The Midwestern cold US State of Minnesota is on the record to have documented stable rises in the number of not only Gambian immigrants, but a significant increase in the number of African immigrants in general as well as those from Asia. Although there are no official data on the exact number of Gambians living here, cogent unofficial approximations gathered by a few Gambia Association officials and some long-settled Gambian immigrants have suggested that there are over 1000 Gambian immigrants in Minnesota.
Officially though, Liberians made up the largest West African immigrant population and the surge was as a result of the protracted civil war that forced most of them to settle here on the US Resettlement Program on strictly refuge statuses. Majority of these refuges are given what is known in the United States Immigration Department gobbledygook as TPS (Temporary Protective Status). It is based on the mutually sealed agreement that when political normalcy returned to Liberia, these refuges must agree to repatriate either voluntarily or compulsorily. However, successive presidents from Bush to Obama have been extending this program on a yearly basis as a result of sustained mounting pressures from an army of political and economic lobbyists. Most Liberia immigrants are settled around the Brooklyn Park area and their heavy concentration in this area has now teasingly earned the city status as mini Monrovia. Beside LIBs as they are euphemistically call, Minnesota is also home to teeming Somali immigrants and refugees and official figure obtained from recent Census Bureau estimations put their number to staggering over 160, 000 within the twin cities area encompassing Minneapolis and Saint Paul and their suburbs.
The Asian immigrant landscape is dominated by the Hmong immigrants, majority of whom are also refugees and because of their heavy concentration in the capital city St Paul, the state seat of power is referred to as the Hmong capital of the United States. Other immigrants with huge presence include Ethiopians, Sierra Leoneans, Ghanaians, Kenyans, Pakistanis, Indians, Laotians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, and many others.
Statistically, from 2002 to date, the state has witnessed steady rise in the number of Gambians moving over to MN. Among the myriad enticing reasons include job and educational opportunities, family and communal and friendship ties .A quick perfunctory personal investigation I have conducted revealed that Gambians have been living here for a long time and the first settlers have reportedly arrived between 1979 and 1981. But unlike Somalis who dominantly populated Minneapolis area where they have malls and other businesses and mosques, Gambians are sparsely settled, indicating that there is no single city that one can claim have the highest concentration of Gambians.
The interesting demographics of Gambians have provided a center of attention of this writer who considers it appealing to bring it to the attention of readers for possible emulation and replication. From the get go, it has been generally recognized that Gambians living in this state are solidly united and the undeniable alliance is ineradicably embedded in both their healthy membership and active participation in the Gambian Association of MN of which I proudly serve as the current Secretary General for about 4 years now. Among its key project achievements was the successful shipment of a whopping 39, 000 books to various schools in the Gambia in 2009 in a joint project with Book for Africa and funding from Western Union. The consignment was delivered to the Ministry of Education in Banjul and distributed to many schools countrywide. In September 2012, the Association made a successful shipment of a 40ft Container of medical items of various types which included excellent hospital beds and mattresses, syringes, glucose texting devices and a host of other invaluable items. This was delivered through the Ministry of Health and the cost of shipment which amounted to $6,000 was absolutely paid from the coffers of the Association through membership contributions. The hospital items were generously donated by shalom Homs, Alina and other medical installations and were worth over $160,000. In the area of social entertainment, Gambian Kora maestro, Jaliba Kuyateh has made 3 stupendous musical appearances in this state with the latest being in June 2012 with a live performance by his Kumareh Band. We have also numerously celebrated Gambia Independent Day Anniversary with presentations on Gambian history and culture and speeches by invited lawyers, medical and insurance experts and bankers, before rapping such events up with an assortment of relaxing musical entertainment.
An adorable form of hospitality that is unique to the Gambian community here is its level of unbridled magnanimity. It has been a long tradition for families to voluntarily cook and donate food for naming, graduation and wedding ceremonies. Besides, the women Association customarily writes a check for 500 dollar donation towards the naming ceremony of any family.
Interestingly, Gambians in MN have 12 sub-associations that are purposefully based on communal, township and regional inclinations. Some of these are Farafenni, Kiang, Salikene, Sarahule, Kombo, Soccer team, the Boys, Daara and Women and Nurse Associations. There is the UN or the Brotherhood because it is a constellation of wonderful people from different villages and towns in the Gambia that have one, two or a few people from the same area living in Minnesota. For instance, there is only one known person here who is a native of a Badibou village and him and others came together, closed their ranks and formed a solidarity group named “United Nations”.
The proliferation of these subgroups has consistently provided additional layers of unity among Gambians. Beside carrying out projects in their native towns, villages and Kabilos, these community members like the Farafenni Kambeng Kafo meet regularly at the end of each month to socialize for many happy hours, make their monthly financial contributions, and map out strategies in bolstering their communal and family connections or ties and get progressive feedback on project accomplishments among others. During sporadic times of soliciting needed funds for funeral or religious functions, these associations do spontaneously activate their financial machinery and will make handsome donations towards such worthy ventures. The Gambia Association also fruitfully relies on these association heads to gather support and cooperation both morally and financially for the upkeep of the umbrella organization. The productive ongoing partnership has now pleasingly generated mutual understanding, trust and support between the Gambia Association and these smaller groups. The same is true amongst these important subgroups, thus laying a solid foundation for strong community cohesion.
Often we ecstatically hear visitors recounting that Gambians in Minnesota are very united. These warm acknowledgements continue to be received by Gambian-Minnesotans casually and openly from visitors coming from Europe, within the US and from back home. We owe this unity to some of the first settlers whose first preoccupation was to create a united Gambian Association and to find a place for community worship. Today, with the kind intervention of Allah the Almighty, those wonderful unwavering collective efforts led to the establishment of a Gambian Islamic and Educational Center which houses both a community mosque and Daara, a strong soccer team, a mushrooming communal kaffos and a mighty Gambian Association that is being anchored by dedicated and selfless members of the Gambian community. I am sure the story is the same for other diaspora Gambians elsewhere.
By Lamin Sabally, Secretary General of Gambian Association in Minnesota.