Reflections on experiential learning in The Gambia

Still jetlagged after returning from a field school trip to West Africa, a group of eleven SMU Geography students struggled to describe their shared once-in-a-lifetime journey. Some had never travelled beyond North America prior to their voyage to The Gambia, which took place November 8 to 20.

These are just a few of their comments, overheard as they debriefed back in their classroom November 23 and adjusted to a 60-degree temperature change (from 40C to a wind chill of -20C): 

·        “It’s hard to put it into words.”

·        “It was very intense – in a really positive way.”

·        “There is no better way to learn about geography … you have to experience it yourself.”  

Fortunately, the group’s vivid photos – taken by student Makayla Cole – relay some of the story. The words flowed soon afterwards, since the students had to prepare written reports on the trip as part of their coursework. The students agreed that an international field school is much different from learning in a classroom or from books and internet sources, since they got to directly experience another part of the world through their own senses and perspectives, with no filters.

The class mainly spent time in rural areas, enjoying a rare opportunity to visit small Gambian villages where they saw traditional dance performances, tried out some craftmaking and got an authentic glimpse into the local culture.

“Tourists have been going to The Gambia for decades and they haven’t always behaved very well,” said Dr. Cathy Conrad, a professor in the SMU Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. She cited such examples as tourists throwing candy off the back of Land Rovers for children who then run into the streets and traffic to pick it up. Even well-meaning aid organizations “send over their boxes of stuff, but it’s not usually what the people asked for or needed or wanted,” she said.

The international field school – which has been going to The Gambia for the past eight years – is careful to be respectful, with no agenda other than to learn. While there, students “feel the responsibility of being good ambassadors for Canada, for Nova Scotia and for Saint Mary’s University,” said Conrad.

This trip was unique, in that it also uncovered a little-known chapter of Canadian war history thanks to some advance research by the students. Shortly after arriving in Banjul, they took part in a Remembrance Day ceremony in the Fajara War Cemetery.

Ten Canadians are buried at the cemetery, as the students discovered just a few days before leaving Halifax. The buried servicemen, including one from Nova Scotia, were with the Royal Canadian Air Force and some died in a plane crash during World War II. They served with the 200 RAF Squadron, which played a significant role in deterring German U-boats in the Western Atlantic Ocean.

“People were quite intrigued by us at the ceremony, when they saw us there with our wreaths and Canadian flags. The British High Commissioner was there, tweeting about us,” said Conrad.

After the ceremony, the students continued their war history research, talking to Gambian veterans, visiting a small war museum and even visiting the site where the plane had crashed. Local Gambian media wrote about them and the trip also generated media interest here at home.