The British reaction to the Gambia’s ‘Argos’ president: don’t get above your station

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On Friday 2 December, the small west African nation of the Gambia gave the world some hope which, in 2016, has often been in short supply. Election results announced that day revealed a shock win for Adama Barrow, bringing to an end the 22-year rule of president Yahya Jammeh, a man who once said he was prepared to rule for a billion years.

History-making aside, what seems to fascinate the UK press most is the fact that the president-elect once worked as a security guard at Argos, a British retailer. On the surface this interesting titbit further heightens the sense of Barrow’s rise from obscurity. But because what was essentially a student job (Barrow worked at Argos while studying) has dominated headlines from the Daily Mail to the Independent, an underlying condescension has become more apparent to me.

In a country that spouts all the rhetoric about social mobility and meritocracy, the incredulous headlines of the media elite (80% of the UK’s editors were privately educated) belies just how little they think it possible for people to actually move beyond their station. It reveals how much we judge competence based on status, and how much status is defined purely by what job one has. The Mail might as well have put an “astonished face” emoji at the end of its headline: “Former Argos security guard from London estate defeats African dictator to become PRESIDENT of Gambia”.

In a society like ours that seems to live by the dictum “I have more, therefore I am more”, Barrow’s job as a security guard suggests to us, if we’re honest, that he didn’t have much so we never expected him to become much. But something else that these headlines reveal is just how little the UK press – and by extension, the British public – understand immigrants to this country.

As the Syrian refugee crisis grows, we occasionally hear stories of engineers working as mechanics in their host countries, but this mismatch of qualifications and opportunity is also true for many migrants arriving from across Africa.

Many come in search of opportunities to better themselves and provide for their families, but arrive to discover that for a host of reasons (not least the colour of their skin or their accent) they cannot find work that reflects their skillset. So they take whatever work they can get and begin to slowly but steadily set up better lives for themselves back home.

As well as paying school fees and medical bills, African remittances are opening businesses and investing in small infrastructure projects. But as the conversation about immigration in the UK and elsewhere becomes increasingly toxic, what is almost never acknowledged is that, for many, if the immigration system acted less like a holding pen (once you’re in, you can’t get out) and more like a revolving door, many more migrants would leave.

At the moment for those who spend sometimes up to a decade waiting for their status to be confirmed or clarified, leaving the UK would mean risk losing everything you’ve built here, as re-entry would almost certainly be refused.

Little understood is also the ambition of many African migrants, particularly those who come to the UK to study. Visit any university campus that has African students and ask them what they want to do after graduation. Many will speak of hitching their wagon to the corporate gravy train (nothing pleases an African parent more than the words lawyer, banker, doctor or accountant), but others harbour political ambition. They might clean offices while the rest of us sleep or stack shelves in Tesco, but they dream of being defined by more than what they are currently doing.

Barrow’s presidency might not live up to the hope of its infancy, but what is clear is that it’s a hope that feels foreign in Britain in 2016. Our shock at his appointment says little about what is happening in Gambia and so much about what is happening here: we have built a system where all the resources and networks reside with a few, and they speak to us of aspiration and hard work; of buying our way into the illusion of being just like them, while disparaging and dismissing the places where people have to start to sometimes get to the top.

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