We lived in a village about an hour’s drive from Banjul, the capital, and had limited access to many educational opportunities. The few we had gave us an advantage over our parents who could not read or write – or even speak English. While our father was deeply suspicious of traditional schooling – and called it a construction of the white man – our mother quietly supported our efforts to be educated and expand our horizons.
But even though we learned in elementary school and high school, we knew we were still in a bad position. We did not have access to education at the university or university level, and well-paid jobs were few. The best positions went to those most attached to the men already in power.
In contrast, America was a symbol of progress and mobility. And American pop culture only reinforced our idealized notion of the United States. The Gambians all listened to American music – be it Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey – and we followed American fashion trends closely. We knew the names of most American actors and routinely quarreled about our favorites. Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris remain two of the most popular.
Based on the American media personalities we came to know, we thought of Americans as some of the most empowered people on earth. If they wanted to, they could reach all educational or professional heights.
America also looked massive and diverse. Each state seemed like its own country – and yet American democracy somehow seemed to hold them all together. We did not care about Democrats or Republicans or their political quarrels – we only cared that American democracy seemed to bring peace, wealth, and independence. And more to the point, we thought that wherever there were problems in the world, America would take the lead in solving it.
While our impression of America made my brother and I dream of moving there, it also made us imagine a better future for Gambia. I did not yet know the fragility of America’s own democracy. But I knew it was better than what went on as freedom in my country, and I was hoping we could copy the model.
I knew we did not have to live this way. America proved that citizens can play a role in choosing their own destiny, which is why I started writing as an activist and then as a journalist – and demanded more from our government in every column I submitted.
I continued to write for Gambian newspapers when in 1992 I traveled to the United States to join my husband, who was finishing his schooling in Kentucky. Two years later, while I was still in America, Jawara was overthrown in a coup, and Yahya Jammeh, a military official, replaced him.
Even from another continent, I still published reports revealing the abuses of the Jammeh regime. And yet, despite my distance from Gambia, Jammeh still regarded my writing as a threat to his rule. When my father died in late 2006, I returned to Gambia and was arrested on arrival.
By that time, I had already learned about the flaws of the United States: the mass shootings, social inequality, and the daily struggle against racism. I also saw how the average American did not know the country’s immigrant history, and I could not believe how common nativism was becoming. In short, I saw the cracks in American society, and as an African immigrant who had believed in the American dream, it was a difficult reality to accept.
But despite all the country’s systemic problems, America was still too Gambian to dream of freedom and prosperity. American democracy was not perfect, but it was close enough. In America, I was free to keep writing about Gambia – a choice I did not have at home.
But Gambia is not the only country struggling with democracy. Now I watch with horror as American democracy falters, and I fear that too many mistakes can also jeopardize global democracy.
The image of America is falling every day in many parts of Africa – and around the world. It’s disappointing, it’s scary, and to be honest, it shatters our hopes.
Too many Americans who respect democracy believe that the country is so deficient that it does not deserve to lead by example. They believe that because of all the country’s mistakes and injustices, it’s time for another country or a high ideal to replace America as the symbol of democracy around the world. It’s not that simple.
Of course, Americans are right in investigating their failures and demanding more of their country, but they cannot ignore their commitment to foreigners living under oppressive governments everywhere. It was not only American influence that made me demand better from the Gambian government – it was knowing that America was there that made me believe that I could succeed.
I know the Americans today did not ask for this responsibility. But now that they have it, they have to respect it. The symbol of American democracy is still the most potent global force for freedom, and without it the world – including my homeland – faces a dark future.
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