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Migration from the Gambia to Germany: An Agency-Oriented Analysis

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

By Corinna Billmaier

Banjul, capital of the Gambia


“The Gambia is a small country with a population of two million people. It is a society where people are open minded, with different kinds of religious and ethnic groups. But it doesn’t make a difference. We are all together and people have a heart for everybody there. We are all one, we see all of us as a family. We have a lot of cultural roots, a lot of history is about migration, like the slave trade.”

This is how Paboy, a 22 year old man who was born and raised in the Gambia and lives in Germany since 2015, describes his country of origin. His description draws a positive image, one of cultural diversity and social solidarity. Nevertheless, he is one of the many Gambians leaving their country for a variety of reasons – economic, political, social and cultural. Estimates of the population living outside of the country range between 4% and 7% (Altrogge, Zanker 2019: 13). In the past years, Germany has become one of the main destinations for Gambian refugees and migrants and by 2017 the Gambian diaspora in Germany officially amounted to 14,000 people (Altrogge 2019). 14,000 individuals who have overcome an often dangerous journey into the unknown, motivated by hopes and dreams of a better future – for themselves and for their families.

The wish for a better life is more nuanced than the terms refugee (fleeing from war or political persecution) or migrant (migrating in search of better economic conditions) convey. In this article I will speak of migrants, as a “neutral” description of people that have left their home country, although the term refugee might also apply. While most Gambians arrive as asylum seekers, not many are recognized as refugees and most are denied asylum. Most are regarded as migrants, who have to return to their home country because they do not require protection. Often, however, the boundaries between these terms are blurry. According to Heaven Crawley and Dimitris Skleparis, these “dominant categories fail to capture adequately the complex relationship between political, social and economic drivers of migration or their shifting significance for individuals over time and space" (Crawley, Skleparis 2018: 48). Of course, people fleeing from war, political or racial oppression or otherwise fearing for their life, should be given protection.

However, the dream of a better life without economic hardship and the chance of expressing themselves personally and professionally is also dreamt by many others, who might not fear for their lives as such, but have no chance for a self-determined life. While for Gambian’s political oppression was real during Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship, this has changed with the democratic elections in 2016. But what happens to those who fled from Jammeh’s dictatorship now that he has been replaced? Just because an official status is changing, does not mean the hopes and dreams, as well as fears and difficulties for the individual are changing. The dream of a better life remains the same while the reality can take turns of either supporting or smashing it. At the same time, migration and mobility changes individuals and societies over time, making a return often problematic, for both the person and the country of origin.

In the following, it will be elucidated how migration leads to an expanding horizon of expectation. Images and stories are travelling with an unprecedented speed, migration routes are established and leaving the country is in the Gambia, as in many other African countries, for the youth often felt as the only way out of social and economic stagnation. Local realities are measured against global ones, and often distorted images of Europe are contributing to a culture of migration. The focus of this article lies on the cultural background of migration from the Gambia to Germany. More specifically, on how the decision by Paboy, a young man from the Gambia, to migrate to Germany was influenced by a “culture of migration” and what role the “horizon of expectation” plays in this. However, to make sense of this, first the political, economic, and social background will be analysed more in detail.

Methodology: Agency-Oriented and Biographical

Paboy’s story, as a member of the Gambian diaspora in Germany, is an interesting case study because it reveals a complex cluster of social, political, economic and cultural dynamics that are at play. This article seeks to investigate the hopes and dreams of contemporary migrants from the Gambia to Germany and the role “the global horizon of expectation” plays in this. By analysing the place migration has in Gambian society it aims to see if the current migrant flow can be embedded in a wider historical tradition of migration in West African countries and if we can speak of a “culture of migration” (Cohen, Sirkeci 2011). The article starts off at a microlevel by interviewing a young migrant from the Gambia and involving him in this collaborative project. Theoretical frameworks, like the concepts of a “culture of migration” and “global horizon of expectation” (Graw, Schielke 2012), are explored and enhanced by confronting them with an individual’s experience. This means that the article is significantly shaped by subjectivity and does not seek to present a universal analysis. Rather, this individualist approach presents a conversation with a young migrant and integrates his voice in the debate on migration that is often shaped by generalizations, numbers and statistics.

With their work “The Global Horizon. Expectations of Migration in Africa and the Middle East” also Schielke, Graw and other authors who contributed propose to look beyond the socioeconomic and political causes of migration – often the prevailing perspectives in public and political discourse. They stress that those “need to be complemented by culturally and historically sensitive accounts shedding more light on the subjective and existential side of the causes and repercussions of these migratory processes” (Graw, Schielke 2012: 9). And further: “We address migration not just as movement but also as processes of imagination and expectation that shape people’s lives and life worlds from the outset, reflecting not just locally constituted imaginaries but increasingly global horizons” (Ibid.). The agency-oriented approach is a way of focussing on the individual and in a way humanize the discourse on migration. As Knut Graw states:

“structural approaches would […] be seen as approaches which identify the economic conditions as efficient cause, while agency-oriented approaches would appear to be viewing the subject itself as the efficient cause of his or her decisions and actions. […] Agency-oriented authors […] would argue that while conditions are of course crucial for under-standing migration, migration cannot be reduced to a simple reaction to economic conditions but involves many more aspects, including prior or existing historical and cultural experiences of migration, culturally specific understandings of selfhood and agency, notions and patterns of intrafamiliar and intergenerational solidarity, social competition within and among social groups and many other aspects, all of which are important in order to understand migration as a social praxis, and in order adequately to describe the way social actors themselves perceive their own decisions and actions” (Graw 2012: 37).

While talking to Paboy, the necessity of this agency-oriented approach became clear. He said: “I have no hope on our presidents at all. The only thing I believe in is that as a human being you don't have to be dependent and wait for the president to make your life what you want it to be. You just have to work by yourself and find it anywhere it could be. But to believe in our African president would be very difficult” (Interview with Paboy, 13.05.20. Further quotes without annotation are extracts from this interview.)

This emphasizes that migrants are not passive persons that are pushed and pulled by certain factors, but rather acting individuals taking their fate in their own hands. Of course, economic and political issues, such as corruption, unemployment, and a lack of perspective for the future play a role here, but they don’t alone cause someone to migrate. Rather, the belief in his own agency and being responsible to improve his life himself was eventually the cause for Paboy to leave. Combined with a biographical writing approach, by Mirjam de Bruijn described as focus on the “itinerary of a single person that quickly becomes a way to disclose a more complex story” (de Bruijn 2017), this article contributes to a more nuanced understanding of migration from the Gambia to Germany. Nevertheless, the political, economic and social background of migration in the Gambia is an integral part of this article, because they significantly impact the culture of migration in the country and cannot be detached. Furthermore, agency and structural approaches should not be seen as detrimental, and often blend into each other. In only explaining Paboy’s decision to migrate on a cultural background, the analysis would fall short of depth. The focus on this article therefore lies on Paboy’s personal, individual motivations and how they relate to the political, economic, social and cultural background of migration in the Gambia.

Historical Overview

As a first entry into the topic it is useful to start off with a historical overview of the Gambia and the wider region. It is telling that the “political history of the Gambia”, published in 2006 by Arnold Hughes and David Perfect, starts in 1816, the moment the British arrived and established the settlement Bathurst, which is nowadays the country’s capital Banjul. It was the beginning of colonial subjugation that would last 140 years and whose repercussions can in some regard be felt up until today. The history of the people living in the region that is now the Gambia already started earlier and was in fact part of the Mali Empire in the 13th to 16th century. During that time the region was already shaped by mobility of different ethnic groups, such as the Mandinka – today Gambia’s largest ethnic group making up 42% of the population – who originated in present-day Mali and migrated to the region along the Gambia river in the 11th and 12th centuries (Kebbeh 2013). From the 15th century onwards, the region became strategic for several European powers, like the Portuguese, French and the British. The latter eventually gained predominance along the river Gambia and in the 17th century the region became an important trading centre for the transatlantic slave trade.

Repercussions and Memory of the Slave Trade

When talking to Paboy, the slave trade and migration came up in the conversation within the first few sentences, without being asked about it. When he described the Gambia, he said: “we have a lot of cultural roots, a lot of history is about migration, like the slave trade.” He said that the history of the slave trade is taught in school, but also privately people are interested and watch documentaries. The novel Roots by Alex Haley, published in 1976 and the subsequent TV series played a key role in the revived interest in the history of the slave trade, especially in the Gambia and the United States. Donald R. Wright writes: “For many around the world it was a book that would interpret and put a human face on the Atlantic slave trade, the experience of the ancestors of twenty-five million United States citizens of African descent, and, at least in early parts of the story, millions more African Americans in the Western Hemisphere” (Wright 2011: 300). Since 1996, the Roots Homecoming Festival is celebrated biannually, which commemorates the transatlantic slave trade and celebrates the connections between the Gambia and the Americas, which were established through the slave trade (Bellagamba 2013: 29). The festival is joyful and is an interesting way of commemorating something negative in a positive, forward looking way. At the same time, it can be seen as a “commodification of nostalgia, [and] a popularization of history” (Olick, Vinitzky, Levy 2011: 4). After all, according to  Alice Bellagamba, the festival was initiated in order to attract African-American tourists to the Gambia (Bellagamba 2013: 29). The following video gives an impression of the festivities, as well as the tourist-oriented motivations of the festival.

Despite the commercial character, the festival and places of memory such as Kunta Kinte Island keep the memory of the slave trade, and therefore the memory of mobility and connectivity, alive. Until 2011 Kunta Kinte Island was called James Island, and it used to be a main shipment centre for enslaved people. Today, it is the site of a museum and UNESCO heritage site.

When asked about the actual impact of the slave trade on the Gambian society, Paboy stated it is limited and doesn’t go beyond commemoration. However, Nathan Nunn’s analysis of the long-term effects of the slave trade – based on data from ship records and various historical documents to assess the number, ethnicity and origin of slaves – led him to the conclusion that 400 years of slave trades in Africa are among the reasons for the weak economic and corrupt political conditions in many parts of contemporary Africa (Nunn 2007). Of course, and also Nunn clarifies this, there is no certain causality and a variety of other reasons play into the underdevelopment of many parts of Africa. However, the “robust negative relationship between the number of slaves exported from a country and current economic performance” (Ibid.: 1) cannot simply be dismissed. According to Nunn, those regions where the most slaves were taken from are today those with the weakest economies and unstable political systems, because the slave trade profited from and therefore enhanced “social and ethnic fragmentation, political instability and a weakening of states, and the corruption of judicial institutions” (Ibid.: 4).

Also, Yahya Jammeh, former autocratic president of the Gambia, didn’t fall short in blaming colonialism and slavery for the Gambia’s weak economic conditions (See Jallow 2017: 28). He has valid points in accusing Britain for not having brought anything to its colonies, and instead used them merely to extract raw materials and labour. However, his blaming of the old colonial power obscures his own enrichment from the Gambia’s taxes and foreign investments. Baba Galleh Jallow, Gambian journalist, writer and keen opponent of Jammeh, wrote in his essay collection on Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship: “Expecting development from colonialism is foolish and Mr. Jammeh would be better advised to stop beating a dead horse and blaming colonialism for the mess that he and other so-called leaders of post-colonial Africa have created and continue to create for their hostage peoples” (Ibid.: 9). Interestingly, Nathan Nunn also sees contemporary African authoritarian and corrupt leaders as a legacy of slavery. He quotes Patrick Manning, who wrote: “Slavery was corruption: it involved theft, bribery, and exercise of brute force as well as ruses. Slavery thus may be seen as one source of precolonial origins for modern corruption” (Nunn 2007: 2). Also the development of leadership as a “personal role, rather than an established office” (Ibid.: 5), and the subsequent lack of democratic structures and the clinging to power can be regarded a consequence of this corruption. Nevertheless, as Baba Galleh Jallow bluntly states: “Africans wanted independence; they got it. It is their responsibility to develop their countries and stop blaming the past” (Jallow 2017: 28). This mindset is reflected in Paboy’s answer, saying that he doesn’t believe the slave trades have much of an impact on the contemporary Gambian society, although historical analyses find correlations.

From Colonial Rule to Independence

The Gambia as a political entity as we know it today was formed by the British who bought the land surrounding the Gambia river from the Portuguese who had taken control of the area before. As Arnold Hughes and David Perfect point out, “modern forms of political activity [in the region started off with] ’Liberated Africans’ or ‘Recaptives’ from Sierra Leone and other locations in West Africa, who themselves, or their immediate forebears, were rescued from slavery by the Royal Navy and settled in Freetown or Bathurst” (Hughes, Perfect 2006: 2). They were Western-educated and by “entering government employment, these individuals came to form a distinct political community” (Ibid.). According to the authors, political power was from the onset elitist and “personalization of power would remain a feature of postcolonial Gambian politics, particularly following the adoption of a republic in 1970” (Ibid.).

The shape of the Gambia is heavily influenced by the eponymous river, and the country’s borders are only around 20 km away from the riverbed on both sides. For the European colonizing powers, as well as for previous local empires and rulers, what is now the Gambia was an important trading region along the Gambia river. For centuries, this area has been shaped by migration and mobility, as well as foreign rule and interests. This continued after independence and the party that emerged as the winner of the first general elections in 1961, the Protectorate People’s Party (subsequently People’s Progressive Party [PPP]), led by Dawda Jawara, kept close ties to the British.

Under Jawara’s rule the country turned slowly into a de facto one-party state but the national outlook of the government held the country together. An attempted coup in 1981 by “disaffected paramilitary policemen” (Ibid.: 3), who teamed-up with Marxist and radical pan-Africanist groups, was countered with military support from Senegal and Jawara remained in power until the successful coup by Yahya Jammeh in 1994. What promised the end of a one-party state turned into a 22 year long oppressive dictatorship, which led many people – among them Paboy – to leave the country. As the authors Niklas Hultin, Baba Jallow, Benjamin N. Lawrence and Assa Sarra point out, “although Jammeh’s seizure of power was justified as an anticorruption effort aimed at a stagnant elite, Jammeh quickly developed a persona as a classic African ‘strongman’ with a paternalistic, patriarchal, and devoutly Islamic identity.” (Hultin et. al. 2017: 321). Political oppression was paired with economic stagnation and corruption and a general process of underdevelopment.

Politics, Economy, Society and Culture: Background of Migration in the Gambia

What combines all factors that are encouraging young people to take the dangerous journey to Europe, is the hope for a better future for themselves and their families. In the previous part, reasons for migration from the Gambia were already touched upon, but in this section, they will be explained more explicitly, and divided into political, economic, social and cultural reasons to leave home into an uncertain future. The focus will be on the last part, the cultural aspects, specifically the “culture of migration” and the “global horizon of expectation” and how these theoretical frameworks relate to Paboy’s situation. But, to get a more complete picture, and because they are all interwoven, the other aspects are important to look at as well. Especially in this agency-oriented approach it is interesting to look closer at how these political, economic and social factors affected Paboy personally.

Political reasons for the emigration of Gambians to neighbouring countries or to other parts of the world, can as already mentioned be found in the repressive rule by Yahya Jammeh. Paboy described the live under Jammeh as

“stressful after he was being in power for so long. He was not thinking about anything but himself. He thought of himself as the king of the country, that we must do whatever he feels like. It was difficult for us that under the dictatorship nobody had any rights. You always had to be mindful of what you are saying. And there weren't many opportunities for young people. The most opportunities were to serve the country as a police officer, soldier or the immigration office or something like that. This put a lot of pressure on all the young Gambians out there. For 22 years this president was in power and there was a lot of hopelessness because people who are going to school and are graduating cannot see any chance of going ahead and doing better. There was only one way: you had to serve him, or you were not part of the country. I did not have a future in the Gambia. I couldn't become anybody by staying in the Gambia in these times. It was the best thing for me to go out and find a better life for me outside, wherever it would be."

Jammeh’s rule was experienced as a time of personal and professional unfreedom, with no room to follow individual dreams and aspirations that would not serve the regime. Disappearances, killing, torture and imprisonment of opposition politicians and journalists were common, homosexuals were criminalized and protesters of the Mandinka ethnic group were threatened, as the Freedom Newspaper reported: “I will send the army to wipe you out and see who is going to talk about it. […]  I will kill you like ants and nothing will come out of it." Through this, he created ethnic tensions that had not been a problem before in the Gambia. Additionally, a lack of stable democratic structures was a political driving force for migration, because this long era of one-party politics, corruption and authoritarian rulers has exhausted young people’s belief in the possibility of democratic change. Paboy expressed this as follows: “The problem is that in Africa most of the presidents are greedy and they are not thinking a lot about their country, but just about feeding themselves and their families. So, for me, this is a problem that will take many, many years before Africa, especially my country, will change because everybody is corrupt.”

He doesn’t only see it as a specific Gambian problem, but rather an African problem. This can serve as an explanation why intra-continental migration is not regarded a solution to escape political unfreedom. Judith Altrogge and Franziska Zanker state that “while in the 1970s, 90% of Gambian migrants only went to neighboring Senegal […], especially since the 1980s inter-continental migration has risen significantly in both numbers and social relevance” (Altrogge, Zanker 2019: 12). Although Paboy sees democratic change with the election of Adama Barrow, he at the same time fears that Barrow will eventually turn into a corrupt leader, only being concerned with his own wellbeing. A first indication is the fact that Barrow already refuses to hold elections after three years, although he had promised at his inauguration to serve only as a transition president. Instead of stepping down in 2020 and enabling new elections, he wants to serve the full five years as president, arguing that this is what the constitution prescribes. According to the Guardian, Barrow’s adviser Seedy Njie said in 2019: “When they made this agreement, there were a lot of politicians around him who were misguiding him. When he assumed office […] he looked at the laws and he realized that he was elected to serve a period of five years.” For Paboy, however, Barrow’s clinging to power has another reason: “The more they sit on this place of power, the more they want to stay because they see the money coming in. This is a big, big, big, big problem and things don’t change, because everybody that gets to power forgets their people. This is very problematic, and I think Africa will be like this forever. I have no hope on our presidents at all.”

In Gambia, Barrow’s decision led to widespread protests but were shut down with police force. According to the same Guardian article, Amnesty International stated: “There have been some significant improvements in the country’s human rights record since President Adama Barrow came to power, but the use of excessive force by security forces to disperse protesters risks fuelling tensions and steering the Gambia back to dark days of repression." Furthermore, radio stations run by protesters were shut down, which raises worries  about the freedom of speech and the media. The country is still divided along political lines and it is important to note that Jammeh’s loss in the 2016 elections was only marginal with 45,5% for Barrow and 36,7% for Jammeh (see this BBC article). Barrow’s coalition government on the other hand consists of a variety of parties, which might be united against the old regime, but divided along policies concerning the future.

Economic reasons for mainly young people to leave their country are lacking perspectives due to the weak and insecure economic situation and high unemployment rates. The cause for this is a combination of exploitative domestic and foreign interests. Corruption among political elites in the Gambia was common under Jawara as well as Jammeh. According to Dirk Kohnert, external forces like the European Union share a responsibility for this situation as well: “The European Union shares dual responsibility for the continuing migration pressure: First, because they fostered over decades corrupt and autocratic regimes with dire disregard for principles of "good governance". The aftermath of these regimes is still to be felt today and constitutes one of the underlying factors for politically motivated migration. Secondly, the EU contributed to Africa's growing economic misery, due to the damaging effects of European selfish external trade policy" (Kohnert 2007: 1).

According to a survey in 2018, 18% percent of Gambian migrants arriving in Germany were unemployed prior to their departure (Altrogge 2019: 20). However, it its questionable how much this actually tells us about their employment situation. As Judith Altrogge rightly points out, prior to departure the migrating person needs to save a lot of money and might therefore have a job, or several, but only in order to save up for the journey. The survey doesn’t tell anything more about the conditions and the perspective of employment. But a youth unemployment rate of 41,5% (Altrogge, Zanker 2019: 17) speaks for itself in showing that this is a driving force in the decision to leave their country.

What often appears as an economic factor are remittances. According to Knut Graw and Samuli Schielke “houses, not boats, have become the symbol of migration in the so-called sending countries, and in fact more than a symbol: they incorporate the very social effects of migration" (Graw, Schielke 2012: 8). 15,5% of the country’s GNI are remittances from the diaspora which therefore play a considerable role for the local economy and society. In some cases, the migration of a family member, mostly young and male, is a decision made by the whole family. Studies which emphasize this as a factor for migration is what J. Edward Taylor describes as “’developmentalist’ extreme, associated with the new economics of labour migration (NELM). It argues that: migration decisions are part of family strategies to raise income, obtain funds to invest in new activities, and insure against income and production risks" (Taylor 1999: 64). The other extreme “argues that lucrative migration activities drain migrant sending areas of their labour and capital, crowding out local production of tradable goods” (Ibid.), by others described as “brain drain”. According to Castles, Miller, and de Haas, “'migration pessimists', […] argue that migration undermines development through draining origin countries of their scarce human and financial resources" (Castles et. al. 2015: 69). Also, for people in the receiving countries this is often used as an argument against migration and it is asked why these young, healthy men are coming to Europe instead of using their abilities in their countries of origin, helping their own economy. Although remittances certainly play a role for migrants from the Gambia and for the economy as a whole, it became clear in the conversation with Paboy that in his case it was not a family decision. On the contrary, he says that his father, a police officer, would have never allowed him on such a journey. When asked what role his family played in his decision to leave the Gambia Paboy said: “My family didn't know about it. I just planned my things and only until I was away I called my dad and told him that I had left the country. I told him that I'm going to find where my destiny is. That I would try and work hard until one day I feel like I'm ready to come back home. When I called they told me to come back. But I said no, I have already started the journey and have come too far already. I will just go until I have to stop but I am not yet coming back.”

The fact that this aspect was not the primary reason for Paboy to leave the Gambia, shows the importance of looking at individual life stories of migrants and their diverse motivations in understanding migration developments. In Germany and the Netherlands, Sub-Saharan migrants are often referred to as “economic migrants” (Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge) or “luck seekers (gelukzoekers), because the discourse is focused on the economic aspect. This leads to stereotypes which regard these young men simply as being concerned with the economic benefits that they can profit from in a western welfare state. Political reasons to migrate, such as oppression or war, are seen as the only legitimate reason to apply for asylum in the West. This is why an agency-oriented approach, focussing on social, cultural and individual motivations behind the decision to move, should be regarded an essential aspect in the discourse on migration. For Paboy – being 17 years old at the time he made the decision, took the initiative, and did the planning of his journey without the help and support of his family – it took courage and commitment, as well as resilience to go on this kind of journey into the unknown and survive situations which most Europeans cannot even imagine.

Social reasons

At the intersection of sociocultural and socioeconomic driving forces, we can identify a phenomenon that partly explains the fact that most migrants from West Africa to Europe are young men. One part is that the conditions on the journey are often extremely difficult and dangerous, as the conversation with Paboy revealed. For a detailed description see Yimer 2013, who has gone through very similar situations. A second explanation can be found in "waithood". Alcinda Honwana describes this “waiting for adulthood” as “a period of suspension between childhood and adulthood, in which young people’s access to adulthood is delayed or denied" (Honwana 2014: 1). In the conversation with Paboy it became apparent that in his society, as in many others around the globe, the wish of young people to find a meaningful job and be able to financially take care of themselves and their aging parents is crucial in gaining maturity. He said: “When we were kids, our parents took care of us until we are grown up. So, when we grow up, we have to pay back our parents. When they get older, they don‘t have much energy anymore to take care of themselves. So it's not something you are forced to do, but we have this belief that, when we are old enough to work, we always have to help our parents, no matter what, no matter how rich they are. And we, as children, have to help our children again.” This shows a deep commitment and feeling of responsibility to support his family, which was not possible while being in the Gambia, because there “you feel like you have to do something, but you just don't get a chance.” For Paboy, Europe was not the initial destination, but rather any other place where he would be able to earn money and overcome this period of waithood. He said, from the moment he got a job in Senegal:

“you'll feel mature because you got a little money you send for your parents or your people. That's a blessing for you, because you can be proud of yourself, that you are able to help some people. That gives you more maturity and more knowledge about yourself, and how life is and what things your parents have gone through to have kids. Now, I feel like I am getting to another level in life. In Gambia you were sitting there, and people from Europe were giving out food.  Now, I feel like I can give something back. That plays a big role in getting mature.”

What adds to the social background of Paboy’s decision to leave the Gambia, only came apparent in the conversation and is something easily overlooked when individual life stories are not really involved. When he was asked if Jammeh’s dictatorship was the main reason for him to leave the Gambia, he stated that this was only half of the reason. The other part, he says, were personal reasons like his unwillingness to live in a very traditional and religious society that put a lot of social pressure on its people.

Paboy said: “you have to follow this traditional culture, and most of the time you don't have a lot of liberty. You have to live in a society where you cannot drink if you want to drink, for example. You have to hide, you know. You don't have much freedom, freedom or authority over yourself. Everything is against this, anything you do is against that... Those are things, that were part of why I left. Most of the population is Islamic and so people are seeing you as a bad person, somebody who is out of his sense. So, these rules weren’t made by the government, but that was just part of the religious society.”

Tight social control and personal unfreedom, paired with political oppression and economic stagnation, motivated him to leave the country and seek a better, freer life. For young people who want to break out of this traditional society, moving to another country is often the only way.

Cultural Reasons

All these political, economic, and social reasons are playing into something some authors have called a “culture of migration" (See J. Cohen, Sirkeci 2011; R. Cohen, Jónsson 2011; Hahn, Klute 2007). These studies are not bound to the African continent and involve global patterns of migration. Jeffrey H. Cohen and Ibrahim Sirkeci regard the culture of migration as identifying “the abilities, limits, and needs of the mover as well as, importantly, the cultural traditions and social practices that frame those abilities and limitations through time” (Cohen, Sirkeci 2011: 13). In the case of the Gambia, the culture of migration is understood in this article twofold: once, in a sense that migration is regarded a part of Gambian culture, due to a tradition of migration in the region. Secondly, culture of migration can be understood in a more dynamic way. Culture of migration in this sense is not understood as “tradition”, but rather, to borrow Gunvor Johnsson and Robin Cohens words, as the “considerable intensification, in certain settings, of dispositions and predilections that favour migration as a solution to social stasis, unemployment and relative deprivation" (Cohen, Jonsson 2011: 1). To clarify this ambiguity, it is helpful to look at how culture itself can be understood. There is no definite answer to this but Gunvor Johnsson and Robin Cohen give some elucidating insights into this in their introductory chapter about cultures of migration. According to them, one understanding of culture is that of “particular features of a society" (Ibid.). Based on this, Adam Kuper defined the term culture as “essentially a matter of ideas and values, a collective case of mind" (Ibid.: 4). To answer the question of this article – how Paboy’s decision to migrate to Germany was influenced by a “culture of migration” – both the “culture as tradition” and the “culture as a set of ideas” are important to look at.

“Culture as Tradition”

The Gambia has always been shaped by migration and mobility before it was even a political entity. According to Emmanuel Akyeampong, “the exigencies of global capitalism have sucked Africans into a global labour market for the past five centuries" (Akyeampong 2000: 186). Slave trades (within Africa, to the Americas and to Asia), trading and travelling networks on the continent and migration to Europe (as students, workers or soldiers), but also the repatriation of freed slaves to settlements like Libera or Bathurst (Banjul) are just few forms of mobility that connected West Africa to the rest of the continent and other parts of the world (Ibid.). Although a large part of the population of Africa was still immobile or forced into migration, Akyeampong describes the mere presence of mobility over the centuries as “migrant traditions [that] have extended into the colonial and post-colonial periods" (Ibid.: 193). Also, Georg Klute and Hans Peter Hahn state in their work “Cultures of Migration. African Perspectives” that “mobility and movement of people are since long part and parcel of the African reality" (Klute, Hahn 2011: 11). Aderanti Adepoju even goes so far as to say that “Migration is a way of life in West Africa" (Adepoju 2003: 37).

Regional mobility is institutionalized through ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, and visa-free migration between its member states is common and leads to cross-border employment from the Gambia to and from Senegal and other ECOWAS countries. Their “Common Approach to Migration”(PDF), adopted at the 33rd 3ordinary Session of the Head of State and Government Ouagadougou, on January 18th, 2008 states that “Free movement of persons within the ECOWAS zone is one of the fundamental priorities of the integration policy of ECOWAS Member States. Mobility with the ECOWAS zone is a vital component of regional integration, which is itself a prerequisite for the West African economy’s successful integration into the globalisation process.” According to Aderanti Adepoju “the ultimate goal [is] the creation of a borderless West Africa” (Adepoju 2003: 40). However, Knut Graw’s argues against the tendency to “normalize” or “naturalize” migration, “that is the tendency to describe and characterize migration, by reference to either historical precedent or the wide range of migration processes in a multitude of sociogeographic contexts today, as that which is the norm in human behaviour, not its exception" (Graw 2012: 24). According to him, this depoliticizes migration, although it always needs to be regarded a political issue why people move, and not a “normal part of human nature" (Ibid.). Also Cohen and Johnsson suggest that “migration aspirations of young people today are very much products of our times and not just replica of the ideas and values of previous generations" (R. Cohen, Johnsson 2011:  xxv ) Interestingly, this got confirmed by Paboy, when he was asked whether migration is part of the culture and a tradition in the Gambia. He said: “No, migration was never an issue in Gambia. It all started with the dictatorship of president Jammeh. Only then it became common to leave Gambia. Before that there was not much migration. It was only in this stressful moment in Jammeh's time that migration became common. But it was never a cultural or a historical thing about Gambia.”

To make sense of this statement by Paboy, despite several historians claiming a “culture of migration” in the Gambia and the wider region, based on established forms of mobility and migration to and from the region, it is important to look at the difference in understanding between mobility and migration. Paboy agrees that mobility certainly plays a role and is present in the society. In this regard, cross-border migration for a limited amount of time with the eventual goal to return to the Gambia is understood as mobility, rather than migration: “Some Gambians leave the country for like one, two, three, four years, and then end up coming back to the Gambia. And there are Gambians living and working in Senegal and there are Senegalese people who are living in Gambia and working there.” Migration, on the other hand, is understood by Paboy as people who “leave their country and go to another place to make a better life” permanently, like he did and this is in line with th official understanding of migration of the U.N. as "movement from point A to point B for at least 12 months" (See Cohen, Sirkeci 2011: 7). Paboy points out again, that it “was only during Jammeh's rule that people who are desperate leave the country and look for a better future.” So, when understanding “culture as tradition”, we can conclude that Paboy’s decision was not actively influenced by a culture of migration, but rather by the presence and possibility of mobility. This corresponds to Cohen and Sirkeci’s suggestion, that migration studies should move away from the term migration to mobility, which is a more “dynamic term that emphasizes the changing, floating, fluid nature of this phenomenon and captures the regular as well as irregular moves of people on the ground regardless of time or destination" (Ibid.).

“Culture as a Set of Ideas”

When culture is understood as a set of ideas, or as Jorgen Carling and Lisa Akesson have called in the the Cape Verdean case, a “’migration ideology’ [referred to as] a set of ideas that associate migration with specific meanings and causalities” (Akesson, Carling 2009: 123) the influence on Paboy’s decision becomes more apparent. Migration and mobility are here no longer grounded in a historical tradition, but rather defined by contemporary conditions and turned “into something that is both necessary and natural" (Ibid.: 124). Culture of migration in the sense of culture as a set of ideas and possibilities, also became overt in the following statement by Paboy: “I was planning my departure for six to seven months. In those times we were hearing a lot that one of our friends just went to Libya or somewhere like that. Many people were leaving, and everybody was trying to make it, to find a way to leave the country. If you are just sitting around and you hear about this, it motivates you. Thinking about your friend that made it and left the country and now he's free. Why should I not do the same thing? Then you start planning it little by little until you have a good plan and then you start your journey.” Seen from the perspective of migration as the only way out of a life defined and controlled by traditional social rules, economic stagnation, and political unfreedom, the fact that an increasing number of people are looking beyond the continent as a destination is not surprising. Especially since the opportunities and conditions in neighbouring countries often do not have a great outlook either, and young people’s horizons of expectations are increasingly shaped by a global flow of people, stories and images.

“Global Horizon of Expectation”

The global horizon of expectation can be regarded as part of this second meaning of a culture of migration as a set of ideas and possibilities. According to Knut Graw and Samuli Schielke, the omnipresence of migration in many sub-Saharan societies of origin leads to a growing horizon of expectation with a global dimension. Migration is no longer only a possibility, “but more often felt as an almost inevitable necessity" (Graw, Schielke 2012: 8). The foregoing statement by Paboy confirms this. While the authors focus on remittances and the increasing number of houses built from money from relatives abroad, in Paboy’s case leaving his home country was the only way to live a self-determined life, economically, politically and socially, and therefore felt like an “inevitable necessity.” Paboy didn’t plan to come to Germany from the beginning on, and rather went “step by step”, through Senegal, Mali, Libya and Italy, looking for opportunities in each of these countries and moving on after realizing that they weren’t much better, or even worse, than in the Gambia. The knowledge of freedom and democracy in Europe kept him motivated to move on and to overcome every challenge along the way, especially Libya which he described as the “the craziest and toughest part of all.” He said:

“Most people, especially the youth, see on TV that there is democracy in Europe, and you can just feel free. You can be yourself in Europe, nobody is controlling you and there is a far better chance of making your future good and living the life that you want to live. You can work and earn your own money, start to build something yourself. These were the things that people were seeing. There are more chances here [in Europe] than in the Gambia or in any part of Africa where you can't be anyone, where you can't find happiness, where you are not able to work, or there is just one type of work: being a soldier or with the police.”

Although it was initially not his goal to reach Europe, knowing about the fact that there a free life is possible is grounded in a “global horizon of expectation.” According to Samuli Schielke and Knut Graw, “local worlds are increasingly measured against a set of possibilities the referents of which are global" (Ibid.: 12). Due to the contemporary global interconnectedness and digital technology, images, stories and goods reach almost all parts of the world, presenting young people with the chance of a free life elsewhere. The omnipresence of migration as a possibility to improve one’s life paired with positive images and stories of life in other places of the world is what Jesper Bjarensen describes as “mobile livelihoods.” According to him, this “may be seen to encompass more than merely wage labour and include the broader socially and culturally embedded project of creating a meaningful life, or what Lisa Åkesson (2004) has called life-making. ‘People say that the meaning of their migration project is to […] ‘make a life’, Akesson explains. ‘Life-making is associated with livelihood, but it also signifies the transformation of an unfulfilling life into a potentially fulfilled one. The desire to migrate and make a life is therefore intimately connected with local notions of what constitutes a good life’ (Åkesson 2004:22)" (Bjarnesen 2009: 120). For younger generations, however, these local notions of what constitutes a good life are increasingly influenced by global ones. While older generations saw a traditional, religious life as a good life, the youth of the Gambia has different priorities. A free, self-determined and independent life is what they desire, and leaving the country is for them the only way to actively improve their lives. This is also described by Alcinda Honwana, who sees waithood not as passively “waiting, and hoping that their situation will change of its own accord. On the contrary, they are proactively engaged in serious efforts to create new forms of being and interacting with society" (Honwana 2014: 3). Migration, hereby, was for Paboy, as for many others, an act of determining their future, not waiting for someone – may it be the government or NGO’S – to improve their lives. Of course, the images and stories that reach the Gambia are often distorted. Paboy said:

“People in Gambia, or generally in Africa, believe that in Europe, everything is just easy. You just come and find everything easily. And that you can just do whatever you feel like doing. That’s the mentality of most African youth. We have this saying that in Europe, even when you sleep money is falling on top of you. They feel that it is only here in Germany that you can make a better life.”

Obviously, most people don’t take the saying literal, but it can be regarded as a metaphor for the welfare state. That the financial aid for jobless people in Europe also often means barely being able to live a life in dignity and is connected to sanctions and duties, as well as nationalities, is the other side of the coin which doesn’t reach young people in the Gambia, just like all the other negative aspects of the whole process of migration and integration. Paboy says that he tells an authentic story of life in Germany and his journey to people back home. He said:

“I tell them the positive and negative parts. I tell them that Germany is a nice country, but also that if you come here you have to do something so you can see changes. It’s not like, you come to Germany and you will have money, a car and a house immediately. It takes time before to come up with something. And of course, people's experiences are different. Some people come and it’s all so easy and they don't encounter many difficulties. I tell you, maybe you could be lucky and be one of those guys.”

Although making clear that it is not always easy, he conveys hope and emphasizes the positive aspects. He also said, that even if he told all the negative aspects to those who are still in the Gambia, they might not believe him.

“When my cousin told me, he wanted to go to Libya I told him how the journey was and if I were him, I'd stay at home. But most people don't listen to that. They think, you did it and so they can do it as well. You don't believe what people are telling it until you see it yourself. Sometimes you are telling something to people and they just think you don't want them to come to this place. They think: ‘If he survived, I can also survive.’ That's the kind of thinking in Africa. Those people you cannot stop from coming. The moment they hear that you made it, they will try to make it themselves.”

This is clearly what Graw and Schielke describe as “the changing horizon of expectations that makes migration such a compelling path to so many people despite its well-known risks and adversities" (Graw, Schielke 2012: 9). While globalization is in many regards experienced as something positive, especially for privileged Europeans, the global connectivity of images, goods, and people remains a one-way-street for many young people in Africa for which globalization is rather felt in its absence. The public discourse in Europe, shaped by the “myth of invasion” (de Haas 2009) is therefore a grave distortion of reality as well, because life for most people in Africa is still immobile. Alcinda Honwana this “represents the contradictions of modernity, in which young people’s expectations are simultaneously raised  - by the new technologies of information and communication that connect them to global cultures - and constrained by the limited prospects and opportunities in their daily lives" (Honwana 2014: 4).

To return to the second part of the research question of this article – whether Paboy’s decision was influenced by this “global horizon of expectation” – we can conclude that this certainly was the case. For him, the horizon – by Graw and Schielke described as referring “not only to what is actually visible but to what is familiar, known, and imaginable for a person”(Graw, Schielke 2012: 14) – was constantly expanding. Growing up, he heard people were working in Libya which was by many described as “a very nice country.” Paboy said:

“That motivates people, and we are not even thinking about going to Europe, we were just thinking about going to Libya and going to work in Libya. But then I went to Libya and found something very different. Very negative things that I didn't expect. Then I wasn’t thinking of staying in Libya any longer, and just wanted to go. And Libya is very close to Italy and Italy is in Europe. So I just thought of trying my chance there."

Paboy also mentioned that he feels like things are changing. Many might realize that the idealized global horizon against which their expectations have long been measured, is changing from a dream into a nightmare. Paboy said: “More people are starting to realize that it is not so easy. And now many young people are staying in the Gambia.” The idealized image of a free Europe is turning into the known fact of a “Fortress Europe”, through tightened immigration policies and border regimes to keep out unwanted migrants. Deals with the Libyan authorities and increasing criminalization of migration, lead to an inhumane treatment of migrants. When asked if Paboy would go on his journey again if he knew what laid ahead of him, he said, he would rather become a criminal in the Gambia, than going through these situations he survived along the journey again.


Talking to Paboy has shown the importance of including the voices of migrants in the public and political debates as the only way of finding solutions. Without looking at personal aspirations and individual hopes, the discourse on migration in the media as well as migration theories in academia remain shallow. An empathetic and agency-oriented approach, although subjective, can give a more nuanced perspective. On the other hand, structural issues need to be included as well, and the combination of a structural approach, paired with the focus on individual agency can help us understand the deeper cultural and personal background of migration. The conversation has shown that globalization and mobility is a process which might not have a positive outcome for everybody but raises hopes especially for young people for which migration becomes almost a necessity. The horizon of expectation is increasingly expanded but slowly loses its idealized character. However, as Paboy has also clearly stated, for many the hope for a better future is too strong to be held back by warnings of those who have barely survived the conditions along the way. The culture of migration, even if its understanding as a tradition does not necessarily apply to Paboy, still played a role because it constitutes set of ideas which presents migration and mobility as the only way out of social and economic stasis, and personal unfreedom. To conclude, Paboy said:

"In Germany, I feel like I can fulfil my dreams to work and learn. My ambition is to become a doctor and right now, I am a geriatric nurse and I will continue with that in an apprenticeship to become a professional. Then I would like to study medicine. Of course, even in Germany there are strict things, and I am not 100 percent free. But I travel all over Germany, I can go to the city, I can go outside. Sometimes, there are police controls, but when they look at my ID, they tell me it’s all good. So, I feel like I'm free, I can do whatever I want, I can go out, I can say whatever I feel like saying."



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