By Saul N’jie
Last year, around this time, I visited my country of birth for the first time in about a decade. Coming back – I was nostalgic, longing for the good old days, the good ole people, food, and it’s tranquility. However, I was a bit surprised that my myopic picture of the people and place, which was mostly frozen in a bygone era, was quite off-kilter. I was taken aback by the profound changes: the kids that were in grade school when I left for the States – were now matriculating at the University of The Gambia, some have gotten married – with their own kids; some of the faces looked haggard and drawn, some have unfortunately withered with the harmattan, some have traveled to distant lands, and some, well some, like a good many of the Gambian youth have become philosophical about life and being. And, for the most part, these people, by no fault of their own, have become statistics of the brutal and unforgiving system. I studiously catalogued every meaningful interaction with the people – with the hopes of understanding the micro problems – and finding ways in which we could fix these systemic problems.
One beautiful Gambian evening, I was sitting on the porch of one of the eatery joints, using their wifi, after a long trek from Foni. As I was coding and analyzing the data I collected that day – a former classmate of mine walked by; he saw me – but he wasn’t sure if it was me or not. He came inside – and called my name – I looked up- and saw this skinny, lanky dude in a police uniform. All these years, I was with the impression that this guy was somewhere in the States or Europe, completing his education, gaveling degrees. I said that because during our high school days – he was one the most serious, scholarly students. Just to go off on a tangent – I stole a handful of his books in high school – because he always took good notes – and never missed a class! I, on the other hand, spent most of my time in the library, cramming the map of America and trying to master the encyclopedia at the St. Augustine’s library. For childish reasons – I always thought that I was being taught garbage – absent for Ms. Fefegula and Mr. Camara Musa’s English classes. I thought I wasn’t being taught the important things that I needed at that time. I also spent a lot of time dodging class, chasing after girls at Gambia High and JC Faye; and too busy wallowing in teenage shenanigans!
Strikingly, this kid, who used the school bus everyday to school – since he was living around the Lamin area at that time, was never late or absent – and was simply a cut above the rest of us. After graduation – he applied for several government scholarships – but didn’t get any. Given that his family are very poor – he decided to get a job with the Police department to help his parents. I listened as he explained how much money and time he has wasted – applying to several American and British universities to no avail. He has contemplated taking the Backway – and was actually looking for funds to pay his way up north across the Mediterranean. He is now married with two kids – and with the salary he makes – without remittances – his kids are most likely also going to grow up in poverty.
My friend, by no fault of his own, is a total waste of human capital. I am not saying that being a policeman is somehow a degrading job; my point is that his skills could have been used for other things – given his high intellectual curiosity and drive. This is the kind of kid that should be building things; operating on people; finding solutions to problems facing the Gambian people; not a policeman! Barring a miracle or divine intervention – he is, for now, doomed to mediocrity and perpetual poverty. Education was supposed to be his ticket out of poverty – but his intellectual faculties are being cut short by a very unrewarding and sorry system. This kid has done everything society has asked of him – and time after time – society has mercilessly and crushingly failed him.
Infra, as his story, which is unfortunately a story of many of our youth that are currently embarking on the perilous Backway odyssey, dawned on me – I realized that – if I wasn’t lucky enough to have had the opportunity to travel to the United States to further my education – I, too, probably would have been another statistic of this ruthless and unforgiving system.
As I embarked on another journey back to my homeland – I am, again, faced with the same questions – like the last time – and boy, the remedies to our problems, albeit fixable, are enormously daunting. As political economists – it is our job to find solutions to the economic and structural problems that currently besets our country. The economic outlook of The Gambia is borderline catastrophic: contractions, hyper-inflation, slow growth, unemployment and underemployment. Jobs are not keeping up with population growth; we are not harnessing human capital; many a youth are totally wasting; even the ones that have graduated from the university are lacking the necessary tools to reach their highest potentials.
The experts, though, that are responsible for fixing some of these problems, in my estimation, are just dabbling in voodoo economics; economic policies that are designed for highly industrialized economies, neglecting the fact that 84% of the Gambian economy is in the informal sector. Their policies mainly focus on economic growth based on the assumption that macro level growth will alleviate poverty and exclusion, ignoring other important factors, to wit, political, social, cultural, and religious issues. If this trend continues, which I think would for the foreseeable future – I honestly don’t see why the avalanche exodus of our youth is not going to ratchet up.
Poignantly, why do the youth have to stay in a country where there is no upward mobility; where one cannot see beyond the mirage; where hard work is seldom rewarded; where the political and economic ambiance is static in a decadence of an antiquated era? If you were in my friend’s shoes – wouldn’t you seriously consider taking the Backway, as well, in hopes of getting yourself and your family out of this cumbersome cycle of perpetual poverty and hopelessness?
I am really happy to be back home again; and this, too, is also “MY JOLLOF!”