Category Archives: Global City NYC

The Hustler

Mohammed Abdou gets paid.

It’s a bright September afternoon, and the sun shines through Mohammed Abdou’s aviators as he sits outside a Harlem barbershop, where the West African regulars smoke and talk smack, and allows himself a rare indulgence: he just chills.


Abdou, a 28-year-old Malian immigrant from Timbuktu, is always hustling. Where he’ll be on any given day depends on where there is money to be earned. He holds down no fewer than four jobs—He imports jewelry and sells it to storefronts on West 47th Street, near Rockefeller Center. At out-of-state auctions, he buys damaged cars, fixes them and sells them in New York, or if there is an order from Africa, ships them to his brother to be sold in his home country. All of this on top of the bike and pedicab gig. Abdou speaks seven languages—including English, French, Arabic, Songhai and Mandinka—and he is trying to learn an eighth, Spanish. He works in Harlem and in Midtown, in Pennsylvania and in Port Elizabeth, N.J. He has a tendency to scan his surroundings as he talks, as though he’s on the lookout for opportunity.

Read more at Global City NYC.

Will Rhyme For Change

Two West African immigrants rap with purpose.

Through his shows in New York City, his activism, his music and his speeches that are broadcast on YouTube, Gallice Jr. is part of a tradition and a region where, even though multiple burgeoning democracies have problems, social and government criticism through rap are robust.

Another West African rapper with a message is Bako Back, a New York City cabbie and a member of Malian rap trio Tata Pound.

Bako, whose real name is Sékou Tangara, carries himself with a demeanor and style that resembles popular American M.C.s. At a breakfast-and-burger joint in Harlem, he slouched under a flat-brimmed Yankees cap that he cocked to the side like Jay-Z. He speaks with a confident nonchalance, but he gets earnest when he talks politics. Occasionally, he will flash a wry smile at his own observations.

Read more at Global City NYC.

Empty Sidewalks

Sandy keeps suppliers and customers away from West African salesmen on Broadway.

As Mohammed Bai shuffled around the corner of Broadway and West 30th Street this morning, he looked antsy, even restless. This is the corner where, most weekdays, Bai and dozens of vendors shout sales pitches at pedestrians and tourists who stop to peruse their cheap sunglasses and handbags.

“In an hour, maybe 10, 20 people come here,” said Bai, a 37-year-old salesman from the West African country of Guinea. “Sometimes it’s so full, you can’t imagine.”

In the three days since Hurricane Sandy struck, though, the sales tables have disappeared. Bai’s table typically sells scarves, cell phone cases and socks for as little as one or two dollars apiece. But on Wednesday morning, with the storm shutting down subways and regional trains throughout the city, his suppliers were still trapped in Brooklyn and the Bronx with their wares, with no way to get to Manhattan.

Read more at Global City NYC.

West African New Yorkers Ship Large Goods—And Profits—Across Atlantic

This is how many West Africans living in New York City ship goods to their families back home—loading everything from high heels to SUVs into trans-Atlantic shipping containers. Some immigrants have even turned their shipments into business opportunities, sending furniture, food and other in-demand goods to partners who sell them in the city markets of Guinea, Liberia and Senegal.

The United States is the world’s second largest exporter of containerized cargo (after China), while West Africa is the 11th largest importer, according to the World Shipping Council. New York City is home to a West African-born population of about 66,000, many of whom take advantage of the African-run shipping businesses in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

“You cannot compare Africa to America,” said Baba Sy, an Ivoirian immigrant standing outside of Khady’s African Hair Styles on 116th Street in Harlem. Sy uses the businesses to ship food and vehicles to his family. “Some stuff we just don’t have there.”

Read more at Global City NYC.

Prisoner Executions Dismay and Galvanize New York’s Gambians

In the 18 years since he seized power in a coup, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has baffled and outraged the world. He has been accused of ordering the murder and extrajudicial arrests of several students, journalists and political opponents. He threatened to decapitate Gambia’s homosexuals. He claimed to have cured AIDS.

So when Amnesty International announced on August 24 that under Jammeh’s orders, nine Gambian prisoners were killed by firing squad, and that an additional 38 prisoners would be killed by mid-September, New York City’s small, tightly-knit Gambian immigrant community responded with more sorrow than surprise.

“[Jammeh] is only doing this to scare the Gambian population,” said Pa Saikou Kujabi, a Gambian immigrant who had his life threatened by Jammeh’s government and was granted political asylum when he fled to New York, “He’s just a ruthless ruler; he takes pride in it.”

In 1997, Kujabi ran for a seat in the Gambian National Assembly with the United Democratic Party (UDP), the main opposition in the tiny West African nation. Kujabi publicly denounced the regime for suppressing his supporters in the election, and he was subsequently arrested, tortured, and held in prison for 11 days. In 1998, agents from Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) arrested and held Kujabi for six days with minimal, poor-quality food. Less than a year later, he fled.

“I decided I needed to run for my life,” he said, “My life was openly threatened.”

Like Kujabi, the executed prisoners and the Gambians still on death row are considered “treasonous” by Jammeh. While some of the prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes, most are Jammeh’s political opponents, many of whom are former military men who Jammeh accuses of supporting a failed 2006 coup attempt against him.

Saihou Mballow is another UDP member and political opponent of Jammeh’s who fled Gambia for New York. Mballow also ran for a seat in the National Assembly, and after many of his supporters were arrested and blocked from voting, he contested the official results in the Gambian Supreme Court, which repeatedly delayed his case. Mballow then faced threats of violence and arrest, and decided to come to America.

“It is practically inconceivable to hold demonstrations in Gambia,” Mballow said, “Either you are arrested before you get out of your house, or they already know your name, and as soon as you get out of your door, they arrest you.”

Along with three others, Mballow and Kujabi have organized a protest against the executions and against Jammeh for Thursday, September 6, outside the United Nations headquarters.

Demba Sanyang and Madi Ceesay are Gambian immigrants who will participate in the protests. Like Mballow, Sanyang will protest partially because he doubts that people will demonstrate inside the country.

“Gambians are so quiet,” he said, “But we know what it takes to change a government. Either you sacrifice to get what you want, or you keep your mouth shut and live in constant fear under dictatorship.”

More than the others, Ceesay hopes the protests will draw international attention to the executions. He thinks that the crisis can be resolved through international isolation of Jammeh.

“We need Senegal to withdraw all diplomatic relations with Gambia and force all other African nations to take their ambassadors out,” Ceesay said, “The United Nations has to stop the government from travelling outside of Gambia. And all their assets and bank accounts should be frozen,” Ceesay said. “If [Jammeh] doesn’t have communication with the outside world, then he knows that this thing is over.”

The Associated Press reported last week that Senegal, which surrounds Gambia on three sides and is home to three of the nine executed prisoners, has already called for sanctions against Gambia. The European Union and the U.N. are also weighing sanctions, according to a report by Voice of America News. The E.U., U.N., the African Union and the U.S. State Department have all condemned the executions.

Nevertheless, Mballow laments that the West lacks concern for Gambia’s problems.

“Gambia is a poor country. We don’t have oil; we don’t have gas; we don’t have coal,” Mballow said, “If Gambia had resources, there would be a lot of American concentration in Gambia, a lot of British concentration in Gambia, a lot of Scandinavian concentration in Gambia. But as it is now, that is lacking. So this is our problem. It’s unfortunate.”

Kujabi doesn’t hold out hope for outside help either, but he sees few options beyond protesting.

“The only way to stop [Jammeh] is with an internal military coup or with a popular uprising. I don’t see any other way,” he said, “[But] we will show the whole world our outrage.”

“If we don’t take any action, [Jammeh] is going to massacre the whole country,” Ceesay added, “We just want him to go.”

Note: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that in 1998, rather than being arrested by members of Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency, Pa Saikou Kujabi was arrested by Yahya Jammeh’s personal security forces, known as “The Dream Boys” and “The Black-Black Boys.”  

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