Growing up as a Gambian in England was interesting and challenging at the same time. I was grateful that I had mastered the English language before I left Gambia at the age of ten. But I have to admit that the fast paced English that was spoken in Yorkshire, a region in Northern England, took my mandinka/fulani ears some time to adjust to.
Another contrast is the weather of course, that notoriously unpredictable British weather. I was now wearing big puffy jackets with hoods and thick socks to school religiously. Winter time was the worst time; blistering cold temperatures. My breathing turned into smoke lingering in the air one might think I smoke cigarettes.
My first encounter with European cold – not the so called cold in the Gambia- was on the day of my arrival at Gatwick Airport in London. I remember wanting to cry longing for an immediate return back to Bakau, my home town back home. I thought to myself ‘how can any human being survive such frightening temperatures’? It did not help the situation that I did not travel equipped with enough protective gear to combat the Sumuya (cold).
Having to wear gloves all the time to stay warm was greatly exciting and daunting at the same time. That’s something I never ever had to do in the scorching Bakau heat, even in the so-called nawet (rainy season).
Growing up in Bakau, I received praises for being one of the few kids who spoke ‘fluent’ English beyond “hello”. It was not until I started school in England that it came to my attention that there is something called accent. Suddenly, my classmates/school mates were picking up on my crooked pronunciation of English words. For example, I once asked a teacher if she had any prastamol (a common Gambian way of pronouncing paracetamol) instead of pra-ci-ta-mol. I thought I was speaking Standard English.
There is an old myth that those who have left Gambia, commonly referred to as the Diaspora, especially children, will become too westernized and lose their culture entirely. We are now living in the age of technology. I can sit in my bedroom in London and follow an event live streamed in Brikama. Personally, the internet has helped me connect with my country of birth. Who would have thought that my parents would be sitting in the comfort of their living room in England and watch live events in The Gambia, such as the TRRC?
Trading the ever sunny and closer knit community of Bakau Newtown for the cold and abrasive northern shores of England was indeed a real culture shock and a blow to the face. I too, like many Africans, had misguided preconceptions of Europe/England. I was not yet fully conscious of the society which I had entered as a ten-year-old. The closest I came to the British society and way of life was what I watched in the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, which we watched in The Gambia as kids. The main character of the show, Mrs. Bucket (she frowned at anyone who didn’t pronounce it as Bookay) portrayed what it was like to be the British lady of the house, close to royalty. My mental picture of Britain as a kid was through that TV show. I had formed a concrete opinion that all English people acted in such robotic movement, and spoke with a stiff upper lip, a term coined to refer to upper class English-speaking persons.
Keeping my Gambianness
It was my first day in Miles Hill Primary School in Leeds that the expectations and wild dreams about England disappeared. There, I saw children of different races all sat in a very coordinated and orderly manner, all eager to learn. I saw them engage in similar plays me and my childhood friends in Bakau used to do. Of course there were slight differences such as during break time in Leeds, we played on grass and concrete. In The Gambia, most children play on hard ground surfaces. I remember playing barefoot football until my feet blistered.
Fast forward my story to mid-twenties; despite not having visited the Smiling Coast since I migrated to Britain with my family in 2003, my Gambianess remains very much intact. One of the key preservation factors is that I still speak mandinka fluently at home with my parents. My two siblings; Habib and Famata, were considerably younger than me when they left The Gambia, hence why their memory of their country of origin is very limited. However they still love domoda and benechin. Despite their laughing at the name and smell of nyankatan, it is their guilty pleasure.
And my parents tend to speak wollof to each other and so my ears are in tune. Aside from my homely exposure to my native tongues, I’m a huge Jaliba Kuyateh fan. His song Janjabureh is a timeless classic for me. Another brilliant Gambian artist I follow and whose music I have soft spot for is Sona Jobarteh. I’m in awe of her music and the immaculate mandinka that she speaks. It’s possible to say that I have a slight crush on her.
I have to say a special thanks to my parents for ensuring that my Gambian identity is just as prevalent as my inherited British identity. As the great Bob Marley once alluded; “if you know your history then you would know where you’re coming from,” such wise words resonated well with me. That motivated me to preserve my origin.
To be continued…
Abdoulie Bayang, 26, is based in London. A poet and social scientist, he studied sociology, psychology and economics at Sheffield College. He’s currently studying the University of London.