The original draft of the speech presented at the first ever consultative meeting between the Government of The Gambia and the Gambian community in the Diaspora.
Good morning distinguish ladies and gentlemen, my name is Rohia Kah. I am very proud and happy to be here today representing the United Gambians Association in New York. This speech represents the general opinion of the entire membership of the United Gambians Association.
On behalf of the United Gambians Association in New York, I express to you, my brothers and sisters, our deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity to have this historic meeting.
We know that your invitation is an invitation for change; an invitation for peace, security and stability; an invitation for individual and national prosperity; an invitation for healing and leadership. We have heard you loudly, and we humbly accept your invitation.
I wish to pay a special recognition to:
- Our president, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh.
- The vice president, Her Excellency Aja Dr. Isatou Njie-Saidy.
- Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and
Gambians Abroad, Hon Dr. Mamadou Tangara.
I also want to thank Mrs. Susan Waffa-Ogoo and the entire staff of the Gambia Permanent Mission to the UN.
Members of the United Gambians Association want this meeting to mark a celebration of change, and a dedication to our agenda for a socio-economic and political reordering. Today, the United Gambians Association wholeheartedly embraces this call for dialogue. We recognize that this meeting is not just for the sake of meeting with top dignitaries, but a fundamental break with the past, thereby requiring that we take bold and decisive steps to address the problems that have hindered our progress, undermined national unity, and kept old and new cleavages in ferment.
The United Gambians Association is an association of diverse background and experience. In preparation for this meeting, as usual, members of the association had different opinions about what the outcome of this meeting would be. Most of the members were very supportive of the idea. However, there were some who even questioned whether it worth making the trip.
One of the strongest objections some of our members have is that, it is quick for people to call for a conference to address problems. People come in, they present nice papers and make eloquent statements and then we all go back into our little comfort zones with the same attitudes – no changes. This is not what we want.
We want this conference to be as pragmatic as possible. We want to have a dialogue about some of the needs of the Gambians abroad and also listen to some of the expectation that the government has of us. By the end of this conference, I would like to get answer to our concerns or contact persons for any issue that remains outstanding preferably from the respective ministries – mainly from Finance, Local Government and Interior.
Before we gathered here today to hold this conference, I would assume that every one must have first prepared for it with real conversation, and real debate on the subjects. We need to talk openly and honestly. We cannot change history – we have to accept it for what it is and stop the finger-pointing and the blame. And we must move ahead into the future together.
It is important to note that The Gambians in the Diaspora have made tremendous sacrificed for their beloved country. Our singular focus is to ensure that our people back home are taken care of – even if that means denying ourselves one or two comforts. We would deny ourselves by utilizing our scarce resources to assist the people back home.
Just ask yourselves, what percentage of The Gambian GDP is the remittance from the people abroad? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. According to the U.S Department of State, about 59% of the Gambia’s Gross Domestic Product comes from remittance from Gambians abroad. What is important to us is not the real answer to this question but how The Gambians abroad, those in the Gambia and The Gambia government can work together for individual and national prosperity.
This meeting is a step in the right direction in that it reflects a new partnership between the Gambia government and the Gambians abroad – a partnership based on shared values and principles. We are confident that we can count on each other’s assistance.
Today, I urge all of us to commit ourselves to a new era of cooperation. In this new era of cooperation, we will tolerate even if we disagree; we will co-exist even if we consider the other side unfriendly – and we will find common ground on the many vexing issues that face our nation. This is because our shared national values are more important than our individual interest.
This country promotes a healthy economy in which all Gambians can prosper. Our strategy is to achieve quick and visible progress that reaches a significant number of our people, to gain momentum, consolidate support, and establish a foundation for sustained economic development.
Thus in this regard, we will like to share with you a few ideas and proposal – a few urgent needs that, we think, will not only make life easier for many in the Diaspora, but will also contribute positively to the socio-economic advancement of our beloved Gambia.
Long Term Mortgage Program:
It is the dream of every Gambian abroad to build a home in The Gambia. However, many of us face serious challenges trying to build our first house. Often, this is because it is difficult to save a lump sum to build the house. Sometimes, the problem is not financial; rather a problem of finding the reliable person to handle the project.
We would therefore appreciate the help of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, in this regard. We suggest that the ministry facilitate the establishment of commercial banks that will provide mortgages loans to be paid back within a period of 20 to 30 years. Such programs already exist for members of the Diaspora community in most of our neighboring countries.
Since none of the local banks in The Gambia have license to operate in the US, mortgages will be written by the local banks in the Gambia and mortgage payments will be made through a wire transfer from Banque de l'habitat du Senegal, BHS, which is licensed to operate in the US, to the banks in The Gambia. BHS will therefore act as an intermediary between the borrower and the loan-provider.
For example, a bank in the Gambia will give loans to developers or construction companies to build homes. The banks will also give 20 to 30-year mortgage loan to a Gambian abroad. The Gambian abroad will use the mortgage loan to buy a house from the developers or the construction companies.
On a monthly basis, BHS will collect the monthly mortgage payment from the Gambian abroad and wire the money to the bank in the Gambia.
This will give these companies much needed cash flow to either build more homes or repay the loans from the banks. The banks will get all the benefits associated with loans, including foreign currency since all mortgages will be paid in foreign currency.
We recommend BHS as an intermediary bank because of its outstanding record in banking in general and money transfer in particular. It is a fully licensed money transfer company in New York with agents throughout the U.S.
BHS has a highly automated computer system that enables it to handle financial transactions to most areas in Africa. On a monthly basis, BHS handles more than ten thousand money transfer transactions to the Gambia. It is already an established bank within the Gambian community in the US.
Retirement Saving Trust:
Gambians in the Diaspora would also benefit greatly from retirement savings account as a service provided by the banks in The Gambia. Most Gambians abroad live without any form of retirement plan. Such an account will enable savings of a specific amount a month, say $100 a month, for either retirement or to prepare for any unforeseen circumstance.
The current process, as we all know, is to send money to a friend or relative, who collects the money in Dalasi and then deposit the money in your account in a bank. There are two basic problems with this.
- The money may not be properly handled by your relatives or friends, as instructed and/or;
- The banks will also lose the much needed foreign currency since the money will be collected in The Gambia, in Dalasi, and deposited in the bank account in Dalasi.
These problems can be eliminated by:
- The banks opening retirement trust accounts for interested Gambians abroad and;
- BHS, acting as an intermediary bank, can deduct the monthly contribution from our accounts in the U.S. and wire the money to the retirement trust account in The Gambia.
While Gambians abroad are away from home, we often hear about land allocation by government. Those of us, who might be interested in applying, are severely disadvantaged; we’re often unable to do so in time to be eligible.
The problem here is therefore information - which can be solved by government going internet savvy or provide updated info to consulates that will disseminate it to Gambians abroad. The people in The Gambia know about these events faster than those abroad. There is no way that the Gambians abroad can compete with those residing in Gambia when it comes to applying for these properties. Therefore, some within the country will buy some of these plots at a reasonable price and re-sell them to Gambians abroad at a very high price.
We therefore would like the government to establish a land allocation program targeting only the people abroad – to ensure fair competition, and equal opportunity. Only Gambians abroad will be able to apply for a plot of land under such programs. This is the only way we, The Gambians abroad, can have a fair share of the land allocation process.
Illegal Sale of Land:
The government needs to be more diligent to deter the illegal sale of lands. Imagine traveling abroad to look for better opportunities so you can have a better future for your family and country - most Gambians abroad have goals of building houses within a couple of years after traveling abroad.
After struggling for some time, you send your hard earned money to your relatives or friends to buy you a land. You become so excited that your dreams are coming through. You work harder so that you can build your first house as soon as possible. Two years down the road, you saved a little and believed that it is time to start constructing the house. The sad news comes to light that the original seller of the land had actually sold the land to multiple individuals.
Things like this happen all the time and most of the time nothing happens to the person who sold the land illegally, while the buyers battle it out in court, which absolutely makes no sense. We would like the land dealers involved in these illegal land sales be prosecuted. We would like this type of illegal land sale to be a serious felony punishable by a long term prison sentence. We need concrete laws in regards to such crimes.
Currently, if a child is born in the US to Gambian parents, that child is automatically and legally a Gambian. However, we have routinely faced great difficulty in obtaining Gambian documents for our children who weren’t born in the Gambian.
One has to travel back to The Gambia to apply for the necessary documents. Otherwise, the child will always apply for a visa to travel to The Gambia. Just think about it, you apply for visa and pay a fee of 3,000 Dalasis to travel to your own country. We would like to make an appeal to the government to reexamine this issue and institute some changes to facilitate the matter.
It is becoming harder and harder to get a passport renewal. The old process was for Gambians abroad to send their passport to someone in The Gambia to apply for a passport on their behalf. This used to be very inconvenient, especially if you did not have a reliable person to do it for you.
With the current process involving biometric identification to passports, how can one apply for a new passport without personally travelling to The Gambia? It seems practically impossible since one has to be fingerprinted in order to get a new passport. This should be done at the Gambian Embassy in the US.
It is important for everyone to note that not all Gambians in the US have the necessary documents to travel. Such individuals will not be able to travel to The Gambia to renew their passports. Therefore, what you will end up having are Gambians whose passports expire (meaning they no longer possess valid Gambian document), and no valid American papers either!
What we are suggesting is to have Gambia government officials to travel to America, at least once a year, to issue new passports to those whose passports have expired, but are unable to travel back to The Gambia to renew it.
I know some have already started questioning how the government can carry these big biometric machines across the Atlantic. We would like to know if there is any option that we can use to renew our passports without traveling back to Gambia. This will be a big help, seriously a big help.
Extreme caution should be exercised by our custom officers in determining what constitute items for business or gift. The custom officers should know that the moment you start planning a trip from the US to the Gambia, people start bringing you items to take to their relatives and friends as gifts, in addition to your own personal items. The most common item is cell phones – it is very common for one to travel with ten cell phones, all gifts to friends and relatives. Most of the time, we experience so much hardship and frustration at the airport to clear a few luggage from customs. At times one has to pay money to clear items that are purely gifts to relatives and friends. Why should Gambians endure such hardships?
Gambians in the Diaspora would like to exercise their right to vote. It is our desire to be involved directly in the electoral process, to be directly involved in choosing our leaders.
Gambians abroad contribute a lot to the country’s GDP. We therefore think that it is time for the Gambians abroad to be given the opportunity to cast ballots in their country of residence.
Help from the Gambian Embassies:
There is a great disconnect between the Gambians abroad and their respective embassies. We absolutely have no connection with our respective representatives. The representatives are supposed to be our voice in the country, to support, guide, and inform us of any issues we need to know regarding our home country.
Most Gambians in the US do not know and have never seen the Gambian ambassador to the US. We expect to receive help and leadership from our embassies, but this is seriously lacking. Some Gambians go through so much hardship in the U.S. If the representatives were proactive enough, then they should have been there to guide and offer advice as to what steps they can take and how and where to go for further help.
- Embassy staffs do not attend Gambian programs, events or funerals.
- We don’t even think that the Gambian embassy in the US knows how many Gambians die in the US every year or are in jail.
Every year, President Jammeh goes on a Meet the People Tour to speak and listen to the Gambian people; to get to have an understanding of what the people’s need are. This is a very important and effective tour. The ambassadors should have a similar tour – to travel to different locations in their respective countries and have an honest dialogue with the Gambians they are suppose to represent.
To conclude, records and experience show that Gambians abroad are very strong and resilient people; able to rise from all kinds of disappointment and to start anew. We are a good and friendly people – just look at the help we give out back home.
We, the United Gambians Association, therefore pledge to live up to your expectations of an association that is attentive and responsive to your needs, your concerns, and the development and progress of our country. Thank you very much. God bless you, God bless The Gambia and God bless the United States of America.