I find that if I read through my journals from my time serving in the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa I write a lot about hospitality. About how welcomed I always felt. About the food that was shared with me. About the care I received. About the gift of being a part of my Gambian family. Hospitality in one way another entered into most of my letters home to friends and family.
But I’m learning that their welcome to me goes much deeper than hospitality.
The Gambian people always started from a posture of trust, of seeing the humanity in the other. We were all, every single person, a part of the community. No questions asked.
This welcome wasn’t because of anything I did but rather who the Gambians were themselves. During my early days in village with my family, when I look back now I see how many things I did and how I acted that would not say to my village: You can trust me!
I made cultural mistakes and broke taboos - I took baths at night, I spilled their green tea, I forgot to greet properly, or sometimes I didn’t greet at all.
I kept to myself. I didn’t eat around the communal food bowl for the first few weeks.
I had so much stuff and I didn’t share it with my family.
I didn’t pray by following the call to prayer and following the specific body movements.
I failed at fasting during Ramadan.
I had a brand new Peace Corps issued bike that sat in my hut virtually untouched and I rarely let others use the bike.
I turned friends and family away who asked for money.
I didn’t always share my food and money.
I cried sometimes in public which looked bad for my family who was to care and provide for me.
It’s a wonder that my family took me in, trusted me, loved me, and cared for me.
But they did. With no questions asked. With no judgement.
From day one the village that became my home for two years welcomed me with open arms.
I was never a stranger. I was family. I was part of the community.
Everything that they owned, they shared with me.
As the guest I was always given respect and fed first.
I could walk into an unfamiliar compound with people I had never met before and I would be welcomed and invited into their lives. I’d be given food and water and a place to sit.
When traveling alone it never failed that everyone aboard the public transport would look out for me and make sure I arrived to my destination.
When I was alone and lost in Senegal I was given use of a shower, directed to a horse cart, and given a ride to a stranger’s home where at midnight I was welcomed into their home and given the children’s bed to sleep for the night.
When my mother came to visit the village from the US the entire village came to greet and welcome her.
At every religious celebration I would be invited to pray and feast. My family would share the traditions and prayers with me. They would ask questions of my Christian faith and I would ask questions of their Muslim faith.
This is just a glimpse into what it looked like being a part of the Gambian, Muslim community. This is my story of being welcomed.
This is a story where all are a part of the community.