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Summer in West Africa MAG
“Are you okay? Would you like a cup of water?” the blond flight attendant asked me. “No, thanks. I’m fine. Really, I’m okay,” I responded as tears fell down my cocoa brown cheeks. I pushed back in my seat and the tangy, sour smell of the airplane food made my tongue curl. The flight attendant announced that in a few hours we would reach our destination, New York. Thinking about returning made me realize even more what I was leaving behind - the people, the land, the food. I kept saying the name of this lovely country, “Gambia, Gambia, Gambia,” until it became a rhythmic rhyme.
The story of this wonderful journey began to replay in my mind. It all started when my parents told me I was going to spend my summer there. Furious, I thought of the fun time I would be missing in New York with barbecues, block parties, quarter ices, and the opening of the neighborhood fire hydrants. Little did I know, however, how much I would discover about myself from this trip to West Africa. As always, the battle ended with my parents winning and nothing left for me to do but go.
On the plane to Gambia, worrying questions ran through my head. Will my relatives like me? Will my skin turn darker? How does this place called Gambia look? Will they call me The American? Even though I was constantly called The American and my skin did get darker, the trip to Gambia turned out to be the complete opposite of what I expected.
When the airplane finally touched down, I remember the hot, golden sun beating down on my face. The sky was so blue and beautiful with bright-colored birds soaring above. Golden sand, palm and mango trees filled the land. The delicious smell of home-cooked meals made my taste buds pop. The sounds of the morning rush, the rustling of pots, different African dialects colored the atmosphere. I rushed inside the airport and found my uncle, aunts, and cousins. They were so happy to see us.
On the ride to my grandparents’ home we passed buildings, mosques, markets, and skyscrapers. Dark- and light-skinned people traversed the streets and were dressed in traditional African clothes and urban street wear. Everyone walked side by side and was friendly toward each other because in Gambia everyone is each other’s brother or sister. The common greeting, “Assalamualkium,” is heard so often that it became a common rhyme to my ears. The delicious, sweet smells of wongo, yasa, abea, and tega hit my
When the car pulled up to my grandparents’ house in Kanifing, everyone was outside waiting for us - grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Some of my relatives cried while others hugged and kissed us.
My grandparents lived in a big white compound with lots of rooms, bathrooms, a large veranda, and an outdoor kitchen. There were flowers and plants all over with big mango, banana, and kaba trees. My mouth longed for the taste of these delicious fruits. After all the hugging and kissing, I was given my own large room and bathroom. Maids brought in a home-cooked meal and fruits that were healthy compared to American food. It all tasted so good that I kept eating, and people doubted I really came from America because of my ravenous appetite. At the end of my two months there, I had gained a lot of weight.
My relatives made me feel at home, and I was never judged or criticized. Even distant relatives considered me a sister. The more time I spent with my family, the more I didn’t want to return to America and the more pride I felt being Gambian. My grandmother and grandfather told me about my ancestors and my Sonike ties that extended back to the Malian empire.
My younger aunt and I became so close that I could tell her anything. We would sit and talk every day. She would lecture me, give me lots of advice, or just listen. We went to neighborhood parties and concerts, and braided each other’s hair. We were practically like sisters.
In the streets there was always a friendly person who would say hello, wave, or smile. There was no crime, no hate - everyone just going about their day. Everyone in Gambia - no matter your skin tone, status, or looks - is like family.
Fridays were beautiful in Gambia. People dressed in colorful caftans to go to the mosque for the daily prayer. Sundays were “Sunday Beach” with everyone lining up to go to Sene-Gambia to enjoy a wonderful day of music and food. I became so attached to Gambia that it was extremely hard to leave. I had changed so much - into a respectful, strong Gambian young adult. I discovered I am an American with Gambian ancestry.
On the day we went home, I cried so much thinking about what I would miss. I had to leave my family, the Gambian lifestyle, the food, and my real home. I had met so many relatives who cared about me whether I was in America or Gambia. I felt bad that initially I had not wanted to go. I feared that I would never return to Gambia and see everyone - especially my grandfather who was ill.
I slowly began to sing to myself again: “Gambia ... Gambia ... Gambia,” while tears streaked my face. “Gambia ... Gambia ... Gambia,” I kept saying until I fell asleep. I dreamed I was back in Gambia but I was much older. Gambia was still beautiful and calm. Everyone there was in good health, including my grandfather. We were laughing and having a good time together.
I felt a hand touch my shoulder. I awoke and to my surprise it was the same flight attendant. “We have just landed at JFK airport,” she said. I rubbed my eyes and thought of my dream. I will return to Gambia one day, I thought. I stood up, slipped on my shoes, and stepped off the plane ready to share my joyful tale of this amazing trip.