Last summer, my six-year-old niece and her mother, my sister-in-law, moved from The Gambia to the U.S., and into the apartment I share with my father, mother, and two older brothers, one of whom is her father. Until this move, my niece had grown up in a more traditionally Gambian household, full of extended family members, ranging from the children and grandchildren of her grandfather’s other wives to family friends who had embedded themselves within the family. Together, we are figuring out this new puzzle of how we relate to each other.
Initially, I expected that the reduced number of family members constantly swarming around her would be a relief for my niece. Whenever I visited the Gambia or Senegal as a child, I was always overwhelmed by the sheer number of people I had to interact with regularly, many of whom claimed the intimacy of kinship, treating me like a close brother, rather than a visiting cousin. It was also difficult figuring out my relationships with this cavalcade of people: some aunts and uncles were younger than me because my grandfather had married a wife younger than my mother. I was glad when visits to extended family ended, and I could return to the familiarity of my parents and siblings, and the privacy offered by the nuclear home.
In the limited space of our apartment, I imagined my niece would cherish every inch and second of space and time she got to herself. Instead, she experienced a deep loneliness. Nights were particularly difficult for her, as she had never had a bed all to herself, having always shared one with her mother.
Her grandfather’s household was also more linguistically diverse. Upon her arrival in America, my niece spoke, to varying degrees, English, Mandinka, French, Soninke, and Wolof. In contrast, unlike most Gambians, I am only fluent in English and French. I can understand Mandinka but cannot speak it. As I am my niece’s primary caretaker while the rest of the family members are at work, I worry that my limited languages have narrowed her world.
My primary task over the summer was to prepare her to enter U.S. school in the fall. We went over her spelling and arithmetic. But the arithmetic and spelling were auxiliary to the main lesson—how to be an American student
- Do not refer to your teachers as Auntie.
- Some of your teachers will be men.
- English will probably be the only language available to you.
- Father Christmas is called Santa Claus here.
- Here are the songs, TV shows, dances, and movies that American students will likely know.
- The President is Donald Trump not Donald Duck.
Other lessons, I have found more difficult, if not impossible, to impart. A sign outside her classroom bars guns from being brought inside. My niece hasn’t asked about this particular American peculiarity yet and, to be honest, I’m not sure how to explain to a six year old the relationship between America’s schools and her guns.
But the teaching is not one-sided. Unlike my niece, I was raised in a nuclear family, primarily in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. While I have vague memories of living with a larger family in the Gambia and Senegal, they are scarce. In both Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, my own personal understanding of culture was heavily Americanized. I watched American television programs. Borrowed and read books from my American schools’ libraries, most of which were on curriculums familiar to American readers. My understandings of family were shaped by the nuclear family idealized in U.S. culture. As much as coming to America has changed how my niece views family, my interactions with her have Gambianized my own view.
For my niece and me, growing accustomed to one another has involved shifts in language. She refers to me as Baba ML, as she would if we only spoke Mandinka together. Customarily, in the Gambia, your brother’s child is considered your child. When speaking English, she initially called me daddy. Since I approach the world through English, I am much more comfortable with Uncle. The compromise we have come to is that when speaking Mandinka, she’ll refer to me as Baba ML but, in English, she’ll refer to me as Uncle ML. Mostly, she uses Baba ML, even when speaking in English, so our compromise is not much of a compromise on her part. But, again, she is six.
Though I am not yet comfortable with thinking of my niece as a daughter or even thinking of myself as someone capable of having a daughter, I have become more amenable to the thought. Whenever my sister-in-law says something about what “my girl” did, I find myself less and less jarred by the terminology. I insufferably send my friends photos and videos of my niece being adorable.
Most days, after I’ve written my self-imposed 500 words for whatever article or short story I’m working on, my niece and I write together. I act as amanuensis and type whatever self-contained story she feels like dictating. When she first joined us, she used to tell us stories before her bedtime. They were often variations of Gambian folktales mixed with the princesses and princes from the western television they would stream in the Gambia. Now, her stories feature only Disney princesses, princes, vampires, witches, and dinosaurs, all of which she grew to love more after some time in America.
When I think back on my own childhood in relation to the present one of my niece, I am slightly perturbed when I recognize familiar patterns. I fear that, like me, she’ll lose her facility with languages spoken in the Gambia. I fear that she’ll forget the stories that have been passed down for ages. If she doesn’t forget them, I fear that, like me, she’ll struggle to see the significance in the stories when they are divorced from their original geographic context. I become almost petrified whenever she is hesitant to own any aspect of her home cultures.
Living with my niece has expanded my understanding of family and deepened my connection to a home of which I only have vague memories. It has also changed my sense of how immigrant stories work. The dominant story is one of loss and assimilation: those arriving to the U.S. learn U.S. cultural references, helped by those already in the U.S., and lose their own languages and practices. And while my niece’s turn to Disney and away from folktales worry me that she is losing an essential part of herself, every time she calls me Baba ML, I know that we are creating our own sense of what family means, Gambian and American.