It’s possible many Africans couldn’t point to Gambia’s location on a map of Africa.
Here is a story which I hope will have a memo effect to remember and picture this small country. It’s in Dandenong at the African Village Kitchen Cafe where I met Abdoul, a 70 year-old businessman, to talk about his home country. Abdoul has probably fulfilled the dream of many young people eager to explore the world as he says that only India and South America are unknown to him. After years spent traveling over the world, I asked Abdoul why he settled here and to talk about his life in Australia.
Twenty-five years ago he took off from the United States to add another red pin on his map of places visited (Melbourne!) for the same reasons that took him around the world – adventure and exploration. Imagine Melbourne in 1988, he was “standing out” among white people he describes and he “drew a lot of attention” he says with a smile.
For those curious as to the whereabouts of Gambia, Abdoul gives you tips – “small country situated inside Senegal, ex British colony and both countries are homes of the same tribes”. For Trivia fanatics, Gambia’s capital is Banjul. Its geography and the myriad of inhabiting tribes (Wolof, Fula, Mandinka, etc) make it one with Senegal but mentalities diverge due to their colonial history (Senegal being an ex French colony).
Gambia offers “a cheap way to sustain alive, a pleasant environment, very developed, beautiful beaches and people are peaceful”. For him that’s what makes Gambia a special place. Abdoul’s family originates from the Wolofs, “which isn’t an ancient ethnic group, they picked language features from Arabic, English and French literacy and established relations with the French when Wolof warriors fought side by side with them”. Want to guess the rest of the (predictable) story? The French defeated them to sit their colonial power. He also explains that “the Wolofs have had Western influences but Islam is their biggest one and they have sunk traditions from the Fulas (Islamic group). The Wolofs don’t seem to disappear into another tribe but a tribe can be sunk into it”. In Gambia, it isn’t easy to interact among the many tribes, not because of beliefs or tensions, but because language is a barrier. However, this linguistic difference is not felt in Australia between the Senegalese and Gambians and whichever tribe they belong to they speak Wolof as a common language. This unity is even stronger as Abdoul appears to be one of the ‘Elders’ of Melbourne-based Senegalese and Gambians. When they celebrate his birthday, they all gather for him.
How do you become Elder of a few African communities? Abdoul has created strong relationships with people, this bond has changed him into an uncle for some, a father or grandfather for others. Beyond his businesses, his relationships have kept him in Australia. After 25 years if you ask him if he feels African Australian, he will answer he is “Australian but African”. He sees Australia as a safe place offering many opportunities and the “limits are up to us”. He finds it hard to “sell Africa” in Australia as it’s a “too-unknown” continent. Coming from a high social class and an entrepreneurial background in Gambia, Abdoul depicts his life in Australia as “being always on a mission” (to work). He remembers the time when he used to go out for pleasure with family and friends in Banjul. He encourages African families to not lose their values, to respect Elders and to “fit in every society they arrive in”.
As for his future, Abdoul speaks about peace, harmony, freedom and comfort but he also shares his dream to go back to Gambia to help women and children. “It’s time to stop being selfish and to widen the possibilities for communities in general”. He would like to support education for women and children and raise awareness on environmental protection.
Now, find a map, spot the tiny Gambia and remember the story of a businessman from Banjul.
You can taste the delicious and typical Gambian dish, Maffé (beef cooked in a peanut sauce) and many others at the African Village Kitchen on 43 Walker Street, Dandenong. Click on the picture and check out the menu!