Student column: What we can learn from The Gambia


Editor’s note: Bornstein is a former Kennedy High School Herald student columnist who is now studying at Dartmouth College. He is from Merrick.

KANIFING, The Gambia—The other day on Al Jazeera a movie director was talking about why he left his luxurious California home for a much simpler lifestyle. Convinced of the limits of using his wealth to value his self-worth, he has now sought personal contentment in building relationships with other people.

“I feel richer now,” he remarked.

It occurred to me that this mindset is exactly what differentiates The Gambia from the United States. I spent three months here on a study abroad program, interacting with the most friendly and hospitable people I’ve ever met. While Americans may be the wealthiest people in the world, the Gambians are far wealthier in their sense of community and their social support system. And that is what gives people great fulfillment in this tiny West African nation, despite its abysmal 168 out of 187 ranking on the United Nations Human Development Index. It is no wonder that The Gambia’s nickname is the “Smiling Coast of Africa.” We have a lot to learn from people here.

In Gambian rural villages, not only do neighbors know one another quite well, but you cannot even walk somewhere without conversing with the people whom you see on your way. And this goes beyond the polite, “Hi, how are you?” greeting. It could involve five to 10 minutes of friendly, joking discussion. As I walked through a village to interview rice farmers for my research project, I often became frustrated by how many times I would be stopped and expected to interact with people. After a while, though, I began to embrace the practice, and wondered why Americans are so insistent on having their personal space.

A particularly telling example of this country’s friendly culture was when I had brought a few rice farmers to visit the Gambian family that I been placed with. Within seconds of meeting my Gambian father, the farmers were chatting and laughing with him. It was as if they had known each other for 10 years! They sat there talking for an hour, and one realized that he was a friend of the other’s brother—a sign of how tight-knit this small country is.

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