We lived in a rural village about an hour’s drive from Banjul, the capital, and had limited access to many educational opportunities. The few we did have 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 — calling it a construct of the White man — our mother quietly supported our efforts to get educated and broaden our horizons.
But even as we learned in primary and high school, we knew we were still disadvantaged. We did not have access to college or university-level education, and good-paying jobs were scarce. The best positions went to those most connected 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 US. 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 argue over 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 willed it, they could reach any educational or professional heights.
America also looked massive and diverse. Each state seemed like its own country — and yet American democracy appeared to somehow hold all of them together. We did not care about Democrats or Republicans or their political squabbles — we only cared that American democracy seemed to bring peace, wealth and independence. And, more to the point, we believed that wherever there was trouble in the world, America would take the lead in addressing it.
While our impression of America led my brother and I to dream of moving there, it also led us to imagine a better future for Gambia. I did not yet know the fragility of America’s own democracy. But I did know that it was better than what was passing as freedom in my country, and I hoped we could replicate 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, and so I started writing as an activist and then as a journalist — demanding more of our government in each column I filed.
I continued to write for Gambian newspapers, when, in 1992, I left for the US 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 a different continent, I still published reports uncovering the abuses of the Jammeh regime. And yet, despite my distance from Gambia, Jammeh still considered my writing a threat to his rule. When my father died at the end of 2006, I returned to Gambia and was arrested upon arrival.
By then, I’d already learned of America’s faults: the mass shootings, social inequality and 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. Simply put, 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 for all the country’s systemic problems, America was still everything to Gambians dreaming of freedom and prosperity. American democracy wasn’t 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 isn’t the only country struggling with democracy. Now I’m watching with terror as American democracy falters, and I fear too many missteps could imperil global democracy, too.
The image of America declines every day in many parts of Africa — and around the world. It’s disappointing, it’s scary and, to be frank, it’s crushing our hopes.
Too many Americans who respect democracy believe that the country is so flawed it doesn’t deserve to lead by example. They believe that for all the country’s mistakes and injustices, it’s time for some other country or some high ideal to replace America as the symbol of democracy around the world. It’s not so simple.
Of course, Americans are right to examine their failures and demand more of their country, but they can’t ignore their obligation to foreigners living under oppressive governments everywhere. It wasn’t just 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 that Americans today did not ask for this responsibility. But now that they have it, they must honor it. The symbol of American democracy is still the most potent global force for freedom, and without it, the world — including my home country — faces a dark future.