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City of Banjul
Sunday, February 28, 2021

A day in the life of businessman Lasana Tambajang

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 He is expecting me. I make my way straight to the front cashier, who is by now finishing up with a customer. “I would like to see Mr Tambajang,” I announce, and the cashier, a seemingly gracious fellow, immediately asks who I am. “Tell him, it is Mr. Jallow, the journalist,” I respond rather tersely. The cashier, by the point of a finger, directs me to Tambajang’s office door. It is locked, but somebody is inside as I am able to make out some chatter on this side of the walls. Somebody, and it turns out to be Tambajang himself, buzzes me in. But then he is on the phone, and I don’t want to intrude. So I step outside. Twenty minutes later, I return to the door, and he lets me in – again.

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I am here to do a day-long interview with Tambajang, 48, and document his every move in both word and pixel. It is our first time meeting. I had learned about him through a contact in New York City several days earlier. A self-made man, Tambajang’s is your classic rags-to-riches story, an affirmation that with hard work and patience, anything is possible in life.

“Welcome, Mr Jallow,” he says, extending a hand and beckoning me to a chair, but all the while still standing and glued to his cell phone. His attention-span consumed elsewhere, I seize the opportunity to size up the man in front of me. Tall and broad-shouldered, Tambajang is in a black Dickies work shirt and an African Kufi hat. He soon betrays my preconceived notion of him as the suit-and-tie kind of a boss. He is casual, looks like a foreman momentarily taking a lull without the heavy-duty boots and gloves on. But Tambajang is not in the construction business. He runs a butchery and a general merchandise store, one of the biggest in New York City.

“When I come in, the first thing I do is to get on the phone and talk to the vendors and do some banking,” he says after extending an apology to me for the delay in the start of our interview. He starts talking, but the phone calls keep interrupting. And he can’t avoid them, for this is business; most of the calls are from his clientele in the city and in Philadelphia. He is a very busy man.

A married father of eight, Tambajang was born into a big family in Kuwonko in the Sandu District of the Upper River Region. He came to the United States in 1988, landing in New York with just $300 on him as pocket money. But he had actually borrowed it from Dakar with the promise that he would wire the money as soon as he got past the US immigrations at the airport. “I sent it the next day to Senegal just as I had promised my brother who borrowed the amount in Dakar,” he recalls. But just as the story starts to get interesting, the phone calls and the door bells keep getting in the way. He is on the phone with his secretary Bintou Njie, a Banjul native. She deals directly with the vendors, taking orders, receiving and making phone calls. She shares an office, adjacent to Tambajang’s, with Haja Waggeh, a Gambissara native, who runs the account receivables, payroll and banking operations. Haja is effectively the day-to-day manager, and even more, when Tambajang is away from the office.

In 1988, New York City was running amok with drugs and gun violence. “Homicide Hit a Record in New York,” ran a 1988 headline in The New York Times. The city under the then mayor, Ed Koch, and his successor David Dinkins, recorded peak levels of crime and a dwindling job market. For Tambajang, it was a difficult start. On numerous occasions, he came face to face with the some of the tragic realities of New York City life as a new immigrant. “New York was dangerous at the time,” he recalls. “I got into fights with people trying to break into my truck during deliveries, there were robberies everywhere, and somebody got killed right in my own presence.” 

But no stranger to foreign adventures, having lived in Libya in the early 1980s, where he learned tiling, Tambajang jumped right into a shrinking job market, searching for a livelihood in his new home. “Every day, I would go into the city looking for work, and then I got my first job tiling several apartments in the Bronx.” He was happy to land a job in a profession he had learned and mastered in Libya. He thought he had found his niche. But he soon fell out with his bosses, after realising that he had been severely underpaid. He took the matter to court but nothing came off it. “I decided to let it go,” he says, matter-of-factly. It was back to the drawing board. He returned once again to job hunting, knocking on doors and contacting people. “I was going round looking for work and I went into this place. They asked me what I could do, and I said, well, I could do tiling and have a driver’s licence,” he remembers telling the owners of Park Avenue Meats in 1988. But this place had no jobs for tiling; it was dealing mainly in meats, processing and selling. “They gave me a job as a truck driver, transporting meats to clients, and three years later, I became a supervisor.”

Abruptly, our conversation grinds to a halt. Informed that supplies of tilapia in the store have all depleted, he hurriedly excuses himself and gets on the phone. “I need tilapia bad,” he tells the supplier on the other line. “How many do you want?” the fellow can be heard through the speaker-phone. “Well, you know with the weekend, I will need about 80 boxes.”

Tambajang is conversational. He is already turning out to be wonderful company. In person, he is jolly and captivatingly entreating. Fluent in English, Spanish, Fula, Wolof, Serehule and his native Mandinka, Tambajang’s facility with these languages makes him a tactful, well-rounded salesman. I am intrigued. Where did you learn Spanish? I ask. “Right here in New York,” he replies. How did you learn to speak Fula so well? I ask again. “Well, there is a big Fula presence from Guinea in Kuwonku … our imam is Fula. So we learn speaking each other’s languages from childhood. The Fulas there speak good Mandinka as well, but they struggle with the Serehule,” he says with a chuckle.

From 1988 to 1998, Tambajang took various positions within Park Avenue Meats, commanding a lot of respect from his bosses for his hard work and honesty. But he thought the African customers there were not getting the right treatment. It was getting exceedingly difficult for the Africans to get their meats trucked to their homes because Park Avenue Meats would rather deal in bigger purchases from other customers than the small-quantity orders from many in the African community. And the Africans were a tiny slice of the customer base. “In those days, there were no African restaurants, very few people had wives, so it meant people had to cook at home,” he says. He would take it upon himself to deliver the African orders in his own truck late after work.

He also didn’t like the fact that the same machines were being used to cut pork and lamb, something that troubled his Islamic sensibility, and also given that many of the African customers at Park Avenue Meats were Muslim. He would complain about that to his superiors, and would specifically clean behind the machines before cutting any meats for the African Muslim customers. But this won’t continue forever.

“One day, an African lady customer suggested to me, ‘why not start your own business, doing something similar?’ ” he says over a cup of hot lemon tea, while he orders his son to make me one. He thought long and hard about the idea of leaving the company. He felt that he had gained enough experience and goodwill from especially the African customers, to launch his own business. He could no longer postpone the inevitable. “I submitted my resignation, but it took me three months before they responded to my letter.” His bosses didn’t want him to leave, but they also didn’t believe that he was going anywhere. They thought his resignation was a manoeuvre to force them to increase his pay knowing how vital he had been to the company. “They tried to give me a raise, but I refused. One day, I just handed the keys and walked away.” This would change his life forever.

Leaving the confines of his cramped office, we take a walk inside the store, checking out the lamb meats freshly-arrived, mingling with the workers and getting a general perspective about this place. A sprawling grocery store, selling various African foodstuffs, New York Meat & Fish Market is a study in business risk-taking and entrepreneurial audacity. “I opened this store in 1998 with three people,” he recounts, struggling to be heard above a hubbub of voices in the far eastern corner of the butchery. Working off a personal loan from friends, he began to lay the foundation. “I didn’t try the banks at the time because I didn’t have a credit history, I didn’t have a record to work with,” he says, now donned in his white overall, butcher uniform.

Today, his store, having undergone three extensions since its inception, has grown into a big enterprise. It has 22 employees, coming from various Gambian districts such as Sandu, Wulli, Sabi, Niani; and from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, Mali and the United States. It is a serious company, but it is operated more like a community, where everybody feels being an integral part of the business. “The employees here are like family. Some of them have been with me from day one. They are happy, they are well paid and get their bonuses on a regular basis,” he says with a glint of pride in his eyes.

As soon as we return to his office, somebody is already at the door, buzzing. The boss looks through the security camera and lets the person in. And it is Pateh Jallow, an employee and a native of Wulli Touba. It looks like he has come to talk some business with the boss, but I immediately sense that he wants to talk to me. Sure enough, he pulls the chair next to me and unburdens his mind: “Everybody working here is happy,” he reveals with relish. “He doesn’t control people and he treats us all kindly like family. We can’t have it any better anywhere else.” Tambajang listens attentively as Jallow unloads plaudits after plaudits for the way he (Tambajang) has been running the affairs of the company. There is a popular refrain among the workers here that New York Meat & Fish Market is one of the few places that will guarantee you your job back no matter how long you stayed on vacation. The story goes of an employee, affectionately called “Karamoko,” who recently came back from a three-month vacation in his native Ivory Coast and ordered a staff meeting where he urged his colleagues to keep praying for Tambajang for the opportunity of reliable and continued employment he has given them.

 

To be continued next Friday

 

First published in My Basse online.

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