SR article

What defines Gambian culture?

In this article, we will elucidate six different dimensions of Gambian culture and discuss how we can integrate these dimensions in our project.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

In the Gambia there is a lot of collectivism. Family is very important; traditionally families are large and up to three generations may live together in one household. Families may include people that are not tied with bloodlines but are still called relatives. Also, families can have a very complicated hierarchy. An important reason for this is that man can have more than one wife. This makes families larger and harder to understand for outsiders.

Not only families are important, also different ethnic groups and village bonds play an important role in daily lives of Gambian people. The different groups and different feeling of collectivism are quite complex. It may be hard for us to understand the bonds between families and groups, so it is very important we are careful and polite when contacting them.

Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism

Hierarchy is important in the Gambia. As said, in families there can be a strict and complex hierarchy, but also in villages this plays an important role. Every village in the Gambia has an Alkalo, which is the chief. Usually this is the oldest man of the founding family of the village. When he dies, there is a voting for the new Alkalo, but this is almost always the first son of the previous Alkalo.

The Alkalo is the head of the so called Council of Elders. The council of Elders is formed by the Kabillo, which are the oldest males of other families in the village, and the Imam. When you get to meet the Alkalo it is considered polite to give him a bag of Kola nuts as a gift [24].

So the Gambia is a lot more hierarchic than most western countries, in families and in villages. Also within other groups there can be a strict hierarchy. In the groups of women we are going to work with this is probably also the case. Therefore, we should be very careful with approaching people. We have a local contact, which may help us to understand the hierarchy and the relations in the Gambia.

Uncertainty avoidance vs. Voluntarism

Since their harvest is all that the people in the region where we are going to be have, they have high uncertainty avoidance as to their harvest. This means that people are not going to put all their harvest in a 'black box' and wait what is going to happen, because what if it is all gone? In particular the older people in the villages are not very voluntarist. They have been handling this situation for years and do not want to change it suddenly.

On the other hand, younger people and especially the group of women that we are going to work with are eager to learn and try new things, even with their harvest. That makes them some more voluntarist. However, young people have to listen to the older people, so that will be a difficulty for us. We are going to manage this by approaching these people with respect and showing them how the solar dyer works and what happens to the food inside. 

Synchronic vs. Sequential

The inhabitants of The Gambia mostly live synchronic. Most people don’t save money and they tend to spend everything immediately. The biggest cause for this is the poverty in the country. When you barely earn enough money to buy your family supper, you have no choice but to spend everything immediately.

However, in the hunger season people eat less rice than in the normal season (for example 8 cups of rice in one pan instead of 10 cups), otherwise there won’t be enough left for the end of the hunger season. So in this case they do have a sense of planning things, but in most things they don’t.

This attitude is not in line with the thoughts behind our project. Our main aim with the project is to dry leftovers of the harvest for consumption during the hunger season. For this you will need self-control, don’t eat or sell the dried products immediately, and planning, when to dry the products and how to store them. We would need a different mind-set than the one present now. We hope to achieve this by implementing a planning part in our workshops together with the local women. We will also assist in organizing a place to store the food and in making a drying plan about when to dry what kind of food and when to eat or sell it.

Status by position/tradition vs. Status by achievement/labour

If we talk about official status, it is mostly obtained by position and tradition. In most cases the oldest male of the founding family of the village is the Alkalo (chief) and after his retirement, his oldest son takes over. Although this is officially determined by elections, the oldest son of the Alkalo is almost always chosen because he has the most knowledge about governing the village, since he is raised and educated by his father. Within the village, the Alkalo is the person with the highest status [25]. The current president of the country has gained his position by means of a coup. He earns his respect by position, not by his impressive history in politics.

Daily respect however does not have to come by position or tradition. For instance, women groups are kept in high respect within the village because they work on the land and take care of the children. Within the women group however, the oldest woman is the leader, followed by the second eldest et cetera. So within this group again we have status by tradition. 

Finally, a person with a certain religious position also has a high status, which can be seen in the fact that there is also a religious leader (Alimamo) in some villages that shares some responsibilities with the Alkalo.

For our project, this means that we will have to address the Alkalo, the women group leader or possibly the Alimamo and not someone 'subordinate'. The Alkalo is the one that has to give permission ultimately [24].

Particularistic vs. Universalistic

The Gambia can mostly be seen as particularistic. As corruption and particularism go hand in hand, it is no surprise that corruption is also highly present in The Gambia. When president Jammeh came to power, a lot of his friends and family became high officers. 

Although, since 90% of the country is Islamite, general Islamite rules like not stealing or killing and not worshipping more than one god can be seen as quite universal in The Gambia [26].

As a consequence of the particularistic character of the Gambian culture, we have to contact the right persons through the right channels if we want to achieve a certain thing. For example, we can ask Kawsu, Barbara's husband, to have the first contact because he is a Gambian himself, or to whom we should go first.


Chapter 3 (accessed at 30-09-2016):


All rights reserved