By Linda Muhugusa
As the number of days I had left in the Gambia rapidly started to dwindle and had now entered the single digits, I found myself reflecting more and more about my stay and the work I had accomplished over these past few months.
One of the highlights of my stay is undoubtedly the 11 AM break at the bantaba (traditional Gambian gazebo), located in the tropical garden behind our office. This little structure, which harbours a large wooden table and a few chairs, is definitely a source of many found memories for me.
– MAY –
In May, the bantaba was my quiet place. When I arrived in Banjul, I was immediately transposed into the hectic sounds of traffic. The first few days, I was on high alert as I was learning how to navigate the way of life here: figuring out how to cross the street without getting run over by an inattentive cab driver, avoiding getting scammed by merchants offering me high prices, learning the fastest routes around the city to avoid the hefty 5PM traffic…
I was also constantly finding myself in conversations with friendly strangers as I walked back to work, amongst the constant honks of refurbished old Mercedes, the noise of motorcycle engines and the various sounds of the many farms animals walking in the streets (donkey, cows, chicken, goats… you name it!).
The month of May also brought along with it perfect weather. Banjul did not get a single day of rain, and every morning, I woke up to clear skies. The air was warm but still welcoming, something that was soon going to be replaced by heat and humidity.
The bantaba was then the perfect place for me to relax and escape the noise of the city. There, I found peace and quiet. As the month of May coincided with the month of Ramadan, many of my colleagues were fasting and few of them were present during the break. I was often eating by myself, listening to music while gazing at the various reptiles and insects that hid a few feet apart from me in the garden.
On many afternoons, I found myself drawn to bring my laptop outside and to continue working on assignments over there. My boss could see how much I loved this bantaba, and used to say, jokingly, that I should simply move my entire office there.
– JUNE –
June felt like home. I now had an established group of friends in The Gambia. I felt like I really knew my neigborhood, and I felt confident going anywhere by myself around the city. It was the time of solo escapades to neighbouring areas during the weekends and meetings with friends for coffee and small talk on weeknights.
During that time, I also got the opportunity to get to know my colleagues a bit more. As the end of a month of fasting came to an end for many, our dining table under the little bantaba suddenly felt full during this mid-day break. This time off work was the perfect opportunity to have fruitful discussions with colleagues, all while sipping on sweet coffee or tea and indulging in the various delicious meals prepared by Fatou, the beloved office cook.
We talked about everything from recent cases that the IHRDA had taken on, to African politics, passing by the hurdles of writing the bar in Nigeria and The Gambia. Undoubtedly however, the most heated topic of discussion concerned football, and previsions on which team would beat who in the African cup.
– JULY –
July soon felt like the beginning of the end. Every few days or so, I had to say goodbye to a colleague who was leaving on vacation or on a work trip, and who wouldn’t be back at the office until after I had left. I had to say goodbye to a few friends. I also had to finalize work projects that I had spent weeks working on, all while trying to cross off my bucket list everything I had been wanting to visit in The Gambia.
During my last week, I sat down with my supervising legal officer to discuss how I had found my internship. I couldn’t help but smile. I still cannot fully grasp how transformative this experience has been. I learned and developed an array of legal skills, as the inter-African nature of my internship enabled me to work on challenging cases in many countries, and to perform legal research in different languages and for various jurisdictions. It is now clearer to me as ever that working in an international environment is something that I deeply value.
At that point, nostalgia started creeping in. Coincidentally, my colleagues and I were also often made to have our 11AM break inside the office, as rain, mosquitos, construction and humidity kept us away from the bantaba. It was as if nature itself was trying to keep me away from this comforting place…
But on July 26th, the skies were as clear as they had been in the month of May. We gathered around the bantaba’s table to celebrate my last day of work. That afternoon, right before I left the office for good, I stepped back outside in the office’s garden. I took a quick snapshot of our Bantaba, as if to say goodbye.