Sinking in Hot Soup

Oscar Webb · The Gambians in Palermo

‘Everyone I know who has been political in Gambia has ended up in jail or dead,’ says L., who came to Italy nine months ago. ‘The army spends its time and resources arresting and torturing anyone who speaks or acts against the president.’ L. showed me a photo on his phone of what he said was an execution he'd been sent by a friend in Gambia two days before: soldiers stand over a man in a pit, his hands together in the air. ‘My parents did not educate me to end up in prison and my first loyalty is to them. I was so angry at everything but to be angry in Gambia means to get arrested or killed. I had to leave.’ L. spoke to me on Wednesday, the day before Gambia's presidential election. ‘Now is our best chance to get rid of our president because for the first time all of the opposition parties are united,’ he said. I asked how it affected him personally. 'My father does not keep quiet during elections. I inherited his anger.’

L. is one of around eight thousand Gambians who have made their way to Italy this year; that's a lot from a country with a population of under two million. They’re mostly young and male but have varying educational and economic backgrounds and varying reasons for coming to Europe. But most of them have stories to tell of political repression and fear of the government. Gambia has been ruled by Yahya Jammeh since he took power in a coup in 1994. He won elections in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011, the results of many of which have been questioned by international observers. Opposition activists have been imprisoned, killed and disappeared throughout his 22-year reign.

On Wednesday, Gambians in Palermo held an assembly to tell Italians about their country and the presidential election happening the next day. About a hundred people packed into a small cultural centre to watch videos, listen to speeches and try Gambian food. Gambians came from the migrant reception centres across Sicily, taking buses for hours to get to Palermo; friends who hadn't seen each other for months greeted each other enthusiastically.

We watched videos of fishing on the Gambian coast, tourists relaxing on the beaches and farmers harvesting rice. We stood up for the Gambian national anthem. ‘Now we’ve seen some of the beauty of Gambia,’ said N., chairing the event, ‘we must now see some the reasons why we’ve had to come to Europe.’ The next video was of Jammeh addressing Gambia’s parliament. ‘No election, no foreign power can remove me from office, only god,’ he said. Shouts of 'fuck off' came from the crowd in Palermo. ‘Gambia’s not known because, unlike other countries in the region, we’ve never had any major conflict,’ N. says, ‘but now it’s changed. It’s a different country; it’s like we’re in a hot soup and sinking. Our flight from Gambia shows how bad the situation is.’

‘We have elections tomorrow,' the last speaker said. 'We will have democracy with the coalition. I ask you to call your families tonight and get them to vote against the president. That is all.’ (The next day, two hours before the polls opened, the state-run telecoms provider Gamtel blocked all international calls and internet access.)

Outside the cultural centre, I spoke to M., an 18-year-old Gambian who’s been living in Sicily for nine months. He left home for Libya when he'd just turned 16. He said he was held captive and forced to work against his will in Libya for two months before escaping and fleeing to Europe. He had given an agitated speech to the crowd about how isolated he felt in Italy: ‘In the street, people are afraid of us, people run from us. We don’t want this and it makes us feel not human.’ He wasn't optimistic about the election: ‘Jammeh is good friends with the head of the electoral commission so may win even if people don’t vote for him. If the vote does go against him, he still won’t leave. He makes threats about how no one but Allah can remove him from power; not the people. He spends Gambia’s money on the military for a reason. If he loses the vote, he will not leave without violence.’

But the news coming out of Gambia today is that the president will concede defeat to Adamu Barrow, the property developer who opposed him. How a new government might change Gambia is uncertain, but L. was sceptical when I asked him on Wednesday. ‘Things might change at a political level but I don’t think this will affect my family. My father is a farmer and takes the tiny amounts of groundnuts, millet and other things he’s grown on the back of his bicycle across the border to sell in Senegal. He’s old — about 60 — so it’s very hard for him to do now. The way my family live, the way they work will not change. If I can find work here, maybe that will change their lives.’