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The story of the Australian singer who met her Gambian dad only five times in her life
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The story of the Australian singer who met her Gambian dad only five times in her life

Isis Ashton is a biracial Australian with a Gambian dad. In this interview with What's On-Gambia she speaks candidly about her strained relationship with her estranged dad, Mohamed Mbye, who abandoned her since she was a tiny baby.

What's On-Gambia: Tell us a little about yourself?

Isis: I am an Australian singer, songwriter and accountant. I run a successful consulting business in Sydney, Australia and work as a session vocalist from time to time. I released my debut self-titled album, Shining in 2002 and have worked on a huge variety of song writing projects from the age of 18.

My finance consulting business has focused on Arts industries and over the years my clients have included Art Galleries, Film & TV Post Production Houses, Interior & Graphic Design Firms, Branding Agencies, Promoters and individual artists.

I am the mother of Adjani, my 13 year old daughter and am currently pregnant with my second child. My baby is due to be born in June of 2014. I was born on the 4th of July so the new child will be an early birthday gift.

You have a Gambian dad, tell us about him.

My father's name is Mohamed Mbye; he was born on the 10th of March 1954. What I know of him is this:

  • He is one of 6 children - 5 boys (including 1 set of twins), 1 girl
  • He is originally from Little Banjul
  • He speaks French, English, Greek, Italian and Wollof
  • According to him his father was also an Accountant
  • He married an Australian woman named Janisse Phillis in 1976 (the year I was born) and was legally married to her until 1997. He has no children with Janisse.
  • He has a total of 5 Australian born children to 2 Australian women. 2 children to my mother Michele (as I am a twin, my brother's name is Omah). 3 children to an Australian woman named Kaye - Moses, Matthew and Joseph.
  • He is a sensitive and charismatic man who seems to suffer from a depressive disorder fuelled by addiction and life style issues.

How did he end up in Australia?

As I understand it he originally left The Gambia in the early 1970s ending up in New York City where he was deported in 1971. I am not sure where they deported him to but I have to assume they sent him home. He arrived in Australia in 1972 and circulated around Sydney city and its bustling night life. He had aspirations of being a professional musician and running night clubs. Promoting African events in Sydney and creating a community for African music lovers. There were very few Africans in Australia at that time.

Would you mind to share with us how he met your mum?

My mother loved to go dancing in the city and met Mohamed in a night club. They were attracted to each other and had a short relationship spanning several months or so before she fell pregnant with myself and my twin brother.

Was your dad around during your early childhood?

My mother tells me that he was violent and abusive to her and tried to steal us from her a few times when we were small babies. He would constantly ask her for money and would hide us somewhere when she came to collect us the few times she left us with him. He would demand money before she could take us home. It was clearly a very unhealthy situation for babies to be in, so she made the decision to pay him to stay away as the violent episodes escalated. 

In his defence this is the one view that I have of a period of time in my life that I was too young to remember. I do not know the extent of his abuse, however, I have experienced him asking me for money and he has demonstrated his inability to be grateful. I have also heard him speaking of violence as part of his make-up. My interpretation of this is that he has clearly been subjected to violent and abusive experiences in his life as both the perpetrator and the victim.

 How was it like growing up as a biracial child in a white community?

There were very few biracial children growing up in Australia in the area that my mother came from at that time. Things are very different now. I always felt isolated, disconnected and separate to other people. I had few friends in school and largely focused on trying to do things well. I had very limited social experience and my behaviour was often misinterpreted as being aloof and snobbish when in fact I was just very shy and apprehensive. I never met anyone who looked like me or had my hair. I never knew what to do with my hair and children would snigger and laugh at me. My mother moved to Indonesia when I was 11 years old and there everyone would call me a Monkey and tell me my hair was like that of a broom.

As a result I grew up with crippling insecurities and found solace in writing songs and poetry. All of this just became more awkward as a teenager where I felt ugly and insecure. By the time I was 19 years old I was deeply depressed and had dangerously low levels of self-esteem. I found my mother was also relatively absent and had little to no idea who I was, or what I was dealing with. She filtered my circumstances through her own experiences which were vastly different to mine. She had a total of 5 children to 4 men who were all unable to support her or their children and as a consequence her focus was always her business to keep money coming in to the house or her new relationship.

I do not think she was present enough to notice that I was developing severe psychological problems. I know she did her best under difficult circumstances however it takes a community to raise a child. As a biracial child I did not feel that my community extended past my home life. I felt isolated and estranged by the rest of the world and was bullied and tormented to the point where I just accepted that people would gossip and lie and ridicule my appearance. I found the Asian people more offensive than the whites.

Is your dad still in Australia?

I believe he now lives in Queensland in Australia in a Government provided housing solution. He does not work and lives on government benefits.

Are you in contact?

No. He has a Facebook profile but is rarely on it. I have received a few random messages through Facebook, perhaps six short messages in total over five years.

What do you know about The Gambia?

I know that Gambians are predominantly Muslim. That the main industries are peanuts, fish, hides and tourism. Apart from that I know little else other than West African guitar sounds happy and that many of the people appreciate reggae music. 

Are you still angry with your dad for abandoning you?

As I get older I realise that he was a very young man when I was born. He was 21 years old. I do not know if he ever wanted children with my mother or if this was a decision she made on her own to fall pregnant and have his child. Over the years I have dealt with my sadness and anger and the sense that there is a part of me missing as a result of not having a relationship with my father. This has caused great grief and distress at times. I have always had a deep longing to understand my father and have wanted to get to know more about what makes up the other half of my genetic inheritance.

You ask if I am angry. I am not angry any more. I am very aware of the incredibly vast and far reaching consequences that this attitude toward child rearing has on families all over the world. I have learned that when you decide to have a child it is not a decision to be made by an individual in a moment of passion or desire, obsession or fleeting joy. A child is not a fashion accessory or an opportunistic expression of an idealistic view of the blending of cultures and colour. A child is not a painting you can hang to suit your interior this season only to store it in the garage when it no longer matches your decor. It seems that my father is not the only man to have been caught up like this in a relatively short-lived; shallow relationship that produces children that require the love of two parents when often only one parent is available.

I am saddened that my father made no effort to contact me as I grew up. I have been listed in the phone directory since I was 18 years of age and he has always known my name. The fact that he never called or reached out to me is terribly sad in my view. I have a great sense of compassion for him because he missed out on having a daughter who wanted to know, love and care for him. He missed out on being a grandfather to my lovely daughter Adjani. He missed out on observing his children learning to walk and talk, achieve at school and sports, attend weddings and get to know them and their friends. He missed out on all the joy that a child brings to the world and is left with a long history of nothing particularly meaningful. I am not angry. In my view I see a waste of a great opportunity for love and connection. A rich life is one filled with family, friends and opportunities to love and be loved.

What advice would you give to biracial children who are also abandoned by their Gambian dads?

Regardless of your ethnicity, identity is very important to the human psyche. I identify as an African-Australian because that is my experience. I have no direct connection with my father or any of my Gambian relatives. I would have loved to have had a connection and learned my father's native language. I would have loved to experience the culture and traditions my father stems from and have learned about his parents and siblings. I have always had a deep desire to share some of my path with them but this has not been my journey. When I was a child there was no Internet or Viber or ways of communicating affordably with people far away.

I would advise that biracial children these days make sure they get to know the other halves of themselves, whether that be the mother or the father who is absent. There is no healing or happiness in hatred and anger. Maintaining a strong sense of oneself can only be developed by gaining as much knowledge as possible about where one comes from.

A child needs a community to feel a part of to grow with healthy boundaries and an understanding of social skills. Be honest about how you are feeling with your caretakers, colleagues and friends. If you have to abandon your family of origin be sure to create a support community and engage in the things you love doing.

Know when to let go. If the absent or unavailable parent is causing you more pain than it is worth then have the courage to let go. Your idea of who they are and who they actually are can be vastly different.

When a young person is dealing with the pressures of puberty, educational career and making their way in the world sometimes it can be the sadness that comes with being the child of a single parent that holds them back. If you feel that you need someone to talk to seek the help of a counsellor or relative you can trust to hear you speak about how you feel.

Any plans to visit The Gambia?

Yes! I have been thinking about it for many years now. I am hoping to visit in 2014. I would love to come and see some musical performances and play some songs. I have written a song that I dedicated to the trip when it finally happens titled Homecoming Queen.

My experience of dealing with Gambian people I have met on the internet has been a really positive influence in my life. Everyone I have communicated with has been open and kind and willing to provide information and fill me in on what's going on in The Gambia. I feel very blessed to have made the connections I have and continue to enjoy friendships from afar via the internet.

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