WASHINGTON, Pa. (November 17, 2014)—Completing intense research and learning about new cultures are typically part of the college experience – but most students have the benefit of air conditioning and running water while they tackle those challenges.
Through a Magellan Project, Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) senior Miriam Beavers ‘15 spent the summer of 2014 in The Gambia immersing herself in the lifestyle of local women farmers, who are experts at living off of the land.
Beavers, a Cleveland, Oh. native completing an environmental studies major and minors in Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies, travelled to Africa to live with women in a Gambian village and experience their culture.
“I chose to do research on how women live off the environment,” Beavers said. “I focused my project on village women and how they farm.” She said this project was the perfect opportunity to delve deeper into her three fields of study, but that it was far more than research; it was a complete change of culture.
Most of her research was done in the town of Serekunda, but the most intensive portion of her Magellan experience took place in the small village of Jarrol. Her goal in Jarrol was two-fold.
First, she interviewed the women of the village to gain a better understanding of the mentality that drives their way of life.
“There was a huge language barrier,” she said, “But I had a young man about my age who was a translator. He helped me interview the women in the village so I could understand just how hard the work they do is.”
Beavers spoke to the women about their farming strategies, including how they produced large outputs of vegetables to sell at the market. She also learned many surprising things about the Gambian lifestyle through her interviews with the villagers.
“There was no running water, but there was electricity all day,” she said. “I found that very odd, but the villagers told me that they would rather have electricity than plumbing.”
The second part of her goal was to step into the shoes of the Gambian women and work alongside them as they completed their day-to-day responsibilities. In doing so, Beavers experienced firsthand the vast differences between life in The Gambia and life in the United States.
“I would wake up when the women woke up and do the work that they did. I farmed all day and sometimes into the evening. I would go get water from the well and I would cook for the children at night,” she said.
Beavers said she nearly broke down from exhaustion after five days as a vegetable farmer. The intense heat, lack of running water, long hours, and laborious duties of the farming women were all new and intimidating challenges, but she said the experience changed her life forever and taught her a lot about herself.
“I learned that it is ok not to have technology all day and you can learn so much from people just by not being distracted by a phone… it was amazing to be free of texts and calls and social media,” she said. “I learned that I can cook over a wooden fire longer than I thought. I learned that it is okay to trust people that you don’t know that well.”
Beavers said she learned a particularly powerful lesson when she realized that though they work so hard and in such difficult conditions, the villagers in Jarrol never complain.
“I know now that I should be more appreciative of what I do have,” she said. “I learned that I am much poorer than the poorest people in The Gambia because I lack gratefulness.”
While the Gambian way of life taught her the importance of appreciating the small things, she said she learned even more about herself from the kind, selfless Gambian people.
“My Gambian friends and family taught me what it was like to not have lots of material things and still live a beautiful life,” she said. “They respected me so much for being an African American woman and wanting to find out about their country. It was wonderful to sit up late at night and talk to the village people about my life, and they would share stories as well. I was told that I have a big heart, and that I should keep it that way.”
Though she will graduate from W&J this spring, Beavers doesn’t plan on leaving this project behind.
“The women told me they wanted access to water and they needed storage, and I told them I would make it my life goal to see that they would have those things for future generations,” she said. “I know I have to go back one day, and hopefully one day soon.”
Beavers thanked her family for their support, and she also thanked “President Haring-Smith and Teanca Shephard for giving [her] the courage to go on this trip.”
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work.
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