The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: Public health program

May 22nd, 2013

Dear Prospective Student,

Lauren Gaines in The Gambia

My name is LauRen Gaines and I am an undergraduate student studying Anthropology and Pre-Med. While in college, I have been abroad three times to Gambia in West Africa, Brazil, and India to study and do research. I believe studying abroad has changed my life and connected me to my roots in such a positive way. I always knew I loved traveling because my dad was in the military for nineteen years. Growing up I lived in Japan and Italy and traveled to much of Europe. Still, the opportunities I had to travel abroad particularly in Gambia, provided me with the most valuable cultural insight and expanded my curiosity to find out more about my African ancestry.

My experience in Gambia was unlike any other experience I had had abroad. I traveled with the University of Iowa’s Public Health Program MHIRT with six other students to Africa. We arrived in May shortly after school got out and were quickly shoved into a new culture so different from my own. I felt so out of my element but at the same time in my element. For one, I had never been in a country where the majority of the people were black. Obviously, I knew I was in Africa but to actually see it was amazing. For once, race didn’t play a role in everyday life because everyone had the same skin color. And to top it off I blended in and was being mistaken for a Gambian too. Most people attempted to talk to me in their tribal languages only to realize that I was American. It was always funny to see how surprised they were that I was a toubob, or a foreigner, but looked just like them. Situations like these really stuck with me because of the way people remarked how much I looked Gambian. These remarks started to make me curious about were my family and I actually came from because I could never answer anyone when they asked what part of Africa I was from.

Another cool thing I experienced with my identity in the motherland happened when we got to go to Kuta Kinteh Island, where writer Alex Haley traced back his ancestry in the movie The Roots. This experience really stuck with me as I stood on the island thinking that maybe my ancestors were from Gambia or close to West Africa and it was only by chance that today I live in the United States. It also made me appreciate how much my ancestors had gone through trying to escape an island like this surrounded by a shark-infested ocean.

The longer I was on the trip the more and more my curiosity to know more about my own roots grew. Towards the end of the trip we were invited to stay in a rural village in Gambia. I will never forget how proud I was of my roots that day even though I didn’t know my own. As we drove into the village we were welcomed by the Fula tribe who shouted happily, “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” Not too long after we arrived, we danced with the Fula for at least an hour. At that moment I knew I was right at home.

Being in Gambia opened my eyes to a completely different culture, as well as a new appreciation for my identity. Prior to this trip I never acknowledged my African roots because I knew very little information about where I came from. I always made the separation between African and African American. But after my trip to Gambia I realized how we as two groups are so similar and the only thing that separates us is distance.  Today, I feel connected to my roots more than ever and try to learn about my distant culture every opportunity I get.

Whoever you are I encourage you to study abroad—you won’t regret it! You will discover yourself in ways you never knew possible.

Best wishes on your journey,

LauRen Gaines