Gambians living in Minnesota reach out to one another as they would family, striving to keep alive the culture from their west African homeland.
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
Just as the local Gambians go to lengths to connect with one another, the Islamic Education Center in north Minneapolis helps keep the group’s culture alive.
The center is a community hub. On weekends, more than 80 children take Islamic classes at the volunteer-run center, according to administrator Omar Sanneh.
The center also hosts monthly religious dialogues, weddings and baby naming ceremonies. There’s also a mosque available for prayer times.
Like the association, the center began informally, with a small group of Gambians meeting at each other’s homes to talk about religion, community affairs and politics “back home,” Sanneh said. That was over a decade ago.
Its expansion has mirrored that of the community’s, he said.
The growing presence of Gambians means that more businesses that cater to that community are springing up.
For example, at Regal Foods in Brooklyn Center, Gambians can find staples from their homeland. That’s a relatively recent development.
Before Abdou Jaiteh opened the store in 2010, no other places around town catered to Gambians, he said.
Jaiteh, a Gambian who came to Minnesota to go to business school in 2000, wanted to fill that void. He imports fonio, thiakry, moni kourou, bissap rouge, fufu mix, peanut powder, red oil and more from the Gambia.
Regal Foods also sells 55-gallon plastic barrels for $35, which people buy to ship things to the Gambia, he said.
Similarly, many Gambian immigrants have come to rely on Modou Mbye for another type of service. Mbye, who owns a cellphone shop in Brooklyn Center, knows his fellow Gambians’ phone numbers by heart and he’ll answer their calls around the clock.
If someone needs to transfer money at midnight or to add minutes to their prepaid cellphones, he’ll process a credit card payment on the spot, then go back to sleep.
Mbye, a home builder by trade, goes out of his way to help the community, but it’s good for business, too, he said, adding, “It’s a twofer.”
Nearby, Ismail Ceesay opened Esteem Merchandise, a clothing shop, in the Brooklyn Crossings office building in May of last year.
Coincidentally, the space was once occupied by the Wireless Center. He steers customers to Mbye’s new location.
Ceesay, who works as a chef in the mornings before he comes to the shop, used to sell clothing out of a suitcase in his car. The Brooklyn Crossings building, which is home to a number of minority-owned businesses, was one of his regular stops, he said.
The right clothes can provide a self-esteem boost, hence the “Esteem” name, he said.
He hand-picks the clothes, which he sells at a discount. Sometimes he lets people pay in installments.
How did he get into this business? “I’ve always had good taste in clothes. My wife prefers me to pick out clothes for her,” he said.
Although Ceesay has never grown accustomed to Minnesota winters, he’s glad he hopped on a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C., in 2000, for a fresh start.
After leaving and coming back in 2011, he said he appreciates the Twin Cities, which he describes as a friendly, accommodating place. It’s allowed him to flourish, thanks largely to the fact that the Gambian community is so “family-oriented. It keeps us together. Nobody is an island.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.