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Smile; you look familiar.

“The Gambia; The Smiling Coast of Africa”! What a beautiful tagline, in fact it is true, only not entirely so. How’d we even come upon the name the smiling coast? I mean, we just emerged from the decades long grip of a murderous tyrant yet we say “The Gambia No Problem” with a smile.

People don’t necessarily wear a frown but they hardly smile at you either, unless you are an acquaintance. People will acknowledge you, when they walk past you.  The ever present “salaama laykum” is always assured, but that’s about it.

That greeting (acknowledgement) in and of itself should be enough, because it is an engagement beyond a smile where words are exchanged. Of course a smile is heartwarming and pleasant to receive, but the greetings have morphed into a mere dry formality of sorts. It has become an expected norm, almost completely devoid of meaning.

The giver knows it is expected of him or her, and the respondent on the other hand knows a response is expected whenever an acknowledgement is accorded. But even in that brief exchange, the observant one will notice if there is any familiarity between the one extending the greeting and the one responding.

The bare minimum is given and returned in that exchange, some merely make the ‘s’ in salaam audible just so they won’t get the rude tag. The rest of the phrase mumbled, barely audible. The response is also usually an inaudible growl.

Now it’s different if that’s your neighborhood or you’re acknowledging familiar people, in which case it most likely may even go past the customary “salaama laykum/ma laykum salaam.” You will get an “eh! abeh dee/nakam” now with that you know there’s familiarity in the air, the enthusiasm is conveyed by an unmistakable smile. Customer service agents are familiar with the guideline that “every phone call should be received with a smile” because smiling to someone even over the phone conveys a pleasant voice to the other end and the caller perceives it.

You may be tempted to say it is only common sense to be wary of strangers and not act as if you’re familiar with them; true. But, acknowledging each other with a smile and heartfelt salaams should not be an affair for strangers or acquaintances. In fact, the irony is that the greatest beneficiaries who enjoy that very pleasant side of us the most are complete strangers; European tourists.

When the government recently decided to condemn an assault on journalists they made it a point to reference a foreign journalist who was assaulted in the same incident and at the same venue with a local journalist who didn’t even get a passing comment, that is a reflection of a deeper rooted societal view; strangers enjoy the best of who we are unless we are dealing with close and familiar faces.

Take a stroll along the Bakau vegetable stalls (on the main road from Cape Point leading to Fajara), compare the quality of the produce to the ones in the market stalls right next door and assess the target market (customer base). You could blame it on demand and supply versus spending power but who’s fooling who? Witness the level of customer service between the expected high spenders (light skinned European/Middle Easterner) and the ones expected to haggle a bargain (natives).

Don’t get me wrong, we are a very nice people, in fact I wouldn’t trade us for anyone but our niceness comes at the price of being familiar or when the expectation is that certain benefits (usually financial) are likely.

So if you’re a “Johnny just come” back home, don’t be discouraged by the somewhat dirty looks you get if you smile at unfamiliar faces like you’d do elsewhere. You’ll especially get second looks from the sisters that says; “why is he smiling at me, man duma class am.”

We are very welcoming to strangers (non native), which is a good thing. But it also explains why we usually get taken advantage of. In the urban areas especially people are getting increasingly territorial even in their social interactions.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much to get familiar with people. Wandifa and I know each other, I don’t know Kitabu but Wandifa knows Kitabu all it takes to be “friends” with Kitabu is mention that I know Wandifa. But we have to talk first; break the ice!

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