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Traditional Greetings Etiquette

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Gambians attach great importance to traditional greetings and etiquette as it serves to either re-enforce existing social bonds or to familiarise and create new social ties. Such formalities are influenced by Islam and much of it has its roots in the ancient empires of the Mandinka, Wolof, Serahule and other tribes of West Africa.  Indeed, such formalities are an essential social ingredient for successfully interacting with local Gambian people and leaves them more pre-deposed towards you.

Always avoid immediately getting down to the subject matter and spend at least 15 seconds (30 seconds or more for people in authority) saying hello and how is the family? Anything less is perceived as disrespectful or that you are looking down on them. If you do not follow the above advice your life will be made very difficult.

Remember that  handshaking with your right-hand is a compulsory form of  greeting except where you are visiting somebody who has recently been bereaved in which case it is the cultural norm that you do not shake hands with them. However, when you are travelling out of the country or going up-river for more than a day it is customary to shake hands using your left-hand. If someone is busy working or with their hands & are tied-up they may offer you their lower arm instead and you would hold it as if it were their hand. Though it sounds obvious, never greet anyone who is praying as they will not answer back.

Furthermore, do not give anything to people using your left-hand as this is seen as an insult as it is the hand used for toilet purposes and other actions deemed unhygienic.

You may think that such traditional greetings are a waste of valuable time but the culture is different and it is the essential key to successful interaction in the community. On a point of note women are not expected to shake hands (though they usually can) particularly in the rural areas.

If you are saying hello to someone from a distance then hold both your hands together, raise and shake them to the person involved. When a Gambian is angry at another person then they usually do not greet each other and just walk by feigning  "I didn't see you".

Hugging is normal between the same and opposite sexes but they must be either related or well acquainted friends and is usually done after a long absence of meeting each other during their daily lives. As for kissing on the cheeks it is not unusual between women or between a man and a woman but again they should be related on well acquainted.

No matter how busy you are always greet people and be prepared to stop what you are doing no matter how important it is to you. Business always comes second! Is it any wonder that the Gambia is renowned to be one of Africa's most peaceful countries.

Local  people greet each other with an Arabic ritual phrase that starts with ‘As-Salamu Alaykum’ meaning "peace be upon you" and in reply you would say "Maleikum asalaam’ ‘peace be with you". If you learn a few simple greetings the locals will be delighted.

You can start with trying "Naka nga def?" which means "how are you?" and in reply one would say "Mang Fi rek" which basically means "I'm just fine" the above phrases are from the Wolof language which is the country's lingua franca. If you are really lost then a simple "hello" and "how are you" will suffice as most people in the urban areas understand the phrase and understand that as a foreigner you may not be tuned in with local traditions.

Between Gambians, and in particular the Mandinkas, greetings can be very extensive especially among the older generations which involves asking about the well being of the individual's family members then moving down to more mundane matters such as the  weather or some other sort of local gripe. In fact such greetings can go on for over a minute before one gets down to the subject of the discussion.

When entering someone's house take your shoes off. Your hosts may tell you that you don't need to bother but you should insist and leave your shoes at the door. This action shows them that you respect their house no matter how poor.

Although most people will understand much of western customs, do respect their religious beliefs, cultural norms & customs if you want to avoid offending anyone. For example, only use your right-hand to give or receive food, money or any other item.

It is not uncommon to see two friends holding hands—whether they are two girls or two guys. Handholding in public between two members of the opposite sex is far less common!

When 'knocking' on someone's door you can just say "Kunk kunk".
 
 
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