When outsiders immersed themselves in the challenges and culture of The Gambia and have to answer questions of a journalist who knows pretty little about Africa, it’s worth reading. Wayne Young has several philanthropic projects In The Gambia. He is also the publisher and editor of Port of Harlem, a publication celebrating the diversity found in the African and Indigenous diaspora. Below is Wayne Young’s interview about his regular stays in The Gambia with Tamar Alexia Fleishman of Los Angeles-based talk radio KABC (790 AM).
Tamar Alexia Fleishman: Tell me about your latest projects.
Wayne Young: The biggest focus is on building some mini-libraries in The Gambia. One is already built. The government doesn’t have money to do much of anything, to tell the truth. The government has always relied on different governments, post-Colonialism. The 1863 Conference, the European conference, split up Africa into artificial nations that served their colonial interests. The Gambia served the British interests in that it’s a river with land on either side. Senegal (the nation that surrounds The Gambia except for a small Atlantic Ocean coastline) is more French-oriented. We say, “It’s two governments, one people.”
I am also a curator, the creator of “West Africans in Early America,” an exhibit at the Slavery Museum in Juffureh. Juffureh was the birthplace of Kunte Kinte. It focuses on people of Sene-Gambian heritage.
I also work with the YALI network, the Young African Leadership Initiative. It’s a comprehensive program for Africans to study an issue intensely for 9 weeks at U.S. colleges and universities in different areas like leadership, business, networking. They keep in contact with each other. We support one young man from there who is under 30, energetically supporting his community. The U.S. program reinforces his intelligence, his goodness, resources, networking.
How often do you go there?
At least once a year.
Do you own property there?
No, that can be tricky. I asked a lawyer friend there, “With the low murder rate, low crime rate, what do you do here?” – mainly property issues.
You have discussed that you feel safer at night there (Gambia) than in D.C., Describe that.
Here (DC), you have these murders! The people (in The Gambia) are more responsible. I think it’s cultural and religious, more respect for life.
I was in a village, and somebody’s home had been broken into, their laptop was stolen. They didn’t call the police; they didn’t have to. The next thing I know, there’s this man walking with his head bowed down, surrounded by 15 people – they walked him to the police. I’ve seen that happen three times. Their police officers do not carry guns.
Is that attractive to businesses?
People are irrational. It’s also getting there from the U.S, going through Brussels. There used to be a direct flight from Baltimore, under (former Maryland Lt. Governor) Steele. The whole airline industry has changed. Even from New York, (direct) points are few and far between. It’s a remnant of post-colonialism.
Senegal has a super-nice airport, superior! It employs lots of people. They had electronic processing at the same time or before Dulles (Airport). There’s no free WiFi, though.
How did you get so interested in The Gambia?
I worked for the Census Bureau. They were there to help create surveys and systems.
Is there any talk in Africa about any E.U.-like organizations?
That’s the Pan-African agreement. On January 1st, there was economic integration for small businesses. There are 7 regions (The Gambia is in), the “Ecowas” region.
How would you describe The Gambia’s customs compared to its neighbor, Senegal?
It really is “One people, two countries.” Some Gambians have been educated in Senegal and speak French. One time, I missed a plane and went to Senegal with a friend. He [coincidentally ran]into his aunt! Where else are you going to see that with two countries?
Do they cross borders for business?
Some went to the Gambia “for the party” during Covid; it was not locked down.
What are some of the biggest differences between the United States African American community and the community in The Gambia?
Family structure. That’s what I’ve been focusing on lately. When continental Africans come [to the U.S], I let them know to say, “How’s it going?”, not “How is the family?”. I tell them to let it go — being judgmental — assuming the cultural relationship. Here, when I knock on the door, I wouldn’t ask, “How is your husband?” There, in the house, there will be the mother, the father, grandmother, and cousin. People do get divorced (in The Gambia), but it’s not that common. A single woman raising a child there is very uncommon.
You wouldn’t ask about nursing homes. The elderly move in with you, or you move in with them. They wouldn’t have (rescue) beepers there; your beeper would be your voice! People live in a compound, 5 houses that may or may not be related. Anybody can help anybody else. I came to visit a village circle, and a little girl came up to me and said, “You did not bring me a present last year!” Now I know not to (just) bring 12 gifts for the people of a house; I bring 48! I bring extra things to the lady or the man of the house to distribute, could be to a 2nd or 3rd cousin. Last time, I brought Lion King masks.
African Americans will criticize the wearing of court wigs: “colonialism.” I say, “What gives you the right, the audacity to criticize them? Do you speak Mandinka?” No, they speak English. There is a saying, “Speak your native language to your children or watch it die within the next 20 years. Looking down on your relatives who speak your native tongue because you speak perfect English is stupid. It is like being proud of borrowed clothes.”
Do they have government social safety nets?
Not as strong as here. But it’s also about tradition.
The Gambia has recently rejoined the British Commonwealth. Do you notice any influences?
I know a man who wanted to join the British Army so that he could do that. There are also Commonwealth Games, tournaments, and other opportunities. For some people, it’s important.
The Chinese are also coming. That’s been a discussion all over Africa.
What would you like to see for The Gambia’s future?
My immediate focus (is to see) my two libraries functioning together, electronically connected, sharing. They’re about 2-3 hours apart. Only one has WiFi now. WiFi is very common there. Lots of people have a cellphone. A significant portion of the population is youth. They have a fascination with the internet.
Port of Harlem brings out the full diaspora of Black culture, religion, and ethnic groups in a way I’ve never seen before. Though you follow in the footsteps of great publishers like John Johnson (Ebony and Jet magazines) and his editor Basil Phillips, you have a fearless way of showing the rest of the world to readers. What say you?
Sometimes, American publications show the US eye, not the African perspective, the African perspective. I chose this door. I have African-centric tour information in Port of Harlem.
There’s a difference between a “tourist” and a “traveler.”
We go as a “traveler.” The tourist goes on a bus, sits on a well-cushioned chair, looks out the window, and says, “Oh, that’s cute.” That’s opposed to going (back) to someone’s house, and they say, “Oh, I had a baby!” You have to read a book ahead of time. Go with someone who’s been there before. We say, “We don’t lead them. We help support them.”
Tamar Alexia Fleishman