Khrehaan Ebah’s chat with the restaurant manager who asked if she had enjoyed her lunch in March 2018 wasn’t for the benefit of her niece and dining companion, Yaheemah Ebah. But she used it to make a point about the importance of being cordial anyway.
“When we left the restaurant Yaheemah was like, ‘Why were you talking to him?’” Ms. Ebah said. “I told her, ‘You’re 17 and you have a lot of growing up to do. You never know what somebody’s going to bring to the table.’”
She did not add that among the things a stranger might bring to the table is an accent beguiling enough to spark a love affair.
Ms. Ebah, 45, an Army veteran, is a personnel security specialist for the Veteran Benefits Administration. The day she met Bamba Sama, the general manager of a Philadelphia TGI Friday’s, she was visiting her niece from her home in Waldorf, Md. Their lunch was in the interest of mentorship. “She was a senior in high school and I was there to groom her for the college experience,” Ms. Ebah said. “My brother raised her as a single father, so I’m her mother figure.”
When Mr. Sama approached their table to ask if the service and food had been to their liking, Ms. Ebah replied with a curt, “We have no complaints.” But she was curious about the way he spoke, so she asked where he was from, to which he replied, Gambia.
“I told him I had a close friend who was married to a Gambian,” she said. “He was like, ‘Really?’” When she mentioned she was in town from Maryland, he told her he had recently transferred to Philadelphia from a TGI Friday’s in Forestville, Md. She left with his business card. And then, out of the restaurant and back in mentor mode, she chased thoughts of the polite West African from her mind.
Mr. Sama, 50, had done much the same. His priority in executing table visits is professionalism, not personal gain. “I liked talking to her, but I have a lot of passion for what I do, and even when I meet people, I’m loyal to the job,” he said. “I take my commitment seriously.” Proof is in his professional trajectory.
Mr. Sama came to the United States from Gambia in 1991, at age 21, to further his education, though he ended up not going to the college to which he had been accepted.
He took a job as a busboy at a TGI Friday’s in Washington. “I was fortunate for the chance to complete my education, but once I started working, the pay was good and I came across a lot of good people,” he said. He has worked for the chain in various locations, and at no other company, since then, becoming a general manager in the mid-2000s. “To go from cleaning tables to becoming a G.M. has been a blessing.”
He saw his transfer to Philadelphia from Forestville in 2017 as a perfect fit for someone with his religious background. “Philly has a heavy Muslim community,” he said. “There were not that many Muslims in Maryland. I thought, Wow, this is an amazing environment for my religion to get stronger. I told my boss, ‘I want to stay here.’ Then I met Khrehaan, and all that changed.”
Not right away, though. Ms. Ebah was going through a personal transition when she and Mr. Sama had their friendly exchange at the restaurant.
“I was trying to get myself together,” she said. “I wasn’t really grounded at the time.” After a divorce in 2015, she indulged her love of dancing by hanging out in D.C.-area clubs with girlfriends. Then, in 2018, she reconnected to her Islamic faith. “I needed to cleanse myself. I needed to stop doing things I shouldn’t be doing if I wanted to receive a husband.”
After six months of cleansing and Quran reading, she hadn’t forgotten Mr. Sama and his accent. Also on her mind was something Rashida Gaye, the friend who had married a man from Gambia, told her. “She was like, ‘Gambians are really good men and really loyal.’ When I said I had met this fellow, Bamba, she was like, ‘Don’t lose him.’”
By the time Ms. Ebah pulled out his business card six months after the restaurant encounter, though, she wasn’t sure he would even remember her. The first two times she called him, in October 2018, she blocked her number out of nervousness and he didn’t pick up. The third time, when she unblocked it, he did. “We have so much in common we haven’t stopped talking since then,” she said.
A first date, at a Starbucks in Philadelphia on Nov. 17, 2018, unearthed a few minor differences. Ms. Ebah is an avid runner — she was in Philadelphia to run the Rothman Institute 8-kilometer race — while Mr. Sama is not a runner. And while he enjoyed a daily Starbucks fix, she avoids coffee and drinks tea. On more important issues, though, they were perfectly aligned.
“I was nervous meeting her, because at my point in age I was only looking to meet someone special,” said Mr. Sama who was divorced in 2010. “When she started talking about her family and showing me pictures, I knew it could be special.”
Ms. Ebah describes her relationship with her mother, Cecelia Anne Gooding, and her sister, Raedad Ebah, and brother, Aelbahrah Ebah, as especially close. “I lost my father when I was 5, so my mother raised us in Philadelphia as a single mother,” she said. “She was very grounded and was all about higher education being the key to success.”
With the help of the G.I. Bill, Ms. Ebah earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2015 from the University of Maryland. She has been working for the federal government since 2004.
Mr. Sama is similarly close to his daughters, son and grandchildren. His son, Yusapha Sama, and his namesake grandson, 2-year-old Bamba Sama, live in Beltsville, Md. His daughters, Binta and Fatou Sama, and his 2-year-old grandson, Bamba Ceesay, and 4-year-old granddaughter, Jainaba Ceesay, live in Gambia. He makes a point of seeing them at least once a year. “I miss them all the time,” he said.
After the Starbucks date, Ms. Ebah felt a stirring she hadn’t felt in years. Instead of driving home or to her mother’s house, she went to her friend Jovita Moore to tell her about the man who had charmed her with his values and good manners.
“Khrehaan and I have been friends since we were 12, and when she told me about Bamba, I could see she was happy for the first time in a long time,” Ms. Moore said. “She had been missing something in her life. Right away he gave her this sense of security that allowed her to be happy.”
By Thanksgiving 2018, Ms. Ebah and Mr. Sama were meeting regularly at highway exits between his home in Philadelphia, her home in Waldorf and Virginia Beach, where his son, Yusapha, was then living. It didn’t take long for them to decide they were in love and in a serious relationship.
“We talked about how we had the same objective, how we didn’t want to waste time,” Mr. Sama said. Soon, he was getting up at 4 a.m. to see her on his days off. That December, he became a regular on the Megabus from Philadelphia to Washington, where Ms. Ebah would pick him up in her car for weekend bursts of togetherness. “We would watch movies, cook at home and window shop for hours,” Ms. Ebah said. “We never skipped a week,” Mr. Sama said.
For Ms. Ebah, his consistency was a badge of love. “He said, ‘Khrehaan, I will see you every week,’” she said. “And he was disciplined about it. To this day I tell people, ‘When Bamba says he’s going to do something, he’s serious.’ I love that about him.”
On Aug. 2, 2019, Mr. Sama brought a diamond ring he had secretly bought at Zales and boarded the Megabus. He had taken the day off to see live music at Yards Park, an outdoor space in Washington. “I would go there every Friday to hear anything from jazz to soft rock to reggae, and then I would tell him about it,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Bamba, you need to get off work one of these weeks so you can come with me. It’s beautiful.’”
As a setting for his proposal, it did not disappoint. “There was a waterfall behind us, so it looked like it was raining,” he said. “We sat down and were having a moment. Then I got down on one knee and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ It was a good feeling.”
For Ms. Ebah, too. “I had no idea he was going to do it, and I was just in awe,” she said. “I couldn’t even cry. I was just, like, ‘Yes.’ I was floating.”
A week later, they took a first trip to Africa together. Ms. Ebah, enchanted by Gambia’s culture and Mr. Sama’s daughters and grandchildren, left looking forward to a reunion in the United States the following fall at the wedding for 110 they planned in Maryland.
When the world was hit with a pandemic this spring and the Gambian Embassy closed, complicating travel to the United States, that reunion was put on hold. Mr. Sama had moved in with her in Accokeek, Md., after transferring back to the TGI Friday’s in Forestville and proceeding with the wedding felt important.
“We wanted to do it around the anniversary of our first date,” Ms. Ebah said. “We both love everything about that time of year.”
They were married Nov. 8 on an outdoor patio before a masked and pared-down assemblage of 56 guests at the Historic Oakland, a wedding venue in Columbia, Md. As Covid-19 precautions, temperatures were checked by a venue employee and masks were handed out to guests before the ceremony.
Ms. Ebah, in a modest dress of pink silk and a flowing head scarf, walked unescorted down an aisle to Mr. Sama, in a light gray suit, and Mohamed Abdullahi, an imam at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Md.
“Allah says in the Quran that he puts love and mercy between you,” the imam said in a short ceremony, conducted in Arabic and English. “Love comes first, but you must be merciful.”
He pronounced them married after Aelbahrah Ebah, Ms. Ebah’s brother who was acting as her guardian for the ceremony, gave consent.
“Take care of my brother,” the imam said to Ms. Ebah. “And take care of my sister,” he said to Mr. Sama, before they kissed to make it official.
On This Day
When Nov. 8, 2020
Where Historic Oakland, Columbia, Md.
Skip the Space Heaters An outdoor cocktail reception was held just after the ceremony on what turned out to be a balmy November day. Ms. Ebah and Mr. Sama danced to “their” song, Anthony Hamilton’s “Cool,” cued up by a D.J.
Brotherly Love During a handful of speeches, the groom’s brother, Alhagie Sama, reinforced what most already knew about his older brother’s character. “Give him your heart, and he will give you his whole heart back,” he said. “Close your eyes and he will walk you through the darkest forest of this life.”
Boss’s Blessings Among the guests was John Faison, a director of operations at TGI Friday’s and Mr. Sama’s boss. “Bamba has a beautiful spirit,” he said. “Everywhere he goes, everybody falls in love with him. We’re so happy for him.”
Keeping Track A few days after the wedding, the newlyweds sent a concerned email to guests. “We ask that you all monitor your health and ensure you take proper precautions with your everyday lives. There were lots who didn’t wear masks or social distance throughout the affair,” they wrote, though no one has since reported contracting the virus.