Americans’ incredibly busy, on-the-go lives have come at the expense of relationships with those in our communities. We go to work or school in the morning and then return home and lock ourselves inside our houses—all without saying anything to our neighbors. Think for a second how many people on your block you actually speak with on a regular basis. Long gone are the days when—as my father likes to reminisce about his Brooklyn roots—all the young kids get together after school to play sports in the street. One Gambian who has traveled several times to the U.S. told me that such little interaction among neighbors was the most surprising thing he observed.
The highly fast-paced American society has no doubt come with increasing levels of stress, and it’s at least in part due to the emphasis we place on individual work ethic and responsibility. Efforts to resolve stress are centered on the same individualism that contributed to the issue in the first place. We try to live healthier lifestyles, spend time reflecting on our goals, or visit a psychologist. What all this overlooks, then, is the power of social relationships to transform the way we feel about ourselves. Gambians, who live with their extended family and have strong bonds with neighbors, have a support system that seems to keep people smiling all the time, despite their poverty.
Family obligations are so strong here that people have given up comfortable lifestyles in the U.S. because they came home to care for their ill parents. One Gambian had lived in the U.S. for 12 years and had raised his kids there, but he returned home with his family because his mother had become sick. My professor turned down a job offer at the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to come to his father’s aid.