On a hot August evening, Assembly member Samba Baldeh mingled among picnickers outside his home here, sharing laughs and making sure he had enough grilled chicken, meat pie and a West African pudding called thiakri.
elected in america
Granthshala is profiling the family ties to Africa of several rising American politicians who are helping to change the face of American politics. they include:
- Esther Agbaze, Minnesota House of Representatives
- samba baldehi, Wisconsin State Assembly
- Umar Fateh, Minnesota State Senate
- Adoye Ovoleva, DC ‘Shadow’ member for the US House of Representatives
- nequeta ricks, Colorado General Assembly
“It’s hard work, and it’s usually hard to satisfy everyone,” said home care coordinator Gail Kane, wearing a festive Senegalese outfit. She was less commenting on Baldeh’s hosting techniques than on his political prowess.
“Samba is a very nice guy,” she said. “Whatever happens, he informs us.”
Baldeh organized the picnic as a late thank you to his supporters, who helped him get elected to the Wisconsin state assembly – a far cry from his birthplace in The Gambia. In January, he became the first native African and the first Muslim to serve in that legislature.
At 50 years old, Baldeh has given a voice in shaping legislation for the upper Midwestern state and its 6 million residents. It has a limited voice, given that he is a first-time Democrat in a Republican-dominated legislature.
But he enjoys huge support – 80% of the vote – in his heavily Democratic district, which includes part of the capital city of Madison, which is home to the University of Wisconsin. According to the latest census data, District 48 is majority white – 68% – and a hub for recent migrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Baldeh considers himself responsible for promoting the interests of all his constituents. Yet he remains mindful of the country and continent from which he came.
“I know I have been elected here in the United States,” he told the Granthshala, “but I see it as part of my responsibility that Africa, as a whole, is my constituency.”
Madison’s deputy mayor for housing, Linda Wakunta, expanded on her mentor’s vision.
“Samba is really a shining light for us,” she said in brief remarks to picnickers, many of them from the continent, like her. “He always says we have two homes: back in Africa and here. We should be as involved here as we would have been when we were back home.”
The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, with 2.2 million inhabitants living on a piece of land in Senegal. Baldeh, one of nine children in a family of ethnic Fulani shepherds, grew up in the rural village of Choya.
“My parents were farmers. They mainly raised cattle and goats and sheep,” he helped as a boy, he said.
He persuaded his family to sell some livestock to cover the cost of his high school education in another city. “I personally forced my way into school,” he said.
Later, Baldeh helped organize the Conflicting East Youth Development Society, which received some US government funding for a youth center providing training in sewing, carpentry and other skills.
Baldeh’s growing experience in youth leadership later brought opportunities for international travel, including a conference in Washington, DC in early 1999, where he met a participant from the Madison Area Technical College. By the end of the year, Baldeh had moved to Wisconsin to study at MATC, the training that would launch his career as a software engineer and information technology project manager.
At first, Baldeh was shocked by Wisconsin’s winter—temperatures can drop to minus 28 degrees Celsius—but he appreciated it. The former country boy said he quickly warmed to a different aspect of the state: “It’s called (America’s) Dairyland,” based on his reputation as a leader in American dairy production.
legacy of service
At MATC, Baldeh founded the African Students’ Union for students struggling with immigration issues, funding and cultural differences. Later, she volunteered with youth development programs such as the Boys and Girls Club of America, and civil rights groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He saw the struggle.
“Housing was particularly bad for communities of color,” Baldeh said. He also saw deficiencies in race relations and government services.
“The disparities[were]really leading me to consider running for office,” he said.
Baldeh sought and won a seat on the Madison Common Council, from 2015 to early 2021, including one term as its president. He ran for the assembly in 2020.
Representative Sheila Stubbs, an assembly aide and chair of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus, to which Baldeh serves as secretary, “worked closely on issues of justice” with him, he said.
“He stands up for the rights of the people” [who] marginalized,” she said. “He makes sure immigrant voices are heard and answered.”
In the assembly, Baldeh has co-sponsored a bill to reduce the use of polyfluoroalkyl substances – long-lasting chemicals that can contaminate drinking water, food and air. He hopes to push legislation to make affordable housing more accessible. He wants to reduce the high cost of prison phone calls, which experts say prevents inmates from maintaining important family ties. He has pressured the governor’s office for more aid to immigrants.
Early in her council tenure, Baldeh was assigned to a committee on Sister Cities International, a non-profit civilian diplomacy network. he helped Madison Adds Its First African City — Cunning, The Gambia — on its roster of partners.
Cunning faces a challenge that resonates with Baldeh and his legislative concerns about environmental threats in Wisconsin.
The Gambian city shuts down a huge Bakote dumpsite in a congested residential area. Cunning sent a Gambian delegation to Madison to tour waste management facilities and meet with engineers and others for ideas. Madison, working with private investors, has supplied Conifing with some household garbage cans and garbage trucks. University of Wisconsin experts working on solution,
As a developing country, the Gambia benefits from the exchange, Baldeh said, emphasizing that their adopted cities and states do as well.
“Madison can also learn from them about how diversity works within (Gambian) tribes,” he said.
travel to gambia
In August, Baldeh traveled to his home country with another Gambian native, Jereh Kuzabi, who leads the Madison-Knifing Sister Cities duo. Kuzabi is Baldeh’s close friend, business partner and former campaign advisor. The two met from the Gambian
To strengthen sister-city bonds and encourage education, business and employment on both sides of the Atlantic to officials, local leaders and the public.
Baldeh, who serves on a committee Young African Leaders Initiative of the US State Department (YALI), wants to see more opportunities in The Gambia and elsewhere in Africa – in part so few people feel compelled to leave.
One of his nephews died in 2018 while trying to go to Europe in search of work. Baldeh said the tragic loss of his family is very common in The Gambia, where nearly 60% of its population is under the age of 25. “Basically, there are no job opportunities,” he said.
For Baldeh, highlights of the Gambia visit included meetings with his mother and other relatives, as well as a lunch meeting with President Adama Barrow.
“To me, this is very special and humbling, and something I will remember for a very long time,” he said of Barrow, who seeks a second term in the country’s December 4 elections.
Baldeh returned to Wisconsin with ideas about expanding markets, technology consulting and investments “that go beyond just Europe or the Americas or Asia.” He wants to see the Wisconsin trade mission to Africa which includes The Gambia.
Near the end of his first year as a state legislator, Baldeh said he was “grateful for the opportunity to introduce a law with dire consequences on the lives of the people. ….”
He pursues the “political part” of his job. “This country is so polarized, even at the local level, even at the state level,” he complains.
Yet Baldeh has joined the fray. In an opinion column for the Wisconsin State Journal, he called the Republican tax cut proposal a “one-handed move” that “It also includes a bomb that will explode in two years.”
Asked if he would consider a longer return to the Gambia, Baldeh paused.
“Honestly, I consider myself responsible for making this world a better place,” he said. “And so, if the impact from Africa will be much bigger than what I can do in the United States, that’s a huge possibility.”
Gail Kane, one of the Madison picnickers, imagines a completely different route to Baldeh.
“I think he should run for the US Senate,” she said.
Betty Ayoob of Granthshala Africa Division contributed to…