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Meet Bintou Kanyi: She left Gambia to create a home for her child in the Berkshires

ACCENTS: THE VOICES OF OUR IMMIGRANT NEIGHBORS IN THE BERKSHIRES

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PITTSFIELD — Bintou Kanyi told her family in the West African country of The Gambia that she just had some errands to run at the village market. She did not tell them about the airplane ticket to New York.

“I ran away,” Kanyi says.  “Because if I had told them that I was travelling, there were so many things they could do to stop me.”

Kanyi now works as a certified nursing assistant at Berkshire Medical Center. She also studies at Berkshire Community College and next semester will add classes at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts toward degrees in biotechnology and medical technology.

Now 24, she’s come a long way from the freezing morning of March 2, 2015, when, homeless, hopeless, she stood crying on Columbus Avenue in Pittsfield. It had been a month since she’d fled her family’s abuse back home.

“I met this lady who asked me why I was crying,” she says.

Kanyi explained to her that the only person she knew in Pittsfield had kicked her out because he was moving. He was the brother of a school friend from Gambia. The $100 she had on her when she landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York had been just enough to get her to the Berkshires.

The woman helped her find her way to the Elizabeth Freeman Center for support. The domestic violence Kanyi had escaped came from her father’s other wives after her mother had died.

“I am Muslim, from the Mandinka community,” she says.  “They’re allowed to have up to four wives and my father happened to have three. My mother was the second one.

“The competition they had with my mom, when she was not there anymore they transferred everything to me,” she continues. “Anything I’d do that had to do with education; they were always fighting it. Because I’m a lady, they believe that I should end up a housewife, not to become an educated woman like my mom.”

When Kanyi talks about her mother, Alabatou, it’s painfully clear how much she still grieves her loss five years ago.

“She worked as a banker at the Central Bank of The Gambia,” Kanyi says, her voice trembling.  “She was all I got. We talked a lot. I looked up to her, because she’s educated and independent.

“So I always wanted to be like her. That’s why I am always like, ‘I’m gonna study harder, so that I can become something individual.’  Which I am still working on.”

Like her two brothers, she began university studies in the United Kingdom. (Gambia was a British colony until 1965.) But when their mother died, she was forced to return home to her father, his other wives and her half-siblings.

She describes herself as “shy and quiet.”  Her boyfriend Kebba became her only confidant.  Kanyi was pregnant when she told her family she was off to the market. Kebba paid for her ticket to New York.

Their daughter is now 2 years old. She was born at BMC. In the Mandinka tradition, first-born girls are typically named Bintou, Binta or Fatoumatta. But for Kanyi there was only one choice for her own daughter: Alabatou, after her mom.  

Her counselors at the Elizabeth Freeman Center steered Kanyi to her CNA training.

“They see that I have something in me that is so dedicated to education,” she says.

“I always wanted to work in the hospital, every time I passed by there,” she says about BMC.  “So I said to myself, ‘I am not going to apply for any other place to work. I am going to apply there and I am going to get the job.’ ”

And she did.

“The only thing missing is family, but I built one here,” she says about her migration from The Gambia to Pittsfield. “I found friends here that are so supportive.”

Alabatou’s father, Kebba, is still in Gambia, but his daughter knows him from their Skype chats.  He is scheduled to visit Pittsfield later in October.


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