Navigating complexity and contradiction: an interview with a Gambian businessman in Istanbul

By Helen Mackreath

Jahara Import-Export business is located in a Beyazit warehouse composed of roughly one hundred businesses, of which around ten are run by, or employ majority of, African workers from Senegal and Gambia. It is owned by Mehmud Kebbeh, a Gambian man who identifies as a migrant and a business-man.

I first met Mehmud as an interlocutor for a separate research project. As a British researcher our initial conversation encompassed discussions of some of his time spent in London and the relationship between our two countries, including the legacies of colonialism, as well as respective feelings about our “foreigner” status in Turkey. I spoke to him further to understand more about the warehouse as a space of transit, of multiple criss-crossing identities across nationality, class, gender, religion. Our conversation indicated multiple ways in which he navigates the overlaps between his business, religious and national identities; the importance of his import-export space as a social setting where migrants shed restrictive identifiers and share commonalities; and the multiple areas of hierarchy, exchange and isolation within the Gambian and Senegalese communities.

Interviewer: Why did you, and the people who work for you, come to Turkey?

Mehmud: There is a force which is taking people out of their countries and pulling them to another country. They don’t have alternatives in their own country, so they have to take any kind of alternative they can get here. Most of them are taking care of their family in one way.

It’s easier to come to Turkey than other countries. I came here because I got a scholarship here. There are many scholarships between Turkey and different African countries, especially the Islamic countries.

What was your perception of Turkey before you came?

I was expecting there to be more…Arabs. I had an idea of Arab Orientalism.

When I first received my scholarship in Gambia, I felt nervous about going away, outside my comfort zone, I thought people would look at me and insult me.

When I finished my university here I wasn’t very comfortable, I started working with a Turkish company but I was feeling useless. I thought “Let me do something for myself.” Now I’m helping some of the people who are near me. I feel more comfortable.

When did you set up your business?

I’ve run this business since 2015. It’s both difficult and easy to run a business in Turkey. You have to hit them in the right spot. Either you make it or you won’t. One day I will have a Holding Company in Turkey.

I’m interested in Gambian politics. But I also want to know where my resources are coming from. I don’t want to depend on the Gambian government, it’s very easy for them to catch you along the lines of corruption. I want to be able to say “This is my own money, this is where my money is coming from.”

How does your import-export business work?

If you have goods you want to sell, you put them on your facebook page and if someone wants to buy them we pack them and send them. You don’t have to work a 7am-7pm working shift, and you can take still care of your needs.

I send to most of the African countries, sometimes to America, to Argentina.

If someone raises a little bit of capital they can send more goods to Senegal, get some money back, then buy something to send again. I might speak to someone in Gambia and they say “I’m doing my business and I need to find my goods from China”. I’ll tell them – “If they can make it here cheaper, then why go to China? From here you can have your container shipment in 25 days and from China it’s 40 days.”

I’ll take that person around the market. They’ll go to factories where they manufacture things, and from there they’ll choose what products to sell. Businessmen will come from Senegal and Gambia. They fill containers for nothing less than $25,000. If you buy electronics from here, for a full container here it’s $25,000.

Turkish goods aren’t cheaper than China. But there’s a difference in quality. And there’s always confusion in China. There’s a trust issue. In China you can’t say “I want this, I want that, here’s my money, load these goods to send them to Africa.” You have to be there and supervise everything. Here there is a kind of trust. You just give them your money and they will send the goods for you.

How many people work for you?

I have two workers. One guy who arranges the packet, makes the calls, controls the content, makes sure there’s no perfume or liquids, makes sure it’s properly packaged. Then there’s the porter – he doesn’t just work for me but anyone who has luggage.

Most of them are only employed in this business. Compared to the basic salary in Turkey, it’s a good job.

What are the gender dynamics like?

There are more men than women. The women sell food. Some of them want to do the same business – they want to be selling back home and then when the money comes they sell again. Some of the women bring materials from Africa to Turkey, if you have materials to deliver they will deliver to a specific address in Turkey.

What are the workers lives like outside the workplace?

Internet. Videocalling. Whatsapp, They’re calling their parents or their wives. There’s not a big social scene. Most of them have Senegalese TVs in their houses. So they’re here but they’re watching Senegal. They’re not engaging with Istanbul as a city. Most will stay for a few years and then they’ll go back home. It’s all about getting capital.

Many of the men don’t have friends around here. It’s complicated. If there was no internet maybe they’d find a way to make friends. But now you have so many social groups online. Today, if I want, I can talk to my middle school group, D7 class. We talk every week. Two of them are in Germany, two in France, another in Gambia. I talk with my family almost every day. They tell me how the goat is doing, how the cow is doing, how the sheep is doing.

Some of them came from rural areas. And some of them integrate. But when the Senegalese live as a community it’s always difficult to integrate. They will come from Senegal, they will meet someone they know here, they will start doing business, they will not integrate that much.

Are there hierarchies within the migrant community? What jobs do people tend to do when they first arrive here?

There’s a hierarchy in Istanbul. They start working with watches. The Senegalese are very helpful. They know that if you’re just arriving they’ll help you – give you some watches to sell. This work not only puts money in your pocket but it teaches you about the area, the language, the community. Those who go through that area know the language better, how the system works.

And then there’s the next level. You start to learn the language, you talk to people, you start to see opportunities, and then you grab them. And then people start import-export businesses, buying and selling goods to Senegal.

Their living conditions are very poor. They have to live in groups. Most of them are not used to this kind of setup. In Gambia and Senegal, most of the housework is done by women. When they live here alone the housework is being neglected. This is how diseases spread.

Is your religion important to your business identity?

Yes, because it gives me boundaries. It tells me “If your plans aren’t according to your faith it’s not good for business. If you have debt, you have to repay it.” It teaches me – you have to give “ikram” [which means offering respect, hospitality or, making a discount]. Give privilege to people who are coming to you. I relate more with religious people than non religious. I can rely on that guy more than the one who doesn’t pray times a day.

My religion teaches me to share what we have. I feel happy when people see me and give me respect. I know that if I buy food and then share it with others it’s more satisfying for me, because I gain on the other side of the Islamic cycle. A lot of people come to my place and sit and talk. But one day they will come and have business and they’ll come to me because they trust me.

I come from a village called Numa Kebbeh in Gambia. My name is Kebbeh. Whenever I go home, people in the village bring me their papers and ask me to do this and that for them.

They’re still deferring to you in Istanbul about their problems in that village?

We are the founders of that village, in the early twentieth century. My forefathers came from Mali because of famine. There was nothing like a police station or a court, so whenever a dispute occurred people would go to my father and he would act as the judge.

Do people that work for you know your background in Gambia?

Not everybody. Sometimes I speak with my workers, I know some of their villages. Some of them come to me and ask me where I’m from and then say “Oh, I come to your market to buy bread” Or “I attend the wrestling at your place”.

People come to my work space because they feel comfortable there. They can speak our language [Wolof and Mandinka], there are no rules they have to obey. It’s a space where people just walk in and sit down for five minutes and talk about anything they want to talk about. If they want to insult me, they will insult me and then go on their way.

There is competition in the warehouse space. Some people come in who are spies, they’re looking to see what you’re doing, where you’re selling. If you’re in a metropolitan city, you are a hunter. I’m a hunter here. I’m just trying to feed my family. In cities there are no forests to hunt, but in the place of forests there are factories and human beings and materials. Some of the human beings are snakes, some of them are tigers. Turkish people are the owners of this land. But I can negotiate my way. And then go back to my family.

How did you come to name your company?

When a baby cries there is a word that the mother uses to calm and soothe them – Jahara. I called my company after Jahara because of this memory. Jahara Import and Export.

You named it after something that makes you feel like home.

Yes. Now, whenever I want to go out in Istanbul, I would prefer to just sit next to the Atlantic Ocean. I miss home. I think I’ll go home soon.

Throughout our discussion Mehmud highlighted his various complex and intertwined identities which he navigates and calls into being in response to different relativities – of a migrant from a rural background; a village leader whose family founded his village and who still retains the responsibilities of this inherited status; a self-made businessman who operates along lines of mutual interest with his Turkish counterparts; a trusted member of the Gambian community in Istanbul who is often called upon to solve problems; and a practicing Muslim who prays alongside Turkish men at his local mosque.

Balancing the integrities of his religious beliefs and business interests, and using the opportunities afforded by his national, cultural and linguistic background, Mehmud has identified a capital market in Turkey which incorporates and utilizes all his various identities, involving delicate and continuous navigation, adaption and exchange.