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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Celebrating Gambian Cultural Week in the diaspora and the dilemma of Gambian immigrants

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With the stress-filled, busy, hectic, tough, tiring, demanding, mind-numbing, energy-sapping, interrupted-sleeping environment, our minds somehow constantly go back and forth, to recall memories back home in The Gambia. By and large as immigrants, we’ve lost the sense of belonging and identity, but can our children ever truly understand what their migrant parents have lost? Remember, we’re talking about the generation which hates waiting. Virtually, everything they want is either a phone call or a mouse click away. So how can they fathom the hardships, sacrifices and sometimes, tragedy most of us were forced to endure to provide the comfort they take for granted today?

Foreign-born children are the recipients of a windfall of opportunities that our generation and ones before us never had. Because of the tremendous sacrifices made by us, most of our children now have the luxury of not having to worry about putting food on the table, clothes on their back, or a roof over their head. These children have picked up values at random which they learned from their surroundings, associates and newly-found culture. These values sometimes cause much pain, disappointment and discomfort. With all that baggage, can we really count on them to carry the Gambian heritage? What’s important to them? Are they going to walk alone or try to bring others along? Are they equipped to lift   The Gambia from its economic doldrums or shun it completely? What is their sense of appreciation?

As Gambian immigrants in the diaspora, our children are more Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, American, British, French, Dutch or Canadian than we their parents are. But, in reality they have inherited a sense of exile from parents. As parents we are culturally displaced and our children are literally, forced to grow up in two worlds, simultaneously. They are struggling to reconcile their new culture with their African heritage. Sadly that is creating a lot of friction within the homes of Gambian immigrants.

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Ask ten Gambian immigrants at random of their memories of The Gambia and seven of them can paint a vivid picture for you. The images of home reverberate on a country far, far away. The fragrance of Gambian dishes or a trip to an African grocery store can easily take you into a market day in your town in The Gambia. Listening to Gambian music or watching DVD movies of Gambian occasions can transport you back home instantly. The truth is, the hearts of Gambian immigrants living in the Diaspora are still trapped in their youthful days in The Gambia. In our quest for ‘better life’, our loved ones have been lost, friendships fractured and punctured and new triumphs like births and educational attainment are celebrated without those who really matter. I don’t know about you, but as a Gambian immigrant in Sweden, I sometimes feel these conflicting emotions. I know I’m not alone, but few have been able to articulate their feelings of loss and longing and neither have their foreign-born children really understood what they have sacrificed as parents and for what.

The Gambian immigrants are not only caught between cultures and the love for  their country, but they have come from half way across the world, leaving loved ones and a lot of good and bad memories behind. The majority of our foreign-born children also have their own unique issues to deal with. They are struggling to find their own identity and balance their two worlds. They may never visit The Gambia and they may try as much as possible to disassociate themselves from any Gambian culture, but can they break away as long as their parents struggled to sacrifice for their success in their so-called ‘new home’ ?

The first and second generation Gambian immigrants faced many similar conflicts in their own way. In some cases, the small part of the second generation Gambian immigrants are torn between family allegiance and choice. The most “obedient” ones sometimes do things to please their parents and meet their expectations. They also want to meet the expectations of their peers in their countries of birth. But, there is always a conflict when it comes to things like dating, living on one’s own, having close friendships with the natives and selecting careers of one’s own choice. These things have been the cause of tension in the homes of some Gambian immigrants. Sometimes, the tension is exacerbated when these children’s Gambia part is unacknowledged and therefore negated by the host country’s uncompromising environment, and vice versa.

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In most cases, Gambian immigrant parents are very fearful and suspicious of their “foreign-cultures”, which their offspring are forced to consume. Their children maintaining ties to African culture in general and Gambian culture in particular and preserving Gambian traditions in a foreign land, means a lot to them. This is a big issue because as parents, we sometimes feel like and are treated as foreigners, no matter how long we stay in our new country. Unfortunately, our newly-minted acquired citizenship cannot change the feeling of being ‘outsiders’. So we do struggle to hold on to our ‘identities’. However, our foreign-born children will never understand us or sympathise with us. They think of our ‘predicaments’ as an indirect opposition to the reality of the world in which we live. We sometimes have a difficult time getting our children to embrace our values. They hear us but don’t fully appreciate the message because they haven’t experienced the hardships, pains and other things we endured.

But, whether or not our children will maintain our culture depends largely on how we bring them up and how much they cherished the sacrifices made for them. The experience of being torn between one’s home country and the host country is not uniquely Gambian. For us, sometimes the disquieting memories of home and the hostile environment of our new home makes it very difficult as first generation immigrants to wonder if we really made the right decision to leave The Gambia.

For tradition–bound Gambian immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge of and longing for a lost world are more explicit and distressing than for our children. The crisis of identity is more pronounced with the children. Most of these children can’t answer a simple question of: “Where are you from?” But can you blame them? How can they answer, “The Gambia”, a place where they were not born in and probably never lived in?  And, sadly, they can’t comfortably claim ‘citizenship’ of the country of their births when they know very well that their parents are also struggling to come to terms with their own sense of belonging, despite their new-acquired citizenships.

It’s a predicament all of us are struggling to deal with. We hardly discuss this at the dinner tables with our children but can we deny this profound question? With your newly–minted acquired citizenship, can you ‘comfortably’ say that you are a citizen of your new country? If you cannot honestly say, ‘Yes’, then there is a need to build some bonds back home, as an emotional insurance policy.

As for our iPod children who are very busy trying to measure up to their peers, have they recognised what their ‘new assignment’ at this point of their lives? What are their obligations to the folks we left behind and the country we love so much, The Gambia? Certainly, these are very difficult questions to answer. But, until they realise that they stand on the shoulders of ‘giants’ who dedicated the better part of their lives for their future, they will continue to wander and struggle just like we did for identity and sense of belonging which even the superficial symbol of new citizenship or minted ‘foreign passport’ cannot fulfilled.

So when you whip out your newly-minted foreign passport in public or at the airports, what does it say about you? You know who you are, you might think: “I’m an important person because I have a different nationality and I don’t need a visa to get to my destination”.  But the people around you might be thinking: “Look at him. He’s lucky!” And, some of them will look at you with disdain, just for seeing you with a foreign passport.

With all that attention you seek and get at Banjul International Airport with your passport, can you honestly say (with no reservation) that you’re a ‘citizen’ of your host country and, that you’re no more a Gambian?  Your answer will betray your Gambian part, which is unwilling to negotiate with your new status.

Don’t get me wrong! I am not against naturalisation. All I’m saying is that since we cannot honestly disown our Gambian part, we should try to maintain our heritage and teach our children how to incorporate that with their new culture. Sometimes, our tendency to focus on superficial symbols like a foreign passport as a measuring stick of ‘achievement’ can camouflage our deep sense of identity crisis.

Personally, I think our efforts to sacrifice for our children are not in vain because The Gambia now has future representatives in the Western world. But, can they secure a future of prosperity and success for The Gambia our homeland and hope for our old age? Are you there? Stop scratching your head. 


Sadibu Jadama is a Gambian writer and long time resident of Stockholm, Sweden.


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