A Boatside Conversation with the Captain

In this episode of Roots and Routes, Abdoulie Mbye is interviewing Maimouna John as she heads towards New Jersey to visit her Grandmother.

Abdoulie = A: Welcome Maimouna

Maimouna= Mom = M : Thank you Mr. Mbye

A: So Maimouna, I was looking at a map of The Gambia, and I noticed that it is situated around a river, what would that have to do with the country?

M: Oh, so thats the river Gambia, its a very resourceful river, it was, actually I grew up in a place called Banjul, and Banjul is the capital, and Banjul is like an Island. Its surrounded by water all over. So its an island where I grew up from, but the river Gambia is a very resourceful area. We have lots of fish in the river, and at one point it was also used so for irrigation in farming, so the river Gambia is very resourceful, as far as the country is concerned.

A: so you mentioned that you were born in Banjul, an Island.

M: yes

A: Would you like to talk about your childhood there, describe the house you live in.

M: Oh the house I lived in had a living room, a long patio, and four bedrooms, the house is still actually there.

A: And how many people lived in the house while growing up?

M: Oh, while I was growing up it was my Family, well before I was born, my two older sisters were already gone, one went to college in Jala and went into Australia with her husband and had a separate house and stuff, but my Grandma was there, my Grandpa and us. I remember that very well, and my grandpa, oh my God, he was the best guy ever, he was so nice and Grandma also likewise, and they were very important in our lives.

A: and what were the names of your parents?

M: My mothers’s name is Hadijetu Joof, and my Dad is Ibrahima, Burang John.

A: So how many siblings did you have all together?

M: Well I have, Ana, Yasin, Amadou, um Jenkay, and Ngye ( Jie).

A: So just one brother and the rest sisters?

M: Yes

A: (mutters) must have been hectic

A: So what was the neighbor you lived in like? Was there anything that stood out to you everyday or when walking to school?

M: OH YEAH! Its a very quiet, peaceful neighborhood, you can walk to the River on each end. we have a port, you can walk to the port. We have an observatory, you can walk to the observatory. A beach, you can walk walk all over, it was, it was nice. The water was not very friendly because every year it was like one of the guys would drown, something of that nature, but, it was very nice, like when it rained, the boys they would like to go to the water and I guess some of them weren’t professional swimmers and stuff like that because the water gets really rough, but we would rather stay at home and just swim around there, but you know, it was nice it was very nice. I understand that there has been many changes now, because most of the people that used to be in Banjul are now up in the suburbs, like Sarekunda, Fajara, Kotu, you know everybody’s building outside of Banjul, I guess there was no more space inside of Banjul, yeah so most of the new houses are up in the suburbs.

A: Do you have any other stories to share with us?

M: (pause) yeah growing up was just nice, and I enjoyed it, I wish that you had experienced that, but growing up in America for you is different, with us its like umm, when you get up in the morning you eat breakfast you go to school and you come home have studies or do your homework. Then you eat lunch. When you’re home I guess you do your homework first. Then if you want you can go to studios again and the teacher can come there and help you, if you needed it. It was just nice it was just very loving the environment was just loving. We’d get together and play outside and no adult has to watch us no adult has to worry about us, the parents didn’t have to worry about people kidnapping their kids, so we just had a lot of freedom we took for-granted, because we were not worried, they know “ohhh our children are safe, they just outside playing”, you know. And then before it was dark everybody went inside. We just had a good time growing up.

A: What games did you guys play besides soccer?

M: Oh we played um you know the baseball we called it rounders, but its exactly like baseball, it had four bases like that, rounds, but as in baseball, but baseball is actually designed from rounders. We used to play baseball, and we used to play another game like that, Amie ( her daughter) knows the name, (short pause), uh the one thats numbered ( A responds with “softball?”) , yes we played that too, and then we used to do the jumping jacks.

A: yup

M: you know the jumprope?

A: yup

M: yeah we used to play that, we played lots of games, basketball was not that popular, but some people played basketball as well. But then we had sports, we had long distance, short jump, we had all those things.

A: And then um, could you talk more about your life at school?

M: It was nice, it was very nice, my life at school, like before was not like now, we had Muslim high school, Gambia high school, and St. Joseph and St. Augustine high school and Yusuf high school. We did not have a lot of high schools all over, like now the kids have a lot of private high schools and stuff like that, Marilol, Missis-dow, Missis-dow was not there. So there has been alot of development in the school system but you know, it was nice. I went to Gambia high school, and it was hard to get into Gambia high school. After I left they started having two sessions, one for morning and one for evening because of the limited high schools we had. But to get into Gambia high school in those days it was tough. There was a mat (test), and when you had to take the entrance exam in sixth grade there was a mat and in order to go to Gambia high school it was high. So to be able to go to Gambia high school was an honor. They changed the system so that if you don’t go to high school you go to secondary school, but it was nice, I had the best childhood ever ( A laughes)

M: I had good memories, I had nice parents, that supported me and helped me, I had nice grandparents, I had nice neighbors I had nice family, so I will always be grateful for that, because that’s what made me who I am today.

A: Speaking of who you are today, I know that you came after high school. what was your opinion of America when you first came over?

M: Oh, when I first came to America I did not like it, because anytime you brought on the tv, there was shooting, you know just how the news is. Anytime you put the tv on there is shooting, they are killing each other. You know, I had a good time but I guess, you have to be scared at first with that kind of environment and that kinda stuff happening. So you’re like “oh my God whats going on”. You keep wondering “ oh my God whats going on.” And then as you matured and go to school you start to see how independent the Americans are, you know. I was surprised that most of my friends at school, some of them were just 18, and they were so independent. Some of them had their own place, they were not living with their parents, you know. That impressed me like maybe the culture has something good here. I guess everybody taking care of themselves, just busy busy. I like America, and I came to enjoy it a lot.

M: As you know I have lived all of my adult life in America, I have lived more years in America then in my own country. This is like my country now.

A: Are there a lot of of habits that you had to drop when coming to America

M: Oh no, you know, when I first came to America, I cried a lot because you know I was my mom’s baby. But as far as habits, no I fitted right in. I already told you, the only thing that worried me when coming here was the shootings, you know the bad news, the drugs, stuff like that, you know, but basically I have not changed as an individual, I’ve gotten better, because I was already raised well, so I did not have to learn anything new here. I just had to keep my values, and just work hard.

A: When you came, what school did you go to?

M: Oh I went to university here, I went to um, Clark Atlanta university, and I went to Medical College of Georgia, and thats where I did my post-bac

A: And compared to the political situation here, what did you think about the one in The Gambia

M: Oh I did not think anything about it because at the time, we had President Jawara, we were the most democratic country in the Africa, and then the economy was really really good, and so things were good for the Gambians at that time. And all the surrounding countries, would buy stuff from The Gambia, and resell in their countries. So Gambia was like the capital of West Africa at the time.

A: So you haven’t been in Gambia since before Jammeh, so what did you think when he first-

M: Jammeh!? Well when he first took over everybody liked him because he was doing lots of stuff, he did lots of stuff that Jawara did not do, according to them. When Jammeh came he started building high schools in the provinces, so instead of them having to live in the city with us, they could live at home and go to school there. And then, I guess he expanded the airport and he brought drinking water, instead of a well he brought drinking water, and brought pumps to them. So I guess he was good at the beginning, but the I guess he changed and did not want to give up power and start doing other stuff, but at the beginning he was not “like that.”

A: So I know that late last year there was an election in The Gambia and Jammeh lost the election. So what were you doing during that time of the election?

M:Well I wasn’t in the Gambia I was here. I checked the news and it said that Jammeh lost and conceded. (pause) Then the next thing I heard was that ummm, after one week he went back on tv and said that the election results were nullified that umm, his people weren’t allowed to vote, and that we wanted to have a new election, you know. But then people did not accept it, so he had to go.

A: How do you feel about Adama Barrow, the new president of The Gambia right now?

M: I don’t know. We have to give him time and see but right now people are saying that they have freedom in the Gambia. (pause) People are saying that they have freedom in The Gambia because in Jammeh’s time nobody would talk about politics. People have freedom, and now people are going back home to The Gambia to the first time in years. Lots of people are going home from England, from America all over.

A: So do you feel as if there are more opportunity of the younger generation in Gambia, to help their country now?

M: Yeah I think so, definitely, definitely, but we also have to see how this will work. Because everybody, all political parties, leaders, they going back home, so I don’t know how that is going to work. And we will have lots of problems, because the country doesn’t have money anymore, so we will have to start borrowing. The country is now broke, you know. It is speculated that when Jammeh left, he went to the central bank, and took all the money, but I dont know, all these things are just speculations. All this are just things people told me. So the government will face lots of problems.

When doing the interview I tried not to ask much about my Grandfather, as he has passed away and that was the only time in my life that I have seen my mom cry. Moreover, I was worried that there was some crucial question I would forget to ask. When she mentioned that The Gambia is what made her who she is today, I felt like that comment was also directed at me, for if my mom lost her culture while maturing in America, I would be a different person today. Even though I did not get to experience the freedom she did as a child. And another thing that my mom pointed out is how independent Americans are, compared the Gambia, where the family is emphasized more. I love how she was able to integrate both of these concepts, the individual and community, into her life with great balance. From this interview I have gotten not only a better idea of how The Gambia molded my mother, but how America helped to mature her into the loving mother I know today. While I’ve heard all of this before, even her childhood was interesting to hear about. If the roles were switched, I would most likely talk about food and games even more so than my mom did, who had a well rounded description of her childhood.

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