are sold. 

Notably Tapalapa is not the most refined product - ants, rocks and other foreign debris often find there way into the dough. However, they frequently go unnoticed do the the dense texture and satisfying nature of the bread (think of it as extra protein, minerals or fibre). 

Tapalapa is best enjoyed with simple spreads (butter, mayo, chocolate or with a greasy fried egg). For this morning's evaluation I used a local peanut butter and chocolate spread mix. Due to the density of the bread it took about 4 minutes to make it through the half a loaf.

Sensfuru is named after the famed "high tech" bakery that first produced it in the affluent part of town. It wasn't until more recent years that the bread was able to be transported reliably to more remote areas. 

Soft and supple to touch Sensfuru appeals to those with more refined taste. Ultra refined ingredients and modern electric oven make for a consistent bake that is typicall free of any ants, rocks or other debris. It is a particular favourite of women who are hoping to move up the social ladder. 

However, many will complain the Sensfuru's light airy text texture does not do enough to satisfy one's hungry and often comes squished or deformed from the store - Note my sample had a squished end left end. 

Sensfuru really excels at complex sandwiches with numerous toppings particularly ones that are voluminous as the soft inner bread compacts to the outer crust allowing ample room for lettuce, tomatoes, boiled eggs, potatos, Salads and the like. 

I enjoyed this morning's Sensfuru as a delightful egg salad sandwich. 

In conclusion, the arrival of this new bread will only further improve the quality of life for the locals. At the end of the day I still prefer the Tapalapa mostly for its hardy nature. However I am delighted to be have Sensfuru available for its ability to hold a proper egg salad sandwich. 

For the future of bread in rural Gambia. I see the continued rise of Sensfuru. The possible arrival of dense sweet bread, despite the view that a sweetness in bread is too radical and progressive, may once again bring more choice. However, at this time it remains only a speculation.

For now what is important the Gambians will for the forseable future continue to enjoy the luxury of choice with their breads.