In Awa Sanneh’s home village of Kiang Jataba, the Gambia, it wasn’t normal to ask questions. But after her younger sister never returned from a female genital mutilation procedure, one that Sanneh had gone through herself aged 12, she struggled to ignore the injustice of her death.
“It really hit me,” said Sanneh. “I was lucky to survive, but she did not survive.”
Before an official ban in 2015, around 75 percent of women in Gambia were cut, according to Unicef statistics. The country also had a high rate of child marriage, where 30 percent of women aged under 18 were married. This was also banned in 2015 by Gambian President Yayha Jammeh, but since his exile in 2018, some have feared a resurgence of both practices.
Her demand for answers about what happened to her sister put Sanneh in a dangerous position in Kiang Jataba, and, fearing for her safety, she fled the Gambia in 2007 with help from her grandfather.
At the age of 19, Sanneh travelled to neighbouring Senegal. She tried to return to seek out more information about her sister’s death, but was unsuccessful. She then left for Tunisia, helped by a friend of her grandfather’s, learning about Arabic cuisine and providing domestic work for a family. After a while, she became tired of working for the family who, she understands, had paid to bring her over. Hoping to leave, the family tore up her passport, leaving her trapped in the country. It would be years before she finally escaped to the UK.
When she arrived, Sanneh was subject to the UK’s infamous hostile environment migration policy – a set of policies designed to deter migration to the UK by making life difficult for migrants. For five years she was unable to receive benefits due to the No Recourse to Public Funds policy, and was unable to work without refugee status.
“It was very depressing,” said Sanneh. “You don't try to work, you don't try to do nothing. I took the chance to learn English and improve my English. There are not a lot of facilities [in a detention centre], you just sit and wait. You cannot do anything.”
During this period of waiting for refugee status, Sanneh’s case worker referred her to Migrateful, a cooking school and charity founded in 2017 which employs and trains people who are struggling to access work due to legal issues or language barriers. The organisation provides training as well as language classes and has so far trained 62 chefs from 30 different countries. It previously used temporary spaces such as churches and community halls, but thanks to a £200,000 crowdfunding effort this year including £45,000 worth of funding from London mayor Sadiq Khan, it has recently opened a state of the art kitchen space in central London. It is the first time the kitchen has been used on the evening VICE World News visits.
It’s here that Sanneh teaches a course in Gambian cooking, leading a class of eight on a variety of dishes. We make yassa chicken (also known as poulet yassa in Senegal) cooked with onions and a mustard-y marinade; crispy, shallow fried tomato and mackerel parcels, and a warming pepper soup.
Sanneh is delighted to be sharing her cuisine with the room of eager learners, all growing hungrier by the hour that evening. After a variety of cooking tasks – slicing 3kg of onions, steaming and frying chicken in a rich and acidic marinade, and deep-frying the dough parcels – the room sits down to eat together on a communal table. The meal is accompanied by a deep purple drink – bissap – made from hibiscus leaves, ginger and lemon.
After arriving in the UK six years ago, Sanneh now works at Comptoir Libanais, a Lebanese restaurant chain. She has a five-year-old daughter and has done everything within her power to make sure her child will never have to face the horrific fate of FGM, which left Sanneh experiencing complications in childbirth. Despite the challenges, cooking has provided Sanneh with a connection back to Gambia, where she has been unable to return to, and is a reminder of her grandfather who passed away before she qualified as a chef.
“I am a professional chef because of my grandfather – he loved cooking,” She says. “The last promise I made him before I went was, ‘grandpa, I'm going to be a chef.”
His advice follows her into her work and throughout life.
“He taught me and would cook [yassa chicken] a lot of the time. We don't measure, we measure with our eyes. My grandpa used to tell me, ‘Feel it with your hands. Don't panic. Trust your instincts.'”