Kanjia: Why Gambia’s president may refuse to leave despite election loss

The Gambia had been ruled by Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who served initially as prime minister then as the republic’s first president, for more than 30 years.

Augustine Kanjia

The country’s main political party was the People’s Progressive Party [PPP]. From the mid-1960s to the early ’90s the country was relatively quite stable and citizens accepted the status quo. Gambians were very proud of their country and had no will for political change. Peace was plentiful. The country was safe.

But since the July 1994 overthrow of Jawara — the legitimate president, re-elected in 1992 — by then army Lt. Yahya Jammeh, the country has become confused, more corrupt and paralyzed by one person.

The nation recently conducted an election which, as usual, Jammeh was expected to win easily — his confidence in winning again this time likely stemmed from the fact he’d jailed his main opposition, Oinou Darboeusa, for protesting on the street before the election. In fact, President Jammeh was accused, regularly, of rigging elections (including by Darboe, who’d lost to Jammeh in 2011).

Jammeh got the surprise of his life after the Dec. 1 general elections. He at first congratulated his opponent, Adama Barrow, and offered advice, but Jammeh later changed his mind and has since refused to hand over the presidency. The struggle continues.

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Gambia’s first president, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara

Augustine Kanjia, who spent years uncovering corruption as a refugee journalist in Gambia during Jammeh’s rule, examines what Jammeh might be thinking, what’s next for the West African nation, and how America’s electoral issues pale in comparison to those in Gambia.

The people of Gambia for 22 years have been living in fear under President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh, who has earned the title Dictator. Who dares to talk loud where one is never sure if the person next to you is a government informant? Year after year, Gambians have become more fearful of Jammeh. When his name is heard on the streets, many look over their shoulders.

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 28: The Kanjias’ First Snow

We were put in a hotel when we first arrived, since no house was ready for us. To me, Worcester looked like the cleanest city in the world. I loved it.

I felt the hotel would be our home for a while, but it was only for three days. The children and I would leave the room to look at the trees that beautified the place like flowers. Flowers were not visible then, it was the colorful tree leaves that showed. Yes! It was fall — a season I would learn more about — and the leaves had changed colors. Our case worker, Chris Lamboi, was also from Sierra Leone. We thought he was going to be a very good source for development and enlightenment into American life.

Our apartment was ready, Chris came to tell us. I could not believe we were already leaving our luxurious room. Our bundles were not much; I had acquired nothing to bring over here. I had a few books and my neckties. And my photo album. Theresa, my wife, would tease me, saying, “You take delight [only] in [old] photos, addresses and phone numbers.”

This place was very cold for us, and we had no heavy clothes for it. We huddled in the corner of the room and waited for Chris to come back and take us home. Once he picked us up, we drove across the city, looking everywhere. My two kids asked me loads of questions. I didn’t know what to say, except to make up answers from what I’d learned.

For example, Mary asked, “Daddy, what seasons do they have here?” I tried to say what I knew. I said with confidence (but not in correct sequence), “Summer, winter and spring. We have the dry and wet seasons” in West Africa.

Our new house was on Ellsworth Street, not far from Kelley Square. The traffic was quite confusing. I had never seen such crazy traffic like Kelley Square, with no traffic lights. That was not my worry because I had never seen a traffic light in Sierra Leone. In Senegal and Gambia, sure, but never in my homeland.

Chris spent a long time talking big during our ride. He said he had been driving in Worcester for ages with no accident record, and that Kelley Square was no trouble for him. But we sat at the intersection for more than 10 minutes waiting for Chris to drive through. At last, we were free. It was evening.

Augustine’s last chapter: Goodbye, Gambia Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 22: Augustine is Apprehended

Returning to the hot seat was not expected.

I was ready to go for my reporting the next morning. There was a big trial concerning eight journalists who were accused of disseminating false reports and sedition. Trouble awaited me, but I did not know.

I had to be there in court to satisfy my boss and colleagues at The Point newspaper, who comprised the eight. The journey from Dakar, Senegal’s capital, had not ended. We were at Barra (Niumi, Gambia), where there were police on the ferry and at a checkpoint. It was evening, and the water was seemingly calm.

On his way to court ...

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

On his way to court …

I used the most dangerous way of going across: the dugout canoe. It was overloaded with bags of rice and a few men. The water became turbulent and we were in apparent trouble. A few bags of rice were thrown in the sea, which made our boat calm down. There was no life jacket … and no engine. Only paddles.

I survived and crossed over to meet my family. It was a breathtaking event. I wished I had never tried going by dugout canoe — though I was ready: I had no luggage and could swim well.

We got a taxi home and relaxed, ready to answer questions from liars.

Read Augustine’s last installment, The Toughest Interview Brings Success, or scroll down to begin from earlier in his incredible journey

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 21: The Toughest Interview Brings Success

There was confusion surrounding my family’s eligibility for resettlement from other refugees, who became jealous for no reason. It was time to prove it.

My eldest daughter Alice, who I’d first met when she was 16, got pregnant when going to school. Her mom was apparently tired of her stubbornness and could not keep her in Sierra Leone anymore. I felt lucky to see and meet this girl. She was difficult but part of our family.  Her arrival prompted more questions, but God was behind us.


Courtesy Augustine Kanjia


Fatou Barry, the refugee protection officer, called me for questioning. My answers were salient and convincing. The end product was superb, but The Gambia remained dangerous for me.

There was an urgent call for my family to return to Dakar by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We always enjoyed the trips, so we looked forward to going. And returning. We did not know why there was so much urgency added to our going to Dakar. I lied at my workplace, telling my editor how my son, Glen, had collapsed overnight and that had left us not sleeping but staying the whole night in hospital; we were referred to Dakar so we were leaving.

My boss, Pap Saine, was quite gullible for a journalist, easily manipulated. He asked us to leave in time before it was late! We left with the collection of our travel documents from Gambia Immigration. My going through immigration was somewhat more controversial than one may think. I was always given a hard time. I was there and I went to see Sergeant Ceesay, who was the focus person for refugees. He had already known me so I thought it was going to be easy.

He checked his file and said he did not find my name for traveling.

Read Augustine’s latest installment, Suspicion and Senegal Visits, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the start.

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 20: Suspicion and Senegal Visits

UNHCR, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was aware of my situation and the health struggles my son was undergoing. But I did not want the police or secret police to know about our resettlement process.

Hatred toward Sierra Leoneans in The Gambia was part of the problem in going for interviews for resettlement. Fatou Barry, the UNHCR protection officer assigned to my case, was clever enough to have transferred our case to Dakar since we were going to Senegal’s capital, anyway, for Glen’s checkup. She made it possible for us to have our interviews there. The interviews were many and long.

Barry had secured our first interview date. We kept it secret. I called my family to attention to warn them strictly that whatever we were going through should be a family secret. Sometimes when my wife is over-happy she says stuff. I told them of examples of how some people could not go and were even killed because of the complications involved in resettlement. It was then sealed between us: Our only reason for going to Dakar was Glen’s checkup.

Augustine and his family have some travelling -- and secret-keeping -- to do, as their future in Worcester gets closer.

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Augustine and his family have some travelling — and secret-keeping — to do, as their future in Worcester gets closer.

Barry had also arranged with Gambian Immigration to allow us a United Nations family laissez-passer [Editor’s note: like a temporary passport for humanitarian reasons] as refugees to go to Senegal for Glen’s checkup. It would last for only one trip, so we were supposed to be visiting them each time we wanted to travel. The immigration office knew my son had a very bad heart condition. They sympathized with me too. That was our exit point, Glen’s heart.

Our first trip was glorious!

Read Augustine’s latest installment, Challenging Resettlement Process Begins, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the start.

Augustine Kanjia

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 19: Challenging Resettlement Process Begins

It was only after several tries for a resettlement interview that I was finally in line for one. And fortunate at that.

The war was almost over and there was no mass resettlement as there used to be. In fact, it was coming to an end for all Sierra Leonean refugees living in The Gambia. We wept as our hopes were nearly dashed. The challenges were too many, which made many refugees give up. People resorted to any means. Some Nigerians acquired Sierra Leonean passports to see them out of Africa. It was concerning, so I decided to dig into the story, which I’d first thought would call the authorities to action. But who cared? It fell on deaf ears because some authorities gained a lot from it.

Back to reporting, Augustine must work to keep himself out of danger.

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Back to reporting, Augustine must also work to keep himself on the path to resettlement.

The confusion in The Gambia among refugees was overwhelming. Some felt left behind. Many had loved ones already resettled to the United States. Refugees were asked to live in the camp in Basse town [Basse Santa Su] if they wanted resettlement. Many stayed there in the hardest of life. The sun was excruciating, and the poverty level appalling and difficult for those who lived on handouts, handouts that were offered in town and reduced to scraps before refugees would get a share. I could not stay in this camp.

Many thought of returning home, but there was no money for their return and they had nowhere to return to, especially those whose houses were destroyed. The Gambia became unbearable and life was never as it used to be. I knelt and prayed for the will of God to be done in my life and for my family.

Sun Shine: ACE makes the grade for Worcester refugee students

“As a refugee myself I had challenges; due to culture it was hard for me. Even coming with a college degree it was difficult,” said Kaska Yawo, executive director of African Community Education. Augustine Kanjia takes a closer look at how far ACE and its students have come in a decade.

Wedding photo

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 18 — Another New Beginning

The wedding was over and joy was overwhelming. I was not familiar with living with someone full-time, sharing money, always being transparent with one another. Father Pius had instructed us well, though.

We remember those who thought we should not marry and that I would leave Theresa before long.

July 1, 2016, marked our 10th wedding anniversary.

Wedding photo

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Augustine and Theresa at their wedding

I have a strong will and a forgiving heart for those who love me. It is the same I have exercised to see our love grow. There was no support any longer from her sisters in the U.K. All we gained was by our own hard work. Life became better, and we often played loud music from one of our wedding gifts.

There was a long waiting list, though, for assistance from God. Resettlement prospects for Sierra Leonean refugees had dwindled. Hopes for many a Sierra Leonean had been dashed, but for some they still burned brightly like a new moon or an early morning sun. I was caught in another dilemma from the word go: How would I develop my family life while trying to escape The Gambia for another country?

Thinking and feeling like a newly married man, I thought maybe I was finally free from police harassment related to my journalism work. Yet the secret service and police were still hunting me.

Read Augustine’s last installment, A Wedding Without Parents, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the beginning.

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 17: A Wedding Without Parents

Glen was back from England with Adekunle (Theresa), my partner.

We all rejoiced for seeing our new son, a healthy teenage man. His smiles increased amid lots of good memories of how he went to England for his operations. He explained everything that went on. I looked the scar in his chest. His mom burst into tears.

This, I said, was the work of God.

If Theresa and Glen would have gone to live in Sierra Leone, the tension of the war and the deplorable condition of Glen’s young heart would have killed both of them out there. We kept in contact with friends who inquired about our struggles, while Theresa’s family in England were completely astonished by the work I did to find Glen the help that saved his life.

Another important aspect was our wedding.


Courtesy Augustine Kanjia


We did not need to continue cohabiting without being wedded in church. I was well known to be living with Theresa out of wedlock by those I had gone to the seminary with, co-workers, and fellow churchgoers. That pressure was not enough. But I craved a proper life as a Catholic, even while those I thought were friends were bent on destroying our plans.

Read Augustine’s last installment, Glen’s Long Road to Health, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the beginning.

Sun Shine: ACE makes the grade for Worcester refugee students

African Community Education (ACE) is a Worcester program founded a decade ago to help the many children in need who came from all over Africa, due to war or sickness, as refugees with their parents to resettle in the area.

Many of these kids come from non-English-speaking countries, and even many of those who’ve arrived from places where English was spoken could not manage to learn due to poverty and/or life in refugee camps.

Kaska Yawo understood, then, that something must be done.

ACE was founded by Yawo and Olga Valdman in 2006 when refugees from Somalia, Liberia and other African countries were on the rise in the area. Yawo, ACE’s executive director, had arrived from Liberia as a refugee in 1998 and knew the problems they all faced.

Kaska Yawo speaks at a Social Innovation Forum event.

Courtesy ACE

Kaska Yawo speaks at a Social Innovation Forum event.

“As a refugee myself I had challenges; due to culture it was hard for me. Even coming with a college degree it was difficult,” he said. “One has to recertify before it would work for you. I had to relocate from New York to Worcester to live in my cousin’s house, who had joined the military. I had various jobs until I got a job with the Catholic Charities in the resettlement area.”