A village in the Gambia; 'Welcome to the real world'

The road to Keneba, where Evelyn Phillips serves as a Peace Corps volunteer, does not appear to lead anywhere. No electric wires or telephone poles link it with the rest of the country, no signs reassure you that you're on your way.

Unpaved and nearly overgrown, it meanders through the thick bush, apparently without aim, until the muted rhythm of women beating grain in wooden mortars signals the proximity of the village of Keneba.

Evelyn, a medical and social worker from the Florida Panhandle, is pleased to stop her work and show us around. There isn't a lot to see: long rows of thatched huts, one huddled against the next; streets carpeted in brown sand, thick as on a beach; women fetching precious water for washing and cooking from wells that must be dug deeper every year.

"Welcome to the real world," Evelyn says.

Most of us derive our images of Africa from ooga-booga Hollywood movies depicting painted warriors in loincloths chasing hunters in pith helmets, from the old geographical journals with pictures of big game and scantily clad natives, or from news dispatches about conflicts between black and white and Marxist vs. moderate.

This village seems very distant from all of that. Young men work patiently in the fields. Old men recline in the shade. The children, like most in Africa , have never seen an elephant or a lion.

The Gambia is one of Africa's smallest nations, just two slivers of shore along the banks of the Gambia River. All told, its land area about equals that of Connecticut; its population is no larger than Seattle's. Much as being large and powerful is an inescapable fact of life for a nation like the United States, so being small and powerless is the dominant reality for a country like The Gambia.

Even the name reflects this: It had been called simply Gambia. But a change was made to better distinguish it from Zambia, where The Gambia's mail kept winding up.

This year, The Gambia is a 16-year-old, and it is a fairly happy birthday. When The Gambia gained its independence from Britain, it was predicted that the nation would not survive a year. The economy would collapse, people said, or it would be annexed by Senegal, its neighbor on all sides save one. But as an independent country, The Gambia has been able to request and receive aid from sources as diverse as the United States and the Soviet Union, China, and Taiwan.

The Gambia also looked for assistance from Libya, a fraternal Muslim nation. The Gambia's leaders, however, refused to applaud Col. Muammar Qaddafi's every policy and program in exchange for this aid. So the Libyan leader began training a contingent of Gambian students, intending to send them back to stage a coup. A few months ago, The Gambia's leaders found out about it and sent Libya's diplomats and advisers packing. Even weak countries have to draw the line somewhere.

A country as small as The Gambia can be largely defined by what it lacks. It has no army, navy, or air force. It has no political prisoners or monuments to revolutionary heroes. There has not been a major social disturbance in the country in more than 300 years. The Gambia has no university. The national airline has a ticket office but no planes. The country has few professional people, and its first pharmacist is only now being trained in Louisiana, sponsored by a group put together by Alex Haley, the American writer who a few years ago found his "roots" in The Gambia.

The country's income comes mainly from raising peanuts. It has also begun to attract a growing number of foreign tourists. Some Gambians are concerned about the impact tourism will have on the country. Others argue that The Gambia's wide, white beaches and reliable sunshine are too valuable not to exploit. Peanuts and foreign largess alone will never pull the nation up from poverty.

For the tourists who find their way here, there will be more than a chance to get a suntan. There will be the opportunity to see a bit of Africa as it really is; it has become a place where the stereotypes do not apply. And coming into wider contact with the outside world may not be so unhealthy for the Gambians, either. The Arabs, Portuguese, French, and British have all come and gone here. The Gambia's culture is already a tapestry of these influences, overlaying a strong fabric of tribal traditions.

After nearly a year in The Gambia, Evelyn Phillips says the people of Keneba are beginning to accept her and that she is finally beginning to feel at home as well. She says she is learning a lot from them and hopes they are learning from her, too. She would like to believe she is doing some good here. Of course, Keneba is only a very small village in a very small country. But it is, as Evelyn says, the real world.

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