by Ernest & Ernesta Cole

As the airplane began its final descent into Banjul International Airport, I was overcome by a feeling of nervous excitement. I was excited at the prospect of coming back to my adopted home, the place where my wife and I sought refuge at the height of the civil war in my native Sierra Leone 24 years ago. I was equally nervous at what to expect of The Gambia after all this time.

I was returning not as a Sierra Leonean, as I was during my 7-year period of refuge, but as an American. I was bringing with me a child (my younger daughter) born in the United States, who was coming to the continent for the first time. I was also anticipating the arrival of my elder daughter from study abroad in Liverpool: Hope junior Ernesta Cole, who was actually born in The Gambia, 20 years ago. And so, as Brussels Airlines navigated the final stretch of tarmac and taxied to the arrival gate, an incident that occurred 17 years earlier flashed through my mind.

I was leaving for the University of Connecticut in August 2003, and my family—Ernesta and my wife, Everetta—had accompanied me to the airport. After saying goodbye and going through customs and immigration, I could only make out the tiny hands of Ernesta waving goodbye to me in the crowded airport. She couldn’t actually see me, but from the farewells of family and friends, she knew daddy was going on a journey and it was important to wave goodbye.

I watched her for a very long time, transfixed to one spot, until the voice of the announcer over the PA system interrupted my thoughts. Ghana Airways was almost ready for boarding. When we were finally airborne, I broke down. I cried for a long time. The image of those tiny hands as they waved goodbye has never left my mind.

Six months later, Ernesta and Everetta joined me in Willimantic, Connecticut. But today, as I collected my thoughts, it was a different story. Time has elapsed and situations have changed. As we stepped out onto the tarmac and walked the few yards to the arrival lounge, my nervousness increased. I have always wanted to take my children home. For me it is not so much about them having a sense of cultural heritage and roots, with all its implications for identity and belonging, as important as these may be. Rather, it is an invitation for them to walk in our shoes and retrace history. I deem this as necessary in order for them to begin to understand the sacrifices made by us and the implications for our family.

I wanted them to understand that there is a cost to success: that a price was paid for being a professor at Hope College, and that there were people along the way who assisted us in a variety of ways and made it possible for my wife and I to be where we are today. They have to recognize, as my people say: “we never got to where we are by our own strength, and so, may we never forget the road we traveled.” I wanted to introduce them to some of the people who made this success possible.

In the same vein, I wanted them to know that there is a cost to migration: that migrants are continuously navigating the complexities of the in-between—the third space of being self and Other, African and American, insider and outsider, central and marginal. Importantly, they too as “first generation.” Americans would have to navigate the trickling effects of those complexities.

But, notwithstanding the costs, it is important to take time to give glory to God—for in spite of what we think of our journey, His hand upon our lives is clearly discernible. That is non-negotiable.

At this point, I will step back and allow Ernesta to give her impressions of her return to her birthplace, her homeland, the motherland, the continent of Africa. 

After 16 years in the United States, I went back home. A nearly overwhelming sense of belonging grew as each family member, each friendly neighbor, each nursery school teacher said “Welcome back.” I knew I was home, but I also knew that my being away for so long would change how I fit back into Gambian life and society. I would have to re-learn the new Gambia and re-teach the new Ernesta.

Both of my very musically talented uncles asked me if I played any instruments, like the piano or kora, or if I sang. I said no. Family friends asked if I spoke any Wolof or Mandika. I said no. Nearly everyone spoke of distant memories, and asked if I remembered them as fondly as they did. I said no. I began to feel like I might end up disappointing people, for changing too much and not being Gambian enough. After only a few days, I quickly realized that my anxieties were not necessary. Those who truly knew me did not care if I was partially this, raised here or there, and used to that. They loved me as Ernesta, and it was just that simple.

It’s true that, due to living in the United States for the majority of my life, I had become Americanized. But the amount of time spent in a location does not fundamentally change who you are, especially if your culture and sense of self are continuously encouraged and developing.

Waking up to the sound of ocean waves was the perfect way to start each day. The warmth of the 89-degree days was the same warmth and comfort I felt inside my chest being surrounded by people who looked just like me. Everything felt new and exciting: from shopping in the busy markets in the capital Banjul, to petting crocodiles in Katchikaly, where we stumbled across an elusive white crocodile, believed to have supernatural powers. (I’ve started considering that the white crocodile helped give me confidence for the rest of the trip, as well as for 2020.)

Adventures to different attractions brought more discussion about my identity as a Gambian. In most touristy places, like the National Museum of Gambia and Bijilo Forest Park (more commonly known as Monkey Park), the price for Gambians is less than the price for visiting tourists. Initially I thought, “Oh, sweet! I get to save a few dalasi”—but I quickly learned that those local discounts would not be applied to me. In the National Museum, the lady selling tickets looked me up and down and promptly amended the rules with: “well actually, the discount is for residential Gambians.” My uncle, his girlfriend, my mother, sister and I all exchanged looks and couldn’t help but share a laugh. My American was showing.

On a trip to the local Bakau fish market, I met a Jamaican man working there who ended up encouraging me in an exciting idea for what I want to do for the rest of my life. He started the conversation by asking my sister if she was a university student, due to the Liverpool Hope University shirt she had on. She smirked and told him it had been a gift from me. After spending much of our conversation laughing over the presumptions he had about where the two of us would end up, based on the “caring talkative vibes” I gave off in comparison to the more “strict and authoritative” ones of my sister—who is 13, by the way—gave off, he said something that will stick with me forever. He said that he was proud of and excited for us, for the things we would accomplish and how we would shape the future. He added, with a slight sad smile, that he was not educated. Then he said: “But, I speak Wolof, English, Spanish, French, Finnish…” and must have listed at least two more. How could this kind, multilingual person not define himself as educated? It settled on me that since he did not have a westernized, idealistic academic repertoire he had limited himself against those standards.

I decided at that moment that I would study sociolinguistics. What languages do people speak based on location? Why do they speak the way they do? Which languages or accents are seen as cooler, better, more intriguing than others and why? Should academics be, at minimum, bilingual?

Gambia was an amazing, tropical, relaxing and love-filled time for me. Going back home filled me up in so many positive ways—from my spirit to my stomach! I will never forget the impact our trip had on me and I cannot wait to get back.

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