By Sainey Darbo
From his elevated perch at Union Pacific, Saikou Camara is thousands of miles away from his humble beginnings in the impoverished West African state of The Gambia where he endured the nocturnal pursuit of stray dogs infected with rabies in eerily deserted streets in his leap towards a better future in America.
By his own account in his 150-page magnum opus; Saikou was raised in a polygamous family of limited material wealth and had to spend years working as a child laborer at a busy market in the capital to help his mother make ends meet , while scraping together enough funds to pay for the cost of his education.
Despite the derogatory remarks of his peers at school for the whiff of palm oil on his scent, he persisted in helping out his mum despite the accompanying brawl with his bullies which invariably got him into trouble.
Despite the numerous obstacles he had to countenance, he triumphed in the Common Entrance Exams with impressive results earning him a spot in one of the best high schools in the country.
In spite of culpability for numerous infractions with the accompanying punitive sanctions of suspension from school, he would go on to become head boy by dint of his brilliance and determination to make a success of himself.
With successful graduation from high school beckoned opportunities to pursue higher education overseas with Taiwan and United States being the most feasible. He almost benefited from a scholarship to study in Taiwan by virtue of his membership in a pro-government student body, NAPSA.
But Saikou had trouble keeping his mouth shut about the perceived politicization of the student collective.In the grip of high spirits and sense of moral superiority, he confronted the coordinator of the organization Mr Jallow about the political prostitution of the body of which he was a part.
He was soon informed to his chagrin and disappointment that he was no longer to take part in the activities of the organization and the decision to shortlist him for scholarship in Taiwan was being reversed. He had come to gigantic grief trying to do good.
With the crushing disappointment of this loss came seismic shift in focus to United States where he was soon accepted by several schools. Agog with excitement at the prospect of going to the US ,he made the uniformed decision of going to Rust College in Mississippi which drew reservations from people who knew better.
He was advised by the US consular officer to look at better alternatives. Even the educational advisor Nana Grey Johnson whose daughter he attended thesame school with couldn’t convince him to wait for a semester longer. Upon arrival at the United States, an immigration officer would be the second person after his high school principal to wish him good luck in the conviction he was going to need it in Mississippi.
Despite demonstration of sufficient means to pay for his education in the US, Saikou had a net worth of no more than $5. The brutal reality of deferring his dreams hit him with a bang, but he was in denial mode and hope sprang eternal for him. Salvation came in the form of $1000 from a brother in Atlanta which helped him make a down payment to start college.
The need to pay for his tuition took him to work for a Chinese restaurant where his job functions ranged from sweeping and mopping floors, making food and cleaning toilets. He was often yelled at and treated in a demeaning manner. And what’s worse, after months of working at the restaurant the owner did not care enough to know him by his legal name ,but dismissively called him “guy”.
Upon landing a better job at an Exxon Mobil gas station 45 minutes away from his college, he had to beg for rides to get to work with offer of gas money to drivers. After working his shift, it would be hard to find a ride sometimes the ultimate resort was to work the shift of the incoming staff in exchange for ride in the morning. Despite the precariousness of his existence at this time; he remained infused with hope seeing the colossal challenges as his dues for a better future.
Persistence and vision finally paid off with the successful conclusion of his Bachelors’ at Rust College and later a Masters’ degree in Computer Science at Jackson State University . Despite the raging recession, he was able to land a coveted job with Union Pacific in Omaha Nebraska where he moved without delay.
It was not plain sailing as expected, with Saikou having to navigate racial and socio-cultural prejudices to actualise his dream.
Despite education attained in the American university system, his thick African accent threatened to derail everything he had struggled to accomplish thus far. Technical field workers for his company complained of not understanding him , and he was soon enrolled in English tutorial classes which baffled him immensely and made him contemplate quitting.
But sanity prevailed as it was discovered his English was good enough and his detractors were ordered to deal with their biases and prejudices. Saikou would go on to become a valuable engineer with his company with highly prized skills. Concluding this seminal work on his odyssey in life hammered on the anvil of experience , Saikou concludes with a missive to African leaders imploring them to create circumstances and opportunities so that Africans regardless of their race, ethnicity , religion or political opinion do not have to leave the African soil to pursue their dreams.
Saikou believes his success is meaningless until it leads to greater impact on others who have dreams on a continent too dead for dreaming. And still he rises.
Testimony of An African Immigrant: A Promise To my Father makes for thrilling and traumatic reading at once, while imparting useful lessons about life and pursuit of success.