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Home Court: How Basketball Can Create a Dialogue About Migration

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Sport is a powerful thing. It has the ability to produce great joy and heart-breaking sadness for fans and observers. It requires of the players themselves dedication, discipline, passion, and a tireless commitment to improvement. Sport transcends borders, national identities, religions, and economic conditions.

 

It is this ability to transcend that brought Ascend Together and the US Peace Corps together to host the first-ever Hoops and Dreams Basketball and Youth Development Camp at Independence Stadium. Basketball is growing in popularity in The Gambia and Ascend Together has been on the fore-front of creating opportunities for youth basketball in schools. Through our RISE Gambia program, we provide student-athletes with basketball training, equipment, and structure, while also offering after-school tutoring and life-skills curriculum. Working predominantly with youth, we’ve pivoted our curriculum to address one of the most pressing issues facing young people in Gambia today: backway migration.

 

The Gambia has the highest rate of migration of any country in Africa, losing 12,000 young people each year (0.5% of the national population) to migration to Europe. People take the backway because they want to help support their families financially and see Europe has having more opportunities to do so than Gambia. But the route is incredibly dangerous; migrants are routinely kidnapped, tortured, and held for ransom in Libya before making the risky boat crossing to Italy where overcrowded boats often capsize. Once in Europe, migrants spend at least one year in “camps” while they await a decision on their asylum request. Because Gambia is a peaceful country without conflict, the rate of denial for Gambian asylum requests is high: 67% in 2016. That means that even when they reach Europe, only one out of three Gambians will receive documents allowing them to work legally. But for those who do, the rewards are worth the trip. Walking through any provincial village, it’s obvious which families have relatives in Europe; their houses are made of cement instead of mud and they often sport solar panels, TVs, and refrigerators. What’s not seen is the reduced burden of having to guess where the next bag of rice will come from or how to pay back loans taken out from local shops to cover the costs of food while a family waits for the harvest to bear fruit. Remittances sent home from Gambians abroad accounted for 22% of The Gambia’s economy in 2016 according to a report released by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). These remittances have helped relieve the burden of poverty for many Gambian families.

 

But the loss of so many young people to migration has detrimental effects on the local economy, family structures, and the work force. It may also be unsustainable, particularly as Europe grapples with how to provide employment for an influx of migrants from all over the globe. But in a country with 29% unemployment (data from 2014), where the average woman has more than five children, what options do young people have?

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That’s where the Hoops and Dreams Camp comes in. We invited 86 of the top young male and female basketball players in The Gambia, from urban neighborhoods in Bakau, Serrekunda, and Lamin, all the way up to the provincial town of Bansang, to the three-day camp. In the mornings and evenings the campers honed their skills in basketball activities, which featured individual and team drills, a 27-game tournament, all-star games, and performance awards. But in the heat of the afternoon the venue would shift to the conference hall where campers were treated to a catered lunch and a host of guest speakers with a single message: let’s build the new Gambia right here, in Gambia.

 

One of the first to speak was Mustapha Sallah, a former migrant recently returned from Libya who is part of an organization of returned migrants called Youth Against Irregular Migration, which aims to educate young people about the dangers of the backway through their own stories. More comfortable speaking in Wolof, Mustapha walked the young campers through his experience in Libyan detention centers where he witnessed Gambian migrants die before they ever even saw the Mediterranean. Mustapha returned to Gambia voluntarily as part of a repatriation program sponsored by the International Organization for Migration. It can be hard to return, he says, because the money invested by the extended family to sponsor the trip was wasted. But when he arrived in Gambia his family embraced him with tears of joy. Mustapha’s organization is now trying to provide support for the growing number of returned migrants.

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Next up was a panel of Gambian entrepreneurs and professionals featuring Momar Taal, CEO of Tropingo Foods, Ndey Fatou Njie, founder of Tiga Swimwear, and Alieu Kah, a financial consultant. From all three the message was clear: you can make a life for yourself here in Gambia. Mr. Taal, who started a successful business processing and exporting agricultural products, explains: “First of all, you can’t be afraid of failure. I hear from Gambians all the time ‘Gambia amuut dara’; there’s nothing here. But look around you: we’re surrounded by mango trees. Gambia has a wealth of agricultural opportunities. Mangoes can be sold whole, as juice, as jam, or as a dried fruit.”

 

Ms. Njie, whose Tiga Swimwear produces swim suits and other clothes using African fabrics and accesses overseas markets through online sales, elaborated that there are a host of economic possibilities in Gambia, and it’s all about finding new market ideas.

 

Mr. Kah lived and worked in Canada for years but returned to Gambia “because this is our country. We have networks and connections here. If you have an idea for a business, you’re more likely to succeed here where you know the culture and the language and the people.”

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Other presenters at the camp included the Ebunjan Theater Company which recently released a play titled “Backway”, The Youth Empowerment Project, the Gambia Start-up Incubator, and the Medical Research Council. All of these organizations are stakeholders in the future of Gambia and Gambia’s youth.

 

The young campers recorded the presentations on their phones, sharing them with friends and family, and of course there were plenty of selfies and group photos. The energy that sport brings to daily life also lends strength to the message of the camp.

 

At the closing ceremony, attended by parents and extended family, a group of campers asked if they could perform an impromptu skit. All of their own accord, the six young Gambians regaled the crowd with a story played out all too often in real life: three young migrants leave Gambia in search of a better life. One is killed in Libya and the others reach Europe but find it a harder place than they expected. At the close of the skit, 15-year old Bintu Dambally, microphone in hand, tells the crowd “We have everything we need right here; the people, the culture, the resources, to make Gambia a great country without taking the backway.” Her peers cheered the performance, taking video with their phones and sharing the message.

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My Country, My Future: Gambia’s Top Young Entrepreneur Speaks to Ascend Students

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My Country, My Future: Gambia’s Top Young Entrepreneur Speaks to Ascend Students

On May 13th Ascend Together's RISE Gambia program hosted a celebrity guest. One of Forbes’ 30 most influential African entrepreneurs under the age of 30, Momar Taal is a rising star in Gambia, having started a million-dollar agriculture business, Tropingo Foods. Mr. Taal had a simple message for the young men and women in the RISE Gambia program: you can make a life for yourself here in Gambia, you don’t need to go to Europe to make money.

Gambia has one of the highest rates of migration to Europe of any country in the world, losing on average 0.5 percent of its population each year to the “backway”, according to UNICEF. In 2016, 12,000 Gambians, mostly young men, arrived by boat in Italy, part of a wave of migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. Despite its small size (roughly 2 million people), Gambians are the fifth most common arrivals in Europe according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), rivaling much larger countries like Nigeria and Syria. The effect on Gambian society is pervasive, particularly in the provinces, where you find villages where most of the young men have gone the backway.

And the route itself is dangerous. Young Gambians who take the backway are subject to kidnapping, torture, and murder while in lawless Libya, before risking their lives on a treacherous boat crossing to Italy where overcrowded boats often capsize. Over 5,000 migrants, including Gambians, died in 2016 crossing the Mediterranean. The number of migrants killed or kidnapped in Libya is unknown, but almost every Gambian knows someone who suffered some sort of abuse or worse while in Libya.

So why are so many young Gambians risking their lives to get to Europe? An issue this complex will never have a simple answer, but the most common reason given by migrants is that there are no opportunities for young people in Gambia. Young people want to help their families financially and they see Europe as being the best way to do that, where the remittances sent home from even a low-paying job can go a long way in Gambia.

As an organization that works with Gambian youth, Ascend Together recognizes that the migration issue needs to be addressed. So we called Momar. Momar Taal is living proof that you can make a life for yourself in Gambia with a little creativity and a lot of hard work. So, sitting in the shade next to the YMCA basketball court, Ascend students listened to Momar tell the story of how he started his multi-million dollar mango and groundnut processing and export company.

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“First of all, you can’t be afraid of failure. I’ve failed and failed, but I kept trying until I succeeded.”

“I hear from Gambians all the time ‘Gambia amuut dara’; there’s nothing here. But look around you, we’re surrounded by mango trees. Gambia has a wealth of agricultural opportunities. Mangoes can be sold whole, as juice, as jam, or as a dried fruit. Even the mango pit can be pressed to produce castor oil, which is an important component of many cosmetics products.” Upon hearing the last bit, the students looked at each other in disbelief, thinking about how many mango pits they’ve thrown away.

When asked what business niches might exist that aren’t currently being taken advantage of by Gambians, Momar said “there are so many. One that comes to mind is refrigeration. Every hotel, fish plant, restaurant, needs access to refrigerated storage and there are only two people doing it. And there are so many agricultural opportunities. Gambia has a great climate for growing rice. Gambians have historically grown rice. So why isn’t there a major Gambian rice company? I don’t want to eat Chinese rice, I want to eat Gambian rice.”

While these students may still be a few years away from starting a business, the message was clear: there are opportunities here in Gambia; you don’t have to go to Europe. And the wheels were turning. One student, Paul Mendy, asked why aren’t pineapples grown in Gambia? Momar’s answer: someone needs to look into it. Maybe you can be the first person to start a pineapple company here.

Ascend Together's RISE Gambia program is addressing alternatives to the backway in its curriculum. For more information on how you can help, please visit our website at http://www.ascendtogether.org/home/ or check us out on Facebook at Ascend Together.  

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Celebrating Our First Student-Athletes of the Month

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Celebrating Our First Student-Athletes of the Month

On April 8th, Ascend Together held an open court event at the YMCA in Kanifeng. Open to the community as well as Ascend students, the event was an opportunity for young basketball players to participate in dribbling, passing, and shooting drills with Ascend coaches. After three hours of basketball in the rising heat, Ascend staff called it a day and invited the young athletes to sit in the shade and enjoy an egg sandwich. The staff had a surprise: the first ever Student-Athlete of the Month announcements!

The Student-Athlete of the Month awards are intended to recognize the Ascend students who have shown the highest degree of dedication to their studies and to basketball. Each month, Ascend coaches and tutors will recognize one student from St. Theresa’s Upper Basic School and one student from Kotu Senior Secondary School to receive the award, which includes a certificate and a new pair of basketball shoes. Coaches and tutors look at a student’s attendance and punctuality, active participation in the tutoring and basketball sessions, improvement, teamwork, and leadership. Since this was the first ever announcement of the awards, the excitement among the students was palpable.

With students and coaches creating a drumroll by slapping their hands to their thighs, the announcements were made:

“For St. Theresa’s, the Student-Athlete of the Month is…. Doudou Sanneh.” The students erupted in jubilant cheer mixed with a few playful jests. Doudou is young, only in grade eight, so he’s due a few jabs from his older peers. “And for Kotu, the Student-Athlete of the Month is…. Haddijatou Ceesay.” More jubilant cheers, but no jabs this time, Haddijatou owned it hands down.

 
Haddijatou Ceesay, 16 years old, grade 11. Kotu Student-Athlete of the Month, March 2017.

Haddijatou Ceesay, 16 years old, grade 11. Kotu Student-Athlete of the Month, March 2017.

 

When asked about winning the award, Haddijatou responded with humility. "I felt good to be chosen among the rest as the best athlete of the month, but I felt lucky as well because there are others who are as serious and improved like me. Ascend have built my confidence, I am naturally a shy girl but with the help of Ascend programming from tutoring (presentations), group work, peer tutoring to leading drills and warm ups at basketball sessions. All this have shaped me to be a good athlete”.

“It's a love affair between me and basketball, sometimes I thought, how happy could I be without basketball. I thank Ascend Together and all our wonderful coaches, tutors and my fellow students”.

Doudou is younger and a little shy when it comes to answering questions about winning the award. It didn’t help that he was still finishing his egg sandwich when his name was called, prompting his peers to give him the typical Gambian jab that he eats too much. He’s been playing basketball for only one year but says he wants to play in the Gambian Basketball Association’s adult league, “preferably for the YMCA team.” He says when he grows up he wants to be a government minister for Youth and Sports. When asked how he will achieve the lofty goal, he gives a shy smile and says “study hard and pass my exams.” He wasn’t quite as shy when it came time for pictures.

 
Doudou Sanneh, 14 years old, grade 8. St. Theresa’s Student-Athlete of the Month, March 2017.

Doudou Sanneh, 14 years old, grade 8. St. Theresa’s Student-Athlete of the Month, March 2017.

 

Ascend Together will continue to recognize its most dedicated students each month. For information about how you can help students in Gambia thrive, please visit our website at http://www.ascendtogether.org/home/ or check us out on Facebook at Ascend Together.

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RISE Gambia Students Attend International Women's Day Fair

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RISE Gambia Students Attend International Women's Day Fair

On March 1st, 32 RISE Gambia students boarded buses from Kotu and St. Theresa’s schools bound for the Peace Corps the Gambia office. While many students snapped selfies in the leather seats and enjoyed the air-conditioning, others jotted down questions they wanted to ask the American Peace Corps volunteers hosting the event.

When Ascend staff and students first heard about the women’s day event, their first thought was that it would focus on the challenges: early marriage, female genital mutilation, etc. But Haddy Sowe and the Peace Corps volunteers had something else in mind: let’s focus on the successes.

Peace Corps volunteers led sessions focusing on famous women in African history who have led armies and mobilized activist movements. Women who have held power as Queens and more recently as Presidents and high-ranking military officials. Students were given a tour of Africa’s heroines from the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, to Wangari Maathai, the renowned Kenyan environmental activist and Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Not to be forgotten was Gambia’s own Fatou Bensouda, the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for her role as “a leading voice pressing governments to support the quest for justice.” The message to the young students: gender is only as much a barrier as you allow it to be.

After the morning presentations, Ascend students split into groups of three and rotated between 10 Peace Corps volunteers who each led different small-group discussions. Some were light-hearted - celebrating the importance of laundry-folding skills; while others addressed the cultural challenges that face young people in The Gambia. But all the sessions succeeded in being an opportunity for young women and men from the United States and The Gambia to discuss gender issues in their respective cultures and to learn about gender in the other’s culture.

Bintu Dambally, a grade nine student from St. Theresa’s Upper Basic School, said her favorite part of the event was hearing about the role of African women throughout history. Isatou M. Jallow, a grade 10 student from Kotu, and an emerging gender activist, said she enjoyed hearing about the progress in gender equality in America. And Binta Janneh, also a grade 10 student from Kotu, said she liked seeing the changes in women’s fashion in Africa over time.

We thank Peace Corps The Gambia and their volunteers for bringing their energy and expertise to our students. Each new piece of knowledge these students gain brings them one step closer to realizing their potential as outstanding citizens and leaders of the future.

GALLERY

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Peace

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Peace

The past month has been one of transition in The Gambia. With the political transition came great fear. Many student in our Rise Gambia program fled the country with their families in the face of insecurity about the future of the country. Thankfully, although things did not play out perfectly, life on the ground has been returning to what it used to be, with a renewed sense of peace and hope. In the first Rise Gambia gatherings following the political impasse, students had the opportunity to write and share their own stories. They also reflected on the meaning of peace. Here are a few of their thoughts.


I had never known the importance of peace until when we were about to lose it. Families fleeing, women delivering on their run for their lives and that of the children, and my experience as a refugee; I could have never imagined how this looked like. Peace is the most precious gift. I am urging my fellow Gambians to embrace it for good. - Aji Amie Secka

 
Amie Aji Secka
 

Gambians have crossed the border for the safety of their lives. Some were homeless in other countries. It has been a great joy to Gambia that there is now hope...

The word peace stands for everything. Without peace, nothing on earth can be. The importance of peace brings a lot in a state. The importance of peace makes us to be a happy and comfortable family, because when there is a war all over, there will be no happiness at all. - Sana Fatty

 
 

The majority of the people running out of the country for their lives were children. These are the same children who were once waving and chanting along the road every now and then, and some pointed out these wonderful moments were not deserved. Now we are a smiling coast. - Aminata Jobe

 
 

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This Country of Ours

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This Country of Ours

The Gambia is in the midst of a transition. Time will tell if it is a peaceful one or not. This week we received this letter from one of our friends on the ground:


It has not been easy for me all this while, especially with the current situation of what is going on in this country of ours. The tide of tension is getting higher and no one feels secure and safe any longer. All we do is to pray every day that God grant us peace.

There are reports of soldiers coming into the country. Though the government seems quiet for the time being, no one knows what plans he has. Everyone feels that he is going to put up some resistance, which may lead to a battle.

People everywhere are going out shopping for food to keep as reserve. In case the situation goes sour, many have fled the country. Just earlier this week there were flights from Conakry, Nigeria and Senegal that came to pick up their dignitaries, and some are traveling on the roads. As of late, you hardly see a non-Gambian walking in street, as it used to be.

My sister, I wish this situation wouldn't have meet me here. This is why I fought so hard to leave this country, which did not happen. I knew the Gambia is not an exception of conflict. You could tell of it your self while you were here, by the nature of the government. But by virtue of reason that is not known to me, God has allowed me to be here in this country, which we love so much. On the street here you hear people, especially young youths, giving out disrespecting remarks and posing violence. This has never been the nature of the Gambian people who lived with the slogan "Gambia, no problem."

I feel less secure behind my own doors. Last year, for me, was the roughest and toughest year of my life. I experienced hunger and fatigue.

I understand what this situation could lead to if it gets out of hand. It will destroy our young stars, and the nation at large.

All schools in the country are closed. People hardly go to work now-a-days. On the streets of Banjul you see groups of soldiers, and in other places barricades have been pitched in all corners. And you find soldiers standing holding live weapons everywhere.

My sister, I wish every thing resolves in a peaceful way so that everything will return to the way it used to be. Your thoughts and prayers are really appreciated. I will continue to update you with the present issues at hand.

God bless


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