The Covert Battles of a Black Immigrant in Sweden: Social Capital, Sex Work, and Racism

Mustapha Paragon Sonko

By Mustapha Paragon Sonko

I used to be an ardent believer in the adage that our eyes can never see our ears, but that was a pre-Sweden Mustapha. In Sweden, my eyes have seen how big my ears are, probably as big as those of a Fula shopkeeper in Faraba. Don’t be mad at me for using a Fula shopkeeper as an example, since President Barrow was nearly crucified for merely saying “boutique Narr.” The Fulas are my slaves, and I don’t care how Alieu Jallow and Essa Barry fume at my statement. I owe them some degree of loyalty. My Fula shopkeeper sells many things in his shop, including perfumes, and people can buy everything without any issues. In Sweden, this is different. People can sell many things, but you are not allowed to purchase certain items; one is sex. You heard me right. It is legal to sell sex but a crime to purchase it.

The Economist might say this is contradictory because demand goes with supply. Why allow people to sell but control their preferences as to what to buy? These were my thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, and don’t ask how I found out. I was told that you can’t buy sex, but you can sell it in Sweden. This is the greatest conundrum. My curiosity led me to do some research. After further investigation, I realised buying sex is a serious crime in Sweden; you can be fined or go to jail for a year. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse. A distant friend of mine, who is always rapacious to strike for such commodities, especially in their “Lumo” modes, was once very eager to go into a bargaining deal. His interest in buying sex was short-lived, and he backpedalled because he knew he would be in big trouble if he were to be caught.

The truth is, these “tubabs” greatly respect and honour children, women, animals, and plants. If you are not part of the above, it is what it is. The question that has been lingering in my mind is, who can sell sex and who can buy it? A man or a woman? The Swedish Sex Purchase Act of 1999 recognizes that the man who buys women (or men) for sexual reasons, rather than the seller, should face criminal charges. So, anyone who wishes to play ‘Christopher Columbus’ must understand that women are much more protected here. That man who was guilty of rape in The Gambia and later released by the judge because his parents forgave him should have been here. Only then would he have realized that rape is a heinous crime, and there is no if or buts in rape.

As a black man in a white man’s country, your movements are under the close supervision of a microscope. I was not surprised when my colleague, Muhammed Lamin Dibba Junior, was harassed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam by white officials, even though they claimed to be following protocols using technology to screen everyone; both black and white. One would have easily concluded that technology or artificial intelligence is the best but let me shock you. During one of my courses on Migration and Citizenship (Digital Citizenship), I was exposed to AI and how it affects humanity. AI tools, such as natural language processing and computer vision systems, have been found to exhibit biases and errors that perpetuate systemic discrimination, leading to harmful outcomes for people of colour. The disparities in accuracy based on skin type and gender, highlighted by Gebru in his piece “Race and Gender,” showcase the deeply ingrained societal biases that influence AI design and usage, further exacerbating inequalities and reinforcing harmful stereotypes. Therefore, it was not a coincidence that Dibba was harassed at the airport. Racism is rampant in Europe, and one might be correct to say that it has been institutionalized.

As a migration student in Sweden, I had an encounter with two police officers while moving house. As I walked through the busy central station of Malmö with my friend, we were obstructed by two police officers who asked us for our documents. I was shocked and fuming with anger, wanting to resist. At this point, I remembered the ‘Kanasong’ and ‘can’t cage me’ slogans of the Boy of Smartness and thought of refusing, but I quickly realized that the laws in Sweden had changed, and new laws gave the police the right to ask for the particulars of any individual at any time. I knew I had nothing to fear because I was not residing in Sweden illegally. I showed my documents to the officers, and they verified and told me that everything was okay. I looked at the two tall police officers straight in their blue eyes and asked, “Why did you choose to ask us out of the hundreds of people here?” I asked this because I knew it had everything to do with racism. After all, we were black, nothing more, nothing less. The police told me that he had heard me tell a guy at the grocery shop that I do not speak Swedish and therefore knew that I was not Swedish and might be an irregular immigrant. He also added that Malmo was a border city, the entrance between Denmark and Sweden. This was the craziest answer. The officer lied, and I was very upset because I knew some Swedes did not speak Swedish, as Sweden does not have a language requirement for citizenship. When I narrated my encounter to my Swedish and European classmates, all of them said that it was racism and nothing more.

What pains me is the fact that, as a black person, you are categorized as a criminal in this part of the land. Funnily, when these dudes come to The Gambia, they walk freely. Many of you would remember that the PIUs in The Gambia would stop youth from getting to the beach because the ‘tubabs’ are having dinner or lunch. That is an insult, and our security or whoever is in control should understand that no European would be stopped from accessing any place because there are black tourists having dinner. This and many other challenges are what our brothers and sisters go through. As a student, I need not worry about this, but I have seen how our black Africans and Gambians suffer in the streets of Europe (Sweden). When people back home believe that we are enjoying ourselves here, the truth is that living in Europe is a struggle—a struggle to get a job, a struggle to regularise your status, a struggle in hopping from one train or bus to another to find the money.

While in The Gambia, I used to think that “who you know” exists only in Jollof, but here I realised that your social capital is your net worth. Before getting a blue-collar job, even washing dishes or cleaning a toilet, one needs to know someone to get a job. Your name, colour, religion, and background are determinant factors in getting a job. Get your master’s, and you may muster the courage to mop the floor of a room instead of sitting behind a desk. Ask SG Manneh in the USA and he will tell you something about it, or better still ask Ebrima L Dampha in the UK who one time claimed to be the president of ECOMNSA. Haha, this is not to insinuate that the duo are cleaning toilets down there, but even if they are doing so, who cares?

Given the circumstances in Sweden, I might like to join Alagie B Sama in Canada, because right now, while Europe is coming up with tough laws that make migration difficult, under its Immigration Levels Plan 2024-2026, Canada is now looking to welcome 500,000 new immigrants annually in the coming years, which are the highest levels in its history. In my next article, I will elucidate the reasoning behind this announcement from the Canadian government.  We’ll also look at the voices that are still being heard in the nation when it comes to the proper immigration numbers.

And now, let me leave you with a thought: What does it truly mean to survive in a land where your identity is both your greatest asset and your heaviest burden?


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