#MyJollof : Chasing Stories and Catching Reflections

My work allows me to discover many places across The Gambia, where I experience varying degrees of emotion ranging from admiration to sympathy, encouragement to empathy. I go to the biggest towns, then through dusty paths and thorny bushes, right into the smallest and most remote villages.

A part of me relishes every opportunity I have, to go on ‘trek’, as field visits to rural Gambia are commonly called. For me, this is more than just a call to duty; it is a retracing of the steps my Mother has taken, in these same communities, rendering service to people from all walks of life, for more than three decades. It is more than just another requirement of the job.

My job description includes storytelling, even when the stories are sometimes ones that I would rather not tell. That is an internal conflict that I choose to dwell on at another time. However, these trips are almost always unique adventures that open me up to a world beyond the one I’m used to, as I go in search of these stories. I meet and engage with people, each with a unique experience, even where the source of these experiences is the same. For me, too.

Quite often, this contact has pushed me to hop out of my naturally introverted character, to build trust and open a space for confidence and sharing that may otherwise not be possible in a different environment. This can be challenging, sometimes, but I’m always reminded of the value of the stories I encounter and what they mean to me, away from the demands of the job.

Naturally, I’m drawn to the girls and women. The reasons are obvious for those who know me and have followed my work over the years. It is in the stories of their resilience that remind me of my grandmother and how she worked hard to provide a comfortable life for her children. It is the narrative of their lives that they have taken control of, choosing what to reveal and what to keep to themselves. It is the hospitality and the generosity with which they receive and welcome strangers into their space, with smiles and open hearts. It is the strength in their eyes – always the eyes – that keep me curious about what they have seen and how it informs their daily living.

Mine is not the storytelling that paints the usual pictures of poverty, desperation, and hopelessness that rely on external support and handouts to survive. My encounters teach me different. Survival will happen, with or without … until without becomes an eternity, and its consequences are unavoidable. It is also not storytelling that forces resilience and strength beyond what truly exists, ignoring vulnerability, struggle and strife. It is storytelling that seeks out the nuances in these experiences, narrating absolutes, but also being careful to not keep singing familiar tunes, and ignoring the diverse experiences of the many bearers of these stories. It is a lesson for those who choose to learn.

An opportunity for introspection; not in the very patronizing manner that places me as a savior above the people I interact with, but from the angle of deep appreciation for the diversity of the stories and experiences that make up The Gambia, and our identity as Gambians. More than that, for me, are the personal encounters with the very issues I raise my voice for, as they relate to the well being and progress of women and girls.

Today, I walked into a home in the Central River Region, right on the heels of the main protagonist for the story we were chasing. Questions asked, notes taken, we proceeded to interact with the family, paying particular attention to the children. Among them, a shy 8-year-old girl, who would only look at us from the corner of the raffia bed she sat on. When asked what school grade she was in, we were told she wasn’t going to school. What followed our question for the reason, depicted the familiar family attempts to cover up real reasons with others that may be deemed more acceptable, even in a judgement-free space. One went on to tell us about how she is the oldest daughter and was, therefore, obligated to stay at home and become her mother’s assistant. This was soon thrown away for the more interesting reason that she had problems with her eyes, and was withdrawn from school. She was in Grade 2.

My inner voice popped up as a guide on how to respond to this situation, and encourage the family to get her back into school. Through this chat with them, including her father, I could sense a new willingness to get her back into school, supported especially by the women present. It was an opportunity to discuss the benefits of girls’ education and how she may be of even greater support to the family, with an education and access to better opportunities. It was also important to state that it should never be the responsibility of a child to carry the burden of supporting the family. What we got, was a promise that she will be sent back to school in September. This is something I hope to follow up on. She deserves a seat in school.

So did the 20-year-old mother I met yesterday, too. From our first interaction, I could tell that she was brilliant, but she was forced to drop out of school after her father died and the family could no longer afford to keep her in school. At 15, she was married off, and is currently nursing her first baby. There doesn’t seem to be any hope of going back to school. She was in Grade 8.

In her own home, lives another young woman. She has never been to school, and is also nursing her first child, with the support and guidance of her mother-in-law and the other women in the family. Today, she is 19 years old. She was married off at 16.

Reconciling these experiences with the demonstration of strength and resilience I observed was quite a task. Perhaps, because I understand what child marriage means for the girls who experience it. Perhaps, because I have seen what education has done for me and the opportunities it has brought to my door. Yet, I couldn’t discount the satisfaction on the face of the young mother watching her baby suckle her breast, his eyes looking into hers. Nor could I disregard the genuine smiles on their faces. I can’t forget the brief chat with one of the women who told me about learning of the dangers of child marriage, and how they are moving towards abandonment. We can hope.

These are just three stories. There are many more where they came from, and even more that I will never hear or encounter. What’s certain is that I do not take any of these encounters for granted. I also believe that it is no coincidence that I am placed in this position today, and I get to enjoy the intersections of my interests between my day job and my heart work, centered on complete service.

A few years ago, I wrote about being at a Crossroads, and having to make some tough decisions for my life. I feel that way again, and my feet itch to take me on new adventures. I have a strong pull to these stories, absent the structures that get me to them, and I believe it is a call unto the path that I have imagined for myself, with Linguere as a vehicle for fulfillment. I am always reminded of the greater service that lies beyond job security, monthly checks and bank alerts.

As I move closer to my mission of standing on my own two feet and fulfilling what I believe to be my purpose in life, I remain rooted in the stories of the women and girls around me. My heart is rooted in my own story and how it intertwines with all of these other stories. In the end, each will form a line of stitches on the tapestry that shows our individual and collective journeys. And when that time comes, I hope mine will be the thread that holds it all together.

 

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Self Care: Safeguard Your Joy

What do you do when your fountain runs dry, and all the grass you watered turns brown?
What happens when everyone blames you for letting the grass go brown?
Did you ever really want to water that grass? Were you pretending?
Why did you let your fountain run dry?
Are you jealous of the grass?

© Jama Jack (2017)

 

We’re told life is short, and we should make the best use of our time on Earth. Life can also be very long, depending on how we live it – by our own choices or by whatever fate the Universe thrusts upon us. As I grow up, I am also learning that life can very well be what we make it, as far as choices go, for those who are privileged to have them. So what do you do when your fountain runs dry, and you can no longer water the grass that turned to you for growth?

I’ve been in voluntary service for 18 years now, working with non-profit organisations, NGO, individuals and small pockets of ‘do-gooders’ around the world. I started out at age 10, when most of my peers were still cushioned away from the labour of social justice, rights lobbying, and activism. I’m sometimes told that I do not have a single ‘business bone’ in my body, because one of the hardest things for me to do is monetize my work.  My joy and reward come from seeing something I am a part of, contributed to, or created, come to life and provide solutions. It is in the smiles of the girls we work with after they have finished offloading their troubles, and taken in the encouragement, motivation and love we share with them. It is in so many other things that I sometimes don’t even notice, big and small. It is also in my knowledge of self, an understanding of my purpose in life, and a focus on the mission I’ve laid out for myself.

In carrying out this mission, I am often reminded that, despite all my achievements, I’m still human. I can be weak. I can make mistakes. I can do wrong. I am not infallible. I sometimes fail. I feel pain. I get hurt. I am vulnerable.  And sometimes… I’m too hard on myself.

When you’re used to giving and giving – of your time, your energy, your resources, your knowledge, your heart, your mind, your soul – it becomes hard to deal with periods when giving is difficult. You know, the times when getting out of bed is a task you would rather save for the next day. When your phone rings and you feel a wave on anxiety, willing the person to stop calling and try again some other time. When your task list looks like Gambia’s blueprint, but you know you’re not fit to carry out any tasks. It’s easier to deal with when these things are for you… you can forgive yourself. It’s harder when it feels like a whole world counting on you, waiting on unfinished tasks,  seeking your opinion, searching for your review and commentary. It’s hard to push away the feelings of letting people down, even when you know you can’t be blamed for any of it. Some days are just not it!

For several years now, I have waxed lyrical about self-care and how important it is, especially for people working in difficult situations. “Self-care is not selfish” is a slogan that has been stuck in my head since my MILEAD 2012 class in Accra, in a room with other young women leaders from across Africa and the Diaspora. This was significant because, for many of us, self-care was a foreign concept, despite the emotionally tasking work we do in our communities for the advancement of women and girls. How many stories of rape can you record and document before you have to face your own demons, and seek healing? How many times can you internalize the pains and struggles of the girls and women you work with before they start to manifest in your being, physically and mentally? How much longer are you going to keep pushing, and giving, and serving, and sacrificing, before your soul gives in and demands attention? How much water can you hold and share with the world, before your fountain runs dry? And when this happens, what next?

2017 ended on a high note for me. I got married to the most incredible, loving, and amazing man I know. I got to see my best friend again after more than 8 years. I started a new, better role at work. I got into grad school. I made choices and decisions that were mostly misunderstood, but made me very happy. I got rid of/left toxic spaces and energies that did nothing to contribute to my growth and new journey. And I finally got a vacation… which is where the light bulbs went on.

In that period, I was lost in a world where there wasn’t much to worry about.  I had time for myself, which I could spend with my loved ones, doing the things that I love. It dawned on me that this is something I should practice intentionally, even when there’s no vacation. I spend a lot of time preaching self-care to my tribe of sisters, but hardly ever give myself any. In spells of self-deception, I chew on chocolate and read a book, with thoughts drifting off to the next task, the next project, the next work plan. In that period, however, my time was for me and I chose how to spend it, even when I was getting constant reminders that I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to disappear. I had to be present for my people. I had no excuses. Even when the fountain runs dry.

It runs dry because I hardly take time to clean it up and replenish its contents. It runs dry because it’s too busy pouring into receptacles that take and take, but hardly peep in to see how much is left of the source. It runs dry because it feels too guilty to hold on to the bit of moisture that will fill up its own cracks and keep it from breaking. It runs dry, keeping on with the service of filling up others, even when there’s little left to give. It runs dry because it doesn’t know how to say no.

So I made a promise to myself for 2018: to safeguard my joy. Certainly easier said than done, but it is a promise I’m deliberately trying to fulfill. It is my gift to myself, for those times when the only thing that makes sense to me is me. It is a conscious effort at letting go of all toxic energy, immersing myself in all that’s good for me and society, and making intentional stops to take care of myself. It is also a promise to reconcile with my truth and stop making excuses for it, even when I stand alone, and even when it means losing support. It is understanding that there is only so much one can do, and it’s okay to stop when you can’t afford to, anymore. It’s allowing the phone to ring to its end, without feeling guilty or having to cook up excuses. It’s learning to say no, and knowing it doesn’t negate all the other times I’ve said yes. As I journey into older age, likability is not a goal I’ve set out to achieve. Acceptance of me and my work comes with acceptance of my very nuanced self, and the acknowledgement that I’m not perfect, even if I come across as a perfectionist.

In the end, when I lay down to sleep – at night or for the last time – I hope it will be with a feeling of fulfillment and appreciation of the fact that the fountain gave what it could and held on to what it needed. And in a world with so many fountains, some bigger and deeper, the grass always has a chance to stay evergreen.

For Little Girls Turned Women

I rise
In answer to the cries
Of the innocent, the fragile
Too young to understand
Yet never too young to know pain
Borne from the cuts of society
Masked in honour and servitude to God
Marked with the demands of a culture
That stands by and listens to these cries
Then beats the drums to celebrate this honour

I rise
For the little girl turned woman
Her only crime was being born female
Into a world where choice is masculine
Dignity is male
And pleasure is for her to give, never to receive
Her gift from God, stolen
Made a woman yet less of a woman
For how is she complete with a piece of her missing
While she watches the cycle grow
From her to her daughter, to her daughter
Missing pieces, vacuums of emotional trauma
Wherein dwell the loud echoes of pain indescribable

I rise
For an end to the cries
Healing for the cuts, the hearts, the minds
For the screams at childbirth, the passage too narrow
An end to the nightmares, the feeling of guilt
For the missing pieces, from woman to woman
I rise for the 70% and counting…
Against the culture that breeds it
The people who fight for it, defend it
For the little girl who needed one voice

I give my voice to her
I rise

#EndFGM #EndChildMarriage

11/11/2015

Lost and Found

The wind kisses my tender skin
It’s my 7th autumn, the summer’s gone
Sun’s rays slowly nesting in the skies
Temperatures caress the ground; change.

I’ve seen winter storms and spring blossoms
Braved the chills in my copper coat
Found warmth in the hands of man, soft
Passed from one to the next, my journey.

I’ve got two faces
Equal value, minted for the same worth
Taking me through pockets and purses
Palm to palm, fingers touching briefly.

Brief. Like the life I’ve spent at each stop
Completing huge sums, part of a whole
No you without me; not much of me without you
Completing huge sums, part of a whole.

Then I fell.
My copper coat met the ground
Our embrace forced by passing feet
Soles of leather; soles of rubber
Oblivious to this new dance they create.

Is this love? Is this nature? Is this the end?
Part of a whole, now all alone. This turn
I see more soles; I see one good soul
He picks me up. One last chance?

The wind kisses my tender skin
It’s my 7th autumn, the summer’s gone
I’ve found a new home in his hands, her words
My life has come full circle.

 

Linguere
18/10/2016

LinguereSpeaks: Storytelling As A Means of Empowering Girls And Women

Statement written for and read at launching of ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, a book authored by young Gambian,  Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.

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***

My name is Jama and I’m a writer. It is a great honour for me to be a part of this very important gathering, as we not only launch the book ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, but also celebrate the talent and bravery of Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.

I say talent and there may be no questions about that, but I understand there may be some of us wondering what is so brave about writing a book, publishing and launching it into the market. Isn’t that supposed to be an easy thing, especially in today’s world where we have access to relatively more resources and platforms than before?

That last part is true, but access to these resources is still not equitable, and therefore, some sections of society fare better than others. As with most sectors of growth and development, girls and women are dealt the lesser hand when it comes to access. This is due to a number of reasons, and key among them are the social and cultural environments in which we raise our girls, who grow up to be women.

I look back to the periods of our history where the education of the girl child was seen to be of little or no significance. Where we were taught that the place of a girl is in the home, where she is taught the skills that will make her desirable for marriage and ready to keep a home. Her value lay in how expertly she handled domestic chores and how great a home she could make.

This is not to say that there is no value in learning these skills, as they benefit all of society; the problem begins when we see this role is all a girl – a woman – is good for, therefore neglecting the whole package of wonderful gifts they have been given by God.

One of my favourite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, once said and I quote “We teach our girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to our girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.”

How is this relevant to our conversation today, you may ask. First, because she is a storyteller who has taken it upon herself to create a strong example of what an educated and enlightened girl can grow up to become; the spaces we can navigate in our world, and the opportunities we can create for the millions of young girls who are still tied to society’s limits of who and what they can be. She is keeping the dream alive through the stories she tells and the speeches she gives. That is empowerment.

In The Gambia, we do not have a scarcity in the number of women living lives that tell stories of achievement, resistance, resilience and a breaking away from the norm. We are seated in a theatre that was established by one of such women, in the person of Aunty Janet Badjan-Young, creating a centre of excellence for young men and women in The Gambia to explore their talents and grow the creative arts in the country.

We have many more examples of women writing stories that speak to the humanity of girls and women, leaving their footprints (or can I say handprints) in the narrative of our lives – past and present. Again, this is important.

Comparatively, we may still have many more men telling our stories, in oral and written form and using other media around the world. However, there is a growing shift in the ownership of our narratives, and therefore, the kinds of stories that are produced and shared about girls and women.

Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to read and discover stories that provide more empowering and dignified images of girls and women, especially African. With the new generation of writers and storytellers, especially female, there is even greater hope of discovering stories that we can easily relate to, and of characters that look like us and share similar cultures with us.

I go back to Chimamanda in her TED Talk entitled ‘The Danger of the Single Story’. In this talk she says and I quote, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The stories that have been told of us may not necessarily be untrue; the roles of the female characters may be roles that we have assumed at one point or the other. However, when we continue to create these roles, we are teaching the girls and women that there are limits to what they can become and this is what we will continue to embody, perhaps never discovering how much more potential we have.

In the few years since I started writing actively and taking my stories seriously, I have learnt lessons that I continue to share. I may still be young and I still have a long way to go in this journey, but each day comes with a learning moment, each one leaving me with more determination to pursue the course. What started as casual storytelling for me has morphed into a journey of telling my story and the stories of other girls and women that I encounter. This has become one of my life’s missions, and though it can be challenging, it is also very fulfilling.

When I write, I am aware that I do not only write for myself. I write for the many people who encounter my work and often find inspiration to also break out of their shells and tell their stories. In doing so, we are reclaiming the narrative of ourselves and are telling our stories from our perspective. We are cancelling the danger of the single story. We are dispelling the myths surrounding our experiences and are telling the world that there is more to us than the boxes we are forced and fit into. We are unwrapping the gifts we have been blessed with, and are sharing them with the bigger world out there. This is what hope looks like. For the next generation of girls and women, this is significant.

Today is significant, as it is yet another manifestation of what we can do when we have the necessary structures and support spaces we need. I believe Charlotte has achieved a milestone, not just for herself, but for every girl and woman, in and out of this hall. In the audience today, there may be a girl, a young woman, looking at her today and telling herself ‘I can do it too’. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the empowerment we need. The ones that come from living examples of possibility, of opportunity, of talent, of grace and of success.

Today, I urge everyone present here today to help in keeping this chain growing. There is no measure of the significant progress we all can enjoy if we encourage everyone in society, regardless of their gender, ethnic group, social standing or other man-made qualification, to reach for their goals and meet their fullest potential.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the author and everyone who’s supported her through this journey. I say this on behalf of the girls and women who will read this book and gain a stronger conviction and clarity of the path ahead of them. It is one thing to have a dream; it is another thing to keep it alive and turn it to reality. I am without doubt that the book we shall launch today will create another road of opportunity, belief, confidence and self-assurance for the many who read it.

We are the present and the future, and to build our country, our work needs to be supported and celebrated. We are the dream; help us keep us alive.

I thank you for your attention.

Jama Jack

17 July 2016

She Never Asked For It

She was one…

Bubbly. A ball of energy, leaving her mother breathless and everyone else infected by her hearty laughter. She was a joy to be around, easy to pick up, warm to cuddle. She was easy to love.

She was three…

Standing on her own two feet. The wobbles had disappeared and her legs ran around on errands and in play. She was navigating the world with fresh eyes, a mouth with more teeth and a tongue that professed words that had grown clear from the mist of her two-year old mumbling. She was introduced to the curves of the O and the waves of the W, keeping count of her progress on ten fingers and, where necessary, ten toes.

She was five…

She had mastered her ABCs, flew past counting to a hundred and was now stringing words on paper and working magic with numbers. Sometimes, she needed the bottle tops to fill in spaces where her fingers and toes would no longer suffice. Other times, her frustration budded in the lines scratched over a word, the number of lines mirroring the attempts it took to spell a word right. She was fascinated by words and numbers, by what they could do, and by how she could hold command over them through her thoughts. She was taken on adventures through the colourful pages of the books she read; and when she returned, plotted out her own adventures and painted pictures of the many journeys she would take.  Her imagination ran wild.

She was seven…

She overheard the whispers at home and even in school. She was smart, they said. Perhaps, too smart for a girl her age. She spoke of things that confused her peers and asked questions that left her parents and teachers scrambling for the right words. She soon became tired of playing house and would rather lose herself in yet another book, going on another journey that did not just limit her to the house and an hour of playing Mother. The whispers told her she knew too much, too soon. Yet, she knew she was still a child and there was so much more she didn’t know, and so many lessons she still had to learn.

She was still seven…

She wasn’t ready for the one lesson she would learn but still not be able to absorb and understand, at least for another decade. It happened so quickly, so quietly and would gradually become her normal. There was no sense to be made from that first time, and still none from the many that followed, each one ending with a promise of silence, of words to never utter, of pictures that would stay in her head, banned from the pages that nestled the plans of her adventures. She wasn’t ready for this lesson. No one is.

Something was wrong with this lesson that she had been forbidden to share, but all the light bulbs in her head weren’t bright enough to guide her to understanding it. Resigned to the fact that this was one of those questions without answers, she endured and fell into the routine.

She was eleven…

In school, she went through new lessons that taught her new things about her body. She discovered new names for parts that were just there and some that she had been taught to never mention. She would learn about the birds and the bees, but in the absence of that metaphor, her lesson brought her a new revelation of how she was created and the journey to her birth. She had started learning French and was struggling to understand the accented letters. Yet, when this lesson sank in, the accents in déjà vu slowly made sense. The words, however, remained stuck in her throat, further squeezing the lively, energetic child out of her being.

Promises were made to be kept. Promises were made to be broken, too. She kept her promise, but her soul was broken. The windows to her soul, that pair of brown glass, looked perfect and guarded her broken pieces. The world did not need to know. She kept her promise.

She turned twenty…

She had seen and heard enough to understand that over time, she was guarding her secret, not keeping her promise. The world had taken her through a roller coaster of experiences and emotions that taught her more than her books ever could. In the years leading to her new age, she watched and learned, accepting a new understanding of that one lesson. She knew that promises came from a place of love, of care, of concern, of will. What she had guarded for those many years was a shield for the teacher she never wanted, a cover for the lesson she never needed.

Deep down, she knew it was protection for herself. It was a cold world and she had seen many like her pushed back into corners for simply doing the right thing and letting their throats spit out the words in storage. She did not want to be another liar, another desperate girl trying to bring a man down, another woman crying for attention. She did not want to be pointed at and referred to as ‘that girl’, the stigma sticking to her skin, where the shield once covered. She did not want to be the source of shame for her family; their honour was more important than her broken pieces.

What are those broken pieces anyway? She hears news of another taking that lesson, and tells herself she won’t be the last. She doesn’t deserve the extra attention. She doesn’t deserve love and protection, what with those who were meant to protect her breaking down the walls of her innocence and changing her life forever. She knows to pick herself up and tape the pieces together, falling back on words for healing, yet never really feeling the balm soothe her scars.

She was thirty…

She held the broken vase in her hand, the other half carefully wedged in his throat, his call for help inaudible. She turned to look at the little girl crouched in a corner and when their eyes met, she was staring at herself. Fear gave way to anger, and the many words that had lodged in her throat came spilling out, even when the world did not want to listen.

She was only seven. She did not ask for it. It wasn’t her dress. She did not have to keep that promise. She was not begging for attention. She was not responsible for his safety or for her family’s honour. She never knew what name to call it. Is rape too harsh? Would molestation be milder? She still doesn’t know. She needs more books.

She was made of pain. She was broken. And from the pieces of that soul, she had learnt to love again. Enough to reach out for that one girl and save her from the life she now lived; and enough to rid the world of the one teacher and his lesson, both of whom were never wanted or needed.

 

 

Featured Image © Ruth Adong Olango

FGM and The Media in The Gambia: A Turning of The Tides

The power of the media in shaping perceptions and influencing public opinion is well-known. The media have transcended time and age, going through various tools and forms, and stayed true to its influencing power.

The fourth estate, housing mainly traditional media, has opened a path for what is now known as the fifth estate, a home for non-mainstream and sometimes unconventional media forms and expressions. Without a doubt, this has had a considerable effect on public opinion, with freedom of expression and easier dissemination of otherwise ‘unpopular’ information as a benchmark.

As with the famous egg and hen debate, we have witnessed similar discussions attempting to determine if the media influences social norms and practices, or whether the opposite would be more accurate. I believe it goes both ways, and this belief was solidified when I did my research for my undergraduate dissertation on the representation of women in the media. However, with increasing mutations in the way we communicate, I would think the media has a greater influence on our daily living and, as such, is one of the most powerful tools in advocacy on various social issues.

FGM Banned in The Gambia

On November 24th, 2015, The Gambia woke up to news of an Executive pronouncement banning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the country, with immediate effect. The announcement was met with various reactions, but what stood out most were the celebrations from the many activists, groups and organisations that have worked tirelessly for over three decades, calling for an end to the practice in The Gambia. The pronouncement was not an end in itself, but it was a huge means to this end that many have fought for, and can continue to work towards with even more hope for success.

Naturally, these celebrations came with several questions on how much the pronouncement will change, in the absence of specific legislation banning the practice and stipulating the penalties on those who refuse to adhere to this law. This was obviously a sure way of ensuring a permanent legal provision, creating more opportunities for activists and rights advocates to carry out their work. Barely a month later, the National Assembly of The Gambia enacted a bill to this effect, making The Gambia one of eighteen African countries banning the practice of FGM.

The legislation on FGM does not only give renewed hope to end the practice in The Gambia. It comes against a backdrop of great controversy, given the sensitive nature of FGM, and the cultural and religious links that have been used as grounds for its perpetuation. Activists and advocates have received much backlash and opposition – sometimes violent – from individuals and communities that support the practice and guard it jealously. Some have been “persecuted and prosecuted” for their stance against the practice, and for openly denouncing it for its harmful effects on girls and women. For many of these people, this is enough reason to celebrate a public display of political will to end the practice. The opportunities are many, and the channels for advocacy to end FGM have increased, especially on mainstream media. This has not always been the case.

The case of the media

In May 1997, a new GAMTEL policy on media treatment of the issue of female genital mutilation advanced that “the broadcast by Radio Gambia (RG) or Gambia Television (GTV) of any programmes which either seemingly oppose female genital mutilation or tend to portray medical hazard about the practice is forbidden, with immediate effect. So also are news items written from the point of view of combating the practice.” The policy went on to direct that “GTV and RG broadcasts should always be in support of FGM and no other programmes against the practice should be broadcast.”

This policy meant that efforts at the grassroots level, by organisations like the pioneering GAMCOTRAP, would be limited to the communities and not disseminated to a wider audience, possibly leading to more impact. What would have been a channel for easier access to the Gambian people then risked becoming a platform to counter the efforts of these groups in the communities, opening more girls to the possibility of being cut. The negative impact on the campaign at the time is evident, while highlighting a restriction on the media’s role of not just entertaining, but informing and educating the people.

In the years that followed, work to influence the abandonment of FGM in The Gambia continued, and this included training of media personnel to increase coverage on the harmful effects of the practice and the work of civil society organisations in that regard. Notably, there was still a huge gap in coverage which, when filled, would have contributed greatly to the campaign.

Additionally, the nation has been witness to pronouncements by a religious leader, calling for a ban on activism against FGM in The Gambia. The same individual has made regular appearances on the media, extolling the benefits of FGM and advancing the idea that it is a religious obligation. The effects of his statements will be left to your conclusion, given the perceived religious nature of Gambian people and daily living.

In recent years, however, there has been a significant change, perhaps attributable to the increased intensity of the campaign, especially featuring youth voices that were hitherto least prominent in the movement. The use of social media to engage in conversation and share messages on FGM should not be overlooked. There has also been a notable increase in media coverage of FGM since the First National Youth Forum on FGM in The Gambia in 2014, jointly organised by Think Young Women and Safe Hands for Girls in partnership with organisations like GAMCOTRAP, TOSTAN, Wassu Gambia Kafo and other remarkable actors in the field. Stories on related events made it to national TV, but it important to note that these were often broadcast under the umbrella of Gender-Based Violence, often shying away from the specific issue of FGM.

On more than two occasions, as part of a cultural show on the channel, female circumcision was featured as a rite of passage, with images of celebrations in selected communities. Upon examination, this was a statement of support, even if very subtle, and did not do well to complement the work being done to end the practice. Featuring the celebrations as a cultural activity to be valued might have contributed to convincing viewers, even further, that FGM is a culture that should be appreciated and perpetuated, despite the information on its harmful effects on girls and women. There was still so much more work to be done, and little time to do it all.

Welcoming a New Dawn

As expected, following the Executive pronouncement and the consequent enactment of specific legislation against FGM, there has been a flood of stories on both print and audio-visual media in The Gambia and abroad. This is a significant turn, and a commendable one, especially since efforts are now being shifted to intensify sensitisation , including on the new legislation. The change on the local front will go a long way in raising more awareness and hopefully influencing a voluntary abandonment of the practice, which may be more effective and permanent than abandonment resulting from the new deterrent. The local media is indeed catching up to this new wave.

On the night of January 16th, GRTS aired one of its most interesting shows, “The Forum”, which features conversations on social issues, guided by professionals and experts on the subject. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the night’s discussion would focus on FGM, and would feature opinions from professional health personnel, including one of the most renowned gynaecologists in The Gambia, at present. It promised to be an interesting discussion, further enriched by the phone-in feature that gave viewers the chance to call and share their thoughts on the topic. The expectations were met, and the discussions looked deeply at the effects of FGM especially on the physical, psychological and psychosocial wellbeing of girls.

When the phone lines opened, a few viewers called in to express appreciation for the program, as it had given them a new understanding of the dangers of FGM. One lady remarked that it may be too late for those who’d already undergone the practice, but there is still a big opportunity to protect the girls who are currently at risk. Judging from the calls that followed, this was not an isolated belief and the protection of those girls is a possibility to be explored, with the new legislation as solid backing.

The admission reminded me of the reactions of participants at the aforementioned youth forum, when they were exposed to images showing the health effects of FGM on girls for the first time. Outlooks were changed and resolves were strengthened, fuelled by a new understanding of its gravity. This, in essence, represented the power of the media in changing perceptions.

Conclusion

While the next few years will test the effectiveness of these new provisions and the commendable change, there is reason to remain hopeful for an FGM-free generation. It takes off from the decisions made today and the manner in which work is done to this effect, bringing together all actors and stakeholders from government and civil society to ensure targets are met and girls are protected from harm.

Addressing the issue of FGM also means examining support mechanisms for the girls and women who now live with the complications of the practice. A lot of attention is focused on prevention, but it is also important to look into care and restorative measures to facilitate the regaining of dignity and the maintenance of good health.

The more awareness raised among the people, the greater the chances of eliminating this practice and ensuring women fully enjoy their human rights, especially to life, dignity, sexual and reproductive health among others.

The media is the major gateway to raising this awareness and awakening people to the realities of Female Genital Mutilation and its effects on the health and wellbeing of women and girls. This new turn will go a long way to complement sensitisation efforts in communities, and contribute to more success in the campaign to end FGM in The Gambia.

As highlighted, the ban on the practice in The Gambia has opened up new opportunities, and that is worthy of a moment of celebration, as the relevant actors take the next steps to realising concrete change.