On a warm August evening, assembly member Samba Baldeh mingled among the picnickers outside his home here, sharing laughs and making sure they'd had enough grilled chicken, meat pies and the West African pudding called thiakry.
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"It's hard work, and usually it's hard to satisfy everybody," said Gaelle Kane, a home care coordinator, dressed in festive Senegalese attire. She was commenting less on Baldeh's hosting techniques than on his political skills.
"Samba is a very good man," she said. "Anything that happens, he informs us."
Baldeh organized the picnic as belated thanks for supporters who helped elect him to the Wisconsin State Assembly — far from his birthplace in Gambia. In January, he became the first native African and first Muslim to serve in that legislature.
At age 50, Baldeh has a voice in shaping legislation for the Upper Midwestern state and its 6 million residents. It's a limited voice, given that he's a first-term Democrat in a legislature dominated by Republicans.
But he enjoys hearty support — 80% of the vote — in his heavily Democratic district, which includes part of the capital city of Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin. District 48 is majority white — 68%, according to the latest Census data — and a hub for recent immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Baldeh holds 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'm elected here in the United States," he told VOA, "but I see it as part of my responsibility that Africa, as a whole, is my constituency."
Linda Vakunta, Madison's deputy mayor for housing, expanded on her mentor's philosophy.
"Samba really is a shining light for us," she said in brief remarks to the picnickers, many of them from the continent, like her. "He always says that we have two homes: back in Africa and here. We should be just as involved here as we would be if we were back home."
Gambia is Africa's smallest country, with 2.2 million residents on a sliver of land embedded in Senegal. Baldeh, one of nine children in a family of ethnic Fulani herders, grew up in the rural village of Choya.
"My parents were farmers. They mainly raised cattle and goats and sheep," which he helped tend as a boy, he said.
He persuaded his family to sell off some livestock to cover costs of his high school education in another town. "I personally forced my way into school," he said.
Afterward, Baldeh helped organize the Kanifing East Youth Development Society, which got some U.S. government funding for a youth center offering training in sewing, carpentry and other skills.
Baldeh's growing experience in youth leadership later brought international travel opportunities, including to a conference in Washington, D.C., in early 1999 where he met a participant from the Madison Area Technical College. By year's end, Baldeh had moved to Wisconsin to study at MATC, training that would launch his career as a software engineer and information technology project manager.
At first, Baldeh was shocked by Wisconsin's winter cold — temperatures can drop to minus 28 degrees Celsius — but he grew to appreciate it. The former country boy said he quickly warmed to a different aspect of the state: "That it is called (America's) Dairyland," based on its reputation as a leader in U.S. dairy production.
A legacy of service
At MATC, Baldeh founded the African Students Association for students grappling with immigration issues, financing and cultural differences. Later, he volunteered with youth development programs such as Boys & Girls Clubs of America and with civil rights groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He witnessed struggles.
"Housing for communities of color particularly was very bad," Baldeh said. He also saw shortcomings in race relations and government services.
"Inequalities (were) really what triggered me to consider running for office," he said.
Baldeh sought and won a seat on the Madison Common Council, serving from 2015 to early 2021, including a term as its president. He ran for the Assembly in 2020.
Representative Sheila Stubbs, an Assembly colleague and chair of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus, on which Baldeh serves as secretary, "worked closely on justice issues" with him, she said.
"He stands up for the rights of people [who] are marginalized," she said. "He makes sure that immigrant voices are heard and responded to."
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 advance legislation to make affordable housing more accessible. He wants to reduce the high price of prison phone calls, which experts say deters inmates from maintaining important family ties. He has pressed the governor's office for more assistance to immigrants.
Early in his council tenure, Baldeh got assigned to a committee on Sister Cities International, a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network. He helped Madison add its first African city — Kanifing, Gambia — to its roster of partners.
Kanifing faces a challenge that resonates with Baldeh and his legislative concerns about environmental hazards in Wisconsin.
The Gambian city harbors the sprawling Bakoteh dumpsite in a congested residential area. Kanifing 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 Kanifing with some household garbage bins and garbage trucks. Experts at the University of Wisconsin also are working on solutions.
As a developing country, Gambia benefits from the exchange, Baldeh said, stressing that his adopted city and state do, too.
"Madison can also learn from them how diversity works within (Gambian) tribes," he said.
Visit to Gambia
In August, Baldeh traveled to his home country with Jerreh Kujabi, another Gambia native, who leads the Madison-Kanifing Sister Cities pairing. Kujabi is Baldeh's close friend, business partner and former campaign adviser. The two met with Gambian
officials, local leaders and the public to strengthen the sister-city bond, and to encourage education, trade and employment on both sides of the Atlantic.
Baldeh, who serves on a committee of the U.S. State Department's Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), wants to see more opportunity in Gambia and elsewhere in Africa — in part so fewer people feel compelled to leave.
One of his nephews died in 2018 while trying to make his way to Europe to find work. Baldeh said his family's tragic loss is far too common in Gambia, where nearly 60% of its population is under age 25. "Basically, there are no job opportunities," he said.
For Baldeh, the Gambia trip's highlights included visits with his mother and other relatives, as well as a lunch meeting with President Adama Barrow.
"To me, that is very special and humbling, and something that I would 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 carrying ideas about expanded markets, technology consultation, and investment "that goes beyond just Europe or the Americas or Asia." He'd like to see a Wisconsin trade mission to Africa that includes Gambia.
Nearing the end of his first year as a state legislator, Baldeh said he's grateful for "the opportunity to introduce legislation that has serious consequences on people's lives. … I really enjoy going out there and meeting with constituents and talking about things that they care about."
He chafes at "the political part" of his job. "This country is so polarized, even at the local level, at the state level," he complains.
Yet Baldeh has joined in the fray. In an opinion column for the Wisconsin State Journal, he called a Republican tax cut proposal "a sleight-of-hand trick," one that "includes a bombshell that will detonate in two years."
Asked whether he would consider a lengthier return to Gambia, Baldeh paused.
"Honestly, I hold myself accountable to making this world a better place," he said. "And so, if the impact from Africa will be much bigger than what I'm able to do in the United States, it's a big possibility."
Gaelle Kane, one of the Madison picnickers, imagines an utterly different path for Baldeh.
"I think he should run for the U.S. Senate," she said.
VOA Africa Division's Betty Ayoub contributed to this report.