‘This Feels Like Being Born Again:’ Gambians Hope for Change and Long for Home

Gambians on Saturday in Banjul, the capital, hearing about the imminent departure of Yahya Jammeh, who had refused to step down as president after losing an election. Credit Carl De Souza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For the first time since 1994, Gambia has a new leader. Adama Barrow, who set foot inside the country on Thursday for the first time as the country’s president, has taken power after a tumultuous transition in which the former president, Yahya Jammeh, refused to step down.

Mr. Jammeh’s oppressive rule prompted thousands of Gambians to flee the country. As the new president takes office, we asked readers in Gambia about their hopes and fears for their nation. We heard from those still in the country as well as many Gambians who had moved abroad, with some planning to return.

“This feels like being born again,” wrote Omar Njie, a 28-year-old Gambian living in Turkey.

The responses were optimistic — and specific. Readers pointed to the need for swift limits on power to prevent another leader who could rule for 22 years. They yearned for free speech. And they emphasized the need to bolster the frayed economy and end corruption.

Responses have been edited and condensed.

‘My heart has been tugging at me to return’

“The vast majority of my people has left the Gambia because of the culture of intimidation that Jammeh created. There was no point having a successful business because he would crush it. There was no point aspiring to have a dynamic career because he had limited all opportunities for professional advancement. Now, I believe many of my family will return because of the spirit of hope — of possibility — in the air.”

Akinyi Ochieng, 23, a Gambian-American writer and student in London. Twitter: @kikiochieng.

“I stayed away because of injustice, favoritism and tribalism. I hope to return some day.”

— Lamin Bojang, 57, Silver Spring, Md.

“Ever since the election of Barrow, my heart has been tugging at me to return and to be able to help my homeland grow. I would love to help usher in a new era in Gambia and help the children have brighter futures. The biggest factor that could influence my decision would be safety concerns. Truly look forward to being able to go home for the 1st time in 27 years.”

— Mbye Njie, 35, a technology executive in Atlanta. Twitter: @mnjie. Instagram and Snapchat: @gambianchampion.

Putting limits on power

“I believe this government will avail me the rights that Jammeh denied every Gambian for 22 years. Freedom of speech, freedom from fear of being fired unlawfully from your job and fear of a relative getting arrested.”

— Ebrima A. Bah, 32, a public relations officer at Gambia Maritime Administration in Latriya, Gambia. Twitter: @Ebrima84ABAH.

“Term limits will not only ensure we don’t have another Yahya Jammeh with a 22-year rule, but the practice will also deter unnecessary military takeovers, an undemocratic act that has always bedeviled the African continent.”

— Nanama Keita, 31, New York. Twitter: @nanamakeita.

“I think one of the fundamental flaws of the previous regime was its disregard for constitutionalism and the tenets of democracy, which ultimately enthroned a dictatorship that we had to endure for 22 years. I am hoping that this new regime take steps to ensure that the factors that created the dictatorship in the first place do not fester.”

— Abdulrahman Bah, 33, Birmingham, Britain.

Celebrations as troops from Senegal came to Banjul on Monday. Mr. Jammeh had seized power in a coup in 1994. He flew out of the country on Saturday. Credit Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images Europe

Repairing an economy in tatters

“The political situation in the Gambia is free of tyranny, but the economy has been destroyed. Gambia needs capital to avoid a financial crash. People are free but without a strong economy.”

Essa Bokarr Sey, 53, a former ambassador in Louisville, Ky.

“This feels like being born again, and the feeling of patriotism is coming back again. There were literally no opportunities to make it in the country unless you had ties with the government. Now that is out of the way, we would like to see reforms, especially education, health and infrastructure, job creation and, of course, firstly a newly drafted constitution.”

— Omar Njie, 28, Turkey.

Changes to the social fabric

“I hope he implements teaching students the Gambian Constitution, as it will always pay in the future. Gambians are promised free speech, assembly, to protest, etc., but they do not know this, as it was suppressed under the previous government. Example is the U.S.: Some people do not know their state governors, district congressmen/women, vice president of the U.S. or the other branches exist, but they know they have the right to free speech, press, assembly, etc.”

— Lamin Sawo, 29, an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

“My first point is for the new administration to change the Islamic Republic to just the Republic of the Gambia as the country is built on diversity of religion culture and tribe as well.”

— Abdoulie Jawo, 25, Bakoteh, Gambia. Twitter: @abdoulie_jawo.

“Socially, the last regime destroyed the very ‘sacred’ fabric of the Gambian social contract and that is empathy and trust. Gambians cared for and trusted each other in a way that led us to claim that our ‘teranga’ (hospitality) was unparalleled around the world. Due to the fear and mistrust that Jammeh’s brutal regime caused, this unique trait was almost completely lost.”

— Maudo Jallow, 22, London. Twitter: @mansamusa94.

“The United States, indeed the entire rest of world, must support the transition in Gambia,” wrote one Gambian. Credit Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Hope for support from abroad

“The United States, indeed the entire rest of world, must support the transition in Gambia. Countries not just in Africa, but around the globe, need to see the positive benefits of a change from authoritarian to democratic rule that institutes a legitimate government and respects human rights. It must be clear to all that such a government delivers not just abstract principles, but real concrete benefits. Foreign support and assistance can help that happen.”

— Ousman Njie, 47, the head of Catholic Relief Services’ Gambia office in Banjul.

Source: NYTimes