African American Studies
Interviewee: Sheikh Moussa Drammeh
Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison, Dr. Jane Edward, Dr. Benjamin Hayford, and Kojo Ampah
Date of Interview: November 3rd, 2009
Summarized by Michael Kavanagh
Born February 4th, 1962, Drammeh grew up in Tendrami Joka, Gambia, a city bordering Senegal. He began his schooling at six years old in the Madrasas which focuses on memorizing the Qur’an. He has completed the Madrasas four times. His mother is Gambian and father is Senegalese, both died before he reached the age of ten, at which point Drammeh had to focus on making a living for himself and his village.
He briefly moved to our Father’s younger brother, but the lifestyle there is that you become independent because you fend for yourself. Drammeh was determined to start his own business to make money. Of many businesses, his most profitable business was trading and selling green tea and sugar. The tea was imported from China, duty free. Even though Drammeh didn’t even know the basics of how to run a business, he says finding an entrepreneur as a mentor was not difficult. In Africa, he says, everybody is entrepreneurial, even farmers. Once he found a mentor, it was not difficult.
In Gambia, his family depended on agricultural production for both food and income. The main crops were sorghum, peanuts, and rice, most of which are exported mainly to European countries today to a point where even the farmers themselves don’t have enough food to eat. Not only did his relatives own more land than they could ever cultivate, they had limited machinery and agricultural tools as well.
He never dreamed of immigrating to the United States. It was not until later in his life that people from his village began to travel to neighboring African countries. Later, as the United States became the destination of choice, he was determined to go at any cost.
He came to New York when he was 24 years old—August 27th, 1986, he recalls. Drammeh considers himself one of the first people from the Gambia to migrate to the United States as part of a larger wave of African immigrants from various countries in the late 1980s and 1990s. After arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport, he spent his first couple days in Brooklyn, and then moved to Harlem for one year living at 109th Street and Third Avenue. After moving once more in Harlem to 111th Street and Third Avenue, Drammeh moved to Parkcester, NY and has lived there ever since.
When he first came to New York, Drammeh remembers the outpouring of support from the Senegalese community to help him get settled. His first job was as a street vendor selling pocketbooks, sunglasses and scarves that were distributed from the warehouse on 28th Street and Broadway. His first day, he was stationed at the corner of Broad and Wall Street, right in front of the New York Stock Exchange. He was fascinated by the endless flow of people walking along the street, in and out of the building with briefcase in hand. At that point, not knowing who these people were or what they were doing, Drammeh remembers saying “This is where I belong.” Drammeh remembers going home and being inspired by the news of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa on the television. He also stopped to buy an English dictionary and a copy of the New York Times. He used these two items to teach himself the English language. In the meantime, he worked other jobs to support himself such as a security guard, dish washer, cab driver and a licensed real estate agent. And sure enough, a few years later, he became a stockbroker and opened his own investment bank on Wall Street called Sahara Associates, located on Wall Street. He worked as an investment banker full time until closing the office in 2000 to refocus his efforts on a new challenge: Islamic education.
Since 2000, he has worked as the director of the Futa Islamic Center in the Bronx. He has also used his expertise to organize the first state approved Islamic credit union that operates out of the school. On a day to day basis, Drammeh’s school has students from all over the world—Yemen, Morocco, Senegal, Pakistan, India, and the United States, to name a few. In addition to the New York State curriculum requirements, his school teaches an Islamic studies curriculum which focuses on Qur’anic reading and writing, Arabic understanding, comprehension and Islamic Studies. While one does not need to practice Islam to be enrolled at the school, each student must accept the by-laws of the school, just as any other private school. The school also houses a mosque and serves as an after school community center where a variety of meetings, religious and non-religious, take place.
Under his leadership, the Futa Islamic Center has been incredibly successful educational institution. Drammeh’s vision, however, has not been fully realized. His ultimate goal is to set up an Islamic university, according to his educational philosophy: pre-K to Ph.D. The Futa Islamic Center currently serves students who are pre-K to 8th grade. Drammeh credits the success of his school to the fact that the school has always been community minded, even before the September 11th attacks. He says this is the main reason why his school has not once been the victim of discrimination, whether verbal, physical or even a phone call.
A lifelong community activist, Drammeh has always been involved in some way in the Islamic religious community of New York City and the Bronx. When he first came, he was part of the Sufi Association, and then moved on to form the African Islamic Center located on Benedict Avenue. He is also a member of two national organizations: the United African Congress and the African Union. Married with three kids, Drammeh has no plans to retire or go back to his home country of Gambia anytime soon. If one thing is certain, however, he will never cut off his ties to the African continent and remains in constant touch with the happenings in Senegal and Gambia.
Drammeh, Moussa Sheikh. November 3, 2009. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.Drammeh, Sheik Moussa.mp3 (91117 kB)