By Absa Samba
I moved to the US in July of 2016. I know, quite a short time, but I have lived some experiences of what it takes to be from “Africa” and to be a black woman in the US. As a Gambian, I’m proud of The Gambia in so many different ways, a lot of which moving to the US has helped me recognize. When I was in The Gambia, I never had to think about what it means to have a community, or a neighbor who walks into your house anytime of the day to chat, eat and laugh over ‘attaya’ without having to book an appointment.
A neighborhood that takes your naming, wedding, and funeral ceremonies like it belongs to everyone. I had the opportunity to work with so many young people who are determined to make a change for themselves, their families and their communities and the future of The Gambia. These are only few of many examples of things that I have come to see more clearly and appreciate about The Gambia. So, NO! We are not a “shithole” country. We are a country of loving and determined people who have unique shortcomings and challenges just like the United States and every other country.
To start, I hope this doesn’t offend any of my American friends and families while I try to be as honest as possible. I appreciate you all and I am grateful to have you in my life and to be in yours. Thank you for accepting me into your lives. I’m grateful for all the support that has helped me get this far and makes me feel secure enough to honestly put this out here.
Since my arrival in 2016, I have had the opportunity to travel across about 20 states in the US; in the South, and northeast and northwest. In big cities, small cities and towns and in very remote rural communities as well. In parts of Kentucky and Tennessee I was shocked by the poverty I saw in white neighborhoods. I couldn’t believe such a thing could exist in a country as wealthy as the US. Then I had an epiphany. I too, like the most of you, was a victim of the naivety to believing all the hype about “Brand America”, a ‘land of riches and opportunities for all its inhabitants”’.
I saw people living in their trash, broken roofs and children playing in environments that are unhygienic and hazardous. Yet, America prides and succeeds in branding itself as the best and richest country in the world. America without doubt has done very well in many areas of development when compared to The Gambia. When it comes to innovation, infrastructure, political institutions, education, and one can argue, a lot more. But, how would we compare the contrasting histories of The Gambia compared to America’s? On what was that development founded on?The human and natural wealth from the Gambia and other places are still used to build the US.
Yes, ‘are used’! (present tense). Brain-drain is still costing Africa its innovators and intellectuals to America and other Western countries. America prides itself as the ‘land of opportunity’, true but many, including Americans, will tell you that statement is true mostly for white males. The US has failed to create that opportunity equally for all of its people. Observation and more shows that the color of one’s skin is a huge determinant of who gets access to those opportunities. Just like The Gambia, America has a lot of its problems that needs fixing and its citizens are not proud of, so if that does not make it a shithole country, why should The Gambia’s challenges make it one?Shithole country? Marinate on the following facts.
Despite the abundant wealth, the percentage of homeless people in America is significantly greater than the “poor” Gambia. Despite its wealth, there is a higher suicide rate in the US than there is in the Gambia. America sentences children to life in prison for some shitty crimes, puts children in adult prisons and the foster care system leaves a lot to be desired. Watch the documentary “13th” and you’ll see how the prison system is systematically designed to be biased against minorities, especially African Americans. Despite its huge wealth, basic healthcare is inaccessible to millions of Americans of all races simply because they cannot afford it.
Despite being the land of milk and honey, the public school system in many cities is so bad that they design charter schools, private schools and magnet schools for the fortunate while the rest wallow in failing schools. The crime and murder rates in many cities atrocious, especially where minorities live. I can go on and on with these. If Trump doesn’t care about the black and brown lives whose welfare an American president is elected to protect and that does not make his country a shithole country, why should you validate his remarks calling African countries “shitholes” due to the failure of your governments?In case you’re wondering why your validation of Trump’s uninformed statements makes a difference, allow me to clue you in.
I live in the second whitest state in the US and at the time of my arrival in my first semester at the college I started in the spring of 2017, I was the second ‘African’ four-year student in my college. While that offered some privileges, along came a lot more challenges that many don’t realize. I get asked how I learned to speak English, with the assumption that because I’m from “Africa”, I couldn’t possibly learn to speak it in Africa. This question I had been asked over and over, and yet I’m still shocked every time it gets thrown at me, sometimes even by my professors.
I guess I have higher expectations of people than they deserve. Do you know what it takes to be in an American classroom from “Africa” (Yes! Africa, because to them, who cares about Gambia? I’m only African). As “The African”, you’re forced into the role of a self-appointed ambassador for Africa in the beginning, and then you quickly realize that actually, your role is pretty useless. Many students I’ve met here will never fail to point out Africa as a place of misfortune, diseases and chaos whenever the opportunity presents itself. A place, like one student in my class who had enjoyed only a month’s service trip to a village in Uganda described her experiences, where children with mental health are considered “witches”.
You don’t quit being the “Africa spokesperson” because you have heard enough (misinformed) stories about Africa and have given up on Africa, or that their single story of Africa is the reality, but because it’s an exhausting self-inflicted responsibility. You realize that to the people you’re trying to convince that there is more than a single story are not interested because they have made up their minds and are content with their (often inadequately-informed) knowledge of Africa. The prejudice of in-your-face prejudice is suffocating! In one of my trips to some communities in the South, I feared for my life only because of the color of my skin.
I stayed in the car when I needed to get something from the grocery store, uncertain of my safety. On different occasions, people have said to me in public ‘Oh, I thought you were a statue’. A more “welcoming” one once said to me, ‘we welcome ALL people here’, when I respectfully asked if I could use a public restroom. This one day in the bus, a cute looking kid who just kept staring at me and then hitting me for whatever reason, with me uncertain of what I should do in the moment to protect myself. Sometimes, I find myself in situations where it’s hard to differentiate people’s intent and to feel just okay. I had many other instances, like once in a public restroom, a lady I had just met for the first time in that very moment, gently touched my hair without asking if it was okay with me, and then asked if it will grow longer. I’m constantly reminded about my blackness and ‘Africa’ like it is the only two things that matter. I must mention that I am very proud of my race and my dark compliment, but the (oft-negative) focus on It is like always having to carry on your face, all the things that disadvantage you as a person of color in the US.
I know Africa, as a continent, has its own problems. Bad leaderships, youth unemployment, child marriages, FGM, inadequate acknowledgment for the rights of people in the LGBTQA+ community, gender inequality, unimproved education systems among a host of others. I challenge anyone to tell me the United States does not face challenges on these same issues! So to excuse Trump’s racist remarks and try to validate it as “truthful” is akin to the ignorance of claiming that a single story of Africa, wrapped up in all these negatives, tells the story of all Africans.
To acknowledge Trump’s claim is like blaming my mother, despite all her hard-work in raising her children to be respectable members of the society, for my failures. It is a lack of acknowledgement for the many positives that are happening in Africa, like the group of young people committed to the progress of the continent by pushing and sacrificing their time through the African Youth Commission. It is an invalidation of the struggles young women leaders across Africa are doing to uplift and empower women to actively participate in our development processes.
It is a lack of acknowledgement for the many hardworking women in my neighborhood who leave their homes at 6am every single day to sell in the market to provide food for their families. It is to say, I’m a ‘shithole’ for doing all I can to develop myself for myself and my country. What you’re doing here clearly is saying, ‘Yes Trump and America, the century old stories in America and on western media depicting Africa as a place of pity that needs salvation, is true and you best describe my life’. We as Africans should own our narrative both the positive and the negative.
The last thing you want to do is to acknowledge a man who is trying everyday to destroy a system built to protect individuals and institutions. From the moment he announced his candidacy, he made it clear that he only cares about himself, his family and those who look like him. Time and time again, the man you’re looking to validate has shown he has nothing but contempt and disdain for minorities, especially those of a race different from his.
Trump’s words do not define me and my community and you would be foolish to let it define you. Despite his election to the presidency, his world view and his words do not represent millions of intelligent, caring and compassionate Americans. I totally denounce those statements and like me, you too should reject them.