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The Gambia curse: A refugee turned star footballer and a persecuted journalist


Former Gambian refugee Ousman Manneh who now plays for Werder Bremen

26/11/2016 00:00:00
by Enock Muchinjo
 
Werder Bremen's Gambian star Ousman Manneh
 
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OUSMAN Manneh last month provided one of the most beautiful fairytales you’d ever hear of, a heart-touching inspirational story that will leave you smiling – and a tear in the eye too.

Such was the effect on many who read about it, all the more on me as his story struck a similarity with that of someone I’ve known and called a friend for the past seven years.

But first, let me explain who Ousman Manneh is. He is the teenage footballer who scored his first goal for German top-flight football club Werder Bremen in October, two years after arriving in the country as a refugee.

Werder Bremen won the game 2-1 against Bayer Levekusen.

Manneh comes from a small country ruled by an eccentric tyrant. Yahya Jammeh is one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. He has been the country’s president since a bloodless coup in 1994 and has gained notoriety for ruling the West African country with an iron fist.

Jammeh, an oddball of note, has also claimed he can cure AIDS.

Two years ago Manneh left his entire family behind to flee the violence and unrest in his troubled homeland aged just 17 intending to start a new life in Italy.

But refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea are not normally welcome in Italy, so the young Gambian ended up in a refugee camp in Germany where he lived with 19 other teenagers from Middle East and Africa.

His football talents were noticed in the refugee camp.

After initially turning out for lower league teams, he was signed by Bremen in 2015.

As a professional footballer in one of Europe’s richest leagues – a teenager whose fear of an inescapable grim future surpassed the fear of death in the rough waters of the sea – can now enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle, a complete far cry from the frightening levels of poverty he fled in Gambia.

Manneh’s countryman, Nanama Keita, was 26 when I met him for the first time in Ghana in 2009 – already Sports Editor of Gambia’s biggest circulating newspaper, a government mouthpiece called The Daily Observer.


IN HAPPIER TIMES: Nanama Keita meets President Yahya Jammeh while
covering a function for The Daily Observer seven years ago



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We were on a two-week training programme in preparation for the 2010 Football World Cup, 24 reporters and photojournalists from different African countries, and Nanama endeared himself to everyone in the group with his natural charming personality – a warm smile and a hearty genuine chuckle that never once vanished.

Jay-Jay was his nickname, he told us, in recognition of his well-known adoration for former Nigeria superstar Austin “Jay-Jay” Okocha.

He would tell me, after we bumped into each other a year later while covering a World Cup match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, of his delight at meeting his hero, who was working as a pundit for SABC during the tournament.

But two years after that World Cup, Keita would fall foul of Jammeh’s goons.

He was arrested and detained on false accusations of feeding stories to an anti-government Gambian-owned online newspaper based in the United States.


BUDDIES: Nanama Keita (behind) joins in a photo with Enock Muchinjo (left) and Lucky
Sindane of South Africa's Mail & Guardian at the beach in Accra in 2009

Keita, then doubling-up as deputy editor-in-chief of The Daily Observer, was initially invited for a “routine interview” by the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA), an oversight secret security agency that is known for carrying out unlawful arrests and illegal detentions on behalf of Jammeh’s government.

Instead of a “routine interview”, Keita was detained by the NIA, without charges, and had his travel documents confiscated.

He would spend the night in detention, and released the following day after his sister deposited a bail bond.

The NIA wasn’t done with him, though.

A week after his ordeal at the hands of the NIA, he was invited to the Gambian police headquarters in the capital Banjul, where he was placed under arrest.

“I was later finger-printed and charged with giving false information to a public servant, a section in the constitution that the regime always use to silence its critics,” says Keita in an interview this week.

“I spent a night in a dilapidated and mosquito-infested cell at the police headquarters before being whisked to the court the following morning after my journalist colleagues insisted I be taken to court instead of being detained incommunicado.”

Keita was given a court bail on the day of his arraignment in court.


MEETING JAY-JAY: Nanama Keita poses with his footballing hero Austin Okocha

Two months later, Keita skipped bail with the help of the United Nations after securing a US visa to attend a UN Fellowship programme in New York.

He left the country under the cover of darkness, through the bushy border of his country and neighbouring Senegal, where he boarded his flight to New York.

As the plane took off from the runway and disappeared into the skies, he breathed a heavy sigh of relief. But on the inside he was crying for the loved ones he’d left back home in Banjul. His wife and two little daughters joined him in the US two years later after he’d secured political asylum.

The whole episode was an extremely traumatising experience for a young family.

“Fleeing the country I have known since childhood was not an easy decision because it meant leaving behind everything; family, friends, the familiar sights, everything.”

The treatment at the hands of the government still hurts bad, but Keita’s heart bleeds more now for the oppressed people of his beloved homeland who continue to suffer under Jammeh’s authoritarian regime.

“I was very bitter. I was bitter when I first left because of the manner I had to leave the country and the injustice that was meted out on me. But I’m settled now in the US. My bitterness has turned to a sincere concern for the helpless people that continue to suffer under the very dictatorship that forced me out.”

Keita is currently working towards completing a degree in Criminal Justice Administration. He cannot go back to Gambia. There is still an arrest warrant for him.  

“The only time I can return will come when there’s a change of government, something that might lie a long way ahead,” he says.

Keita is now a US citizen, and voted in the recent presidential elections, for Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.

His disappointment at the outcome is obvious.

“The same way minority of white America refused to recognise Barack Obama as their president despite his class, grace and intelligence; the same way they treated him with disrespect and contempt throughout his eight years in office all because of his colour is the same I will refuse to accept hateful, xenophobic and racist Donald Trump as my president,” he says.

“Someone might be tempted to say well, he’s now your commander-in-chief and you shouldn’t disrespect him. Well, to hell with that because my dignity is more important to me than anything else, including my freaking job.”

Enock Muchinjo is a Zimbabwean journalist who writes for international news agencies. This interview is excusive to NewZimbabwe.com.


 
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