The Gambia: The ‘Smiling Coast of Africa’
As emigration rates rise and tourism plummets, some living in the small country are growing and learning together.
My flight landed at 3AM and a man named Kebba Nyassi, a cab driver, was supposed to meet me at the airport exit. He was my ride. Stepping off the plane, all the passengers were immediately checked for fever, a likely Ebola-related precaution. Lining up at the passport check, I was able to buy my visa, find Kebba and be on my way.
On the roads to Kerr Serigne, a small city near Banjul, the streets, of the majority Muslim country, were buzzing with people, lively after a day of Ramadan fasting and high temperatures.
Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent, is struggling. Subsisting on three main industries, fishing, agriculture and tourism, the former British colony has limited natural resources to export. The currency,the Dalasi, adopted in 1971, is worth approximately 2.5 cents (USD), and many families are earning salaries of £200 or about $311 a year (that’s about 50 Dalasi per day). According to the United Nations’ Development Program, over 54% of the population belongs to the working poor.
Already facing serious poverty (with over 30% of people living below the international poverty line of $1.25/day), the “Smiling Coast of Africa”, Gambia’s nickname, saw a 50% drop in tourism (which accounts for approximately 16% of the country’s GDP) since Ebola made international headlines last year. This devastating consequence of the epidemic, despitenot a single case of Ebola being reported in the Gambia, has decimated the working lives of over 100,000 Gambians who depend on international travelers for their livelihoods.
As a result of this lack of opportunity and increasing employment challenges, the economy is further drained by what the Washington Post describes as Gambia’s “big export” — migrants.
The number of African migrants finding their way into Europe quadrupled from 2013 to 2014 and more and more Gambians, particularly young men, are weighing the risks of “the Backway”, a dangerous path through Libya and across the Mediterranean which has recently made headlines for the hundreds who have died at sea.
Despite the countless stories of failed attempts, though, many Gambians continue to romanticize the West as a land of opportunity, wealth and status — all you need to do is to be the small percentage of people who survive the journey.
Post reporter, Kevin Sieff, describes what motivates this thinking:
Poverty had once imposed a kind of uniformity here — every house with a thatched roof and dirt floor, every meal a small portion of rice and okra. . . Then the wealth gap that had always separated Europe and Africa began to insinuate itself here. If you had a relative in Europe, you were rich. If not, you remained stuck on the edge of survival.
-From Africa Exodus
People want their slice of the pie, but life as many African immigrants living in the West know, is hardly an easy road. Many struggle with local medical systems, poverty, unemployment and racism whether they are in the US, Italy, Germany or China.
As many Gambians dream of a life abroad, inadvertently damaging a weak economy, Gambia’s slow development grinds to a halt. Remaining communities suffer reduced access to goods and traditional culture erodes.
Despite these obstacles though, not everyone dreams of the West: For Isatou Ceesay, Director of the Women’s Initiative Gambia program, Gambia is her home and building community is a way of life.
Born in Njau, a small village in the Northern River Region of the Gambia, Isatou Ceesay, completed secondary school with dreams of going to high school then college. However, her circumstances forced a different path.
“I was unable to do it because there was very limited resources to further my education. So I came back home and started working with my mom. A year later I met an American Peace Corps volunteer and she was working in the Gambia and posted in my village. She was looking for someone to help translate from English into our native language [Wolof]. I did that for three years.”
After several years with the organization, in 2005, Ceesay moved on to work for another NGO, Future in Our Hands. It wasn’t until 2009, though, that the aid worker decided to start her own community based organization called Women’s Initiative The Gambia.
“The reason why [I started my own organization], number one, is I feel like women can do it and the community I grew up in, they believe women cannot be a leader. That motivated me to keep trying and believe that there is nothing which is impossible.” she said in an interview, “People need my help, other communities need my help, in terms of helping them to learn skills. . . I wanted to help anyone who needed my service. That really motivated me to start my own organization.”
And her community building efforts have been a run-away success. So far her organization has helped more than 65 communities throughout the country, training them on women empowerment, and youth leadership.
But it has not all been without challenges. It is difficult to help people understand that Women’s Initiative The Gambia is not segregating men and women but that it is providing a place for them to work together. Challenging those cultural stereotypes is an uphill battle for Ceesay.
Njau, the small village where Ceesay was raised, has been her starting point. In this village, she’s built a small recycling center where women learn about environmental protection, healthy child rearing practices and gardening and agriculture skills. The women produce multiple products to sell for themselves, learning business skills and creating a local economy.
And so what does a job well done look like for NGO director, Isatou Ceesay?
“I believe this is a life job. It’s all of my life. When you talk about development you can not start it today and finish tomorrow. It’s, kind of, you do within your life whatever you can do and wherever you life ends, another particular person can start from there.”
If you liked this story please click “Recommend” below to share it with your community. You can also share this story to Twitter, Facebook or via email.
My work in the Gambia is partially funded by a scholarship provided by Institute of Global Leadership board member, David Cuttino, in honor and memory of Anne Heymann-Merrin through the Tufts University Institute for Global Leadership as part of an ongoing project documenting Tufts REAL student, Whitney Ceesay, and her family of five.