Gambian Diaspora: Gambia Still Land Of No Return

By Alhassan Darboe

Sometimes, I have had to slap myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming after all. Jammeh “The dodger” as coined by the British foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has finally gone for good and so far away from Gambia in Equatorial Guinea. During Jammeh’s brutal era of dictatorship, Gambians have fled in droves to far flung ends of the world like Korea, Thailand, Dubai, Italy, Argentina, Qatar, Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, Ghana, Nigeria, Antigua, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Hong Kong, Singapore and even Mexico. The tragic part is, so many died in the Mediterranean trying to cross into Italy in flimsy boats.

You may even be surprised to know that Gambians are notorious for being the biggest drug dealers in Hong Kong (

From my research at the time of writing this article, until mostly the late 70s Gambians left mainly for the U.K. to study. Once they graduated, they returned home, obtained employment either in the civil service or the private sector, obtained a nice car and settled down to a blissful life. Majority of those who left in those days were children of the rich or PPP big wigs who had the money to sponsor them. Others were lucky enough to win scholarships to Sierra Leone and Nigeria like the current Gambian foreign minister Lawyer Ousainou Darboe. In either case, they went abroad on student visas and knew that a job was waiting for them at home once they graduated. So, while in the U.K. They lived the life of a student. “If they had a part-time job, it was only to supplement whatever stipend they received from their parents or sponsors. If they had a fiancé or fiancée before traveling, in most cases, the lovers were rest assured that the relationship would lead to fruition”.

But today’s semesters as they are mostly called in The Gambia are of a different breeds entirely. Since I left The Gambia about over half a decade ago I have met few Gambians who went to the U.K./US , obtained their degrees and returned home almost immediately. In my many years of being in the U.S., I have never met any Gambian who just came here to study and returned home. I have a well-educated cousin somewhere in another State who tells me every year that he is packing his bags and getting ready to go home soon but it has since been seven years and he is still in America. In a conversation about a month ago after Jammeh was defeated in the elections, I asked him if he still planned on going back home after many false starts in the past seven years. He wryly told me going back to Gambia is a process he has been working on for years. I don’t blame him for this at all. In fact, most of the people who now travel abroad do so to find work. If they study which most do, they settle down here and swear never to return to Gambia except on vacations or after retirement. Those who do not study also settle down and swear never to return to The Gambia except on vacation due to dictatorship at home under the stewardship of Yahya Jammeh. Now that Jammeh is gone, can Gambians abroad relocate back home?

The answers to the question apart from the economic situation at home have their foundation in the truism that it is easier to leave The Gambia than to return to re-settle there permanently, in spite of whatever difficulty and stress you endured before obtaining your visa. When you left The Gambia, probably some 10, 15, 20, or 30 years ago, you were by yourself. You had only one luggage; no wife and no children. You were in your mid- to late- 20s. If life was pretty bad for you, you were in your 30s. Your friends were around your age. You lived with your parents or other relatives. And if you were not that lucky, you rented your own place. Your friends also either lived with their parents, relatives, or rented their own places. Now pretty fast forward to 30 years later. Forget about the 10, 15, or 20 years listed above, for it would take you about 30 years to attain any semblance of meaningful living either in the U.K. / U.S. or anywhere in the West if you did not win the lottery and you were not a drug dealer or marry a super-rich spouse.

As you plan to return to The Gambia, the fact that it is easier to leave Gambia rather than return to it hits you so hard in the face. Do you have a place of your own to which you could return? If you do, does it meet the standard of living befitting of a semester who had lived overseas for 30 years? What would you do for a living in The Gambia? Get a job in the civil service and get paid a paltry 4,000 Dalasi a month? Get a job in a private corporation? Start your own business? Is your wife (if you are a man) Gambian? Is she a black foreigner? Is she a Caucasian? Is she Hispanic or Asian? Does she have the qualifications to work or do business in The Gambia? What about the children? If you spent 30 years abroad, your oldest child is probably 25 years old and out of college. Is the child returning with you to Gambia or staying back in the U.S? If you spent 30 years abroad having left Gambia when you were about 30 years old, what sort of thing could you do at the age of 60 to earn a good living in Gambia? How exactly do you re-enter the Gambian work force at the age of 60? And those friends that you left behind 30 years ago; where are they now? Surely, some have now graduated from Gambia University and gone abroad to do their masters and PhD’s and quickly return home to their respectable positions after graduation, some are now managing directors. Others are now very senior civil servants. Yet others are now university professors like my friend Professor Ensa Touray who never left the shores of the Gambia but got all his education at Gambia university (actually a Masters’ degree) and doing well as a history professor .And oh, since it is the era of politics, some are now legislators, special advisers, and ministers and senior magistrates and judges like my good friend from Nusrat High school Omar Jabang who graduated from Nusrat 6 years ago at the same time I did. You might even find a few who are governors and ministers! You must question where you stand in the new world you find yourself.

Successfully returning to the Gambia and re-integrating yourself into the society is contingent upon the fact that you had been visiting the country on a regular basis in the past 30 years. I go home at least once every year and loved it and because I have my cute and smart daughter there. I needed to spend some time with her at least once a year. Don’t question why I can’t just have her with me in US. Re-integrating yourself in The Gambia is can be tricky. I remember spending two months in the Gambia on one of my visits and certain family members and friends started questioning me when I shall return and rumor even had it that I might have been deported because I was riding a bicycle around town and using cheap public transport. I wondered is Gambia not my home? Can’t I just pack up and go back home without people questioning my sanity? How easy have your intermittent visits been if you are ever able to afford them? When, since you first traveled, did you begin to visit Gambia? Two, five, 10 years? It depends. It depends on when you “normalized” your status. It depends on when you obtained a resident permit, otherwise known as the green card. How did you obtain that green card? Well, that’s interesting!

Thirty years ago, there is no way in the world for you to have won a visa lottery, because there was no lottery then. You either traveled on a student visa or a visitor’s visa. If you traveled on a non-immigrant visa (student or visitor visa), the most likely route available for you to “fix” your stay was to marry a U.S. citizen. It sounds pretty simple right…marrying a U.S. citizen? Well, not only is it not that simple, it is also illegal to marry someone just for the purpose of normalizing your stay. What right thinking woman or man, as the case may be would want to marry another person for fraudulent reasons? This is not to say that people did not do it or are still not doing it, but you can be very rest assured that that “marriage” would be the worst nightmare of your life. True marriages in the U.S. already break at about 50 per cent rate in the first two years. And these are marriages between Americans who share the same culture. Now, throw in a fake marriage between a naturally “over-bearing” and “chauvinistic” Gambian, African man and a naturally “liberated” American woman, and you may have concocted a recipe for matrimonial disaster. My own marriage unraveled just after a year but I was lucky enough to still keep my green card despite being divorced with my temporal green card many years ago.Am I revealing too much? My mother after reading this will accuse me of being “super Kanja mouth” or “Baadaa” for revealing certain personal details for the world to see but I have to be helpful and honest here.

While your fake marriage inches on (it takes about two year sometimes to obtain a green card and another three years to obtain American citizenship), you find yourself a job, a menial job. You would still take a menial job as a construction worker, a taxi driver (I used to be a cab driver at some point in my life in US and loved it and the big tips), a newspaper vendor, a security guard, a floor and toilet cleaner, a landscaper, a fast-food cashier, a baggage handler at the airport, a greeter at a hotel, a dish washer, or a bus boy (one who clears the table at restaurants). Name the menial job, that’s what you’ll get as a new-comer to the U.S. With the green card you acquired at about your 6th or 7th year in the U.S. (if you are fast and seductive enough), you will remain at the bottom level of that menial job unless you return to school here and get trained in some other vocation or profession. Nursing is one of the favorites among Africans, however I prefer real estate and establishing your own business.

One of the good things about being a green card holder, or a citizen, is the fact that you could obtain financial aid in the form of loans, and even grants in order to pay for your education and sundry issues. Remember, nothing is free in America. In America of today, you will have to cough up anything from $20,000 – $50,000 (annually) in university education cost. It should be no surprise to you that 25 years after graduating, you are still paying back that loan.

So, during the time you are paying back your student loan, it stands to reason that you are probably also paying back your car loan. If you have lived in this country for 12 years and have not owned your own house, other Gambians, especially in materially obsessed Gambian immigrant hubs like Seattle, Atlanta and Minneapolis begin to look at you funny because your rent will be around the same amount you would pay in mortgage if you owned the house. Why not buy then? Depending on your credit rating and taste, you will borrow hundreds of thousands to purchase a house. So, at some point in your life, you will owe student loan, car loan, and mortgage at the same time. Payments on these are usually due every month. Unlike The Gambia, you will also have to pay for gas and electricity. Lord help you if you have a phone because, along with your gas, electricity, and water bills, your phone bill is also due every month.

Did I mention already that you would have a wife and children too? Well, along with those monthly utilities bills are the daily (if not hourly) non-specified, unexpected bills to be paid on the children. Whereas in your village, you could send your wife to her parents and your children to their uncles and aunties for help, here, you are basically on your own. Good God!! And as you grapple with balancing your checkbook by taking a second job, you get word from your village that your mother is ill; or niece or nephew just secured admission to The Gambia university and you begin to curse why that Dictator Yahya Jammeh built a university and didn’t make it tuition free in the first place. You look at your bank account and you find just enough money to pay your bills at the end of the month (or no money at all because you just paid your bills); you decide to ignore the call from home because self-preservation is of utmost importance. But your conscience keeps knocking; you remember that Dad had to sell part of his farm to see you through school in the village; you remember that mom spent countless nights in the hospital when you were dying of malaria like my mom did for me when I was admitted at RVTH for 6 month in 1996. I actually watched Jammeh’s first inauguration after being voted to power in the parlor of the RVTH hospital with other recovering patients; you remember that your best friend who has now joined the chorus of people needing money back home contributed his last towards your visa fees. Even if you wanted to lie to them that you were broke, you couldn’t make a convincing case; what about that picture you sent home showing you in front of a huge house with two nice cars in the garage? What about that picture of you, your wife, and children standing in front of the fireplace in a well-furnished living room? What about the picture of you guys at Disneyland, in the pool, at the beach, playing around as if you have no worries? What about that last time you visited The Gambia and convened a meeting of the entire village at the village ‘Bantaba’ , where you doled money out to everybody, including those that did not even ask? Now you are in a quandary; conscientious but broke. You weigh all your options: do any of the problems require your physical presence in The Gambia? Or could you just borrow more money and send home? If you send money home, how much is too much?

You consider the totality of your life in the U.S. – the fact that at 60, you are still taking the trash out; you are still washing your own car; you are still washing your own clothes; you are still sweeping and vacuuming your own house; you are still mowing your own lawn; you are still doing groceries. If you are not lucky enough, you probably will still be doing the same dead end job you have been doing. You consider the fact that for 30 years you really did not make any real friends here. Somehow, you just found yourself holding more to the friends you left in Gambia rather than make new ones here with all the drama, gossip and pretensions. .

At work, you find out that you have reached an impenetrable glass ceiling. Your employers will not promote you anymore because…hmmmm…you look different and speak different, even though you remain the most valuable expert at the office. You find yourself in a rot, doing the same thing over and over for years. So, you seriously consider returning to The Gambia. You make a “wetting the feet” visit to The Gambia, smartly testing the water before taking the plunge. People tell you that owning your own house before coming home is the best thing to do. You start to look for a piece of land. Lord helps you if you are lucky as land is becoming more and more expensive thanks to infrastructural development and uncontrolled population growth

Anyway, you find a plot of land in, say, Brufut, Bijilo, Gunjur, Sanyang, or Tujereng. You jump through the hoops to obtain ownership of the land and draw up a building plan. Now, are you going to remain in your village until the house is completed or are you going to return to your base in US/UK? Of course, you will have to return to your family and job abroad while your house is being built. Are you going to hand the construction of your house over to a friend or relative? Lord helps you if someone else is monitoring your house construction for you. You can be sure to pay twice what it should normally cost you for the construction of that house. And it may not even be without structural defects! I finished building mind and the thought of going back home makes me sick because I love my life style in America and the freedom. The fact of the matter is I just don’t like certain behaviors in Gambia and don’t think I’m ready yet to tolerate them. People coming to appointments late because it’s African time, people visiting you without appointment, poor customer services in banks and government institutions , too many police check points and in one case my eldest sister waking me up so early in the morning when I visited my village to perform the dawn prayer. This blew up my mind, how could she have the temerity the interrupt my sweet sleep like that?

After building your own house, you now return to the questions raised before: when and how do you leave the U.K. or the U.S. for The Gambia? What would you do for a living in The Gambia? You then begin to think about the whole idea of leaving Gambia in the first place. Was it worth it at all? Yes, it may have given you an initial leg-up when you left, but has not the law of “diminishing returns” set in? The family and friends you left in The Gambia, some of whom you used to send money, did not remain in the same place you left them. You find out that they, too, have gone to Gambia University and got their bachelors and master’s degrees, have built their own homes. If they are in the civil service, they have accrued a substantial retirement benefit. If they are in the private sector, they have also put away enough assets for retirement years. All of them have attained positions of authority and influence and have contributed to the growth of their communities one way or the other. Their children have obtained university education and have gone on to bigger and better things. Your family and friends have done all these without leaving The Gambia except on vacation or refresher courses abroad. They have achieved so much while enjoying the cathartic effect of being around childhood friends and extended family. For years, you blame your failure to return home on Jammeh and bad governance and now that Jammeh, the butcher of Banjul is gone, you still can’t go back because you simply cannot. Tragic life and dilemma of a migrant. May God help us all!!



  1. Mr. Darboe, I completely agree with you. I think what you wrote is the story of most Gambian diaspora and many diaspora from the third world countries, as they call it. Most Gambians at home and never travel or live abroad believe is still lucrative to migrate to the developed world, but not anymore. It is hard to make them believe this.

    I also think is better to return home if one manage to build at least a house or get some education or have some money to start a small business at home. Much much better.
    Nothing like home. Afterward there is not much difference between home and abroad- may be the extra little luxury and may be freedom too.

    • The Gambian diaspora are well informed and smart. We love our brothers and sisters at home, and nothing can divide us. We will unite with our brothers and sisters at home and developed The Gambia. No hatred can come between us.

  2. Alhassan Darboe,
    Personally I wasn’t surprised to learn from your article that President Jammeh indeed succeeded. Though you have not explicitly mentioned it. Why digress from the fact?
    Equating the balances between those who left and never returned, those who went for bursary periods and those who never stepped a foot out of the Gambia in the last 22 years but still succeeded, a good analytic fellow void of any form of incensed grudge would by utter altruism accept that the government that facilitated those balances was indeed a PATRIOTIC and FARSIGHTED one.
    I bet the diaporan Gambians who villified President Jammeh in the past 22 years to return home and search for their rightful places in the Gambia of President Jammeh which the present “coalition” government is still treading on. On many occasions I have reiterated the state of readiness of our girls and boys to run the affairs of our nation without the westernized education of the diasporans.
    The diasporans will be amazed to learn that the present generation of our boys and girls have better preparation than they could imagine. Smart and well focused, they have the twin assets of learning from our indigenous curriculum moulded with today’s advanced technology.
    That was the vision of President Jammeh and the ground work for any form of progess and achievement has been set in place.
    I expect a MASS EXODUS of the diasporans. What/Why are they waiting(for)?