Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Essa Bakaar Sey, June 25, 2016

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:02 - Introduction, family, schooling

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Partial Transcript: I'm Jack Wilson.

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey was born in Kuntaya, The Gambia in 1963. His father was a teacher of Islam (1965-1996) and his mother a housewife. For them, standards and values, education, and faith were important. He went to primary school, then junior secondary after taking the Common Entrance Exam. He went to a secondary school which was built to educate sons of chiefs, leaders for the future. He is Fulani (Pular is language) and speaks Mandingo and Wolor in the streets, Arabic from the madrasa, and learned English in school. After secondary school in 1982 he taught for a few months as an unqualified teacher, then joined a British organization, Action Aid, for a year and taught primary school and adult literacy, and taught women in gardening. He knew Peace Corps Volunteers by their American and African names. One bought him books and told him he could be good at journalism and diplomacy. He remember the titles of books she gave him. After a year at Action Aid, he joined the army.

Keywords: Action Aid; Arabic; Army; Common Entrance Exam; Fulani; Influence; Koranic Studies; Kuntaya, The Gambia; Mandingo; Peace Corps Volunteers; Wolof

Subjects: Education; Family; Peace Corps

GPS: Kuntaya, North Bank Division, The Gambia
Map Coordinates: 13.486111, -15.93
00:18:18 - Army / Education in French / France

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Partial Transcript: Then, uh, I became a soldier, um, for five consecutive years.

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey served in the Army for five years, became a trainer, worked in motor transport, and did more training in Senegal. He improved his French and so went to a pilot program for teachers of French for an associates degree. He was then chosen to study in France for two years and after he returned he was posted to teach but he applied to work in Foreign Ministry and was selected to be protocol welfare officer.

Keywords: Foreign Ministry.; France; Senegal; Teachers

Subjects: Education

GPS: Senegal
Map Coordinates: 14.666667, -17.416667
GPS: France
Map Coordinates: 47, 2
00:24:16 - Career in Foreign Service and ambassadorships

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Partial Transcript: And then I was there in '93, October is when I joined.

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey joined the Foreign Ministry in 1993 and then went to study diplomacy in Sierra Leone at Institute of Public Affairs for several months. In 1994 there was a coup. He was posted to France as First Secretary, promoted to Consul in 1997, and then posted to New York in 1998 to support The Gambia in its role on UN Security Council. He was then appointed Ambassador to France with accreditation to Russia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Hungary and UNESCO. He then became Ambassador to Taiwan with accreditation to Philippines and Indonesia. In 2002 he became Ambassador to U.S. with accreditation to Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil.

Keywords: Ambassadors; Foreign Ministry; Foreign Service careers; France; Military coup; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Taiwan; The Gambia; UNESCO; United Nations; United States

Subjects: Career training; Coup

GPS: The Gambia
Map Coordinates: 13.466667, -16.6
GPS: Sierra Leone
Map Coordinates: 8.48445, -13.23445
00:32:10 - Family

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Partial Transcript: Uh, you talked about your schooling and your father and your mother.

Segment Synopsis: He talks about his six brothers and three sisters.

Keywords: Brothers; Family; Siblings; Sisters

Subjects: Families.

00:33:35 - Ambassador in U.S. and afterward

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Partial Transcript: So in 2002 you were posted to the U.S. as Ambassador.

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey describes President George W. Bush as a friend who congratulated him when he became a U.S. citizen after he fell out with The Gambian government and stayed in the U.S. He talked about his experience as an Ambassador to the U.S. in 2002-2003, and getting his country included in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act -- "getting his country in the good books." He describes the Neffs who were friends to him when he was Ambassador and afterward when he stayed in the U.S. He became a substitute teacher from 2003-2005 and then was offered a job in Houston for an oil company, but he came to settle in Louisville to take care of his extended family.

Keywords: Africa Growth and Opportunity Act; Daycare; Houston (Tex.); Iftar at the White House; Louisville (Ky.); Mark Neff; President George W. Bush; Texas; U.S. citizens

Subjects: Ambassadorship--American; Friends

GPS: Houston (Tex.)
Map Coordinates: 29.762778, -95.383056
GPS: Louisville (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.225333, -85.741667
GPS: Texas
Map Coordinates: 31, -100
00:48:15 - Sons and wife

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Partial Transcript: So you came to Louisville then when?

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey describes his two sons, the older of which has cerebral palsy, and his wife whom he married in 1991.

Keywords: Children; Immediate family; Sons; Wives

Subjects: Families.

00:52:39 - Jobs in Louisville, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Uh, so you have been in--lived in Kentucky with your family since 2006?

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey describes advice from Mark Neff about jobs. He got a job as a business rep for Walmart from 2006-2007, then a job at Bank of America in the credit card department from 2007-2011, worked with an educational consortium as a test evaluator and substitute teacher too. He is now a contractor with Mid-Atlantic Professionals with a specialty in French for the Defense Department.

Keywords: Bank of America; Careers; Jobs; Languages; Mid Atlantic Professionals; Substitute teachers; Walmart

Subjects: Employment; Louisville (Ky.)

GPS: Louisville (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.225333, -85.741667
00:57:41 - Expectations of the U.S. versus the reality

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Partial Transcript: You, you would have come to the United States, uh, initially in a diplomatic position.

Segment Synopsis: From an outsider's perspective before he came to America, CNN and Hollywood are what people know. Outsiders also see the U.S. as "boss." "The way America succeeds is they are effective lobbyists, not using might and threats." He found that Americans are nice people at the State Department and the White House. He was prepared for the transition from Ambassador to a regular person because of his background, living as student in France, for instance. He had driven his own car, his wife did her own shopping. He talks about extended family he brought here, too.

Keywords: Americans; CNN; Extended family; Hollywood (Calif.); Support base; Transitions

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

GPS: Hollywood (Calif.)
Map Coordinates: 34.1, -118.333333
01:10:59 - Negative experiences

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Partial Transcript: Well, now, you've said a number of obviously very positive things.

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey dealt with students who complained about his accent, and saw people in the media who were ignorant about Africa. He also talks about African-Americans and a positive experience with a policeman. He talks about someone saying "Oh, you are a Muslim."

Keywords: Accents; Ignorance; Muslims; Negative experiences; Prejudice

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Immigrants

01:17:38 - Experiences as a Muslim

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Partial Transcript: Do you, do you feel you've, uh--have been, uh, judged ever negatively because of your religion?

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey describes how he respects another culture without drinking champagne. He describes how police protected a mosque in Washington. He has never faced an insult to his religion.

Keywords: Intolerance; Prejudice

Subjects: Immigrants; Muslims; Religion

01:23:59 - Connections with The Gambia

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Partial Transcript: Y--I, I assume you're still in touch with, uh, family and folks in The Gambia.

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey talks about the role of social media. He talks about possibilities in The Gambia for political and other change.

Keywords: Communication with The Gambia; Facebook; Future in The Gambia; Google; Peace Corps; Where There is No Doctor (book)

Subjects: Gambia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Gambia

GPS: The Gambia
Map Coordinates: 13.466667, -16.6
01:29:46 - Questions people ask about The Gambia

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Partial Transcript: What kinds of questions do people ask you, Americans ask you, about The Gambia?

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey talks about explaining Gambia to someone by referring to "Roots" and Kunta Kinte. He talks about Chinese and Americans asking "Who is the president of Africa?" "Do you have internet in Gambia?" He did not appreciate Americans' generalizations of Ebola to Africans living here. He has to deal with stereotypes of Kentucky as a "redneck state," too.

Keywords: Americans; Ebola; Kunta Kinte; Questions; Rednecks; Roots

Subjects: Immigrants; Stereotypes; The Gambia

GPS: The Gambia
Map Coordinates: 13.466667, -16.6
01:35:11 - His contributions to Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: What do you, what do you think Kentuckians have learned from you?

Segment Synopsis: Essa Bakaar Sey talks about making a contribution by his teaching. He was on a task force that was choosing a new police chief of Louisville and worked with the Office of Globalization. He marched with Mayor Fischer on immigration issues. He appreciates what Louisville schools have done for his children. He uses a proverb to explain that Kentucky "provided both breakfast and lunch to my children."

Keywords: His contributions; Kentucky's contributions; Louisville organizations; Proverbs; Teaching

Subjects: Families.; Immigrants--Kentucky; Louisville (Ky.)

GPS: Louisville (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.225333, -85.741667