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Preparing for Africa

March 25, 2013

Meet Student Sustainability Blogger Emily Smith van Beek

By Emily Smith van Beek

Sustainability Blogger

While I was in Guatemala, I met a bunch of wonderful people, but one young woman, Marie-Pier Chevrier, made a big impact on me. Marie is a risk taker, is worldly and has had great experiences. She recently moved to Guatemala from Quebec, with only $27 in her bank account, which startled me. 

Marie explained to me that she had no worries. Although she only had $27, many African families make less than that and manage to survive. Marie knew if she took on a similar lifestyle, she would be just fine. Marie can go to the market and pick up fresh vegetables every day for about $1 Canadian, and find small jobs where room and board is free. Living as a traveller doesn’t have to be extravagant. 

Before going to Guatemala, Marie spent just over a month working as a volunteer in Senegal. As I’m heading to Gambia, and they are neighbouring countries, I knew she would be able to give me helpful advice on what to expect. 

I will be spending about four months living and working in Gambia on gender development initiatives. I have never been to Africa before, but I have dreamed of going my whole life. I’ve travelled alone before, but predominantly in my comfort zones of North America and Europe. 

I spoke with Marie about food (of course!), cultural differences and my expectations of the lifestyle in Africa. 

Gambia is a 90% Muslim country, and I was nervous my style of dress would not be culturally appropriate. I thought I would have to keep my head covered (no problem) and go shopping for pants and long skirts. I don’t want to feel restricted, but I also don’t want to be culturally insensitive. Marie told me that the dress code is pretty relaxed. Christians and Muslims live harmoniously, and foreigners are not expected to abide by any strict dress code. A lot of times women who wrap their hair don’t do so because of religion, but because of heat and dishevelled hair. Of course, it wouldn’t be wise to wear anything above the knee or show shoulders, but I had assumed that already. 

Marie also advised me to try not to stand out as a tourist. To become more integrated into the culture, she suggested I find a tailor and have traditional clothes made for me. This would also help to keep street vendors from bothering and exploiting me. 

Just as I was nervous about being a vegetarian in Mexico, I’m nervous about the same thing in Africa. Throughout my travels, some people I’ve encountered have been surprised that I choose to be vegetarian. It is an odd concept for them to grasp, because in these countries meat is such a treasured commodity. Marie told me not to worry about the food though, as everything she had was delicious. Everyone shares meals from large trays, and when the food is prepared, everyone bleaches their hands to kill germs and bacteria.

Usually a dish will contain rice (or couscous), meat and vegetables. You eat with your hands and pick through what you want. If I want to get rid of my meat portion, there will be lots of people willing to have the extra food.  

I don’t know what I’ll miss from home, but only time will tell. I don’t know exactly what I’ll need in Africa or what I’ll have access to, but I feel well prepared. After Mexico, I can take any challenge thrown my way. Instead of needing or missing things from home, I hope that I will adapt easily and take life one day at a time. I don’t want to miss out on anything or restrict myself from fully immersing into a new culture.