Two Gambian Traditions

Woman wearing colorful patterned orange fabric peplum top and pants
Me in traditional Gambian fabric (but very unconventionally tailored; the women never wore pants)

For about six months right before Covid hit, when everyone got evacuated in one panicked week, I was living in the Gambia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was learning one of the six main languages there, living with a host family, and preparing to spend the next two years in a foreign country where I didn’t know anyone.

One of the first things you notice about Gambia is the outfits: men and women wrapped head to toe in vibrant, enveloped in peplum and ruffles, headwraps and layers, colors and prints.

At home or in the garden, the women might wear old T-shirts shipped in crates from America, and the men might wear ragged pants, but market day was a whole different story.

Both of my host families lived in cities with a bustling market. For the first three months that I lived in the Gambia, I could visit the market anytime I wanted, although it was a further walk in the hot sun.

But the village where I spent the next few months — where I was supposed to spend the remainder of my two years — had a lumo, a weekly market.

I loved market day. The night before, our neighbor would fry balls of sweet dough, sending the scent wafting through the streets as I walked to the school. You could buy a packet of fresh pankettes on your way to the garden, so hot it almost burned the plastic bag. The whole village held an air of anticipation, as if even the trees, the houses, knew what was coming.

By the time I woke up the next morning (late, by village standards), the streets directly outside our compound would be filled with the scents of roasting food, vendors selling brightly colored shoes and toys and candies, kids carrying coolers full of frozen treats on their heads, and everywhere you looked, streams of people in their finest clothing.

Traditional Gambian fabric is bright and beautiful and multicolored with repeating patterns. On special occasions like market day, people wear elaborate outfits of a single fabric design called compilats in Olof, the language I was learning.

One important Gambian tradition is Asobes, which are matching outfits. Tailoring is still a cheap and common way to get local clothing, although for everyday outfits, second-hand T-shirts and wrap skirts for girls, jeans for boys, are more typical. But neatly folded yards of traditional fabric abound in the markets. For big events like weddings or naming ceremonies, families each buy yards of the same fabric, and each family member gets their own fabric tailored into a unique outfit, down to the matching headwrap. Then, on the day of the event, everyone debuts their outfit at the same time, unified in their presentation to the world.

When I was evacuated, I had a few days in the capital city while we waited to find last-minute flights home. I bought a few types of fabric to bring back for friends.

Two colorful fabrics folded on a table
Photo by author

For myself, I brought home these two fabrics. The blue and red is actually a traditional fabric, but the yellow is a much softer fabric I bought at a more western store in the capital. It’s not something you would see anyone wearing on the street (or in the market, for that matter). Still, I think it captures the richness and colors of walking through a Gambian market.

In the tradition of Asobes, I split the yellow fabric in half. One half I turned into a scarf and sent it to a friend. The other half I kept for myself for over six months, saving it for the perfect idea.

A few weeks ago, I finally stopped procrastinating and took scissors to my half of the fabric a few weeks ago. I decided to turn it into a strappy top. I created a pattern from a bra, sewed some darts, and then lined the cups with fabric that matched my skin tone, since the outer fabric was somewhat transparent. I created two thin straps, a lined back piece, and then used the rest of the fabric to create a gathered piece for the bottom of the shirt.

Finally, I attached straps to the back where I wanted them. I also ended up making a second dart, because it still fit loosely when I tried it on.

I’m not completely happy with how this one turned out, honestly. I might make this over again in the future. But for now, I’m happy to have Gambian fabric back in my wardrobe.

To style it similar to a compilat, styled it with these flowy pants in a (loosely) similar pattern. I also thought it worked perfectly with the warm tones in this gold necklace.

Woman wearing colorful babydoll tank with flowy patterned pants and layered gold necklaces
Photo of author

For the second, more traditional fabric, I ended up making pants for another friend for Christmas. (Yes, these are the same pants I briefly mention in my guide to homemade gifts.) I turned the fabric into open-sided palazzo pants that look ridiculous until you know how to put them on, so I didn’t bother to take a picture. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the process either, but you can find the easy youtube tutorial I used here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7qewoC1_ns

Although I loved the fabric, it didn’t end up being quite enough surface area to make myself pants. But I knew they would be perfect for my friend. It may not be an asobe in the traditional sense, but I’m still excited to be able to share Gambian fabric with friends back home. Away from the Gambia for longer than I was there, I’m still trying to find other ways to continue the tradition: scarves, flowy pants that sort of match my top, and blog posts.

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This publication is dedicated to learning about the world around us. The topics covered here range from travel and geography to languages and cultures.

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