From 2004 to 2006 I was in The Gambia, Africa, working as a Peace Corps Forestry Volunteer. Like many outsiders, I was initially frustrated by the pace of life and work in West Africa. Almost every culture in the region, from the Mandinka of Mali, Gambia, and Guinea, to the Wolof of Senegal, to the far-ranging Fulani, have a common saying that translates as "I am on it, slowly slowly." One of the quintessential pieces of West African advice offered to those seeking to understand life in Africa is, "Domang domang ka suulo muta" - Slowly slowly catches the monkey. Whether they are catching a monkey or catching a cab, everyone in West Africa it seems, is on it, slowly slowly.
This slowly slowly approach to life can be a source of constant surprise and frustration to the outsider. Whether it is related to work, rest, travel, arrival, departure, construction, bureaucracy, homework, road work, sowing, reaping, tailoring, cooking, greeting or saying farewell, everything seems to be on a slowly slowly train going nowhere. For the newly arrived or the seasoned and cynical, this seems to an outsider to be the cause of any number of Africa's problems. It is tempting to conclude that if only West Africans didn't spend so much time sitting, chatting, and relaxing, they might not fare so poorly on the development indices. Like many Americans who work in Africa, I tried to overcome this slowness and its affiliated frustrations by working hard and creatively, putting in many hours on a variety of projects. However, I eventually realized the value of my work was not in how much I was doing, but in how I was going about it. While frustrating at first to me, I ultimately learned to embrace the slowly slowly approach to life because, at its best, it places relationships first and foremost on the demands of one's time and attention.
I spent over two years in West Africa's smallest small country as a volunteer with the Peace Corps assigned to the Agro-forestry Program of The Gambia National Agricultural Research Institute and the Gambia College School of Agriculture. The culture of being on it slowly slowly affected everything I did, from my journeys around the region to my daily work. While traveling, I learned to wait for hours at the carpark while the five-person station wagon filled up with the required 12 people so we could go, slowly slowly, on our way. In social settings, I learned to wait for each round of ataya, a stoutly-brewed green tea. I would doze off in the hour or so between each brew, watching through the corner of my eye as the sugar was carefully measured, poured, dissolved, caramelized, and poured and poured and poured, until "Ensa!" my local name was yelled. "Kas fele." Wake up, drink up.
Nathan Brouwer (2004 Krista Colleague) After completion of his Peace Corps assignment in The Gambia, Nathan was awarded the distinguished National Science Foundation Fellowship and began graduate study at Michigan State University in conservation biology and ornithology.