IMG_0030.JPGWhen I arrived at my new home in Velingara two months ago, there were 10 of us living in the house – not many by local standards. But recently my host family has had some visitors. Five of their relatives from The Gambia have been staying with us for the past month, bringing our total up to 15. At first I thought they were just here to spend some quality time with their Senegalese cousins. But once I noticed my neighbors had their Gambian family staying with them as well I realized this wasn’t a simple holiday.

For the first half of January there was a bit of an international crisis in the region. The former president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, had refused to give up his seat after losing in the recent election, and in doing so had caused a tense international standoff sending waves throughout West Africa. Nigeria, a country 3,000 kilometers away, sent in troops, as did ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States), and Senegal had its soldiers poised on the border ready for conflict.

However if it wasn’t for our Gambian relatives staying with us, I might never have known there was a problem. Here in Velingara it was business as usual. Offices and schools were functioning on schedule, and the locals went about town in their usual easygoing ways. I still went to my garden each morning, had breakfast at Assouma’s, and greeted Ibrahim as I passed his shop. People here might talk about the problem, but not with me. Even if they did, I still don’t understand Pulaar.

Regardless of what I knew was going on 200 miles away in Banjul, the Gambian Capital, I have gotten to witness first hand how this political crisis has affected ordinary people. It hasn’t been difficult for me to adapt, since I don’t have to share my room. But like most families here, we don’t have extra rooms or extra beds to accommodate a 50 percent increase in residents. So my host parents and siblings have had to share theirs.

This isn’t just in my house. 45,000 Gambians have fled across the border during this crisis and many are staying with their families here in Senegal. This is particularly prevalent in my town, which is less than 10 miles from the Gambian border.

Even though it’s a little tighter around the bowl during lunch, and there are more mouths to feed, I can’t help but feel that the people here don’t think of this extended stay as a burden the way I imagine most Americans would. This crisis has allowed many people here to showcase the hospitality that they’re famously known for, and is proof that people here share everything including their hardships. After all, Senegal is Wolof for “our boat” – a symbol that we’re all in it together.

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