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Crossing Borders with Garba Diallo

A global citizen challenging the 'National Order of Things.' Born a Fulani nomad, Garba shares his borderless perspective. As the Founder of Crossing Borders, his main mission is to

foster inclusivity, diversity, and justice worldwide.

Photographs: Zozo Pertunia Mposula

Text: Katharine H. Noyed

Take a moment and imagine what the world map looks like in your mind's eye. You'll likely picture all seven continents displayed neatly and orderly against the vast powder blue ocean, the individual countries demarcated by thin black lines, fully shaded in by contrasting shades of the rainbow, with san serif font neatly labelling the stretch of the territories. Nearly 200 countries in the world, all separated by lines and shaded by differences.

The image you just visualised, referred to as the 'National Order of Things' to Anthropologist Liisa Malkki, has its origins stemming back to 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia treaty, which some historians argue gave birth to the modern state system and the notion of state sovereignty. Along with this, marked the birth of citizenship, the notion that some individuals' belong' to certain areas and are entitled to the rights and privileges this entails while simultaneously excluding those deemed outside these borders.

This conceptualisation of the world order is widely accepted today and is something many of us grew up learning and accepting in school. Within the international community in Denmark, for instance, one is often asked, "Where are you from?" looking for a nation of origin. This may be 'national', but is it natural? Garba Diallo disagrees.

Garba Diallo is the Founder and Director of Crossing Borders, a non-profit civil society organisation located on Nørre Alle in Copenhagen, with a mission to "educate global citizens and raise awareness of educators on global issues with the aim to contribute to building a peaceful and sustainable world." Founded by Garba in 1999, Crossing Borders started initially as a platform for youth to come together to support dialogue in the Middle East, but it has since developed into a staple of the Copenhagen community, spearheading projects throughout Denmark and around the world. The organisation prides itself on its international staff and its projects that reach across national borders, focusing on empowering people of all backgrounds to engage in global citizenship. Garba himself emulates the values of his organisation and shared that his origins were 'borderless.'

A cowboy upbringing

Garba grew up in the African country of Mauritania and belongs to the Fulani ethnic group. Spread across 25-30 countries, including Mauritania, Senegal and Sudan, the Fulani ethnic group holds as many as one hundred million native speakers of the Fulanis language and is known to be one of the world's largest nomadic groups. Given the geographic fluidity of the Fulani people, they have a history of being politically marginalised in different countries. During the interview, Garba referred to his upbringing as a 'cowboy childhood' and spoke about his people's mobility.

"Our lives there revolve around our cows: the more cows you have, the more it shows that you are important. And, of course, we move with the cows to where the pasture is, where the water is, and where there is more peace. I crossed to Mali many times, then to Senegal, and to Gambia. We were borderless people, you know, really pan-African — globalist. The most important for us was the ideas and the people we were with."

Free like the birds

During our interview, Garba shared that he had travelled to over ninety countries. From his mobile childhood to earning his undergraduate degree as a young student in Qatar and travelling every possible moment during the warm summer breaks (students would have five months off during the peak season of the Qatar summer), Garba created opportunities for himself to travel— a natural part of being Fulani. Garba spoke about his background: "The Fulani are free like the birds - they fly from one tree to the next, and you don't see any traces or footprints. You know, so I was free."

After graduating, Garba moved to Oslo, where he took courses at the Peace Research Institute, studying peace and international issues. He later used his voice to speak out against the civil war in Mauritania, where he wrote for nearly every Norwegian newspaper, spoke frequently on television and the radio, and presented papers at international conferences; in the process, exiling himself from Mauritania. At one of the conferences he attended during this period, he met a former minister from Uganda who told Garba about a job opening at the International People's College in Hellsingør, a højskole focusing on global awareness and tolerance. In 1992, Garba, his wife, and his then one-year-old daughter moved to Denmark officially to start this next chapter as a teacher and later as the Director of International Programmes at this school.

Life in Denmark: A true paradox

Before moving to Denmark, Garba shared that he had visited the country once before on a visit from Oslo. It was the summer of 1985, and Garba had experienced the country as a paradise — with long summer days, happy people, and beautiful landmarks.

After relocating to Denmark, Garba has dedicated more than 32 years to cultivating a rich repository of life experiences and knowledge. During this time, he has undertaken various roles, including teaching courses on International Development, Middle Eastern studies, and African studies. Concurrently, he provided unwavering support to his wife as she pursued her PhD in Development Studies from Roskilde University while nurturing and raising two children. One of their children has recently successfully defended her own PhD dissertation. Furthermore, Garba played a pivotal role in the establishment and leadership of Crossing Borders. Together, Garba and his family have authentically woven a fulfilling life in Denmark since their initial move. But crossing borders is not just about crossing international territories - it is also about crossing cultural boundaries, something he speaks of about his life in Denmark:

"Denmark is like a paradox," he said laughing, "it's contradictory. It's like a mirage, you know? You see, there's water, but the closer you come to it, the more it gets away from you... on the surface - it's very easy, very open, but there is also this invisible wall."

This invisible wall is all too familiar to many internationals in Denmark. Many experience the ease of making acquaintances but find great difficulty developing quality, in-depth friendships with Danes. Garba laughed when asked what advice he would give someone struggling to make friends here in Denmark: "Ask me in 30 more years! I'm still struggling!" Garba continued to share that he has built a large network here that consists of friends, colleagues, and family, but the cultural boundaries that need to be crossed — the invisible wall that must be passed — can be the most challenging. As a seasoned international in Denmark, Garba shares a few pieces of advice:

"Denmark is like a paradox," he said laughing, "it's contradictory. It's like a mirage, you know? You see, there's water, but the closer you come to it, the more it gets away from you... on the surface - it's very easy, very open, but there is also this invisible wall. This invisible wall is all too familiar to many internationals in Denmark. Many experience the ease of making acquaintances but find great difficulty developing quality, in-depth friendships with danes."

Learning the language

Although learning Danish is one of the key ways to position yourself for integrating into Danish society, Garba acknowledged that one's intersecting identities also have a significant influence, highlighting a societal issue that is often overlooked. He shared, "Learning the language, especially if you are white and look like a Dane so you can disappear — just build the confidence, you know, have a few potatoes in your mouth, and speak! But, if you look different, it can be a challenge."

Know the culture

Garba spoke of understanding the cultural fabric of Danish society, especially when it comes to conversations about political topics at gatherings. He shared: "Danes like cosiness, and it's something that should not be difficult, not something that is spoiling." Giving the metaphor of a Christmas dinner, Garba shared, "You don't start with the meat" or the heavy conversations — instead, there are unspoken rules dictating the appropriateness of topics for hyggelige gatherings, continuing to say when it comes down to it, the purest essence of 'hygge' happens in Danish.

Organise, organise, organise!

Garba shared that one of the best ways to meet people is by joining associations, sharing that, on average, every Dane is a member of three associations. He continued, "If you're a parent, go to school meetings — don't just send your Danish partner! Go to school meetings and organise, organise, organise!"

And organising is exactly what Garba did when he created the civil society organisation Crossing Borders over 25 years ago, an organisation that brings people of different backgrounds together, empowers young people around the world to make a positive change, and celebrates diversity in an interconnected world.

"The world is interconnected and interdependent. "Gesturing to the spread on the table, "This coffee is from Colombia and these oranges? They're not from Denmark - they're from Morocco!" at the end of the day, what is good for people anywhere in the world is good for all people because it is connected."

Crossing Borders in an interconnected world

As an organisation, Crossing Borders stays true to its values of authenticity, diversity, and inclusion. Many international corporations and organisations out there boast of having an international workforce, yet upon closer inspection, this proves to not be the case. Crossing Borders is one of the few organisations that genuinely values and prioritises diversity and 'walks the talk.' Garba shared:

"We cross borders on all kinds of levels — even the organisation itself. You see people from different cultures because when we meet, it should not just be one culture dominating because then we just get half of the truth. Like the Quakers say, everyone has a piece of the truth, but we have to give everyone the space to share their piece of the truth."

On the Crossing Borders team, there are members from all across the world — Denmark, Brazil, Turkey, Serbia, Lebanon, Ukraine, India, and Japan, just to name a few. To Garba, this is natural, and this is how it should be.

"The world is interconnected and interdependent." Gesturing to the spread on the table, "This coffee is from Colombia and these oranges? They're not from Denmark —they're from Morocco!' At the end of the day, I think the future is connected. And at the end of the day, what is good for people anywhere in the world is good for all people because it is connected."

As an organisation, Crossing Borders' reach spans across the world. In Denmark alone, Crossing Borders spearheads school workshops on various global topics: from the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change to the Black Lives Matter movement and democracy - these workshops are designed to bring the world to the classroom. In addition to the school workshops, Crossing Borders organises communal events called 'Food for Thought', which brings people together over a meal for a night of storytelling under the belief that everyone has a story worth sharing. Garba shared:

"I think we need more of these things. We have stories from experts, but we also need stories from ordinary people — not just politicians, but real stories of real people. There are so many international people doing a lot of great things in Denmark, and we need to hear these stories. During COVID-19, there were doctors on TV every day, but you go to the hospitals and see the surgeons, mostly internationals, and we never saw them being interviewed or asked to know more. So, we need to give more space to different voices because that is how we develop and innovate. It's also a matter of justice and democracy."

Crossing Borders also supports multiple projects worldwide, including in Morocco, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ukraine, Georgia and India. Examples of current projects include The Women Empowerment in Local Development in India, Youth Promoting Peace and Tolerance in Zimbabwean Politics, and Civic Contribution to Strengthening Accountable Governance. Garba spoke about the ethics of these international projects, sharing:

"We don't design a project here and paste it in India or Africa. We partner with local organisations with local knowledge, perspectives, and understanding. They are the ones who are implementing the projects, and we support them and learn from them."

Throughout his long career in international education, peace, democracy - ethics, and justice have been at the forefront of Garba's work. Having spent over thirty years in the field, Garba is committed to building a more just world — crossing one border at a time.

If you are interested in reading more, getting involved, or supporting the work of Crossing Borders, you can visit their website here.

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