Gambians in Minnesota: Finding family on foreign ground

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2014 - 1:10 PM

Gambians living in Minnesota reach out to one another as they would family, striving to keep alive the culture from their west African homeland.

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Members of the Twin Cities Gambian community at a rally. The number of Gambians in Minnesota has risen from fewer than 10 in the 1980s to as many as 2,000, according to a Minneapolis-based nonprofit.

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Lamin “Lang” Dibba was recruited from the Gambia, a tiny country on the west coast of Africa, to play soccer in Oklahoma in 1981. When a friend later offered him a job with a restaurant chain in Minnesota, he turned it down, saying it was too cold for him.

Eventually, his friend upped the ante enough that he decided to take the job. That was in 1985. He’s been in the Twin Cities ever since.

In the 1980s, there weren’t enough Gambians around to form a soccer team, he said. For many years, he played with a Liberian team known as the Lone Star.

Nowadays, he’s constantly seeing new faces at Gambian get-togethers, he said.

It’s people like Dibba who are trying to build up the Minnesota Gambian community, which has grown from fewer than 10 people in the ’80s to as many as 2,000, according to the Minneapolis-based Gambian Association of Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that Dibba helped found.

People are scattered, but many Gambians are concentrated in the north metro area, particularly Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, alongside a number of other African immigrant groups, he said.

Although the local Gambian population doesn’t compare with that of New York City, Seattle or Atlanta, it’s drawing immigrants from other states, according to Alkali Yaffa, the association’s president.

The group has gotten younger through the years, and babies are being born all the time. That was once a rare occurrence, he said.

Strong schools and a healthy job market are a big draw for people, Yaffa said, but in his view, the community dynamic is also a major factor. “We bring the community together as one. We look at the association as family,” he said.

The association started as a social group before it become a nonprofit in 1994. It “aims to unite all Gambians and provide a practical means to identify and address their concerns,” its website states.

Also, the association has a “one-call” system in which everything from announcements to details about an emergency community meeting gets sent out to the membership via voice-mail alerts.

The community comes together to help bury a loved one or to provide for a new baby. “If someone has a baby, that means a lot. The child doesn’t only belong to the mother and father, but to the community. It takes a village to raise a family. We bring that mentality here,” Yaffa said.

Similarly, in the case of family problems, the association might send an elder in the community to help reconcile differences, he said.

The association also tackles issues facing people in the Gambia. It has sent much-needed textbooks to the country, along with medical supplies. “We’re not only about ourselves, but folks in need back home.”

Under the association’s umbrella, Gambians from the same town get together regularly. Others are bound by an interest in the field of nursing. The association has also hosted workshops for people going through the naturalization process. During the warmer months, it hosts a soccer tournament.

Aunty Colley, a Brooklyn Park resident who’s lived in Minnesota since 1996, said, “You can call a Gambian anytime and they’ll leave their homes and come help.”

The attitude is “What you have is for everybody. There’s a give and take. A lot of giving. We still have those values,” she said.

Keeping the culture alive

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