Editor’s Note: Fatou Jaw Manneh is a Gambian political commentator, human rights activist and former journalist. She is a fellow of the Renew Democracy Initiative’s Frontlines of Freedom project. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When I was a child in Gambia, my brother Pa Ousman and I would talk about what we’d do when we grew up. Our answer was always the same: we would go to America, the land of opportunity.
We lived in a rural village about an hour’s drive from Banjul, the capital, and had limited access to many educational opportunities. The few we did have gave us an advantage over our parents, who could not read or write – or even speak English. While our father was deeply suspicious of traditional schooling – calling it a construct of the White man – our mother quietly supported our efforts to get educated and broaden our horizons.
But even as we learned in primary and high school, we knew we were still disadvantaged. We did not have access to college or university-level education, and good-paying jobs were scarce. The best positions went to those most connected to the men already in power.
In contrast, America was a symbol of progress and mobility. And American pop culture only reinforced our idealized notion of the US. Gambians all listened to American music – be it Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey – and we followed American fashion trends closely. We knew the names of most American actors and routinely argue over our favorites. Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris remain two of the most popular.
Based on the American media personalities we came to know, we thought of Americans as some of the most empowered people on earth. If they willed it, they could reach any educational or professional heights.
America also looked massive and diverse. Each state seemed like its own country – and yet American democracy appeared to somehow hold all of them together. We did not care about Democrats or Republicans or their political squabbles – we only cared that American democracy seemed to bring peace, wealth and independence. And, more to the point, we believed that wherever there was trouble in the world, America would take the lead in addressing it.
While our impression of America led my brother and I to dream of moving there, it also led us to imagine a better future for Gambia. I did not yet know the fragility of America’s own democracy. But I did know that it was better than what was passing as freedom in my country, and I hoped we could replicate the model.
After Gambia became a republic in 1970, Sir Dawda Jawara took over as the president – but with no apparent intention of ever stepping down. Though our country experienced some freedom under Jawara, it was also plagued by corruption and high rates of poverty.
I knew we did not have to live this way. America proved that citizens can play a role in choosing their own destiny, and so I started writing as an activist and then as a journalist – demanding more of our government in each column I filed.
I continued to write for Gambian newspapers, when, in 1992, I left for the US to join my husband who was finishing his schooling in Kentucky. Two years later, while I was still in America, Jawara was overthrown in a coup and Yahya Jammeh, a military official, replaced him.
Under Jammeh, the free press was destroyed. My publisher in Gambia was arrested and deported to his native country of Liberia, and I lost a powerful platform I had used to share my ideas with the Gambian people.
Even from a different continent, I still published reports uncovering the abuses of the Jammeh regime. And yet, despite my distance from Gambia, Jammeh still considered my writing a threat to his rule. When my father died at the end of 2006, I returned to Gambia and was arrested upon arrival.
After a year and a half of trials, detainment and a conviction for “sedition,” I was offered an ultimatum – pay $12,000 in fines in two and a half-hours, or serve four years in prison with hard labor. I managed to raise enough to pay the fine and escaped Gambia, returning to America without ever properly mourning the loss of my father.
By then, I’d already learned of America’s faults: the mass shootings, social inequality and daily struggle against racism. I also saw how the average American did not know the country’s immigrant history, and I could not believe how common nativism was becoming. Simply put, I saw the cracks in American society, and as an African immigrant who had believed in the American dream, it was a difficult reality to accept.
But for all the country’s systemic problems, America was still everything to Gambians dreaming of freedom and prosperity. American democracy wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough. In America, I was free to keep writing about Gambia – a choice I did not have at home.
When I returned to Gambia in 2017, I thought democracy might just have a fighting chance. Jammeh lost the 2016 election, and his replacement, Adama Barrow, appeared more respectful toward individual freedoms.
However, in recent weeks, Barrow has formed an alliance with the ex-dictator, casting doubt on his commitment to the Gambian struggle for democracy. Facing the prospect of a tough reelection, Barrow opted to reach out to the very leader Gambians like me had spent more than two decades fighting.
But Gambia isn’t the only country struggling with democracy. Now I’m watching with terror as American democracy falters, and I fear too many missteps could imperil global democracy, too.
When prominent Americans – like former President Donald Trump – falsely call the 2020 presidential election stolen and undermine American faith in the integrity of future elections, it hurts young democracies in Africa, which are working to build election frameworks that their citizens can believe in. When American citizens attack their Capitol building, it proves that even in democracy, there can be chaos – and that helps dictators make the case that only they can secure law and order.
The image of America declines every day in many parts of Africa – and around the world. It’s disappointing, it’s scary and, to be frank, it’s crushing our hopes.
Too many Americans who respect democracy believe that the country is so flawed it doesn’t deserve to lead by example. They believe that for all the country’s mistakes and injustices, it’s time for some other country or some high ideal to replace America as the symbol of democracy around the world. It’s not so simple.
Of course, Americans are right to examine their failures and demand more of their country, but they can’t ignore their obligation to foreigners living under oppressive governments everywhere. It wasn’t just American influence that made me demand better from the Gambian government – it was knowing that America was there that made me believe that I could succeed.
I know that Americans today did not ask for this responsibility. But now that they have it, they must honor it. The symbol of American democracy is still the most potent global force for freedom, and without it, the world – including my home country – faces a dark future.