On the morning of Sept. 6, five Gambians organized a protest outside of the Gambia Mission at United Nations headquarters. They wore black t-shirts, a sign of protest, as they walked from 800 Second Avenue to the corner of 47th Street and First Avenue. The Gambians were protesting against their president, Yahya Jammeh, who on Aug. 23 ordered the execution of nine death row inmates and called for all others to be executed by mid-September.
Among the protestors was a Bronx resident, Saihou Mballow. A political refugee, Mballow, 47, left Gambia for the United States in December 1998 because he felt it was unsafe to stay. In his home country, the smallest in Africa, Mballow was a founding member of the United Democratic Party, the main opposition force to Jammeh’s regime. For more than 13 years now, this human rights and democracy advocate has tried to keep the Gambian opposition alive more than 5,000 miles away from home.
“When I arrived here, the first thing that came to my mind was that I had entered a democratic government,” said Mballow while eating kola nuts, a typical Gambian fruit he finds in African stores in the Bronx. “Here, I wouldn’t get arrested for my opinions.”
Mballow ran for Gambia’s National Assembly elections in January, 1997, three years after a coup d’état led Jammeh to power. He was arrested twice along with supporters, while campaigning in the Jimara District. The opposition candidate filed a petition in the Gambian Supreme Court to contest the ballot, yet judges dismissed the case after eight months of trial. Mballow felt he had no other choice but to leave the country.
MBallow first became involved in politics in 1996, when joining the United Democratic Party at its very beginning. He had been a civil servant since the end of high school in 1984. Leaving Fulla Moribocat ––the village he grew up in–– for the country’s capital, Banjul, Mballow started working at Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital. He then became a deputy supervisor for the government.
Mballow said he was dismissed from his job soon after he lost his trial at the Supreme Court.
“I lost all the services I had done for my country as a civil servant,” he said, “simply because I ran for elections.”
His father, a farmer named Samba Kolda, never believed in politics, only in religion. A majority of Mballow’s family didn’t want him to campaign in Jimara in 1997. When they heard he might leave for the U.S., they welcomed the decision.
“People were advising me to leave, and I accepted it,” Mballow said. “I realized I was fighting the wrong cause. It wasn’t the right time for me to challenge the government.” Family members told him that what he was looking for, democracy, was not going to happen quite soon in the Gambia. They said he couldn’t make any change there.
Leaving his wife, Wurrie and his two young children in the Gambia, Mballow fled to New York where he was welcomed by friends from the Jimara District. They were living around Tremont Avenue and Grand Concourse, in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx. Mballow started working as a helper in local stores until he was granted political asylum in 1999. Wurrie, 41 and their two children, Fatoumata, now 18 and Aminata, now 14, were able to come two years later. The two younger, Indeh and Ebrima, were born here.
From friends to friends, the political refugee started meeting with more people from the Gambian community. In 2000, along with other members of the opposition, he started a chapter of the United Democratic Party in New York.
“We would have meetings in my apartment, and Saihou would always be there. He’s always attending,” said Pa Saikou Kujabi, a former secretary of the United Democratic Party’s youth movement who has been living in the U.S. since 1999, arriving three months after Mballow. The two men have known each other since 1997.
“Saihou is one of the most vocal, outspoken people I know in the community,” Kujabi said. “He’s always concerned about others’ issues first.”
Both men feel that when they came to this country, Gambians who were already here seemed unaware of the political situation back in their home country. Theses earlier immigrants left the Gambia in the 80s and 90s, looking for greater economic prospects abroad.
Even today, some of them don’t want to be affiliated with any political discussion.
“I had to be talking, calling, calling people to get information about what was going on back home, to be able to say ‘This is what is happening’ during our meetings,” Mballow said.
“Mobilizing Gambians here and working for the restoration of democracy in Gambia was something I wanted to invest my energy and time in.”
In 2002, Mballow started working as a full-time teacher’s assistant at Hawthorne Country Day School, a school for children with behavioral issues based in upstate Hawthorne, NY. He studied business administration at Monroe College in the Bronx in the evenings and on Saturdays, while coordinating political discussions and activities within the Gambian community.
Mballow is now at the head of two organizations based is a small office on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx: the Gambian Movement for Democracy and Development and the Organization for Democracy and Justice in West Africa, a non-profit organization he launched in 2008.
“I wanted to encourage people, make sure they continue their job and don’t sit down here,” Mballow said.
“We need to think of people behind us in Gambia,” he said. “We have to help them.”
Every year, members of the Gambian Movement for Democracy and Development organize a commemoration of the student protests of April, 2000, that led to the death of 14 Gambians and left at least 28 injured, according to Amnesty International.
On Monday, Sept. 24, Mballow organized another demonstration outside of the United Nations against the execution of death-row inmates in Gambia. Members of the movement say Mballow is involved in any possible political discussion on the Gambia.
“He’s a leader,”said Wassa Janneh, 52, a former secretary at the United Democratic Party, now living in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. “He has his hands in anything that affects politics back home in Gambia. He keeps me motivated.”
Lamin Sanyang, another member of the Gambian Movement for Democracy and Development, met Mballow in 2005, after seeing his number on a flyer that announced a meeting for Gambians in a local grocery store.
“I was impressed by his humanity when we first met,” Sanyang said.
“He’s credible, capable and articulate. He is an architect of political emancipation in Gambia.”
On May 8, 2011, Mballow sent a letter to Alhaji Mustapha L. Carayol, the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission in the Gambia, and asked him to allow Gambians abroad to register to vote.
Since they came here, members of the Gambian diaspora have not been able to vote in their home country’s elections. The Independent Electoral Commission requires them to return to their constituencies in the Gambia to be able to register for vote. Many can’t or are afraid to go back. The estimated 5,000 Gambians in New York —according to the Gambian Society— could not vote in the last general elections in November, 2011 when .Jammeh returned to power.
“I am a dual citizen; I am supposed to vote,” Mballow said.
“Why have we been prevented from voting?”
Mballow has been a U.S. naturalized citizen since July 4, 2011. He says the Gambian constitution has allowed him to maintain his Gambian citizenship here.
An advocate of voters’ registration and education since his very first years as a civil servant in Gambia, Mballow is angry yet convinced things will eventually change in his country. The political refugee feels it is the diaspora’s responsibility to make this happen.
“Gambians living here are more involved, more outspoken than the people inside Gambia,” Mballow said. “You can’t blame them. They are scared to speak, even in the opposition. We are the people they rely on.”
Mballow hopes to go back to Gambia one day, as soon as there is political transition.
“Two of my four children are born here. They need to discover Gambia,” he said.