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Spring 2005 | Volume 28, Number 1 | Features

Brikama, The Gambia: Trading Comfort for Commitment

Last summer, I accepted an offer to join the U.S. Peace Corps to assist with agricultural development in The Gambia, West Africa. Wedged among many struggling neighbors, the country is one of the most materially needy places on earth. In many regions, the soil is infertile; too little food is grown to feed the population; and the forests have almost all been cut. My work involves assisting the National Agricultural Research Institute to improve efficiency and to pass on its discoveries to Peace Corps workers throughout the country.

In Africa with the Peace Corps, Nathan Brouwer says he is learning about citizenship.

While studying at SPU, I became convinced that Christians are called to cultivate the world — both spiritually and materially. In addition to spreading the gospel around the globe, I believe we are called to offer cups of cold water and loaves of broken bread to our global neighbors. Now that I’ve moved from the challenging
but comfortable classrooms of Seattle Pacific to the dusty heat of Africa, I’ve had the opportunity to put my theological ideas into perspective.

Life runs at a slow pace here, or “slowly slowly,” as we say in The Gambia for added emphasis. I’ve spent many hours at my friends’ homes, watching them brew tea and chatting, or just sitting in the shade, avoiding the sun. Traveling anywhere in this country also requires patience: A 100-mile trip can take four punch-drunk hours in the back of a sweaty “bush taxi.”

But while life in general may seem to progress in slow motion, on some days the amount I learn is incredible. On a recent bike ride with my friend and Mandinka language tutor, Bakery Demba, I learned more about “citizenship” than I had in four years of college.

Bakes, as I call him, has spent most of his 29 years living in “Kombo” — the local name for the greater urban area that stretches languidly south of the capital, Banjul. However, Bakes was born in Janneh Kunda, a village tucked in the middle of nowhere, connected to the main highway only by a series of sandy and circuitous roads that wear on the cars and travelers passing through.

While peddling along the roadway, we chatted about “rural development,” the official parlance for “how to help poor people grow more food.” Bakes is the public relations officer for a Kombo-based development group that supports his community back home. Recently the administration asked him to consider moving back to Janneh Kunda to manage a cashew farm to raise money for the town.

He paused briefly after relating this story, and then said, “This is a difficult question.” Bakes is a successful tutor and translator — well-educated and established. Returning to the provinces to become a farmer is not a logical career choice for him.

But as we peddled on south toward Senegal, dodging potholes and calls of “Toobob!” (the local equivalent of “Gringo!”), Bakes’ commitment was apparent, and it was clear that he had already made his decision. Bakes knows what I am just now coming to understand: To support development in your community is not enough — you must actively participate.

Bakes’ deep commitment to citizenship is inspiring him to move against the tide of migration that is emptying the provinces of able bodies and filling the urban areas with poor people. He is electing to move his family from the mild urban poverty of our town, Brikama, to the open-well depths of rural poverty, where there are no doctors, no electric power lines, no paved roads, no phone lines, no cell towers. He is ready to give up a comfortable life in order to honor his village’s tradition of living off the land.

I’ve embarked on a journey analogous to Bakes’ journey, moving from sophisticated Seattle to dusty and trash-strewn Brikama. Still, being a global citizen doesn’t require a 20-hour plane trip to Africa. What is most important is a commitment to place, and to down-to-earth revitalization of the capacity of communities to sustain themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And the culture that needs to be engaged? It may be right outside the door — whether it’s solid wood like yours, or nail-hole-ridden metal like Bakes’.

Jiangzi, China: Improving Women's Health
Port-au-Prince, Haiti: When God Says "Go"


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