It was the end of year and there was midnight Mass on Dec. 31. The Mass, meant to usher the congregation into the new year, was exciting and full of joy.
The fraternity was cordial as we all hugged and shook hands. It was not difficult to smile and exchange pleasantries. We were soon to start the reality of American living, and our thoughts would quickly wander past the new year.
I was not too happy when I realized the enormous task ahead of me.
I only had a seasonal job, and my wife expected more from me, at least a better job.
And we received word that our family homes in Africa had all been burnt down, about four houses. My grandmother’s house was my entire responsibility. That is where I grew up. My two uncles survived and had nowhere to live, though they managed.
They may have been told that I had survived President Jammeh’s countless challenges and was now in the United States. Our first three months were challenging.
There was excessive cold that November. Many neighbors and friends said the previous year was better.
We would walk from Ellsworth Street to School Street for classes at Lutheran Social Services [now Ascentria Care Alliance] every day till 1 p.m. or so. Chris Lamboi, our RIAC [Refugee & Immigrant Assistance Center] caseworker, had also taken us to the Cathedral of Saint Paul on Chatham Street. We went there to worship on Sundays and for special devotions and prayer. The winter was not a conducive time for that without a car, but the snow was beautiful to see, I would tell my wife.
“What is beautiful about it? Plenty of water, too much cold and suffering,” Theresa would say.
“But the whiteness is very good for your eyesight,” I’d respond.
Going to class in the morning was terrible. We were marked for attendance and told we may not qualify for college if we were late or absent often. Our teacher, Monica Bond, was not ready for me to move on, it seemed, until her favorites had gone to college. Well, I thought, I should have to make my own moves. But then Monica held a special class briefing about college. “If you go to college on your own you will pay a lot of money. We have an agreement with Quinsigamond Community College that allows students from here to attend QCC free.” She said it was only possible with refugees. I was moved by this and decided to remain patient.
On several occasions, before we knew what frostbite was, the cold with the snow had caused Theresa and myself excruciating pain in the ears and fingers. Sometimes I thought I had no ears left on my head. It was worse for my nose, because it had nowhere to hide. My feet were only moving because I was alive but had very little power to carry me through to School Street every day. Theresa was often in tears; she said on several occasions that the condition was unbearable. She stayed home from class sometimes, and I told the teacher she was not feeling well. But she also did not like the idea of staying home while I went to school with those beautiful Cambodian, Kenyan and Haitian girls. So I was not too happy either.
We virtually cried walking in the snow and feared the cold, too, but we knew we had to venture out anyway. Christmas was approaching, and we needed a plan.
The Gambia had been ruled by Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who served initially as prime minister then as the republic’s first president, for more than 30 years.
The country’s main political party was the People’s Progressive Party [PPP]. From the mid-1960s to the early ’90s the country was relatively quite stable and citizens accepted the status quo. Gambians were very proud of their country and had no will for political change. Peace was plentiful. The country was safe.
But since the July 1994 overthrow of Jawara — the legitimate president, re-elected in 1992 — by then army Lt. Yahya Jammeh, the country has become confused, more corrupt and paralyzed by one person.
The nation recently conducted an election which, as usual, Jammeh was expected to win easily — his confidence in winning again this time likely stemmed from the fact he’d jailed his main opposition, Oinou Darboeusa, for protesting on the street before the election. In fact, President Jammeh was accused, regularly, of rigging elections (including by Darboe, who’d lost to Jammeh in 2011).
Jammeh got the surprise of his life after the Dec. 1 general elections. He at first congratulated his opponent, Adama Barrow, and offered advice, but Jammeh later changed his mind and has since refused to hand over the presidency. The struggle continues.
Courtesy Augustine Kanjia
Gambia’s first president, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara
Augustine Kanjia, who spent years uncovering corruption as a refugee journalist in Gambia during Jammeh’s rule, examines what Jammeh might be thinking, what’s next for the West African nation, and how America’s electoral issues pale in comparison to those in Gambia.
The people of Gambia for 22 years have been living in fear under President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh, who has earned the title Dictator. Who dares to talk loud where one is never sure if the person next to you is a government informant? Year after year, Gambians have become more fearful of Jammeh. When his name is heard on the streets, many look over their shoulders.
We were put in a hotel when we first arrived, since no house was ready for us. To me, Worcester looked like the cleanest city in the world. I loved it.
I felt the hotel would be our home for a while, but it was only for three days. The children and I would leave the room to look at the trees that beautified the place like flowers. Flowers were not visible then, it was the colorful tree leaves that showed. Yes! It was fall — a season I would learn more about — and the leaves had changed colors. Our case worker, Chris Lamboi, was also from Sierra Leone. We thought he was going to be a very good source for development and enlightenment into American life.
Our apartment was ready, Chris came to tell us. I could not believe we were already leaving our luxurious room. Our bundles were not much; I had acquired nothing to bring over here. I had a few books and my neckties. And my photo album. Theresa, my wife, would tease me, saying, “You take delight [only] in [old] photos, addresses and phone numbers.”
This place was very cold for us, and we had no heavy clothes for it. We huddled in the corner of the room and waited for Chris to come back and take us home. Once he picked us up, we drove across the city, looking everywhere. My two kids asked me loads of questions. I didn’t know what to say, except to make up answers from what I’d learned.
For example, Mary asked, “Daddy, what seasons do they have here?” I tried to say what I knew. I said with confidence (but not in correct sequence), “Summer, winter and spring. We have the dry and wet seasons” in West Africa.
Our new house was on Ellsworth Street, not far from Kelley Square. The traffic was quite confusing. I had never seen such crazy traffic like Kelley Square, with no traffic lights. That was not my worry because I had never seen a traffic light in Sierra Leone. In Senegal and Gambia, sure, but never in my homeland.
Chris spent a long time talking big during our ride. He said he had been driving in Worcester for ages with no accident record, and that Kelley Square was no trouble for him. But we sat at the intersection for more than 10 minutes waiting for Chris to drive through. At last, we were free. It was evening.
Augustine’s last chapter: Goodbye, GambiaOr scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
We were in Dakar the night of Oct. 17. The airport looked angelic, full of light and people of different colors. This was also just the start of our confusion until we’d reach our destination. It continued being wonderful, and full of wonder.
An IOM [International Organization for Migration] officer met us at Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport and handed us our travel documents in an IOM bag to be held in our hands till we reached our destination. We knew we were going to the United States but were not sure in which city or state we’d land. I liked it that way, so my expectations would not be too high. I thought constantly about education, though, and Massachusetts was long on my list of places to come for studies, because they said it was the seat of education.
Popo le Chien/Wikimedia Commons
Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport in Dakar, Senegal.
The protection officer liked my baby, shook our hands, and kissed and hugged Mary. She gave us her number and said to feel free to get in touch when we settled. The journey was soon to begin.
When the plane finally took off in the middle of the night, it was safe to tell my wife, Theresa, the secret of narrowly escaping a meeting with the chief justice at 8 o’clock on Monday morning — a meeting regarding one of my last news reports that would have almost certainly led to prison. She was shocked to hear it. I gave her the letter which the CJ had asked me to destroy. She shed tears but encouraged herself by thinking of our journey and what lay ahead of us: a new address.
Augustine’s last chapter: A Very Long One Week Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
Our journey from Senegal back to Gambia was superb after succeeding in the orientation. We were on top of the world, but we dared not say a word about our upcoming change of address.
We were all aware of the fluid and tender situation we were in. My wife, Theresa, called it “time bomb.” She asked me to be more careful — the devil was at work. Our prayer times increased. We prayed the Rosary every night, instead of on Fridays as we used to do, on top of our other prayers. The one week until we’d be leaving the shores of The Gambia once and for all seemed everlasting.
Courtesy Augustine Kanjia
Augustine poses with Theresa, as their secret departure nears, wearing T-shirts at once honoring their former newspaper boss and defying their president (whose photo lurks in the background).
Some days it was hard to sleep. We had already told the resettlement team that we knew nobody in America, so we were in God’s hands to place us somewhere. In fact, my oldest daughter Alice and her three-year-old son had left before us, in August. Her mouth could not relax; she may have told her friends about our plans had she stayed, but these challenges were part of the game.
I was hunted by the secret service, though they had no reason to apprehend me. I was gentle and focused. One week.
People were waiting to hear from me as they wondered about our frequent travels. Our crossing through the airport was swift, but there was a checkpoint ahead. The drivers would stop and passengers crossing the border would pass close by the police. I was noticeable! My name had been mentioned in recent court cases in the news, particularly as a witness for the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in The Gambia.
The worrying was enough to make my wife, Theresa, shake. But we were only waiting two more weeks for the final touch in our resettlement quest.
It was a surprise to know that the IGP was part of these horrible activities that were perpetrated on the masses over several years. He was, it turns out, one of the most notorious criminals whose story I dug up. He was called Ensa Badjie, commonly called “Jesus,” because Ensa in their language, they say, means “Jesus.” I thought he was a very reliable man with the name Jesus. He was not reluctant at all to send his men with me — the crooked ones — to show me where the crimes I’d been writing about [such as the taxi scam from a few chapters back] were happening — the crimes, it just so happened, he was orchestrating.
We received yet another call to report for results of all our troubling interviews by the UNHCR (the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). It was the most troubling appointment above all in our quest for resettlement. Many teeth will grind in disappointment and discouragement.
There were about 20 families, more than 30 people. I had a case to be a witness to in court. Did this bother me? Not at all! My thoughts were all on my results to be released to me and the date I’d be given for our orientation.
How should we leave this time? How would people think about us? Would they conclude their stories about our frequent visits to Dakar? Well, a trick came to my mind before we would set off.
Courtesy Augustine Kanjia
Mary, Glen and Theresa finally meet up with Augustine in Dakar.
Tell your boss at work that your son fainted overnight, I thought, and that there was an urgent need to go see his doctor in Dakar, so urgent you could not go by road.
Slok Air International, a Nigerian businessman-owned airline that was closed for a time due to corruption and mismanagement, was contacted by my boss, the managing editor of The Point newspaper. The Point had an agreement with Slok Air: They gave us their adverts, and they ferried Point workers and their families, wife and husband and one child, for free. I was called by a Slok manager, with the help of my wife’s Catholic friend, Aunty Bridget, who had shown compassion and pointed to this opportunity, which expedited our securing the ticket and leaving in the afternoon with our sick son.
Glen had, in fact, fainted earlier on in the past week. He had malaria, and was given chloroquine[a common treatment for malaria], which his heart would not accept. He then collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He was treated and advised never to receive chloroquine for malaria.
All my colleagues at The Point knew my son had a problem that needed fixing. Many important details of our issues remained a complete family secret. Nobody said a word to anyone to avoid contradicting themselves and bringing our resettlement to a halt.
With his quest for asylum on the back burner, Augustine remains on the hot seat, experiencing distrust from the police and even from friends. But the journalism work continues, despite hostility from Gambian officials. Proud as ever and worried about his ailing son, Augustine stands up for himself and his profession … And waits.
I was ready to go for my reporting the next morning. There was a big trial concerning eight journalists who were accused of disseminating false reports and sedition. Trouble awaited me, but I did not know.
I had to be there in court to satisfy my boss and colleagues at The Point newspaper, who comprised the eight. The journey from Dakar, Senegal’s capital, had not ended. We were at Barra (Niumi, Gambia), where there were police on the ferry and at a checkpoint. It was evening, and the water was seemingly calm.
Courtesy Augustine Kanjia
On his way to court …
I used the most dangerous way of going across: the dugout canoe. It was overloaded with bags of rice and a few men. The water became turbulent and we were in apparent trouble. A few bags of rice were thrown in the sea, which made our boat calm down. There was no life jacket … and no engine. Only paddles.
I survived and crossed over to meet my family. It was a breathtaking event. I wished I had never tried going by dugout canoe — though I was ready: I had no luggage and could swim well.
We got a taxi home and relaxed, ready to answer questions from liars.