Final Days, Final Thoughts

By Caroline Schurman Grenier

As my internship comes to an end, I have so much to say yet I am struggling to put my thoughts into coherent sentences to produce a decent blog post. A form of writer’s block if you will which just makes my challenge sound so much more glamorous, don’t you think?

Despite my constant wondering if I would make it to the end, I did it. I have completed my internship at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa in Banjul. What have I learned over the summer? More than I could have imagined.

I learned that transitional justice is much easier to write about in academic journals than to implement in real life.

I learned that it’s so very frustrating to have ideas and goals for a project when there is not enough money to put those same ideas and goals into tangible change.

I learned that it’s ok to change your mind, which to me is one of the most important realization I have come to over the course of my internship.

I took a class on restorative justice during the last year of my undergraduate degree and found it fascinating. It was my favorite class, the readings were incredible, and the discussions awoke in me a vehement desire to learn more. I aced the final and I thought to myself: “If I get into law school, this is what I want to focus on”.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Isn’t it wonderful to be 22 and to be convinced you have found your calling in life? Well, time goes on, and you turn 23 (a small time frame but after all we change more between 18 and 25 than at any other time in our lives, frontal lobe and all) and you realize maybe it’s not for you.

I started to work at IHRDA just months after the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission Act was passed. I don’t believe in flukes so it was meant to be for me to be here at this time. Former president Jammeh was urged out of office in December 2016 following a vicious 22 year dictatorship and the population wants to be heard and wants financial reparations for their sufferings. It means that The Gambia is still at the brainstorming stage, gathering ideas on how to implement the commission and to apply for funding. It’s the drawing board stage where you try and downplay the chaos of beginnings. They’re doing great at that. Newspaper articles are written on the matter, there are many roundtable discussions where the guests range from ministers to EU delegates to civil society members. But it’s always easier to gather men in suits in boardrooms and draft reports than to go on the streets or in the villages and ask citizens, “and what would you like in this process? What are you looking for?” I did not follow Gambian news as closely as locals but from what I gathered, there is lots and lots of talk but so very little real action on the grounds.

I’m forever grateful to have gone behind the scenes of the academic papers, to understand that the needs of the people are rarely met, that there is hope, but unfortunately hope does not pay for the societal changed needed. The TRRC could still very well take place and could be successful but it will need to learn from the mistakes of other West African states who have undergone a similar process. Gambians pride themselves on their uniqueness and on the uniqueness of their situation, but even unique people must learn from those they deem to be not so unique.

I did not only learn about transitional justice. I learned about the African human rights system in depth. There is so much that has been done but there is so much left to do. There are very little enforcement mechanisms in African courts when decisions are rendered. The African Court, the court with the highest enforcement mechanism, has been ratified by only a handful of African countries. The mountain to climb seems insurmountable to me, but I have been lucky enough to be in a work environment where my colleagues don’t feel the same way. They trust they are doing their part, they want to fight the beast of injustice and although they may not live to see substantive change in African human rights law, they will pave the way which will hopefully allow the next generation to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They love their work and even if they know it is not producing the change they would like to see, they will keep fighting for what’s right.

It’s been an honor to witness such passion and perseverance in my workplace.

Do I not care about human rights law merely because I don’t want practice it? Please do not be so naïve.

I do care deeply about human rights and transitional justice and I greatly admire the men and women who dedicate their lives to such a noble career. There is a spark in their eyes when they engage in ardent discussions on the topic and that spark will stay with them throughout their career. It’s not the same as the interest of a young student reading about something she finds “super interesting”. This is their life, this is their passion.

Living in The Gambia is in itself a tremendous learning experience. I recommend to anyone who feels lost and confused to let yourself feel even more lost and confused and to strip yourself of your sources of comfort, allow yourself to reflect and watch the reflection change your life.

Will I be the next Amal Clooney? Doubtful.

Does that make my experience less pertinent? Does it make my internship useless? Of course not.

Thank you to IHRDA for the work experience and to the Smiling Coast of Africa for the life experience.

Human rights law may not be for me. So what is for me?

Time will tell.

Caroline

For the moment this is the only picture that accepts to upload on my blog post. It’s pretty random, am aware.

Settling in on the Smiling Coast of Africa

No matter how you many countries you visit or live in, moving to The Gambia is a whole different experience. Nothing quite prepares you for the change, the weather, the people, the men, the poverty and the adjustments you have to make. The friendliness on the “Smiling Coast of Africa” definitely helped but I still found it difficult to adjust in my first few weeks.

Things don’t work when you want them to, the power goes off when you really don’t want it to, goats scream in the middle of the night and it’s terrifying, sidewalks are a luxury, it takes 4 hours to get something done when all you need is 30 minutes, you sweat in places you didn’t know existed, seeing cows walking by your side as you try to tan on the beach is normal, you fear the bathroom, you accept you will never be as well dressed as West African women, you’re convinced the mosquito in your bedroom is going to give you malaria, you feel a special bond with your electric fan at work, you try to learn to appreciate instant coffee (I haven’t), and you actually begin to answer when people call you toubab on the street (the Wolof word for white).

If you do not learn to be flexible and to take things with a grain of salt, you won’t like it at all.

Some of the more frustrating aspects of day to day life grow on you with time. I came to enjoy the freezing cold wakeup call of my morning bucket shower making it oh so clear that it was time for work.  I found my evening feet rinse quite therapeutic even if it was because the lack of sidewalks and the abundance of dirt roads make your feet turn a whole new colour. Sometimes the fridge would stop working, meaning it was a reason to go out and eat Gambian cuisine, which is actually fantastic, unless you’re allergic to peanuts, in which case you’d die just by stepping out of the airport of the country where peanuts are the ONLY export.

One ritual I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy is to walk down to the local market after work to pick up my vegetables and mangoes (a food group in itself in The Gambia when they’re in season). There, I get to chat with Ara, a lovely Gambian woman, always beautifully dressed (I could stare at these outfits forever) who runs the fruit and vegetable stand with her brother. I was drawn to her stand on my first day after work and have been going since. A few days in, she asked if I liked parsley and gave me some for free. I was so touched by her gesture; that’s what Gambians are like. They’re happy, they’re generous yet they have so little. It’s incredibly humbling and we can all learn from their wonderful nature.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you and makes you so frustrated you could just scream into a pillow for hours on end. I’m a very independent person, I do things on my own and I’m used to going where I want to solo. As a white woman, even though the country is very safe, I can’t do whatever I want without being disturbed. Going to the gym or for a run? Men will try to run next to you. Go for a leisurely stroll? Have lunch in a restaurant? Go to the beach? Get a taxi? Walk around local markets? Someone is going to introduce themselves to you and propose to you. If you find a Black man to join you, you’re fine. But that still means I have to spend time with someone if I want to venture out anywhere. We all have days where we don’t want to interact with humanity, where we just want to be lost in our thoughts, read, write, drink coffee, listen to music and just be on our own. When I feel that way, I find myself forced to stay home because there is literally no way I can find that peace if I leave my compound.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you but you learn to tolerate it. Cat calling isn’t fun, but some men are more imaginative than others at complementing women. One said I was as pretty as A flower in A garden (no one told him beauty lies in precision), a nice change from the whistles or the ones screaming from the other side of the street, BOSS LADY HI YOU LOOKING GOOD TODAY, I was offered romantic rides on donkey carriages, was proposed to by taxi drivers and was expected to give out my phone number in the same way you throw fish to a hungry crocodile; freely and with no restraint. Many men confessed their love to me, a nice ego boost from my love life back in Montreal. Of course I rarely answered but often took mental notes of what was being said and write it down for entertainment. If you can’t laugh about it, you’ll cry of frustration because it happens so often. Every man wants to shake your hand. WHAT IS WITH THAT? I don’t know you and quite frankly have no desire to know you, so please, save the hand shaking and just wave hello.

It’s not always fun and I often times find myself thinking “I’m The Gambia, what the actual fudge” (censored for academic integrity) and then I remind myself that this is a once in a lifetime experience, that most people never leave their comfort zone and that I am growing so much from my time in The Gambia.

That being said, I’m only human so if I’m having a rough day, that’s ok too. It’ll pass.

 

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